Peace Magazine: Breaking Free from the Hoax of Nuclear Deterrence

Peace Magazine

Breaking Free from the Hoax of Nuclear Deterrence

By Cmdr. Robert Green, RN (ret.) • published Apr 01, 2011 • last edit Apr 30, 2011

The New Zealand earthquake forced Rob Green to cancel the Toronto leg of his North American speaking tour in early March.1 Here’s what he’d written earlier for Canadian colleagues and anti-nuclear activists.

Five days after my first birthday the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima. When I was 24, I was a bombardier-navigator in a nuclear crew aboard a British aircraft carrier. We were given a target: a military airbase near Leningrad. We had to plan how to get from the Norwegian Sea by the shortest route, deliver a tactical nuclear bomb, and then try to get back to our carrier. There would not be enough fuel because the target was at the limit of our aircraft’s range, but my pilot shrugged and said: “Well, Rob, if we ever have to do this, by then there won’t be anything to go back for.” So we submitted our flight plan and celebrated our initiation into the nuclear elite.

Thirty years later, I would attend an anti-nuclear conference in St. Petersburg. On TV that evening, I would apologize to the citizens of Russia’s ancient capital.

Back in 1972, I was senior bombardier-navigator of a Sea King helicopter squadron aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. Our task was to detect and destroy enemy submarines threatening our ships. However, our torpedoes could not catch the latest Soviet nuclear-powered submarines, so we were given a nuclear depth-bomb.

The problem was that, if I had dropped one, it would have vaporized and irradiated one Soviet nuclear submarine, a large volume of ocean—and myself. A helicopter was too slow to escape before detonation, so it would have been a suicide mission. Also, my leaders ignored the radioactive fallout from my bomb, the submarine’s nuclear power plant, and any nuclear-tipped torpedoes it carried. I might even have turned World War Three into a nuclear holocaust, just to protect my aircraft-carrier.

This time I did complain. I was reassured there would almost certainly be no need to use nuclear depth-bombs. No civilians would be involved; and the Soviets might not even detect it. Besides, I had a glittering career ahead of me, and did not want to spoil my prospects. As I was ambitious, I fell silent. In due course, I was promoted.

However, the military irresponsibility shocked me into a more questioning frame of mind. I recalled Tennyson’s Crimean war poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, about an earlier suicide mission: “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” That attitude was alive and well in the Royal Navy.

UK Polaris Replacement and the Falklands War

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman prime minister. I was working just across the street as a newly promoted Commander in the Ministry of Defence. There I observed the internal debate on replacing the four British Polaris nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines. The nuclear submarine lobby insisted upon a scaled down version of the US Trident system, and Mrs. Thatcher rammed the decision through without consulting her Cabinet. The Chiefs of Staff, despite misgivings, were brought into line.

My final appointment was as Staff Officer (Intelligence) to Commander-in-Chief Fleet. I ran a team of 40 providing intelligence in the command bunker near London where operations of the British Navy were coordinated. The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan and in Poland Solidarnosc was pioneering the East European challenge to them.

In 1981, facing projected cuts to the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, destroyers, and frigates, my chances of commanding a ship seemed slim, so I applied for redundancy.

This was approved during the first week of the Falklands War in 1982. The Royal Navy’s role was pivotal, and the war was directed by my boss, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse. Until then, Mrs. Thatcher had been the most unpopular prime minister in British history. Now she was the “Iron Lady” and needed a military victory to save her political career.

Polaris had not deterred Argentine President Galtieri from invading the Falkland Islands. With victory in his grasp, would he have been deterred by her threat to use nuclear weapons? I heard rumors of a secret contingency plan to move the British Polaris submarine south, within range of Buenos Aires. Its 16 launch tubes each housed an intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with three warheads. Then came corroboration from France. Fran├žois Mitterrand was president in 1982. In 2005, his psychoanalyst’s memoirs revealed that in his first counselling session Mitterrand had just come from an extremely stressful phone call with Thatcher. A French-supplied Exocet missile fired from a French-supplied Argentine Navy strike jet had sunk a British destroyer. Mrs. Thatcher had threatened to carry out a nuclear strike against Argentina unless Mitterrand ordered his brother, who ran the Exocet factory, to release the missile’s acquisition system frequencies, thus enabling the British to jam them. Mitterrand, convinced she was serious, had complied.

These nightmarish rumors led me to confront the realities of operating nuclear weapons in such a crisis. Defeat would have been unthinkable for the British military, and would have ended Mrs. Thatcher’s career. She was a true believer in nuclear deterrence. Yet if she had threatened Galtieri with a nuclear strike, he would have publicly called her bluff and relished watching President Reagan try to rein her in. Had the Polaris submarine’s commanding officer obeyed her order, Britain would have become a pariah state. Nuclear deterrence failure would have compounded the ignominy of defeat.

Redundancy, Roof-thatching and Murder

Back in 1982, on terminal leave after the British retook the Falkland Islands, I was 38 years old. Tired of commuting to high-pressure jobs in London, I decided to try local work. So I became a roof thatcher, enduring many painful jokes with stunned former colleagues. For eight idyllic years, I loved working with my hands in the open air, restoring fine old houses, with a bird’s eye view of some of the most picturesque parts of southwest England.

Thatching proved vitally therapeutic in 1984, when my beloved aunt Hilda Murrell was murdered. My mother’s unmarried elder sister, she had become my mentor after my mother died when I was nineteen. Hilda was a Cambridge University graduate and a successful businesswoman who ran the family’s rose nurseries. In retirement she became a fearless environmentalist and opponent of nuclear energy and weapons. At the age of 78, she applied to testify at the first British public planning inquiry into a nuclear power plant. Mrs. Thatcher was determined to introduce reactors of a design that failed at Three Mile Island. A true patriot, Hilda was not prepared to let the nuclear industry poison her country—and potentially the rest of the planet—with nuclear weapons.

Rumors of nuclear conspiracy swirled around an incompetent police investigation into her bizarre murder. Then in December 1984, a maverick member of parliament announced in the House of Commons that I had been suspected of leaking secret documents about the controversial sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano in the Falklands War, and hiding them with my aunt. I had done nothing so stupidly treasonable, yet several reliable sources agreed that State security agents had allegedly searched her house. A cold case review resulted in the 2005 trial and conviction of a petty thief, who had been 16 years old in 1984. I have evidence that he was framed and I am completing a book about this.

First Gulf War and Breakout

Being implicated in Hilda’s murder radicalized me. Then after Chernobyl, I took up her anti-nuclear energy torch. I learned that the nuclear energy industry had begun as a cynical by-product of the race to provide plutonium for nuclear weapons. The case for nuclear deterrence crumbled with the Berlin Wall. However, it took the 1991 first Gulf War to break me out of my indoctrination.

In 1990 when the US decided to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait, I realized this was to be a punitive expedition. My military intelligence training warned me that the US-led coalition’s blitzkrieg strategy would give Saddam Hussein a pretext to attack Israel and become the Arabs’ champion. If personally threatened, he could launch Scud ballistic missiles with chemical or biological warheads, causing heavy Israeli casualties. Prime Minister Shamir would be pressed to retaliate with a nuclear strike on Baghdad. The whole Arab world would erupt in fury against Israel and its allies, and Russia would be sucked into the crisis.

So in January 1991, I joined the growing anti-war movement in Britain and addressed a crowd of 20,000 in Trafalgar Square. A week later, the first Scud attack hit Tel Aviv, two days after the Allied blitzkrieg began. Yet Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. The Israelis, cowering in gas masks in basements, learned that night that their so-called “deterrent” had failed in its primary purpose. Thirty-eight more Scud attacks followed, causing miraculously few casualties. When US satellites detected Israeli nuclear armed missiles being readied for launch, President Bush rushed Patriot missiles and military aid to Israel, which was congratulated for its restraint.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the Irish Republican Army just missed wiping out the entire Gulf War Cabinet with a mortar-bomb attack from a van in London. What if instead they had used even a crude nuclear device? No counter-threat of nuclear retaliation would have been credible.

Coming out against nuclear weapons was traumatic. My conversion was no sudden Damascene experience. I had gone through cumulative experiences, including the murder of my aunt and mentor, in which British state security agents were allegedly involved. Nuclear weapons make governments behave badly.

Belatedly forced to research the history of “the Bomb,” I learned that the British had alerted the United States to the feasibility of making a nuclear weapon, and then had participated in the Manhattan Project. On being frozen out of further collaboration by the 1946 McMahon Act, Britain began to develop its own nuclear arsenal. Thus it became a role model for France, and later Iraq and India. I learned that nuclear deterrence does not work. It is immoral and unlawful, and there are alternative strategies to deter aggression and achieve security.

Legal Challenge to Nuclear Deterrence

Having given up thatching as the 1991 Gulf War loomed, I became chair of the British affiliate of the World Court Project. This worldwide network of citizen groups helped persuade the United Nations General Assembly to ask the International Court of Justice for its Advisory Opinion on the legal status of nuclear weapons. In 1996, the Court confirmed that the threat, let alone use, of nuclear weapons would generally be illegal. For the first time, the legality of nuclear deterrence had been implicitly challenged.

The Court’s decision confirmed that, as part of international humanitarian law, the Nuremberg Principles apply to nuclear weapons. This has serious implications for all those involved in operating nuclear weapons—particularly military professionals who would “press the button.” Unlike hired killers or terrorists, military professionals need to be seen to act within the law. Nuclear weapons should be stigmatized as chemical and biological weapons have been, so that no military professional is prepared to operate them.

The next year, recently retired General Lee Butler spoke out. Then in 1999 I led a delegation to Tokyo with him and Robert McNamara. In a heretical team of that calibre, I knew that what I was doing was right.

Why Nuclear Deterrence is a Hoax

It was the American writer H.L. Mencken who quipped: “There’s always an easy solution to every problem: neat, plausible, and wrong.” Nuclear deterrence fits this nicely. Nuclear weapons combine the poisoning horrors of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, plus inter-generational genetic effects unique to radioactivity, with almost unimaginable explosive violence. Yet nuclear deterrence is not credible without the will to use them. This is why a state practicing nuclear deterrence is actually conducting a deliberate policy of nuclear terrorism.

If deterrence based on conventional weapons fails, the damage will be confined to the belligerent states and the environment will recover. But the failure of nuclear deterrence leaves devastation and poisoning, potentially of most forms of life on Earth.

Nuclear deterrence is a scheme for making nuclear war less probable by making it more probable. The danger of inadvertent nuclear war is greater than we think. More than twenty years after the Cold War ended, nuclear deterrence requires that the United States and Russia keep over 2,000 nuclear warheads between them poised for launch at each other inside half an hour.

The nuclear weapon states, aware that extremists armed with weapons of mass destruction cannot be deterred, plan pre-emptive nuclear attacks in “anticipatory self-defence” of their “vital interests”—not the last-ditch defence of their homeland. This disproves their claim that nuclear deterrence averts war. Extremists, far from being deterred by nuclear weapons, could even provoke nuclear retaliation in order to turn moral outrage against the retaliator and thereby recruit others to their causes.

Consequences of Nuclear Deterrence Failure

India and Pakistan are trying to emulate the five recognzed nuclear weapon states. I will never forget a public meeting in Islamabad in 2001. The nuclear physicist Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy had persuaded General Aslam Beg, one of the “fathers” of Pakistan’s Bomb, to join a panel with him and me. Beg warned against raising awareness about the effects of a nuclear strike on a Pakistan city, “in case it scares the people.” He had a simplistic faith in nuclear deterrence, ignoring all the added dangers of a nuclear standoff with India. He is not alone. Most believers in nuclear deterrence refuse to discuss the consequences of failure. But let me describe some of those consequences.

Economic Consequences. In April 2005, an internal report for US Homeland Security appeared on the web. Titled Economic Consequences of a Rad/Nuc Attack, it examined what it would take to recover from the detonation of just one nuclear device in various cities. Much depends on the size of bomb and level of decontamination, but the economic consequences for New York alone would be around $10 trillion. That is roughly the annual Gross Domestic Product of the entire US economy. Just one nuclear bomb, on one city.

Environmental and Agricultural Consequences. A deeply disturbing article, published in January last year in Scientific American, reported on recent climate research about a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which about 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear devices would be detonated over cities. Apart from the mutual carnage and destruction across South Asia, enough smoke from firestorms—let alone radioactive fallout—would be generated to cripple global agriculture. Plunging temperatures in the northern hemisphere would cause hundreds of millions of people to starve to death, even in countries far from the conflict.

Health Consequences. In 2004, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War published their findings regarding casualties from a Hiroshima-size nuclear warhead detonated over New York. Total fatalities were estimated at about 60,000. Another 60,000 would be seriously but non-fatally injured. Clearly, these would utterly overwhelm any hospitals surviving the explosion. Again, this is just one nuclear weapon on one city.

Canada and Nuclear Deterrence

The “nuclear umbrella” doesn’t work. Nuclear deterrence has not prevented non-nuclear states from attacking allies of nuclear weapon states. Examples include China entering the Korean War when the US had a nuclear monopoly in 1950; Argentina invading the British Falkland Islands in 1982; and Iraq invading close US ally Kuwait in 1990. In all these cases nuclear deterrence failed. The US in Korea and Vietnam, and the USSR in Afghanistan, preferred withdrawal to the ultimate ignominy of resorting to nuclear weapons to secure victory or revenge against a non-nuclear state.

Reliance on nuclear deterrence perpetuates security threats. It also provokes proliferation. Canada’s main security problems—climate change and resource depletion—require co-operative, non-military responses. As competition for resources spreads to new regions like the thawing Arctic, the Canadian Pugwash Group have therefore taken an admirable initiative to promote an Arctic Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.

Safer Security Strategies

For the above reasons, all but about thirty-five states feel more secure without depending on the delusions of nuclear deterrence. Most are in nuclear weapon free zones; and many are pushing for legally binding security assurances that the nuclear-armed states will not use nuclear weapons against them.

Canada needs to embrace regional, non-provocative defence under UN auspices. Its first priority should be to press the US and Russia to stand down their combined total of 2,000 nuclear warheads from high alert—another irresponsible legacy of nuclear deterrence dogma. Nuclear disarmament is a security-building process. Nuclear weapons should be recognized as a security liability; any non-nuclear security strategy is safer, more credible, and more cost-effective.

On December 7 last year, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a resolution—already passed by the Senate—encouraging the Government of Canada to endorse the UN secretary-general’s courageous five-point plan for nuclear disarmament, which includes “negotiating a nuclear-weapons convention.” The resolution gives the government the mandate to join the 140 states now supporting negotiations on a global nuclear weapon abolition treaty.

When I was last in Canada in 1999, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Standing Committee was reviewing the government’s nuclear weapons policy. Canada had earned huge kudos for the global treaty banning anti-personnel landmines through the “Ottawa Process.” Has the moment arrived for Canada to step up again for the ultimate prize?

Will Canada be ready if Britain becomes the first of the recognized nuclear weapon states to rely on safer and more cost-effective security strategies than nuclear deterrence? A defence budget crisis has revived the debate about replacing Trident. The black hole in defence spending has been caused by desperate attempts to keep up with the Americans.

Instead, making a virtue from necessity, the British government should reassert its sovereignty and announce that it will rescue the dysfunctional nuclear non-proliferation regime. A new world role awaits Britain, whose nuclear arsenal is the smallest of the five recognized nuclear weapon states. They are deployed in just one system, a scaled-down version of Trident. Its government has to decide by 2016 whether to replace Trident with whatever the US decides. The minority Liberal Democrats, in coalition with the Conservatives, oppose Trident replacement. The alternative—nuclear-tipped Cruise missiles launched from attack submarines—has been ruled out, because the Obama Administration is scrapping its nuclear-armed Tomahawk missiles.

All Britain has to do is decide not to replace its four Trident-armed submarines. That would transform the nuclear disarmament debate overnight. In NATO, Britain would wield unprecedented influence, leading the drive for a non-nuclear strategy. British leadership would shift the mindset in the US and France, the other two most zealous guardians of nuclear deterrence. It would influence India, Israel, Pakistan and states intent on obtaining nuclear weapons. The way would then open for a major reassessment by Russia and China, for all nuclear forces to be stood down, and for negotiations to begin on a Nuclear Weapons Convention.


Finding our way back from the nuclear abyss will not be easy. The engine for shifting the mindset has to come from civil society.

A surprisingly small network of individuals drove the campaign to abolish slavery. As with nuclear deterrence, slavery’s leading apologists in the United States, Britain and France argued that slavery was a “necessary evil” for which there was “no alternative.” They failed, because courageous citizens campaigned to replace slavery with more humane, lawful, and effective ways to create wealth. So too must nuclear deterrence be discarded for more humane, lawful, and safer security strategies if civilization is to survive.

Cmdr. Robert Green is author of Security Without Nuclear Deterrence, reviewed in the Jan-Mar 2011 issue of Peace.


1 Although Rob Green and Kate Dewes had to curtail their tour due to the Christchurch earthquake, Alyn Ware took their place at the two Toronto meetings organized by Science for Peace, Canadian Pugwash, U of T Student Christian Movement, and Veterans Against Nuclear Arms.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.27, No.2: Apr-Jun 2011
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