22 March 2008

CND; right then, right now

By Liam Carroll

The last time Britain threatened to use it's nuclear weapons was just before the invasion of Iraq, when the Secretary of Defence declared that in the face of a WMD attack on British troops, we would be prepared to use the nuclear 'deterrent' in response. Deterrent theory tells us that an enemy will not escalate a military confrontation if they believe the response would be an overwhelming nuclear attack that would cause their destruction. Had Iraqi forces actually had some tins of gas to lob at British troops, what would the Secretary have done? Flattened Baghdad with nuclear weapons? It seems unlikely for it's own sakes, but in addition it is hard to imagine that the Americans would have approved.

Therein lies the rub with nuclear weapons; does deterrent theory really work, or is it merely wishful thinking on behalf of politicians that if they have some pretty devastating weapons in the arsenal, foreign powers will more readily acquiesce to their demands when conflict arises? The haste with which Britain sought to build it's own nuclear weapons in defiance of American wishes in 1946, suggests that our leaders certainly believed that the atomic bomb was indeed endowed with such powers.

It was assumed then, at the time, that a nuclear bomb would save massively on conventional forces and allow Britain to project power around the world whilst reducing the military budget. In 1952 Britain conducted it's first nuclear test and by 1953 the RAF was able to deploy its first weapons. In 1956 the Egyptian nationalist Abdel Nasser, defeated the British, the French and the Israelis in the infamous Suez Canal Crisis, in an edifying display of how impotent Britain's bomb was in practice.

The pursuit of Britain's independent nuclear weapon also led to the disastrous Windscale fire of 1957 which is officially estimated to have accounted for some 240 odd cases of cancer from the radioactive materials that managed to get through the filter in the cooling chimney. The weapons-dedicated reactor had only been fitted with a filter at all at the last moment, thanks to one man's insistence (it was called Cockcroft's Folly, but it probably saved hundreds if not thousands of lives). Also, the concrete reactor housing had been on the verge of collapse before the fire was extinguished by water; an action which some thought might lead to a hydrogen explosion, but fortunately didn't. All told then, the country got off lightly.

Although Britain had developed it's own processes for making nuclear weapons material, it was also keen to collaborate with it's European partners, France and Germany to develop further dual-use technologies (dual-use meaning that the technologies have both civilian and military purposes). Thus, in 1970, Urenco was founded as a collaborative consortium, which unfortunately then proceeded to leak vitally important information to a variety of spies. Dr A Q Khan, from Pakistan stole designs that led to the building of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and subsequently to the Iranian enrichment plant that is currently the object of so much international consternation. North Korea, Libya, Iraq and Brazil also acquired the designs.

Britain's nuclear weapons did however manage to get us a seat at the disarmament negotiating table in the 1963 Test Ban talks. President Kennedy was, though, quite particular about which seat the British should have, it was to be the back seat. Indeed, that pretty much set the pattern for subsequent disarmament negotiations which, apart from the five yearly non-proliferation conference, are almost exclusively conducted bi-laterally between the US and the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia. It is doubtful that Britain’s bomb really had any bearing on the Cold War, however, some may argue that it was Britain's duty to keep our end up, although if that really were the case, it might have been easier just to send a cheque (to the Americans).

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)has been calling for unilateral disarmament for fifty years now and on Easter Monday they will surround the nuclear research facilities at Aldermaston as a call to the country to forego the next multi-billion pound weapons project which we are about to embark on. Returning to Iraq, we might consider other reasons why this might be sensible. While the Secretary of Defence was working out his deterrence theory for the non-existent WMD in Iraq, there were other defensive issues, like the shortage of body armour and other forms of force protection that were worryingly absent. Nuclear weapons; more bang for the buck, or just wishful thinking?