Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Nuclear Deterrence and Logic

Nuclear Deterrence and Logic


If the consequences of the failure of a system would be infinitely destructive to civilisation, it is reasonable to use that system if and only if the probability of its failure are zero. 

The argument here is that there is a greater than zero chance of nuclear deterrence leading to nuclear war, and that war would be infinitely destructive of human civilisation. This leads to the conclusion that the world needs to scrap nuclear weapons absolutely and completely.
The possession of nuclear weapons by a number of states in the international community does constitute a system, that is, a group of interrelated parts forming a whole.

Can the system fail? Nuclear deterrence is a complex arrangement of electronic sensors embedded in a command and control network composed of humans working to hard protocols that are interwoven with pattern judgments and valuations which are affected by the emotional state of the individuals and groups that make the judgments. The groups themselves, particularly the supreme decision making groups, are isolated from the common body of humanity, and are known to be susceptible to a condition known as group think – defined as A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.[i] Moreover, the interplay of decision makers is now far more complex than in the days of the cold war, with players coming on to the field who might not view the destruction of the prevailing world civilisation as a thing to be avoided at all costs, and other players already on the scene who believe that nuclear weapons could be used tactically without risking a strategic exchange.
In short, it is entirely reasonable to judge that the probability of failure of the nuclear deterrence system is greater than zero. [ii]

Would the breakdown of the nuclear deterrence be infinitely destructive? This is a point that must be settled by a value judgment. First, would it be possible to get away with a limited exchange, or would one nuclear detonation inevitably escalate into an all out global nuclear war?

It is impossible to give a definitive answer to that question, but the safest assumption to make is that if one weapon is detonated, they will all be fired. The reason for this lies in the doctrine of first strike, which aims to destroy the opponent’s weapons before they can be fired. Once it is known that an opponent has detonated a nuclear weapon, the pressure will be on for supreme commanders to fire all their nuclear weapons before they lose them to a first strike. In view of this, although we cannot say that any exchange would inevitably lead to a first strike, it would be the height of folly for anyone to assume that they could use weapons in a limited tactical strike and believe that matters would then be allowed to rest by the opposition.

Unfortunately this limited tactical strike idea is the prevailing nuclear doctrine of the United States of America. They consider that nuclear weapons could be used tactically, as an extension of a conventional military campaign. In doing so, they may trigger an all-out nuclear war.
Would an all out strategic nuclear exchange be infinitely destructive? There are estimated to be at least 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world held by at least eight countries, 96 percent of them in the possession of the United States and Russia. [iii]
The effects of all-out nuclear war were well studied in the 1980s. Physically, the most interesting possible effect is the so-called Nuclear Winter, where atmospheric soot cuts off sunlight for a period of weeks or months.[iv] When the sunlight returns, the effects of city and forest fires will have been to increase the atmospheric CO2 load, thus exacerbating global warming. Species loss will increase, secondary to habitat loss. Of these, the loss of bees will be most important, since cessation of their pollination services will lead to failure of such crops as survivors may try to plant. Ironically, rats and cockroaches are resistant to radiation, and so will flourish, given the plentiful quantities of human and animal carrion available.

To say the least, economic growth after a nuclear war would be unlikely. In fact a global economic recession or even a depression is almost inevitable, and to be replaced by a survival economy based around obtaining water, food, warmth and shelter for the group. Life will be short, and cancers plentiful, but health services would be rudimentary, and analgesics in short supply. Gangsterism, like the rats, will flourish, and self interest is likely to become the ethical norm.

In summary, it is entirely reasonable to expect that an all out nuclear exchange would lead to the end of western civilisation. It would therefore be infinitely destructive.
In terms of the model set out at the beginning, the consequences of the failure of a nuclear deterrence system would indeed be infinitely destructive to our civilisation, the probability of its failure is greater than zero, and therefore it is illogical for our civilisation to use that system.
Since the syllogism contains a value judgment, and there will inevitably be others who take a different view. However, they are compelled to argue either that the deterrence system is perfectly safe, which is manifestly not the case, or that a tactical weapon would not lead to an all-out nuclear war, which is clearly not provable, or that an all-out nuclear war would not destroy civilisation, which is clearly unreasonable.

In the circumstances, however, because of the uncertainties involved, it is safer to take a precautionary view. The great majority of humanity view the possibility of all out nuclear war with a great deal of distaste. They should be helped to understand that the nuclear deterrence system is not infallible, and that these weapons are quite capable of being used in anger. This should then motivate them to exercise their democratic right and duty to remove from political office anyone who believes that it is reasonable for any state to possess nuclear weapons.

Dr Richard Lawson

[i] Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972, page 9.
[ii] Lachlan Forrow and others, "Accidental Nuclear War --A Post Cold War Assessment," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 338, No. 18 (April 30, 1998), pgs. 1326-1331
[iv] Nuclear winter: Physics and physical mechanisms," R. P. Turco, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack and C. Sagan, Ann. Rev. Earth and Planet. Sci., 19, 383-422 (1991).

See also: Trident is not anything like an "Insurance Policy"

11 Instances where nuclear war nearly happened by accident
Nuclear weapons are vulnerable to cyber-attack
William McNeilly's dossier of Trident submarine failures


Nikhil said...

No, nuclear deterrence is not illogical at all actually.

If not having nuclear weapons leaves us exposed to a risk that would be infinitely destructive of our civilisation (i.e. an enemy using nukes against us), then we should only abandon our nuclear weapons if the risk of that occurring is zero.

It isn't zero, so we shouldn't abandon the Trident system.

The flaw in your reasoning comes when you collate our weapons and our country into part of a 'system' of international parties. You cannot answer how Britain scrapping nukes in any way reduces the risk of nuclear war involving Britain.

This is particularly true if you are arguing, as you seem to be, that all-out nuclear holocaust is likely as a result of a mistake (Dr Strangelove style). I am pretty confident that the people with their fingers on the buttons are not nearly as likely to destroy the earth as you say. Whether because of Group Think - the person with ultimate authority is the PM, who, out of touch as he is, isn't THAT out of touch; or because of 'anger' - in 60 years of nuclear weapons, they have never actually been used because some Navy Captain was pissed off about something.

If your claim is that the whole world should just drop the whole idea of nuclear weapons, then sure... but what are you going to do? Dis-invent the technology? This certainly isn't a case in any sense for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Stratified Charge Engine said...


If having nukes and not having nukes leaves us exposed to the same risk of destruction of civilisation, then what is logical purpose of nukes? The ability to sow destruction across the world at massive cost to the tax payer?

The idea of first strike prevention is irrelevant given that such a large proportion of nukes are submarine/air based, and therefore immune to such action.

This leads to the conclusion that nukes are only a weapon of revenge. Meaning once inconceivable death and damage has been inflicted upon a victim, they then have the ability to wreak similar death and destruction back.

However this concludes in the absurd circular argument that nukes should be produced to make the consequences of their use too dire to use them in the first place...

I think in the 21st century we should all realise that actions in one country have global consequences. Thus reduction/abolition of nuclear weapons in one place will help the cause of nuclear reduction elsewhere. This can only be good given that the 'infinitely' destructive consequences of their use would become slightly less 'infinite' given less nukes.

DocRichard said...

Thanks, SCE.
Nikhil, you cannot deny that nuclear "deterrence" is a system. We have nukes because they have nukes, and they have nukes because we have nukes. We will not use them, because they would use them. It is a system.
The system built itself up on reciprocity. Conversely, the system can be dismantled on the same reciprocity. Indeed, that is what has been happening - with Start in the 80s, and the more recent further reduction.

It will take more than Nikhil being "pretty confident" that our leaders would not turn the key for us to learn to love the Bomb. The confidence has to be absolute. It is not. Therefore we must rid ourselves of a system composed these insane devices.

Philip C James said...

Interesting. Though your use of 'first strike' is faulty. First strike is that pre-emptive strike designed to disable/destroy the opponents nuclear arsenal, not the response to a perceived or actual first use of a nuclear weapon by (presumably) the 'other side'.

How many countries gave up their nuclear weapons or decided not to develop them because South Africa gave up its programme? While general disarmament is an excellent goal, unilateral disarmament without securing some quid pro quo from others is useless. In any negotiation never offer something without expecting, demanding and receiving something in return.

Richard Lawson said...

Hi Philip, thanks for commenting.
I may have expressed it clumsily, or you may have slightly misread what I wrote, but the point stands, that the risk of losing one's arsenal to a nuclear does put the whole thing on a hair trigger basis. The thinking tends to be all-or-nothing.

We have to try to imagine the state of mind do a War Cabinet in a situation where they are coming to terms that nuclear weapons have actually been used. Fear/panic, dissociation: a gamut of emotions will perturb the rationality of the group. The point I am making is that it is impossible to argue with any confidence that restraint will prevail, and that one or two nukes could be fired, and then that everything will settle down.

As to South Africa, it could be argued that in the opposite case, if South Africa had gone ahead, proliferation might be far worse than is now the case.

Please note that nowhere in this piece have I called for unilateral nuclear disarmament. That particular debate has been debated ad nauseam in the 70s and is a blind alley as far as debate goes.

We need global nuclear disarmament, and that requires nuclear states to negotiate in good faith, as required by the non-proliferation treaty. They have not been negotiating in good faith, and it is our duty as citizens to point this fact out to all the world.