Nuclear deterrence, what is it good for?
16 Oct 2013|

A nuclear-related surface shot is fired at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1956.Prof Paul Dibb’s revisiting of exactly how close we came to nuclear war in 1983 reminded me of my own small role in propelling the world towards nuclear Armageddon at that time.

Armed with the arrogance of youth, in the same year I’d become extremely disillusioned with the calibre of the lecturers in Arts/Law at Sydney University. I had finally been forced to recognise reality: they weren’t going to lift their game. Naturally they protested that things would ‘change for the better’ and that the course really would become ‘interesting’; but the die was cast. I decided to head over to the UK, consoling myself that my time hadn’t been entirely wasted.

After all, if University was a fountain of knowledge I’d often drunk deeply at the well. I’d also obtained a commission in the Army Reserve. Indeed, often the two activities didn’t appear to be mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, I decided the time had come to better myself. Careful perusal of the available photographic evidence (this was in the days before the Internet) confirmed beyond doubt that British Cavalry uniforms were far more fetching than the rather drab Australian variety. So I decided to wangle myself a transfer to the Westminster Dragoons.

I hadn’t realised how socially exclusive this particular regiment would happen to be; otherwise I should never have dared apply for an attachment. Fortunately, however, the Colonel (a direct descendant of Captain Bligh) was tolerant. Presumably because I didn’t commit the fatal faux pas of placing my knife in my mouth as we lunched together, I was allowed to join the mess. I quickly realised this seemed to be the main purpose of joining the Territorial Army.

Nevertheless we took our responsibilities seriously. At least I appeared to, because whenever it was necessary to send a team to compete in any of the various tactical, physical or other competitions that London District seemed to enjoy so much, I always found myself volunteered as the officer representative. The others always seemed to find this very funny; in fact, the only thing they found more amusing was my insistence that one day we’d actually beat the SAS team.

Finally, and improbably, my moment came. I recognised the wheeled silhouette of a BTR; our rivals thought it was a tracked BMP. Or perhaps they were just confused by the initials; infantry are like that. For whatever reason, and by a single point, we had triumphed! I felt as if I’d won the Cold War single-handed.

That was 1983 as experienced by a young officer. Young, naive, and completely oblivious to how close the world had come to destruction. Perhaps surprisingly, 1984 wasn’t much better.

Learning nothing from the near catastrophe of the previous year, Britain decided to hold Exercise Lionheart—the largest deployment of forces to the continent since World War II. Perhaps we assumed the Soviets would understand that because we were holding dining-in-nights that we weren’t going to invade (naturally enough, we took Mess Dress into the field with us).

As it happened there was another war scare again that year, because the Soviets suspected that the exercise was simply a cover, allowing NATO to bolster its forces before charging across the inner-German border. Fortunately the balance of terror remained in place, but it’s important to remember just how close things came to miscalculation.

I had no doubt about our capacity to fight. We would have tried, of course, but I suspected—knew—that the vehicle recognition I’d mastered would only provide me with the satisfaction of knowing whether I’d been overrun by an Airborne division or a Motor Rifle one. Fortunately, for whatever reason, nobody made a miscalculation.

Now the point of this long exegesis isn’t to say how marvellous things were. Rather the reverse.

Lawrence Freedman had just taken over as the Professor of War Studies at King’s College London when I began studying there. I remember the emphasis he placed on achieving a stable balance and using this to prevent the outbreak of war. Everything I learnt academically was about minimising risk, and yet (quite understandably) the military was all about preparing for war.

It seems incredible that even in a situation where there were only two rivals, where ideology played a minimal role, and where it appeared inevitable that complete and utter destruction would follow, we nonetheless came so close to catastrophe. Attempts to stop nuclear weapons’ proliferation are worthwhile, yet they’ve been fruitless. Multi-polarity is already upon us.

It still makes sense for Australia to shelter under America’s nuclear umbrella, but the important thing is to minimise the risk of other nuclear conflicts. Except by encouraging disarmament, there seems to be very little that we can achieve by contributing to this particular debate. What we can identify, however, is potential flashpoints. If we can isolate the likely causes of future conflicts, we can begin to resolve them before they escalate. And this is an ideal task for the new government’s Defence White Paper.

Kevin Rudd originally intended that his Paper would be supported by a number of other documents. These were going to explore the wider dimensions of conflict. Unfortunately, they never made it past the draft stage. It would be great if the new government engaged in a similar exploration. It’s too silly to go on relying on deterrence to stop wars.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. Image courtesy of US Government.