Recently, there has been debate in the UK over the future of Trident, and the wider question of nuclear weapons. Some say they are no longer required, others say that the potential threat from states such as Iran and North Korea means that we need to keep some form of nuclear deterrence. It seems to me, however, that a nuclear deterrent is only useful if the entity to be deterred believes that it will be used. I’ve long doubted that any British prime minister would actually order a nuclear strike. I was therefore interested to hear a recent Radio 4 interview with Lord Kinnock. During the interview, he said that “I’ve actually never met anybody, with the possible exception of Mrs Thatcher, but maybe not even her, who behind their eyes, really acknowledged the reality that they would use the terminal weapon”.
During the Cold War, it was generally assumed that the scenario would be one of a massive Soviet strike, to be answered by a similarly huge retaliatory strike by the UK, France and USA. In this scenario, missiles are in the air and headed for the UK, the prime minister has maybe a few minutes to make the decision. In such a situation, where the UK is already doomed and the only thing that can be done at that point is to strike back, a prime minister might give the order to launch.
In the case of Iran and North Korea, however, a massive strike is unlikely. One scenario that has been suggested is a terrorist strike, supported by a rogue state. In this scenario, a single nuclear or chemical weapon is detonated, presumably without warning. The prime minister would then have some time to consider how to respond. I find it extremely unlikely that any British prime minister would decide that launching a nuclear weapon and killing tens of thousands of civilians would be a suitable response. Consequently, I don’t consider it to be a credible deterrent. I think the threat of a conventional, highly targeted strike, would be a much more credible deterrent, simply because it’s far more likely to actually be employed.