The Nuclear Deterrent

"We have what we have and what we are because it has been fought for and because it is guarded". Seventy years after VJ Day. some thoughts on the nuclear deterrent.

by Gramus


In August 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first A bomb. The nuclear monopoly, which the Americans thought they would have for 20 years, was gone. Some time after the explosion, an American reconnaissance plane over the North Pole detected radiation levels that made it clear what had happened. The White House had to react. 

The physicist Edward Teller had for some time been urging the building of a ‘super’ bomb - a hydrogen bomb - beside which ordinary A bombs would be tiny. The idea had been meeting considerable opposition on the grounds that it was not needed.

Testing an atomic bomb, 1954. Image from US Department of EnergyPresident Truman took a walk in the White House gardens with Omar Bradley, Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to mull over what he should do. Bradley told him that he could think of no conceivable military use for the H bomb because it obtained no legitimate objectives, but only created utter desolation, death and ruin. ‘They are not weapons’, he said. ‘They are instruments of genocide…’. 

We will come back to that.

America built the H bomb.

The first, called Mike, was the size of a bungalow, and stood on a 150 foot tower on a small round island a mile across called Eleuglab, in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. It’s not there any more; in 1952 they tested Mike, and Eleuglab disappeared, leaving a hole 160 feet deep in the ocean floor. Today’s H Bombs are far more powerful. Just three of them would yield enough blast and radiation to kill 80% of the population of the UK. By 1960 there were enough of them to wipe out the population of the world six times over. It was called ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’.

There were far too many bombs, and they were very expensive – quite apart from being dangerous. Because of the expense, the US scaled back their conventional forces and relied on the H Bomb to deter opponents from attacking them – making their use far more likely.  Realisation of this led to a scaling back of nuclear in the 1960s and an expansion of conventional forces in a Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). It also allowed for some disarmament for both sides - because both wished to save money.

The UK and France both have H bombs; Britain alone could destroy ten Russian cities, and intends to maintain her capability with Trident.  Trident is based in the Clyde because it is the best deep water harbour in the UK which faces the Atlantic. Strategically, it is the best possible place for the submarines to slip out into the Atlantic where they are harder to spot. True, it is only thirty miles from Glasgow, and a nuclear strike would kill everyone there if it happened. But if it did happen, most of the UK would be dead anyway - and those who survived would die horribly from radiation eight days later. It doesn’t really matter where in the UK they are, because the result would be the same wherever they were put.

The thing with a nuclear war is to ensure that it never happens. Trident’s replacement is to cost £100bn over the next 30 years - mostly in maintenance and pay at the Faslane base. That’s an injection into the Scottish economy over and above the Scottish budget. The original Trident missiles cost £16bn- most of the money goes into the local economy. When Nicola Sturgeon objects to spending £100bn over 30 years on Trident, she is objecting to £100bn being put into Scotland’s economy; that would pay Scottish mortgages, put food on Scottish tables and put clothes on Scottish backs.

The UK runs its defence budget in an attempt to find balance between nuclear and conventional weapons and, despite its size, maintains one of the largest and strongest economies and fighting forces in the world. It does it fairly economically, too. In terms of global firepower, according to the CIA the UK ranks number 5 with only the US, Russia, China and India above it. The UK has a manpower of 29,164,233 of whom 24,035,131 are fit for service. We are not used to seeing things in quite these terms nowadays, but nonetheless it is so. 749,480 reach military age annually, whilst available frontline personnel amount to 146,950 and an active reserve of 182,000.

The UK has tank capability amounting to 407; armoured fighting vehicles – 5948; self propelled guns – 89; towed artillery – 138; and multi-rocket systems - 42. Its airpower totals 936 aircraft and total naval strength is 66 vessels. It has oil production and reserves. The UK’s labour force is 30,150,000, and it has 504 merchant ships.

Its defence budget is $51,500,000,000. The United Kingdom is thus a formidable thing on the world stage. Weaken it, remove it, then you tinker with the balance of power across the globe, and with what consequences, no-one can guess. You tinker with the peace we have.

We take it for granted that there will be peace. That our democratic way of life will continue. That prosperity is assured and if we do not bother anyone, then they will not bother us. Yet every day in the world people die, not for what they have done, but for what they are. Thus Copts are massacred in the Middle East - for their religion. Tutsis get massacred for their race. Jews are killed or attacked for their religion and race.

We have what we have and what we are because it has been fought for and because it is guarded, because there are people out there who have different views of the world and do not see it as you do. People who view your liberties as perversions, affronts to God - and who despise your way of life. The Romans said that he who wishes for peace must prepare for war. Thomas Jefferson said that the tree of liberty must constantly be replenished by the blood of patriots. It is laudable to wish for peace - but the only year in which there has been no international conflict in the last century was 1955 and the world bristles with arms.

‘Peace is our profession’ is the motto of Strategic Air Command because they embodied the credible deterrent to any aggressor to the way of life we take for granted. They kept the peace through fear of massive retaliation. Peace is not created by discussions over cups of tea. That comes later.

Back to Omar Bradley- the General who told Congress that he would be doing his nation a disservice if he advised them to expand their conventional forces. The man who told Truman that nuclear bombs were not weapons; yet the President took his advice and built the H Bomb. Let’s finish what he said:

‘We must build it, because for the other side to have it, and for us not to have it, would be intolerable’.

He was right. Not because he could see a use for the H Bomb, but because it existed; and because it existed we had to have it. In the country of the blind, where the one eyed man is king, they must surely know that in a world where some nations have an H bomb and others do not, then it is the ones who do not who end up being told what to do. Any sane person would wish that the H Bomb did not exist. But it does. So we must have it.


The United Kingdom is a power; respected, listened to – and yes – even feared. Destroy the union, weaken the Union…and end up as a satellite. A client state depending on others for her protection.

What impotence.

What ambition!



Gramus is the nom de plume of a Scot living in the north of England who is an historian.


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