What’s in a Name? Quite a lot, actually

Tactical nuclear weapon, battlefield nuclear weapon, small-yield nuclear weapon, theatre nuclear weapon, and sub-strategic nuclear weapon, are just a few examples of the seemingly endless number of names that have been used to describe nuclear weapons that have been designed to be employed against tactical targets in a theatre of operations. Since the development of tactical nuclear weapons (my own preferred form of reference) in the early 1950s, scholars and practitioners alike have struggled to reach a consensus not only on naming conventions but, more importantly, on what distinguishes a ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon from its more powerful older brother, the ‘strategic’ nuclear weapon. The crux of the problem was, and still remains, the ambiguity of the term ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon. Most modern militaries prefer to distinguish tactical from strategic nuclear weapons by their intended use or mission – a logical position, and one that has acquired a certain degree of validity within the academic community. However, some commentators prefer to define nuclear weapons by their observable capabilities; mainly their means of delivery vehicle or yield of warhead.

But why on earth is any of this important? At first glance, the desire to draw distinctions between nuclear weapons appears pedantic at best, and utterly ludicrous at worst – after all, any nuclear weapon, regardless of its classification, is more than capable of turning its target into a radioactive slag-heap. Yet, issues surrounding the categorisation of nuclear weapons played a significant role in the evolution of British nuclear strategy, not least because of the polarising effect it had on some sections within the British defence community during the 1950s. This was most pronounced during the great debates on whether ‘massive retaliation’ – a strategic concept that emphasised the threat of massive nuclear retaliation against even the most minor acts of aggression – was a credible nuclear strategy for the United Kingdom.

The most vocal critic of ‘massive retaliation’ in Britain was the Naval officer Anthony Buzzard who became convinced in the middle 1950s that such a strategy was utterly incapable of combating the different types of threats facing the Western nations in the nuclear era. For Buzzard, a major war would not be caused by ‘premeditated aggression on a world wide, or even a continental, scale’ but from crises associated with Communist subversion. It was local acts of aggression that Buzzard believed to be the greatest menace to world peace; as such events could rapidly escalate out of control and in to global war. Consequently, Buzzard claimed that the policy of ‘massive retaliation’ was too drastic and inflexible to deal with local acts of aggression short of all-out nuclear war since ‘we are getting into a position where, in effect, we shall be forced to threaten, and if necessary initiate, the destruction of civilisation in the event of any measure of aggression too powerful for our small conventional forces to combat’. For Buzzard, ‘massive retaliation’ lacked credibility as it forced NATO into a difficult position – accept a fait accompli or trigger thermonuclear war.

Because of the perceived weaknesses of ‘massive retaliation’, Buzzard suggested that distinctions should be made in peacetime between the strategic and tactical application of nuclear weapons in the hope that this would provide the West with a means to respond to limited acts of aggression without resorting to the immediate use of strategic nuclear weapons. Buzzard believed that in the event of a threat of aggression, which was too strong for conventional forces to deal with but not warranting the use of thermonuclear weapons, ‘graduated deterrence’ – as his theory came to be known – would allow the West to say to a potential aggressor:

‘If you use aggression, we will, if necessary, use atomic and chemical weapons against your armed forces. But we will not, on this particular issue, use hydrogen or bacteriological weapons at all, unless you do, and we will not use mass destruction weapons against centres of population – regardless of the targets they contain – unless you do so deliberately’.

The essence of ‘graduated deterrence’ was that a potential adversary would be faced with a credible deterrent to aggression. Tactical nuclear weapons could be used in an ‘escalatory’ role to indicate to a potential aggressor that the West was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend its territory without resorting to the immediate use of strategic nuclear weapons which, in the thermonuclear age, was tantamount to national suicide. Besides the moral and ethical advantages to such a policy, Buzzard believed that such limitations in war would serve to benefit the West in both absolute terms, and relative to the Soviet Union. While both sides would gain enormously from a policy which prevented the atomic bombing of cities and communication centres, the Russian’s would be unable to target the many ports on which the development and supply of so much of the Allied war potential depended.

Yet, the official assessment of ‘graduated deterrence’, which was submitted for study to the Joint Planning Staff in 1955, was that in preparing to limit nuclear war, in the belief that this would make the deterrent more credible, it would have the opposite effect of eroding the deterrent to war itself. Buzzard’s thesis, they said, was ‘born of some confusion of thought’. In a similar vein, the then Chief of the Air Staff, and architect of ‘massive retaliation’ in Britain, Sir John Slessor, stated that the formal renunciations of any particular weapon system are not ‘worth the paper they are written on’ since such a policy would make war more likely. Furthermore, Slessor held the view that even if such distinctions could be made in peacetime, during times of war, when the very existence of nations are at stake, any attempts to limit the use of force by either side would surely fail.

Ultimately, ‘graduated deterrence’ was never accepted in Britain as a strategic concept that would supplant ‘massive retaliation’. The sticking point, it seems, was concerned with the feasibility of drawing distinctions between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Quite simply, nobody knew what type of war would result from the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The only certainty was that the use of any nuclear weapon in a major war between East and West would escalate out of control and into thermonuclear war, a prospect too frightening to contemplate for those decision-makers responsible for pushing the proverbial red button.

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5 Comments on “What’s in a Name? Quite a lot, actually”

  1. Richard says:

    As a non- academic I have always struggled myself with ‘drawing distinctions between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons’ Thanks for making that clearer. Although Buzzard talks about a graduated response I can see why others found it difficult to understand what this would look like in a practical sense.

    In terms of ‘What’s in a name?’ you posed an interesting question. If you can help me with defining other words related to size, capacity and capability I’d be interested.
    eg How large does a boat have to be to become a ship? and when does a stream ecome a river? Just a thought!

    • Simon says:

      Thank you, I’m glad it helped.

      I can answer one of your questions. In the military sense all surface vessels are called ‘ships’ except for submarines, which are called ‘boats’. Regards to streams and rivers – I have no idea, sorry.

  2. Robert says:

    Nice article. Question, what role did U.S. policy play in Britain’s nuclear strategy?

    • Simon says:

      Thank you, Robert. U.S. nuclear policy had a significant influence on British strategy. Indeed, the question of drawing distinctions between nuclear weapons was first raised in the context of Eisenhower’s New Look of the early 1950s. During this period, many U.S. policy-makers wanted tactical nuclear weapons to be viewed as more powerful forms of conventional weapons in the hope that this would provide greater flexibility in dealing with the full spectrum of possible military threats. However, the British were not as enthusiastic as their American counterparts, as this article suggests.

      • Robert says:

        That makes a lot of sense and your article definitely helps explain the British stance on tactical nuclear weapons. Thanks, Simon.


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