Nuclear deterrent: a Cold War state of mind

Spread the love

For a brief moment the Earth shook. This was not an earthquake, but rather a nuclear test by North Korea. An isolationist, nuclear state should worry me, but then I remembered Trident. The ultimate in nuclear deterrents that parliament voted in favour of renewing. It is constantly active and part of the reason we can all sleep safely at night.

Except it isn’t, nor do North Korea give me great cause for concern. The existence of nuclear weapons, regardless of ownership is worrying. Given Theresa May’s lack of trepidation about authorising the use of Trident, I feel I should engage with pro-nuclear arguments.

Not in isolation, but in their correct context. Both ideologically and logistically, we need to discuss North Korea, Trident and nuclear deterrents.


The Trident program (both submarines and missiles) is designed to counter a specific threat, the Soviet Union. The question of necessity is redundant, but the doctrine that governs Trident is relevant. At least it is relevant to any argument in favour of a nuclear deterrent.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a strange concept, few (if any) could endorse. MAD is not a deterrent, it is a promise of retribution. Trident does not prevent a nuclear attack, the premise we are to endorse is that MAD deters attacks from rogue states. The evidence for this? The lack of a nuclear attack on Britain or her allies.

It brings to mind The Simpsons episode in which Lisa convinces Homer that her rock keeps away tigers. The rock is present, tigers are not, ergo the rock prevents tiger attack. The argument seems intuitive – to Homer. It presumes something that Trident policy also does, that without it an attack is virtually inevitable.

The problem that both Trident and MAD contend with is the complete lack of protection they offer. The Trident class submarines are submerged for a very specific reason. To ensure that if we are under attack, they can retaliate.

Thankfully retaliation has never been called for. The two options left for Trident’s purpose are then “First Strike” or “Deterrence”. With that in mind, is Trident fit for purpose? And if not what nuclear program could be?

North Korea – (DPRK)

While it is easy to view North Korea as a danger, the question must be asked as to why? It does appear they have successfully manufactured nuclear weapons. The available evidence suggests they managed this as early as 2006. The purpose of this arsenal? The complete destruction of Western civilisation. What else could it be?

Yet that begs the question of why haven’t they launched yet? Tests of ballistic missiles aren’t rare or unique to North Korea. You can find an equal amount of footage with Barack Obama presiding over weapons tests. The usual conclusion is that North Korea are somehow deterred or lack the capacity, but that seems to contradict evidence.

If you consider North Korea’s history, then it too has a place in the Cold War. It fell under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. The ideology of the Cold War and Soviet states was one of paranoia. It is easy to accept the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union fell, but North Korea are unlikely to agree.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the last survivor of the war against communism. Not in an idealistic sense, in a very literal sense. We may not record North Korea as having achieved a victory against the US, but they have successfully maintained their isolation. Subsumed by neither South Korea, nor post-Mao China, they stand alone. A relic to an era most would prefer to forget.

Yet for all their apparent posturing, their behaviour is far from erratic. They are still fighting the Cold War. Whether anybody else recognises this or not is besides the point, North Korea feel under threat from imperialism. Cold War doctrine is clear: prepare for both invasion and nuclear attack.

The deterrent argument

Since Trident was developed we have not witnessed a situation in which it was the correct ‘tool’. Not one atrocity, war, or inconceivable scenario has called for its use. Despite May’s protests to the contrary, there do not seem to be the conditions under which we would launch. That isn’t sufficient to dismiss the concept entirely, so perhaps we should look back to North Korea.

Now under Cold War rules, North Korea has a very good case for a deterrent. Based on political discourse, North Korea is justified in maintaining its stance. Is the rhetoric surrounding North Korea different to any other state Western forces have invaded? Iraq and Afghanistan offer examples of Western forces used for regime change. When fighting the capitalist, imperialist enemy, the question is not over your leader; it is about sovereignty.

In those terms North Korea’s deterrent has been successful. A country which has a history of invasion from both China and Japan. It shares a border with US-backed South Korea, and Russia is no longer the Soviet ally it once was. For deterring foreign states from invasion, nuclear weapons don’t seem like a bad call.

We cannot make this argument. We are an insignificant, island nation and believe we must leave the EU to reclaim sovereignty. We ‘won’ the Cold War, but we did lose the Cod War. Perhaps the one principle on which a quasi-North Korean first strike policy could be reasonable is territorial sovereignty.

A good example of a recent threat to British territorial sovereignty is Iceland. Yes, we fought a war with them. And without a single casualty, Iceland prevailed. There is no more recent attempt at an invasion of “British Territory”. The Icelandic wanted to extend their fishing rights, there were never boots on the ground. A real war? Debatable, but they still claim the spoils of victory.

Nuclear first strike

A nuclear first strike is an altogether different proposition. It does not rely on MAD, but it does rely on a willingness to start nuclear war. When we discuss defence it is extremely disingenuous. The last invasion of British soil by armed forces was 1797 by the French. Yet despite France having carried out more nuclear weapons tests than the UK, we appear at ease. Our focus should be North Korea and an outside possibility they achieve double figures in tests.

Since the French invasion there have been larger conflicts that shaped the world we know, but still I seek an answer. I am unable to find the scenario in which a nuclear first strike would’ve been an option. Had we achieved Trident earlier, was it suitable against Adolf Hitler’s Germany? If so, at what stage? Upon the declaration of war, or would it need justification? Would the Blitz be sufficient?

The world was not ready for nuclear weapons, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are testament to that. Who would not undo the damage caused by the two detonations if possible?

I can’t advocate an irradiated mainland Europe due to Nazi Germany’s aggression. Even the original target of the Soviet Union did little to warrant the threat. The nuclear incident at Chernobyl ensured an exclusion zone that our great-grandchildren are unlikely to see lifted.

The force of nuclear power is devastating when not weaponised. The quest for who to nuke and why, betrays a tradition of warmongering we can move forwards without.

Modern threats

The dropping of nuclear weapons on Japan was far from a victory for the West. In 1957 the British Gold Coast gained independence to form the nation of Ghana. This is not an isolated incident, but a trend. It is the decline of empires that occurred during the 20th century. Not only has ‘British’ territory been reduced, but the Soviet Union no longer exists. The precise threat Trident was designed to destroy didn’t require the deployment of nuclear weapons. This certainly was no deterrence from competing for the largest nuclear arsenal on Earth, if anything it was an incentive.

In an arms race power is meaningless, unless you have more than your enemy. There is not a country capable of a nuclear launch with a viable enemy to deploy it against. Modern threats to Britain or NATO allies do not tend to come from nation states. The brutality that modern democracies face are acts of terrorism. Even if such a plot has state endorsement, I cannot think anyone believes we went easy on Libya, Afghanistan or Iraq over their ‘involvement’. Yet the reaction wasn’t nuclear, because it couldn’t be.

We have an army, airforce and navy. We appear willing to deploy each of these as and when we see fit. Yet not Trident. The most devastating and expensive tool at our disposal is never seriously an option. I do not lament this, rather find it incredibly difficult to justify the cost. If Trident can be launched against a target as we have been told, why are British soldiers ever killed in armed conflict?

If the person who sees Trident as a viable option truly exists, when will they call for nuclear war?

The final MADness

The unstated assumption in rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons is that one must strike back. MAD may have been palatable in an ideological war against numerous foes, but today it’s a hard sell. The doctrine of MAD is an anachronism, but therein is the deception. MAD is the sole deterrent. It deters any a state from launching a nuclear war against us, insofar as they would pay with their own demise.

It is then problematic that we are to believe North Korea is crazy. To believe, because anyone claiming to know the inner workings of North Korean government is suspect. The claim Kim Jong Il had a pet duck has the same evidence that Kim Jong-Un had his uncle eaten alive by dogs. Someone once said it. The latter has no basis in fact (execution method at least), the former is a rumour I am happy to live with. This is not a defence of North Korea, but an incontestable truth; we know very little of the rogue state.

It becomes a leap of faith to assume their actions constitute aggression, let alone nuclear escalation. We have to define them as an ‘other’ sufficiently that their motives could not match our own. The nuclear capabilities of other nations is not unknown to North Korea. Despite the recent vote to renew our own, we do not allow them the same justifications.

Their ‘aggression’ is a byproduct of US imperialist policy. The West regularly shows hostility towards North Korea, or at least aggression, from their perspective. The presence of US military bases, advances in weaponry and regular drills carried out in the region cannot encourage peace.

Nuclear armageddon is not a solitary achievement by a lone state, but an inevitability if none will turn the other cheek.

Deterred yet?

What is left to say (in terms of nuclear arms) on these subjects? North Korea is an unknown quantity. This does not minimise the potential risk they pose, but the worry over their nuclear arsenal seems hyperbolic. If we allow that they too are operating under MAD, the latest developments are not a threat. They do not have the force to emulate Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. If they were to attempt such a move, it would not be nuclear. Nor could the retaliation be.

Our own system, Trident, is a throwback to an era that is no more. To destroy a non-existent enemy, on the condition they have already doomed us. No nuclear arsenal so large that it deters others from establishing their own exists. Trident has not prevented a single act of terror, nor been our retaliation. It did not prevent North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. South Africa are a good case study for disarmament, but not who we should focus on.

Japan is the only country that could justify a deterrent as a defence. It is puzzling that impoverished, North Korea managed to build one but Japan opted out.

But Cold War mentality dies hard. Or maybe North Korea be crazy.


subscribe to the scisco weekly dispatches

Keep up with the #MediaRevolution, subscribe to our weekly email newsletter. You’ll get one email per week and we’ll never share your email address with anybody. It’s free.