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The deterrent effect works on the belief on the part of the opponent that a retaliation will be forthcoming. Despite how much we don’t want to retaliate, our people and theirs will be safest if we pretend that we always will.


Another Angry Voice posted this alongside a message criticizing our new PM Theresa May for arranging to renew our nuclear deterrent system: Trident. Here’s the text, if you’re having trouble with the image:

Either you press the button first – which would be mad… Or you press it in retaliation – in which case it wouldn’t be a deterrent.

The summary reply is this, and it might sound a bit Taoist: the deterrent is least likely to fail if the actor presents themselves as certain to strike back in the event that the deterrent fails.

Theresa May

I’m not familiar with comedian Pete Sinclair, and it’s possible that he was highlighting the absurdity of the nuclear deterrent as a concept, rather than criticising the practice directly. Another Angry Voice says regards May’s statement, rather, as ‘willingness’ to kill hundreds of thousands of people.

This formulation, deliberately or otherwise, doesn’t account for the role of belief and behaviour within a deterrent. This is to say that the purpose of the UK’s nuclear weapons is to deter strikes from other actors because they believe that, if attacked, the UK would strike back. Theresa May, whatever her personal beliefs, must declare, convincingly that she will use nuclear weapons and, in doing so, assure actors, present or future, that to attack the UK is to invoke its nuclear arsenal.

“The whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use them,” May observed, according to the Independent.

I want to emphasize that Theresa May could, in her heart of hearts, have no intention of pressing the button; she could be ethically incapable of doing so, as many of us may be: all that is necessary for the deterrent to work is that our potential foes believe that she is capable. If, when questioned, May responded by saying that she did not have the stomach to use the nukes, the UK may as well scuttle the submarine fleet.

If May were presented with a scenario in which a foreign nation had nuked us and in which returning fire would serve no purpose, May would likely not press the button – indeed, the deterrent would have failed. She is required to say, however that in all circumstances she would press the button: this is the deterrent. There are, however, conceivable Hiroshima-like situations in which the deterrent fails but a retaliatory strike is also necessary to prevent, say, a conventional war or invasion and huge civilian casualties.

Nuclear Deterrent Flowchart

I saw the picture above, by Derek Starkswood, shared on Facebook this morning. Take a look, see the fifth item on the right, ‘Would we retaliate?’, the options being ‘Yes’, in which case the deterrent has failed or ‘No’, in which case may as well save the money. This fails in just the same way as Another Angry Voice does: our enemies are least likely to nuke us if we make them believe that we will return fire.

Dead Hand

Every morning a warrior should recommit himself to death. In morning meditation, see yourself killed in various ways, such as being shredded by arrows, bullets, swords, and spears, being swept away by a tidal wave, burned by fire, struck by lightening, dying in a earthquake, falling from a great height, or succumbing to overwhelming sickness. An elder warrior said, “Once out of your front door you are surrounded by death. Once you leave your gate you are surrounded by enemies.” This saying is not merely a parable, but a way to prepare for your fate.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo

The Soviets arranged their deterrent in an ingenious way: with a system of radiation sensors,. seismographs and other instruments, they created ‘Dead Hand‘, a setup that would – if it detected the tremors, radiation and other signs of a nuclear strike on Soviet territory – automatically return fire, even if the entire command structure were destroyed or incapacitated. This terrifying system assured enemies of the USSR that a strike on the country would always result in retaliation, striking the USSR was, essentially, to nuke oneself.

The UK uses submarines for the same reason: they would be unaffected by a strike on the UK and, in the event that the government were destroyed, may have been pre-ordered to strike in response. The letters that the Prime Minister writes to the captains are secret, just like whether the Dead Hand system is active is unknown, Russia having inherited it from the Soviets.

If you want my view: I don’t think May has the stomach for it, I certainly don’t.

Game Theory

The theory of deterrence originates, to a large extent, in game theory: the study of ‘conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers’.

Adam Piggott, adventurer and now writer, relates an excellent story of deterrence in his book Pushing Rubber Downhill. It’s not perfectly analogous, but I feel it’s illustrative. Piggott was living at the time in Uganda, and one of his associates had his expensive stereo equipment stolen. The associate then sent for the local witch doctor, who sacrificed a chicken (if I remember correctly) and helped them identify the thief who lived in the nearby village and had taken flight.

Then the witch doctor offers, for a fee, to put a curse on the thief. Of course the associate agrees and the thief is duly cursed. When challenged that, surely he didn’t believe in curses? the associate responded to say that of course he didn’t, but the locals do.

Conventional Interaction

In the tables below, you can see how the choices of the USA and USSR in a non-nuclear interaction might play out. That is, if both countries honoured their treaties, say, things would be stable. If, however,one country violates a treaty and performs a surprise attack, it could gain an advantage, such as Japan did with its attack on Pearl Harbour. If neither country honours its treaties, however, neither will necessarily gain an advantage.

 Cooperate Defect
 USSR Cooperate Stability  USA Advantage
 Defect USSR Advantage  No Advantage

Nuclear Interaction

See below the same table, but for a nuclear interaction. With constantly flying bombers, then later ICBMs with nuclear warheads, the only case in which any country can gain an advantage was by striking first and completely eliminating the ability of the other country to retaliate. Now – with Trident and Dead Hand, both of which are, possibly, primed to retaliate on behalf of a non-existent government – it’s impossible for either nation to gain an advantage via a first strike.

That is, the moment you attack, you guarantee that the nukes will fall on your cities, too; it’s like your opponent exists in a superposition of Cooperation and Defection and, if you Defect, they will mirror your move. Thus, unless that’s what you want, you had better cooperate.

Cooperate Defect
USSR Cooperate Stability
Defect No Advantage

This scenario is very basic and the actual theorists get very sophisticated, but I think the point is illustrated. It was fairly simple to imagine two actors, but what about multiple, plus allies, or quasi-state invasions like of Crimea by Russia? Nonetheless, this is how, perversely, nuclear weapons could actually make us safer, provided our leaders act rationally. The problem, as Sam Harris observed, is the possibility that non-rational actors, such as ISIS, could get hold of nukes.

I’m not by any stretch recommending this technology or even suggesting that the nuclear game theory that predominates is a good idea. I’m not keen at all on the idea of the deterrent, partly because it is so absurd to the point that it strains belief, while putting leaders like May under huge strain. Then there’s Murphy’s Law: what about accidents, what happens if truly non-rational actors get their hands on the nukes? Despite my misgivings, I’m tired of seeing people deliberately misunderstand the deterrent effect or look into it superficially then broadcast a misunderstanding.

As everything in this world is but a sham, Death is the only sincerity.

Yamamoto Tsunetom

3 thoughts on “The Nuclear Deterrent: A Response to a Meme by Another Angry Voice”

  1. This seems a relatively simplistic response. The whole premise of this seems to be that the purpose of nukes is either as a deterrent or threat.

    I would assert that the purpose of reinvigorating the British nuclear program has less to do with their military, and more to do with their perceived importance and international legitimacy.

    Having left Europe it is now important for England to assert it’s relevance in the hope of reforging international relations, both regionally and abroad. Further, the withdrawal from Europe also threatens to reignite the debate around the legitimacy of England’s P5 status. England was awarded P5 status in the post war period now 70 years behind us. It is ludicrous to imagine that, were we performing the same exercise again, England would still be placed in the P5. Germany maybe (probably).

    Structural reform of the P5 is nigh on impossible, but so far the council has retained legitimacy by increasing transparency and being inclusive in the decision making process.

    But currently European powers control a 60% stake in the P5. Population-wise they contribute 5% of the countries represented, and a fraction of the costs and resources. England has just taken a HUGE step towards deligitimising their presence on the council.

    In that environment it makes sense to reinvigorate the nuclear program. Nuclear status is a defining characteristic of P5 membership in the Charter. It has been argued by newer nuclear powers that the status should afford them entry into the club.

    In that context nuclear power is a status symbol. This move seems to me to be an attempt at asserting England’s regional presence, and global relevance.

    1. I agree with much of what you say, though my post was more a response to the meme than a look at the issue in general. I think you’re quite right about the function of nukes as a way to boost our national pride, which is also reflected in the personalities of the people who are for and against (Tories: for; Corbyn: against). Maybe it’s jingoism talking, but I feel that the UK’s security council seat is rightly held, it’s absurd in many ways, but we remain a powerful country that has (with varying success and often not entirely honestly) generally fought for freedom. Our presence is also a useful balance to current Russian aggression.

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