The Nuclear Option

The Nuclear Option

An earlier draft of this article was published by Bloc, a left-wing political collective, based in Yorkshire. See

In July 1980, Mrs Thatcher threw detente out of the window. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had set the tone for Anglo-Soviet relations during the 1980s, but the decision to replace the Polaris nuclear deterrent with the Trident system confirmed the view that the West was in no mood to entertain peaceful relations with the Eastern Bloc. Trident was – and remains – controversial, and how we handle the debate surrounding its renewal speaks volumes for our society.

The standard argument against Trident’s renewal runs along these lines:
– A nuclear deterrent is no longer vital to security in a world where threats are rarely coterminous with states.
– Renewal will be expensive. Estimates for development costs range from £15-20bn, while lifetime cost might reach £100bn- £4bn/year over a 25 year operational lifespan.
– Public finances are stretched, with high taxation and decreased government spending.
-Therefore this money could be better spent elsewhere.

I am fully aware that many people believe that a nuclear deterrent is still beneficial to national security, although I disagree. However, such arguments do not reach the heart of the debate. The nuclear deterrent is generally considered in light of its potential security benefits and economic costs, whilst ignoring the simple facts that a nuclear deterrent is both legally questionable and morally abhorrent. As early as 1961, the UN recognised the need to ban nuclear tests under UN General Assembly, Resolution 1653 (XVI), on the basis that they increased international tensions, as well as doing severe damage to the environment, and since then the weight of international law has slowly piled up against nuclear weapons.

A nuclear deterrent, it is argued, serves to discourage large-scale war, because any attack on a nuclear state could lead to that state’s retaliation, using its nuclear capability. The logical compliment of this view is that a nuclear deterrent can only *be* a deterrent if there exists a willingness to use it. You cannot have a nuclear deterrent which you are not willing to use. Thus any decision to renew the deterrent is tacit approval of the use of nuclear weapons, albeit in a very limited context. We must therefore question whether the possible use of nuclear weapons, which is a logical necessity to the idea of a nuclear deterrent, is legal or moral.

First of all, article 1, chapter 1 of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, ratified by the UK in 1998, records that “each State Party undertakes not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control” [my emphasis]. This appears to categorically prohibit the UK’s use of nuclear weapons, ending debate before it has even begun. However, though the treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996, it has not yet come into force, and will not do so until several states with nuclear weapons or other nuclear programs ratify it, specifically China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan and the USA. Thus it is not yet legally binding, and is unlikely to be until significant progress is made on the road to multilateral disarmament.

That is not, however, the case with the Geneva Conventions and associated additional protocols. Article 51 of the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Convention notes that:

“4. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:
(a) those which are not directed at a specific military objective;
(b) those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific

military objective; or
(c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol;
and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction” [my emphasis].

Nuclear weapons are inherently indiscriminate. They are not weapons which can be targeted at military objectives, but instead simply decimate the blast radius (estimated for modern trident warheads at eight times that of the Hiroshima bomb – i.e. some 8 miles). It follows that the use of a nuclear weapon would be a war crime in most situations and is certainly morally reprehensible, though the legal issues are less clear cut.

It is worth noting that the responsibility for such a decision normally lies with the Prime Minister alone. One man has the final say in the use of potentially cataclysmic weapons, without the need for any representative agreement. Also worth noting is that the commanders of British nuclear submarines can launch these missiles without authorisation. Setting aside the potential risk of such power falling into the hands of a single person, that is a terrible weight of responsibility to place on anyone. If a decision to launch was made, responsibility for mass destruction would lie on the shoulders of either the Prime Minister or the relevant commander, a level of guilt I would not wish on my worst enemy.

In 1996, at the request of the UN, the International Court of Justice considered the legality of the threatened or actual use of nuclear weapons, concluding that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict [i.e. the Geneva Conventions], and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law”. However, the judgement continued to note that in extreme situations, where the very existence of a state was threatened (e.g. if threatened with attack by another nuclear power), the use of nuclear weapons might be a legal necessity, following from the right of states to exist.

Nonetheless, there remain very significant restrictions on the occasions that a nuclear weapon could be used without being judged a war crime – specifically, only in cases where the existence of the UK was threatened could the nuclear option use be considered proportionate.

For the entire existence of the UK to be threatened would in effect require that an enemy – either a state or non-state actor – has weapons of mass destruction, be they nuclear, chemical or other heavy weaponry. If this were not the case, use of nuclear weapons by the UK would be disproportionate to the threat, meaning that the nuclear option would be an entirely immoral, unjustified abuse of superior power.

The alternative would be use of nuclear weapons against a similarly armed opponent. In that context, while use of nuclear weapons would not be a war crime – despite their indiscriminate nature – it would raise other problems. Notably, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, MAD, would rear its head. This basically posits that, if an enemy actor posed a genuine threat to the existence of the UK, then were either state to use Nuclear Weapons, the net result would be the destruction of both states, as British early warning systems would allow time for retaliation against the aggressor. Thus, in the one situation where use of nuclear weaponry is not a war crime, it would likely result in the destruction of both states, along with doing substantial, possibly irrevocable damage to the planet.

The use, then, of nuclear weapons is inherently problematic. However it could be argued that a deterrent could exist in the hopes of never having to use it (as has so far been the case for the UK), placing it within the letter, if not the spirit, of international law.

The renewal of the nuclear deterrent is also problematic in the context of the 1968 Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, signed and ratified by the UK that same year. This seeks to encourage disarmament, whilst allowing for peaceful nuclear programs. Our continued possession – not to mention our active renewal – of nuclear weapons is hypocritical when we simultaneously oppose their acquisition by other states. More importantly, article VI of the treaty requires that “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

This does not set concrete time frames or requirements on the process of disarmament, which allows the UK government to argue that renewing the nuclear deterrent is not in breach of the treaty, however it does require that disarmament will be pursued in ‘good faith’, something which the decision to replace the nuclear deterrent seems to undermine. If we are willing to renew our deterrent, why should the other nuclear-recognised signatories of the treaty (the other members of the UN Security Council) be more active in seeking disarmament? Indeed, our decision to replace Trident can be seen as a destabilising force, since other states could legitimately see our nuclear weapons as a threat, just as Mrs Thatcher’s decision to replace Polaris with Trident sent a clear signal to the USSR. Only in a worldview which upholds, without question, the view that we are the ‘good guys’ could our current position be justified, and this certainly does not fit with the perspective of many states, including many of those who currently have, or could easily acquire, nuclear weapons. If anything, such moral superiority is directly undermined by our continued possession of – and apparent willingness to use – weapons of mass destruction.

The overarching theme, when considering the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and the Geneva Conventions, is that the decision to replace our nuclear deterrent is not in the spirit of these agreements, even if it is, at present, within the letter of the law. Deciding to use such weapons would be appalling – all the more so because responsibility for doing so would ultimately lie with one person. Furthermore, the majority of modern threats to international peace are non-state actors – groups against which the use of nuclear weapons would be ineffective. We live in a society which is willing to ignore the advice of numerous international agreements and undermine both global political and environment stability, by not only maintaining, but actively renewing a nuclear deterrent, which would be useless in the majority of situations. This is a shocking indictment of our society, and our failure to address this problem should be as deeply troubling to you as it is to me.

Further Reading
The current Nuclear Deterrent

The replacement of the Nuclear Deterrent successor-programme-an-update

The Geneva Conventions and International Human Rights Law 25641e0052b079

The Legality of Nuclear Weapons ICJ Advisory Opinion

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treat

UN General Assembly Resolution 1653 (XVI) (1961): Declaration on the Prohibition of Use of Nuclear and Thermonuclear Weapons