Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy, 1945-1964

Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy, 1945-1964

Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy, 1945-1964

Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy, 1945-1964

Synopsis

Ambiguity and Deterrence focuses on the role of competing strategic beliefs in the formulation of British nuclear strategy between 1945 and 1964. Based on recently released documents, it is argued that the British approach to nuclear weapons during this formative period was characterized by paradox and ambiguity. The paradox was that while there was a widespread consensus in political and military circles in favour of nuclear deterrence, there were constant disagreements over the requirements of an effective deterrent policy. These disagreements centred on six main questions: whether deterrence was best achieved through "punishment" or "denial"; whether detterence necessitated nuclear superiority; whether preparations had to be made for a long war or a short war; what strategic implications followed from nuclear stalemate; whether limited nuclear wars could be fought without escalation to all-out nuclear war; and whether pre-emption was politically acceptable and militarily necessary. It is argued that the failure of successive governments to provide clear political direction on these issues meant that British nuclear strategy was more ambiguous and much less coherent than is usually supposed.

Excerpt

We are quite unable to agree on basic fundamental issues; every recommendation we make is a compromise on essentials. As Chiefs of Staff we have failed to produce a balanced national defence force. We have shelved the fundamental questions of the roles of the three services, of their inter-relationship, and finally of their size so as to produce a balanced Defence Organisation: because no service will give way and we have no one to give a final decision. A continuation of this casual treatment of the Defence question is utterly amateur; it is in fact a complete 'nonsense'. If we continue in this way we shall end in disaster.

(Field Marshal Montgomery)

AFTER the uncertainty of the immediate post-war period attempts were made in the late 1940s to integrate nuclear weapons more effectively into defence planning. More thought was given to the requirements of a deterrent posture and greater attention was given to coordinating the production of fissile material with the numbers of nuclear weapons being planned for. After the fluid nature of British foreign policy during the past two years the Soviet Union was finally identified by the government as the primary threat to British interests in 1948 and a concerted attempt was made to establish a close military alliance with the United States. Despite these successes, however, at the time the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon ahead of Britain in September 1949, serious problems still remained in the field of nuclear planning. Continuing difficulties in relations with the United States, inter-service rivalries, and fundamental disagreements over the priority to be given to nuclear weapons meant that attempts to develop a coherent nuclear strategy continued to be frustrated.

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