Why I Reject Nuclear Deterrence
Globocops / NUCLEAR WEAPONS
Former Navy Commander Robert Green found
In 1969 I was serving as a 25-year-old Royal Navy Lieutenant in the British aircraft-carrier HMS Eagle as back-seat aircrew in its Buccaneer nuclear-strike jet squadron. We had to be ready to deliver a free-fall thermonuclear bomb to detonate above a military airfield on the outskirts of Leningrad – now St Petersburg – airport.
Thirty years later I landed there to speak at a conference. In a TV interview I apologized to the local citizens because, had my nuclear mission ever been completed, it would have caused horrific casualties and indiscriminate damage to their beautiful and ancient capital city. I then warned them that I’d learned that nuclear weapons would not save me – and wouldn’t save them either.
In 1972 I had switched to anti-submarine helicopters and a year later I was appointed Senior Observer of a squadron of Sea King helicopters aboard the aircraft-carrier HMS Ark Royal. We were ordered to be ready to use a thermonuclear depth-bomb against Soviet nuclear submarines. If I had pressed the button to release it, it would have vaporized a large volume of ocean – and myself, because the helicopter was too slow to escape before detonation. There would have been heavy radioactive fallout from the bomb, plus the nuclear submarine’s reactor and any nuclear-tipped torpedoes it carried, and it could have escalated World War Three to nuclear holocaust. All this just to protect our aircraft-carrier.
Because I was ambitious and was assured that there would almost certainly be no need to use it, I decided to obey. From then on, however, my absolute trust in my leaders was shaken and I realized that nuclear weapons were militarily useless.
In 1978, on promotion to Commander, I went to the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, London, as Personal Staff Officer to an Admiral who had the responsibility of recommending the replacement for the Polaris nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine force. I watched the submariners go ruthlessly for a scaled-down version of the huge US Trident submarine system, even though it was grossly over-capable and hence unusable. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was addicted to all things nuclear and decided to have Trident, despite the Naval Staff recommending against it – and without consulting her Cabinet.
In my last appointment, as Staff Officer (Intelligence) to the Commander-in-Chief Fleet, I ran the team providing round-the-clock intelligence support to Polaris, as well as the rest of the fleet, from the command bunker in Northwood, near London.
In 1982 Britain suddenly found itself at war with an erstwhile friend, Argentina, over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas. I know what a close-run thing the result of that war was. If Argentine aircraft had sunk one of the troopships before the landing force got ashore, the British might have had to withdraw or risk defeat. What would Thatcher have done then? Polaris had clearly not deterred Argentina’s President Galtieri from invading. With victory in his grasp, it is doubtful he would have believed that even Thatcher would have threatened a nuclear strike on Argentina. Yet rumours abounded that a Polaris submarine had been moved within range of Buenos Aires. I just had to believe that the Polaris Commanding Officer – briefed by me before he went on a so-called ‘deterrent’ patrol – would have either refused the firing order or faked a malfunction and returned to face a court martial with a clear conscience.
Soon afterwards I left the Navy, but it took the Gulf War finally to break me out of my pro-nuclear brainwashing. It was very traumatic. On 12 January 1991, when I addressed a crowd of 20,000 anti-Gulf War demonstrators from the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – of all places – I became the first ex-Navy Commander with nuclear-weapons experience to speak out against them. On 17 January 1991 the first Iraqi Scud attack hit Tel Aviv. For the first time, the second city of a de facto nuclear state had been attacked and its capital threatened. Worse for nuclear-deterrence dogma, the aggressor did not have nuclear weapons. The Israeli people, cowering in basements with their gas-masks, learned that night that their so-called ‘deterrent’ had failed.
Later in 1991 I became British Chair of the World Court Project. This worldwide network of citizen groups helped to persuade the UN General Assembly – despite desperate countermoves led by the three NATO nuclear states – to ask the International Court of Justice (known as the World Court) 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 challenged. Legal advisers to the US Air Force, for example, are in no doubt that the Opinion could justify disobeying an order to use nuclear weapons.
We have been taught to equate security with military strength. But the pursuit of ‘national security’ has achieved only more insecurity. This is because the more we base our defence on threatening others, the more likely it is that others will follow our example.
There is a way back from the nuclear abyss. In the short term, deterrence based on conventional weapons will need to be promoted as a less dangerous and more credible security strategy. This will enable nuclear forces to be verifiably stood down and negotiations to begin for a Nuclear Weapons Convention which will provide the comprehensive, enforceable plan for going to zero nuclear weapons. Verification will be a central feature, helping to build confidence and trust in the process and minimizing the risk of cheating. Civil society must lead the way in applying the concepts of non-provocative defence and common security to the world’s security problems.
In 1987 Aotearoa/New Zealand adopted legislation which prohibits nuclear weapons within its territory, territorial waters and airspace, as well as visits by nuclear-powered ships. The country was demoted from US ‘ally’ to ‘friend’; the US and Britain threatened trade; officials were ostracized from the Western group in the UN. Yet the Government held firm, bolstered by a massive mobilization of public support by the peace movement.
In 1997 former US Airforce General Lee Butler – by now a prominent anti-nuclear advocate – thanked the country for ‘staying the course’. ‘I know as well as anyone the courage it took for New Zealand to make that decision ten years ago,’ he said. ‘If I had been here ten years ago, I might have had a different message – but now I’m saying you got it right.’
is the author of The Naked Nuclear Emperor (with a Foreword by Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand), published by The Disarmament and Security Centre, PO Box 8390, Christchurch, New Zealand. Tel/Fax: (+64) 3 348 1353.
Nuclear weapon-free zones