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The Nuclear Option

Use of Nuclear Weapons has never been an option. Why do we insist on pretending otherwise?

JACK FLEMING 12/06/2015


In July 1980, Mrs Thatcher threw detente out of the window. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 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 not in a mood to entertain peaceful relations with the Eastern Bloc. Trident was, and remains, controversial, and how we handle this debate 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. Over a 25 year lifespan, this works out as £4bn/year.

- Public finances are stretched, with high taxation and decreased government spending

- 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. However, such arguments do not reach the heart of the debate. The nuclear deterrent is generally considered in light of its potential security benefits or economic costs, whilst ignoring the simple fact that a nuclear deterrent is both legally unsupportable 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. 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, even 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”.  This appears to prohibit the UK's use of nuclear weapons. 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 peaceful nuclear programs ratify it, specifically China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan and the USA. Thus it is not yet legally binding.


That is not, however, the case with the Geneva Conventions and its 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 will simply decimate the blast radius (estimated for modern trident warheads at 8 times that of the Hiroshima bomb: some 8 miles). At first sight, then, the use of a nuclear weapon would be 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 ultimately 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 any one person, this is a terrible weight of responsibility to place on anyone. If a decision to launch was made, responsibility for mass destruction would lay on the shoulders of either the Prime Minister or the relevant submarine 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 are, at the very least, significant restrictions on occasions when a Nuclear weapon could be used without being considered a war crime – specifically only in cases where the existence of the UK was threatened could its use be considered proportionate.


For the entire existence of the UK to be threatened effectively requires that an enemy – be it 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 entirely immoral, being an 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, could be invoked. 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 early warning systems would allow time for whichever side was attacked to retaliate before they were destroyed. 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). This would place the deterrent 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. At the very least, our continued possession – not to mention our active renewal – of nuclear weapons is hypocritical when we simultaneously oppose their acquisition by other states. Furthermore, 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 UN treaty be more active in seeking disarmament?  Indeed, our decision to replace trident can be seen as a destabilising force, as other states could legitimately see our nuclear weapons as a threat. Only in a worldview which denies moral-relativism and upholds the view that we are the 'good guys' could our current position be justified, and this does not fit with the worldview of most states. If anything, such moral superiority is directly undermined by our continued possession of 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 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.