Britain’s Defense Dilemma

July 1, 1959

Britain is still in the midst of a national debate on its defense posture, which is oriented to a “nuclear new look” policy instituted two years ago. British armed strength is of vast importance to the free world. The debate is pertinent to the military issues confronting our global string of anti-Communist alliances.

Strengths and weaknesses of the “new look” policy have been discussed by growing numbers of British commentators in the past two years. These criticisms generally have fallen under three heads:

First, criticism of the reasons, which led Britain to become a member of the “nuclear club,” and questioning of the military value of the deterrent, which has been developed or is being planned.

Second, criticism of the gaps in Britain’s defense preparedness, which, it is argued, have been opened up by the inability to be a nuclear and a conventional military power at the same time.

Third, criticism of what are argued to be the adverse effects of Britain’s policy on some of her allies and on the general strength of the Western Alliance of which she is a member.

The reasons for and value of Britain’s own deterrent have been stated many times by British Governments. Since the end of World War II various reasons for the consistent view that it is essential for Britain to develop her own nuclear capacity have been advanced. The American Atomic Energy Act — the McMahon Act of 1946 — raised barriers against Britain’s ability to share in American research and development, and therefore her own efforts appeared to be essential. British Governments have on several occasions argued that Britain would be able to influence the decisions on international affairs of both America and Russia only if she possessed nuclear armaments of her own.

Several years ago Sir Winston Churchill claimed that Britain must manufacture her own thermonuclear bomb because, in the event of major war, it was possible that SAC, with enough work of its own to do, would not bomb those Communist targets of immediate importance to Britain; therefore, the latter must be able to do that for herself. And, more recently and more significantly, it has been argued that, as nuclear weapons and delivery systems become more deadly and destructive, there will be an increasing reluctance on the part of American Administrations to use SAC or American missiles for anything but a retaliation against a direct attack on the North American continent. In that case Britain needs her own deterrent to dissuade Russia from supposing that she can threaten Britain and that America will not use all-out war to protect her ally. Two very important articles to that effect appeared in the London Times shortly before last Christmas.

It would be stupid to dismiss these arguments either because they appear to be “prestige” arguments or because they appear to imply a lack of faith in America’s determination to keep her promises. Prestige is something, which affects most national as well as individual decisions. We’ve a long way to go before nations are internationally minded enough not to bother with prestige at all. And the fact is that the more destructive the weapons become, the more reluctance there must be to use them. There is no reflection here on America’s loyalty or the loyalty of any other nation.

On the other hand, there are people in Britain who argue that the reasons given so far for Britain’s determination to become a nuclear power are inadequate to justify her in attempting to provide her own deterrent when, at any rate within the Western Alliance as a whole, SAC has all along been capable of doing that job without any help. This criticism has been made in Parliament and in the press on several occasions in the last two years. In other words, why do the same job twice

The people who make this criticism frequently go on to a further and connected argument. They claim that even if Britain were justified in attempting to build up her own deterrent, nonetheless she isn’t capable, on her own, of doing the job properly.

At the moment Britain’s strategic nuclear power is based on the V-bomber force of Valiants, Vulcans, and Victors, a stockpile of fission weapons which has been growing since World War II, a stock of thermonuclear weapons begun only in the last two years, and propelled standoff bombs now being developed. Public estimates of the contemplated size of the V-bomber force range from 200 to 250 aircraft. They are basically aircraft of the medium type, most nearly comparable to the USAF B-47.

The Government claims that the performance of these aircraft “in speed and altitude, remains unsurpassed by any bomber aircraft in service in any other country,” and there is no serious reason to doubt he accuracy of that statement.

On the other hand, it appears that these aircraft are not dispersed o a worldwide scale as are the aircraft of the Strategic Air Command. And the British Government, unlike its American counterpart, has normally taken the view that there will be reasonable warning of any serious Russian attack. This latter view is taken to imply that Britain’s Bomber Command need not normally be kept at short-term readiness. In fact, it is clear that both greater dispersal and a greater degree of readiness would be expensive. The RAF has undoubtedly been improved in both these respects in recent years; but greater efficiency, some say the necessary efficiency, is constantly hampered by limits on spending.

The critics of all this argue that these aircraft and their bombs do not constitute a genuine deterrent. Britain is a very small island. Ten one-megaton bombs could probably put the whole country out of action. Further, 200 or so bombers — particularly if concentrated at a vulnerable base and thus liable to suffer heavy casualties — are not sufficient, except perhaps in optimum conditions, to deal Russia such a crippling blow as to make an attack on Britain a hopeless gamble in Russian eyes. In such a one-to-one war, it is argued, the disparity in size between the two nations would be so much to Britain’s disadvantage that Russia’s leaders might think the likely damage to their own country acceptable. At that point deterrence ceases to exist. This argument is strengthened by the fact that, certainly at present and in the near future, Britain’s stock of megaton weapons must inevitably be small.

For the missile future Britain is at the moment constructing sites for the American Thor IRBM. But the British Government is developing a British IRBM, Blue Streak, which, if all goes well, should be in operational use in the early 1960s. Blue Streak is to have a range of 2,500 miles. It is claimed to be more reliable and accurate than Thor, and it will be fired from underground. But it is still a liquid-fuel missile, and critics already say that it will be obsolescent or nearly so by the time it is ready for operational use.

The essential validity of all this criticism stems from the fact that, on her own, Britain can only select an occasional item from the weapons of the future and specialize in it. Delivery systems, in particular, are becoming very expensive. Russia and the United States are big enough and wealthy enough to keep several irons in the fire. At the present, for example, America can experiment with several varieties of ICBMs, Polaris, and future supersonic types of manned bombers. Britain cannot afford to do this. She is presently building a nuclear submarine which might well become a Polaris platform. But it is not clear that Britain will be able to afford to have both a land-based missile, Blue Streak, and a sea-based missile, Polaris. And it is still possible that the two may have to be regarded as competitors for limited funds.

The people who make these criticisms are not pacifists, and they are not arguing against nuclear weapons on moral and religious grounds. They wish to see Britain in particular, and NATO as a whole, well defended with all types of weapons. Their points are that there is no need for Britain to be a nuclear power in an alliance already sufficiently strong in this way and that Britain cannot be an effective nuclear military power on her own, anyway, because the cost is beyond her resources. And remember that, apart from the United States, Britain is at present far better able to be a nuclear power than any other nation in the Western Alliance. Therefore, what is true of Britain is even truer of such countries as France, Germany, and Italy. Western Europe as a whole could develop a substantial nuclear capacity of its own in the future, and Britain’s contribution could form the basis for it. But this, which would be genuine interdependence and not simply national policy, looks at the moment to be as far off as the moon.

In addition, it might be noted, there are people in Britain who advocate both the cessation of nuclear tests and the renunciation by Britain of her existing nuclear weapons as an example to the rest of the world. It was people of this persuasion who recently demonstrated against the setting up of the first Thor sites in the county of East Anglia. But these are persons and groups whose influence is not likely to affect either the present Conservative Government or the Labor Opposition, if and when it comes into power.

The second line of criticism against the Government’s defense policy, and the one which has been advanced on several occasions in the London Times, is that the cost involved in providing Britain with her own nuclear armament has made it impossible to provide proper quantities of more conventional weapons at the same time. Behind this criticism lies a now-familiar argument. If nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain have the effect, as all hope, of preventing major war by a nuclear stalemate, then the Communists are likely to try to achieve their purposes (if they use force) in limited wars. If we don’t want to be forced to use nuclear weapons, and if we are not to give way to blackmail, then we must have sufficient weapons of the conventional type to deal with the Communists on fairly equal terms.

This is how the Times put this view recently:

“If it is conceded that the likeliest threat is the tepid war in all its military aspects, followed possibly by limited war, then our defense policy should reflect this by giving priority to this side of our military preparations. Until we get our priorities right, we can hardly expect to get the deterrent right.”

Defense Minister Duncan Sandys has replied that Britain is well enough equipped with conventional forces and weapons. He argues that any limited, conventional war Britain is likely to be involved in on her own in the future will be simply a minor colonial campaign or police matter. That may be true. Though it is worth remembering that, since World War II, “police matters” in the Far East, Africa, and Cyprus have, on occasion, absorbed thousands of soldiers. The immediate risk, however, lies elsewhere — in Germany.

The next few months, and probably years, will see attempts to solve the complicated German problem always with the risk of war in the background. The British Government, like the American Administration, has for some time past argued that any major Russian attack in this area, even if the Russians limit themselves to conventional forces, must be met with nuclear weapons because the NATO countries haven’t enough ground forces to do otherwise. President Eisenhower has recently restated this policy quite clearly, and there is no good reason to suppose that Prime Minister Macmillan does not agree with him.

The British Government (and by no means the British Government alone) has been reasoning in something of a vicious circle in these matters for some years. First, it is said that the democratic nations can’t equal the Russians in manpower and must, therefore, compensate by means of atomic weapons. Then, when there has been an investment in atomic weapons, it is argued that it is too expensive to go on spending as much on conventional weapons as before. In Britain this led, two years ago, to the decision to abolish compulsory military service, with the consequent decrease, among other things, of British ground forces committed to NATO — an unpopular move, but a tempting precedent for other nations to follow.

This is a dangerous position to be in. We must have the whole range of nuclear weapons in NATO, and Russia may compel us to use them by using them herself first. But what is implicit in the Times article quoted above is the belief that the democratic powers should be capable of responding to Communist aggression, at least in the first instance, in conventional terms. This same point of view was put in forcible terms by former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the Saturday Evening Post recently. For Britain this raises the doubt of whether the greater dependence on nuclear weapons and the greatly reduced size of the Army, implicit in Mr. Sandys’ defense policy is, in fact, the correct line for Britain to follow.

Again, as in the first line of criticism already examined, Britain’s problems are common to other NATO powers. If a more balanced over-all weapons system is desirable, can this possibly be achieved by any of the smaller nations in isolation Are they not bound to involve themselves in a far greater degree of interdependence and sharing than at present if reasonably complete defense in all categories is to be achieved

The final criticism of Britain’s defense policy, made more often abroad than at home, is that by making Britain so openly a member of the nuclear club the Government has drawn an unfortunate and harmful distinction between Britain and her allies on the continent of Europe. In Germany, in the spring of 1957, bitter criticisms were made of Britain’s decision to abolish compulsory military service just when Germany was being asked to do the opposite. The French are not willing to see themselves in a position inferior to that of the United Kingdom, and are now making determined efforts to develop their own military nuclear capacity — no doubt repeating, in the process, much work already twice done in the United States and the United Kingdom.

In the spring of 1957 the Assembly of the Western European Union (i.e. the Benelux countries, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, and Italy) received the report of its committee on “The State of European Security.” This became known as the Fens Report. The report commented adversely on what it feared would be an attempt on the part of the United States to make bilateral pacts with European countries for the supply of atomic weapons, thus running the risk of treating its European allies differently.

“We must expect America,” said the report, “to trust all the member states of WEU alike.” It then went on:

“Great Britain is the only European power which is likely to possess megaton bombs (and a V-bomber force capable of delivering them to the target) in the foreseeable future. But this inequality must not be extended to tactical atomic weapons or guided missiles. Between WEU countries no division can be allowed to develop between first-class partners having the modern weapons and second-class partners dependent on the first for them.”

Criticisms of British defense policy underline problems in this area facing the entire free world. The policy, obviously, is not entirely wrong and few of its critics claim so. But, at least in Britain, the debate is well joined and prominent persons have manned the verbal barricades on each side.

Britain is typical of those countries which are still substantial military powers but not in the same class with the two giants, America and Russia. Since Britain is militarily more advanced than any other nation in NATO except America, what is happening to her today may happen to France, Germany, and even Italy in the next few years. Each may face a debate on defense similar to that described here.

The author, Norman Gibbs, is Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University and a Fellow of all Souls College, Oxford. He has contributed two previous articles on British defense matters to Air Force/Space Digest: “Britain’s Defense Budget” in June 1956 and “Britain’s New Defense Policy” in June 1957.