Owning nuclear weapons changes everything. Officers from militaries that are solely conventionally armed ask what it feels like in tones of awe. But, for the vast majority of British officers it is an almost impossible question to answer. Uniquely amongst our peers and allies we push our nuclear forces out into a specialist niche, cloak them with secrecy, and pretend they are nothing to do with ‘us’. This position is supported by the national security apparatus which jealously guards all nuclear policy matters – the military is, essentially, allowed to provide a political service: the Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD). As we are seeing now in Ukraine, this has left the UK somewhat exposed when it transpires that others had always considered nuclear weapons a part of the battlefield armoury. How have we allowed such a dangerous asymmetry of assumptions to arise?
Not long ago all three services maintained a nuclear arsenal that was pivotal to our response options during the Cold War. The front line was tested exhaustively on its nuclear drills. Everyone operated in protective ‘NBC Kit’ (Nuclear Bacteriological Chemical) during exercises. That warfare had a nuclear element was just a fact of life. But, even then, our exercises tended to end when the nuclear threshold was crossed and a strategic nuclear exchange was simulated.
But the Soviets, and now the Russians, didn’t and don’t think that way; they continue to believe in the use of battlefield nuclear weapons to coerce, to ‘escalate to de-escalate’, and even to maintain momentum if a campaign stalls, and so to win through overwhelming firepower and psychological dominance. They exercise with nuclear weapons.
In contrast, we went the other way. Almost embarrassed by our nuclear policy we affect a form of institutional regret: we believe in multilateral disarmament, and so though we do have intercontinental ballistic missiles we have reduced our warheads to the bare minimum required to maintain a high-level, strategic deterrent. Its purpose is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons in toto. And so we have removed all other nuclear weapons from our inventory during the series of defence reviews since 1989.
What we have not done, therefore, is maintain a cadre of strategically educated and trained nuclear force commanders and staffs, as the US does with Strategic Command that maintains the ‘nuclear triad’ (Land, sea, and air based nuclear weapons) and regularly exercises itself in escalation dominance. Such officers build careers in nuclear policy and operations, and will happily debate the importance to NATO of Dual-Capable Aircraft (DCA), or the arguments around declaring ‘no first use’, or ‘sole purpose’. Their experience spreads throughout the front line. In France, too, being a nuclear power with two components (sea- and air-based) is the very core of their sense of military self. On Day 1 of the French equivalent of the Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC) students visit the main nuclear weapons establishment. Until very recently the UK’s HCSC didn’t even mention nukes. Within the UK Defence establishment such nuclear expertise was the preserve of a very small cadre of policy wonks in the MOD.
For a while the consequences could be avoided. As with Space capabilities, close association with the US gave us privileged access and we could play on the cheap. Our CASD is an impressive capability, managed well; one that we can always point to. But, it is also true that we now have several generations of general officers not educated or trained in anything to do with nuclear weapons. These generals could plausibly be in operational command of a Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF: ten north European nations of which the UK is the lead, or ‘Framework’, nation.) deployment, in, for example, Estonia, facing a Russian force that is equipped with nuclear weapons and has an escalation doctrine that assumes their use. Our commanding general is not only not physically equipped any more with a robust NBC capability, but also has not been conceptually equipped to plan and lead against a nuclear armed threat. Without ever explicitly stating it, we have assumed that CASD, and allied equivalents, have taken the nuclear problem off the playing surface. Ukraine reminds us it is still there, but we have not trained ourselves to cope with it.