Nuclear weapons have a kitschy old-school feel. The threat of nuclear Armageddon is what our parents grew up with, not us. It is not something we tend to think about from day to day. We did some research, though, and were surprised to find the likelihood of nuclear war today is higher than we might think.
The closest the world ever came to nuclear devastation was completely by accident. On September 26th 1983 Soviet Russia picked up signals that a US ballistic missile was heading their way. The poor sod in charge, Stanislav Petrov, had to make the call whether or not to retaliate with their own missiles. Refusing to be ‘that guy’ who started World War III, Petrov decided it was a false alarm and did nothing. Luckily he was right – and the world was spared millions of deaths. Neat. Close call though.
And now for something completely obvious: This would not have happened if nuclear weapons didn’t exist.
Well duh-doy. Donald Trump wouldn’t keep happening if he didn’t exist. Then again, the world’s nations haven’t signed a treaty promising to rid the planet of him, like they have with nuclear weapons.
Ever since 1970 with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty or NPT, the whole world, including Britain, has been officially committed to global nuclear disarmament. If we all agree with the UN party line: getting rid of nuclear weapons makes the world a safer place.
Meanwhile, in Britain, senior members of every major political party insist that Britain should keep and update its own nuclear weapons in order to make Britain a safer place. Members of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet have even said they would resign if the new Labour leader did not support the renewal of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, Trident. [What is Trident?] A Telegraph column stated recently that possessing nuclear weapons is what keeps European countries protected and free.
Hang on just a tick. How can eliminating nuclear weapons make the world safer while at the same time Britain needs nuclear weapons in order to be safe?
The logic that solves this conundrum is called deterrence theory.
Deterrence theory is very simple: Take two enemy countries: Country X and Country Y. If Country X possesses nuclear weapons, they are capable of inflicting such enormous damage that Country Y wouldn’t dare attack them.
If both countries have nuclear weapons, their early-warning systems mean that if they are attacked, they will have time to retaliate with their own missile before they are hit. If Country Y was to launch a nuclear missile on country X, deterrence theory suggests that they can expect to have a missile launched right back at them.
The result is that no one dares do anything.
So – according to this theory – possessing nuclear weapons deters other countries from making aggressive moves. A recipe for everlasting peace?
Perhaps, except when false alarms very nearly lead to nuclear war like it did in 1983. Since we’re only human and liable to make mistakes from time to time, would it not still be safer for the world to get rid of all these weapons of mass destruction? Keep Out of Reach of Humans?
The problem with this: now that nuclear weapons exist, we can never un-exist them. They are out there now, like the bad smell of a cooking experiment gone wrong. And like bad smells, not everyone wants to own up to making them.
There are 15,000 nuclear bombs in the world. Here is a map to show you where those bombs are. Five of the eight countries who possess nuclear weapons have signed the non-proliferation treaty, recognising that any aggressive use of their nuclear weapons would be illegal under international law and stating that they will take concrete steps towards worldwide disarmament. These countries are Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.
Meanwhile, Israel is believed to have been developing nuclear weapons since the 1950s and there has been major diplomatic work in the last year to ensure Iran is not making nuclear weapons on the sly.
The key word here is uncertainty. Some reckon that nuclear states like Britain would be mad to get rid of their nuclear deterrents at a time like this. This is because no one can be 100% certain which other countries may or may not possess weapons of mass destruction, and how they intend to use them. Better safe than sorry?
But uncertainty can easily turn into scaremongering: rogue states like North Korea are not the number one threat the UK faces. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament points out that the UK government’s National Security Strategy sees international terrorism, cyber-attacks and climate change are greater threats than nuclear war. These problems cannot be solved with a nuclear deterrent. As the old saying goes, you can’t nuke a terrorist.
What does this mean for the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, Trident? (Tell me again, what’s Trident?). The programme, funding and nuclear technology are outdated and due for renewal – and the House of Commons will vote next year on how, and if, this should be done.
Every major political party, except the Scottish National Party, supports Trident renewal in principal. So Trident = good?
Not everyone thinks so. The No to Trident campaign argues that the £100 billion needed to renew the programme would be better spent on other methods of national defence, seeing as the threats Britain faces like terrorism and climate change cannot be tackled with nuclear weapons.
This £100 billion cost for renewing the Trident programme is disputed.
According to the Guardian, the Commons library estimates the cost of renewing the programme to be closer to £25 billion.
Whichever estimate convinces you, it’s a lot of monies.
Is Trident an expensive but necessary investment in UK security, or is it a very pricey safety net that we do not need?
The safety of the nation is not the only thing in question. Britain’s status in the world as a nuclear power is what guarantees it a place on the Security Council.
It’s not all or nothing. Britain does have the option of remaining a nuclear power, but reducing its stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The UK has in fact been gradually dismantling its own nuclear warheads from 225 to a goal of 180 by the mid 2020s. This may not seem like much, but it is similar to the agreed joint-reduction of nuclear warheads by the US and Russia that earned President Obama a Nobel Peace Prize.
Are these the concrete steps towards global nuclear disarmament the UK has signed up to under the non-proliferation treaty? Are they enough? Would renewing Trident negate these actions, or is it still a necessary part of Britain’s defence?
Nuclear weapons explained: When nuclear weapons were invented, we opened a Pandora’s box that cannot be shut.
We now live in a world where we cannot be certain who does and does not possess weapons of mass destruction. Because of this, some would argue that it is better to be safe than sorry, and to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent: the most deadly defence mechanism ever. The counterargument is that nuclear weapons are not what we need to tackle the problems we actually face today, and that they are an unnecessary, expensive and potentially deadly safety net. It is difficult to face the ugly truth of how peace works now, and there are decisions and judgement calls we have to make that we wish would go away, but won’t.
Take Action as part of the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons