Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor Michael MccGwire


  Grouping nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC), weapons under the heading of "Weapons of Mass Destruction" obscures the crucial difference between the nature and scale of the danger presented by these very different systems.

  2.  There were good reasons in the 1950s for grouping these weapons under the category of "NBC", because the focus was on the operating environment in the event of global war. Whether it involved biological and chemical agents or radioactive fall-out, the requirement was the same, on land or sea. Personnel had to be protected from airborne particles and be able to cleanse weapons and fixed installations that had been exposed to such contamination.

  3.  The term "Weapons of Mass Destruction" became common currency in the 1990s. There was no longer any danger of war with the Soviet Union and the only real threat to the US projection of conventional force in distant parts of the globe were chemical and biological weapons in the hands of the target state. Both were relatively inexpensive and easy to produce, and both could be seen as the poor man's deterrent. By classifying these weapons as WMD, we paved the way for legitimising nuclear strikes against states that used chemical or biological weapons to resist Western military intervention.

  4.  In the main, these legal semantics do no great harm, since it is well understood by relevant officials and interested members of the public that nuclear systems belong to a qualitatively different category to biological and chemical weapons—be it the ease of manufacture, the difficulty of efficient delivery, the possibility of counter-measures, or the availability of remedies for the after effects—while nuclear weapons have a unique capacity for enduring death and destruction.[19]

  5.  What is less generally admitted is that the particular nature of nuclear-missile weapons, which combine overwhelming devastation with minimum warning time and necessitate complex and tightly coupled command and control structures, introduces the very real danger of an accidental nuclear exchange through malfunction and/or misunderstanding. Detailed studies published in 1989-93, based on well-informed empirical analysis of US experience during the cold war, concluded that the risk of accidental nuclear war had been even higher than contemporary critics had claimed.[20] This particular danger just does not apply to chemical and biological weapons.

  6.  Not only is this enduring danger insufficiently acknowledged, but the Cold War mantra that "nuclear deterrence kept the peace" obscured the quite separate danger during that period of inadvertent nuclear war, resulting from a combination of background circumstances, mutual misunderstanding, and an unforseen chain of events. By definition, such a war can not be deterred. Drawing on authoritative analyses, Robert McNamara (then US Secretary of Defence), has described how close they came to inadvertent war at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.[21]

  7.  Because it engendered a false sense of confidence and favoured large and varied weapons inventories, deterrence doctrine became (in the words of Air Force General Lee Butler, former commander of US strategic forces),[22] a "formula for unmitigated catastrophe." The nuclear arms race had a dynamic of its own, combining the crude logic of conventional advantage with the sophistries of deterrence theory. For example, the requirement for an assured second strike, added to traditional targeting criteria, justified an ever-increasing number of warheads and diversity of delivery systems.[23]

  8.  Retrospective analysis shows that we were very lucky to avoid inadvertent or accidental war during the East-West confrontation. Given the size of the respective arsenals and the necessary automaticity in command and control procedures, such a war would have destroyed civilisation as we know it and perhaps the human race.


  9.  The fact we managed to avoid such a catastrophe in the past is no reason for assuming we will do so in the future. Besides the laws of probability, the circumstances of the last fifty years were relatively benign in the sense that the Cold War was bipolar and the opposing sides had common historical and cultural roots and were used to dealing with each other. Today's low-salience nuclear (LSN) world is a transient phenomenon, a consequence of the Soviet Union's disintegration. When new centres of countervailing power emerge in the next 10 to 20 years, the logic of nuclear deterrence ensures that we will revert to the high-salience nuclear (HSN) world we knew in the past. But it will be a multi-cultural and multi-polar nuclear world. The likelihood of misunderstanding will be significantly greater and experience of essential command and control mechanisms and procedures will be very uneven. The danger of inadvertent and/or accidental nuclear war will increase exponentially.

  10.  The terms of reference of the Foreign Affairs Committee's inquiry on Weapons of Mass Destruction focuses on the proliferation of nuclear weapons and does not refer to the danger described above. However, the source of that danger—the arsenals of the five "designated" nuclear weapons states (NWS)—are directly relevant to three of the five agenda items and indirectly relevant to the other two.

  11.  There are several ways in which the existence of the NWS' arsenals works against the continuing effectiveness of the nuclear non-proliferation regimes and ancillary agreements. As concrete evidence of the NWS' continuing unwillingness to meet their 1970 treaty obligations to "pursue negotiations . . . on effective means relating to . . . nuclear disarmament", these arsenals strengthen the claim by sceptics in the non-aligned movement (India in particular) that the NPT was designed to perpetuate the NWS' nuclear monopoly. At the same time, the arsenals serve to advertise the perceived advantages that derive from the possession of nuclear weapons, be it military security, political autonomy, or enhanced status.[24]


  12.  There is a strong argument that, failing some major initiative, the difficulty of preventing nuclear proliferation will steadily increase over the next 10 to 20 years. There are now seven declared nuclear states (plus Israel) and, while the treaty was unexectedly successful in the past, its two-tier structure and the selective approach by the five "nuclear weapon states" to the spirit and the letter of the original treaty and to its extension in 1995 is the cause of growing dissatisfaction. On the physical front, the technological and material barriers to entry have been steadily coming down. On the political front it seems likely we are entering a new phase.

  13.  An effective non-proliferation treaty requires that virtually all non-nuclear states believe that the regime serves their long term interests and that a large majority see the terms of the treaty as fair. For the time being, these requirements would seem to be met in the western and southern hemispheres (excluding Indonesia), in Europe and the constituent states of the former Soviet Union, and most of Africa. The situation in the rest of Asia, the Middle East, and the northern tier of Africa is more problematic.

  14.  There is no need to rehearse the problems associated with Iran, Iraq and North Korea, except to note that the difficulties stemming from Israel's nuclear capability will not go away; that China is said to have provided some assistance to Pakistan's weapons programme and to have helped with Iran's civilian reactor; and that the reunification of Korea remains a possibility. More generally, China has indicated that it intends to challenge what it sees as America's hegemonic tendencies, and the consequential military build up will have implications for other states throughout East and South-east Asia. Can Taiwan and Japan continue to rely on US extended deterrence,[25] or will they decide to develope their own capability? Will others (such as Indonesia) follow suit, if only to preserve their relative status? If the sense of Muslim identity develops a stronger political vector, might Pakistan choose to share its know-how with other Islamic states? What of Vietnam? And so on . . .

  15.  As non-signatories of the NPT, India and Pakistan were fully entitled to develop nuclear weapons and are still not bound by its terms. Signatories of the treaty have the right to withdraw, and while bribes may have a role, we can not expect to prevent proliferation by threat of sanctions, let alone military force. Failing some major new initiative, we face the prospect of recurrent crises and the steady spread of nuclear weapons.[26]


  16.  This deteriorating situation would be fundamentally transformed if the NWS were to adopt the "firm and serious" policy-goal of a nuclear-weapons-free (NWF) world.27 [27] Dissatisfaction over the imbalance between the respective obligations and responsibilities of nuclear and non-nuclear states would be assuaged. And because halting proliferation would be essential to the lengthy process of achieving an NWF world, enforcing the NPT would become a matter of universal concern, rather than being seen by many non-nuclear states as a dispute between the haves and the have-nots.

  17.  Why should the NWS choose to adopt such a goal? The answer lies in a sort of syllogism coined by Robert McNamara in the early 1990s:

    —  Nuclear weapons make nuclear war possible;

    —  Of mankind's many enterprises, a major nuclear war has the unique capacity to jeopardise the survival of the human race and to destroy civilisation as we know it;

    —  Human fallibility means that a major nuclear exchange is at the very least highly probable and, for all practical purposes, ultimately inevitable.

  18.  These facts argue that governments should take early action to initiate the elimination of nuclear weapons, a process that could take 20-30 years to complete. The aims of such a policy would be:

    —  to reduce the probabilty of a major nuclear exchange to zero;

    —  to reduce the probability that nuclear weapons will be used by anyone in any way to as low a level as possible.

  19.  The elimination of nuclear weapons is a "good" in its own right. However, if the goal were adopted, significant benefits would accrue to the international system. For example:

    —  The number and variety of cooperative policy measures that would be involved in moving towards the goal of an NWF world would necessarily have a significant impact on national leaders and their electorates, and on the structure of the evolving international system;

    —  The treaty-making process would help bridge the gap with the non-aligned nations and be a force for compromise and cooperation within the international community. By renouncing their nuclear capability, the most powerful nations would commit themselves to the greatest concessions;

    —  The transparency required to ensure control and verification of the NWF regime would apply to all and the universal goal of obviating a global catastrophe would generate a quite unusual coincidence of interests among participants. This would be of particular importance in respect to policing nuclear materials and preventing their coming into the hands of terrorists and other non-state actors;

    —  The policy goal would make it easier to monitor the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to police the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions.

  20.  These benefits flow from the goal of an NWF world and begin to take effect from the moment of its adoption. The logic is that of the "functionalist" approach to conflict prevention and international security, demonstrated so powerfully in the genesis of the European Union.[28]

  21.  This is not the place to review the debate on this subject and attention is directed to the substantial body of literature discussing the question of whether an NWF world is (1) desirable and (2) feasible.[29] It is noteworthy that since 1991, the balance of this debate has been progressively changing, with a steadily growing number of senior military and defence officials and of governments allied with the United States openly advocating the elimination of nuclear weapons.[30] Meanwhile, the possibility of nuclear "breakout" from an NWF world must be addressed.


  22.  It is often argued that an NWF world would create the new danger of "nuclear breakout", which would allow one state to hold the rest to ransom. That objection is best answered by a comparative assessment of risk.

  23.  Risk is the product of the consequences of a calamity and the likelihood of its occurrence. In a nuclear world (of the kind we have known the last half century), the worst case is a full-scale nuclear exchange, which would destroy civilisation as we know it. In an NWF world, the risk involves nuclear breakout, leading in the very worst case to the limited use of nuclear weapons.

  24.  Opinions will differ on how the likelihood of breakout from an NWF world compares with the likelihood of accidental or inadvertent war in ahigh-, or even a low-salience nuclear world. But in terms of risk, we can be certain that if there were to be a significant difference between the probabilities, the disparity would not be large enough to balance the imcomparable calamity of a nuclear exchange.

  25.  In practical terms, how likely is breakout from a properly verified NWF world? Postulated treaty evaders fall into three categories: two of them (the rogue and the high-tech state) secretly develop new nuclear devices; the third category secretly holds back a significant arsenal from the weapons dismantling process. Given sufficient ingenuity and resources, evasion is at least theoretically possible—but to what purpose?

  26.  A comparison of costs and benefits argues that there would be little political-military incentive to break out from an NWF world. This is partly because it has yet to be discovered how to translate the notional power of a nuclear monopoly into practical gains, but also because the certain costs are so high.[31] The possible exception is the irrational rogue state, but while the probability may be somewhat higher, the calamity factor of such a breakout is by far the smallest and comparable to a natural disaster.


  27.  Breakout from an NWF world is just a special category of the more general problem of preventing the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons, reminding us that the comparative assessment of risk has two parts. One compares the end points—an NWF world vs an HSN world. The other compares exposure to risk in the intervening period. Both parts must be entered in the account.

  28.  In other words, the proper comparison of risk is not between two situations (the current post-cold-war hiatus and some hypothetical NWF world), but between two unfolding processes. The question at issue is which course of action is protentially the least dangerous and most likely to bring the greatest benefits in the foreseeable future: continue with our existing policy? or adopt the goals of an NWF world?

  29.  Earlier in this paper (paragraphs 12-15) it was argued that if we persist with the present policies, the difficulty of preventing nuclear proliferation can only increase, and beyond the probability of individual breakout from the NPT lies the possibility of treaty erosion or even breakdown. As soon as we adopt the goal of an NWF world, that danger will level out and then steadily diminish over time, both for political reasons and as the heavy investment in verification bears fruit.

  30.  When comparing the risks associated with the alternative courses of action, to the gross disparity of risk once the NWF threshold has been crossed must be added the steadily growing disparity in the intervening period. Current policies fare badly in both parts of the account and the policy goal of an NWF world is clearly preferable.[32]


  31.  Continuation of past policies will inevitably increase the possibility of accidental or inadvertent war in the foreseeable future, leading ultimately to a major nuclear exchange. Adopting the goal of an NWF world would progressively reduce and finally eliminate that danger, achieving the first of our two aims. There would remain the possibility of nuclear breakout. This would diminish over time, achieving our second aim.

  32.  There would also be ancillary benefits (paras 16, 19) including a quite unusual coincidence of interests among all parties, which would favour universal compliance with the various conventions and encourage effective counter-terrorist measures. It would be a brave man who claimed that present Western policies are likely to yield comparable benefits, given the NATO split over bombing Iraq, the Security Council split over bombing Belgrade, and the US intention to deploy anti-missile defences.

  33.  By the same token, it would take a rare optimist to expect the US to adopt such a goal in the near future and, obviously, America is the lynch-pin of the process. But we should not forget that it was in Washington that a serious debate emerged in the wake of the Gulf War on whether nuclear weapons continued to serve US interests. Although the "traditionalists" prevailed in that particular argument, in part due to vested interests and the inertia of existing policies, the question of eliminating nuclear weapons entered the mainstream of political agenda. Although now less prominent, the question has remained there ever since, attracting significant support from well-respected members of the US national security community, including very senior former military commanders.[33]

  34.  In theory, the present government espouses the goal of an NWF world, as did its predecessor. Lip service is paid to the commitment, but there is no evidence that the concept is taken seriously in practice and it gathers dust in the bottom drawer, along with the commitment to general and complete disarmament. But that is another category error—in terms of feasibility and of the ultimate consequences of failing to address this question.

  35.  Britain treats the goal of an NWF world as pie-in-the-sky which is the same, in effect, as answering NO to the question "is an NWF world desirable?" But there is now another (and growing) body of well-argued and well-informed international opinion which, while supportive in general, disagrees with Washington on this issue. It is well past time for Britain to address this question head on and to analyse thoroughly whether or not an NWF world is desirable. And if the answer were yes, we would be in a position to join with other countries and interested bodies to address the question of feasibility—ie how that goal could be achieved.

  36.  Failing some such initiative, Britain's approach to the question of nuclear weapons will continue to reflect the inertia of policies shaped in the cold war, bolstered by a concern to distance the present government from Labour's unilateralist past. In an area where so much is at stake, that would seem to be an unacceptable basis for policy-making.

19   However, the potential of biological weapons to kill unprotected civilians in densly populated areas by the million justifies the "mass destruction" label. Back

20   See MccGwire, "The Elimination of Nuclear Weapons" in John Baylis and Robert O'Neill eds Alternative Nuclear Futures: the role of nuclear weapons in the post-cold war world (Oxford University Press, 1999), p 146, note 6. Back

21   This was the conclusion of a series of research conferences which brought together former officials who had personally participated in the decision-making processes of the three countries directly involved in the Cuban missile crisis and had the benefit of archival research. See McNamara, "Reflecting on War in the Twenty-first Century: The Context for Nuclear Abolition", in Alternative Nuclear Futures, pp 175-78. Back

22   Lee Butler, "At the end of a journey: The risks of cold-war thinking in a new era," Alternative Nuclear Futures, pp 187-88. Butler was CinC Strategic Air Command (1991-92) and CinC Strategic Command [both navy and air] (1992-94), and was closely involved in the development of US nuclear doctrine. The chapter cited comprises the bulk of General Butler's remarks at the National Press Club, Washington, DC, 2 February 1998. Back

23   MccGwire, "Elimination of Nuclear Weapons", p 149. Note 24 itemises the buildup of nuclear arsenals after 1970, which was driven by US diversification. Back

24   Robert O'Neill stresses the importance of status, arguing that "there can be no denying that nuclear-weapon states have more clout in the international system just because they have nuclear weapons". See "Weapons of the Underdog" in Alternative Nuclear Futures, p 204. Back

25   Between 1979 and 1985, Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntingdon, and Robert McNamara all went on record to the effect that the USA would not have initiated the use of nuclear weapons in defence of NATO if such action had threatened nuclear strikes on the USA. Back

26   Robert O'Neill postulates a situation where cost considerations persuade the lesser NWS to reduce the size of their arsenals, lowering the barrier to entry to the club. This could tempt other middle powers to "go nuclear" on the grounds that "without nuclear weapons they just do not rate in the international scale." "Weapons of the Underdog", p 206. Back

27   The qualifiers "firm and serious" are needed to distinguish this course of action from Western pronouncements during the last 30 years. Back

28   The transformative effect of adopting a "firm and serious policy goal" was demonstrated by Mikhail Gorbachev's "new political thinking about international relations", which he publicised with increasing vigour throughout 1985. Within two years, the adoption by a super power of that clearly articulated policy, reflecting as it did the principles underlying the UN Charter and the conclusions of the Palme Commission Report, had been largely instrumental in bringing about a relaxation of international tension from the heights it reached in the first half of the 1980s. This relaxation was achieved without noticeably softening Soviet policy towards America (that shift took place in Spring 1987); before the first concrete evidence of the change in Soviet military doctrine (the asymmetrical INF treaty signed in December 1987); and despite Gorbachev's "new political thinking" being dismissed in Washington and London as utopian propaganda. Back

29   For a select bibliography of recent sources, see Alternative Nuclear Futures, pp 255-56, to which should be added: Joseph Rotblat ed Nuclear Weapons: the road to zero, (Westview Press, 1998); and Frank Blackaby, Tom Milne eds A Nuclear-Free-World; steps along the way (Macmillan, forthcoming). See also the biannual INESAP Information Bulletin (International Network of Engineers and Scientists against Proliferation), Darmstadt, Germany; the 24 Background Papers for the Canberra Commission; and the series of Reports published by the Henry L Stimson Centre, Washington DC (note 314-38). Back

30   John Baylis and Robert O'Neill, "Introduction", Alternative Nuclear Futures, p 2. Back

31   For a discussion, see: Andrew Mack, "Nuclear Breakout: Risks and Possible Responses" in Background Papers for the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (Australian Government, August 1996): Tom Milne and Joseph Rotblat "Breakout from a Nuclear Weapons Convention" in J Rotblat ed Nuclear Weapons: the Road to Zero (Boulder, CO; Westview Press, 1998). Back

32   In evaluating alternative nuclear futures, the Mountbatten Centre at Southampton University concludes that an HSN world would present the most serious threat to international and UK security, and that the arguments favouring an NWF world over an LSN world are convincing. There remains the problem of how to achieve an NWF world. These are among the findings of the report (October 1999) on the Centre's four-year "Nuclear Weapon's Project", to be published by Chatham House (RIIA) London. Back

33   The Henry L. Stimsons Center's "Project on Eliminating Nuclear Weapons" is a good example. See the Second Report of the Steering Committee (Chair General A. J. Goodpaster), Report No 19, December 1995, and subsequent reports on specific issues. Back

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