Do We Need Nuclear Weapons As A Deterrent?

Nuclear Weapons As A Deterrent

There are only about 8 countries in the world with nuclear weapons. Of these, some claim they need the weapons to deter other countries from attacking them. But is this a good enough reason to develop missiles with the capacity to kill millions of civilians?

Nuclear Weapons As A Deterrent

Arms race

Not according to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which points out that the better the ‘shield’ a country has, the more powerful the ‘swords’ of other countries will become. In other words, if a country has nuclear weapons as a ‘deterrent’, any enemies they have will likely develop more powerful weapons to retain their position of power. That leads to the first country having to strengthen their ‘shield’ again, and so on. This is an arms race with potentially devastating consequences.

The CND is also concerned that if powerful countries claim to need nuclear weapons as a deterrent, other countries may decide they need them too. The more nuclear weapons there are in the world, the greater the likelihood that an accident will happen – or that someone will use them deliberately.

Environmental & human consequences

The CND explain that a single ‘small’ nuclear exchange would kill millions of people and be disastrous for the climate. Mass starvation would likely ensue, as a drop in temperature would make it difficult or impossible to grow crops. There would be death and suffering on an immense scale, and the fallout from the weapons could pose a health risk for years to come. Is there really any situation in which this would be acceptable?

A waste of money

If nuclear weapons are a deterrent, then in theory we will never use them. Consequently, the astronomical sums of money spent on them seem ridiculous. The British government, for example, wants to replace its current nuclear weapons system, Trident, at an estimated initial cost of £40 billion. Over the system’s entire lifetime, it will cost approximately £205 billion. At a time when the National Health Service and many other public services are struggling, this is outrageous.

Wasting this much money on a system which will never be used is unacceptable, but using the weapons would be nothing short of catastrophic. The outcome is negative either way. Many question whether nuclear weapons are even a valid deterrent in an age where they only address a fraction of the potential threats which face us. They’re useless, for example, in the case of terrorism.

Are they really just a deterrent?

In the UK, despite the assurances that Trident is a deterrent, the Prime Minister could order its use if another country was to attack us with nuclear weapons first. This could happen even if another country destroyed Britain, as the missiles are on board submarines and one is always at sea. The submarine’s captain has access to a letter from the Prime Minister explaining what to do if the UK has been destroyed – the contents are secret, but may order the captain to retaliate.

The thought of taking revenge on the country which destroyed us is alarming. What would we gain by killing hundreds of thousands of civilians who had nothing to do with the attack? Nothing but more death and destruction, and probable nuclear war.


The UK helped to invade Iraq on the basis that they may be developing weapons of mass destruction, yet we’re now planning to upgrade our own. Some view this as hypocritical; I’m inclined to agree. Of course, it later came out that the allegation against Iraq wasn’t even true.

In the case of the UK, it’s highly debatable whether there’s even any credible threat to us. Many argue that we would only need Trident in a future where the UK was somehow isolated and alone in the world, and thus potentially vulnerable to nuclear blackmail. But given that the UK isn’t a particularly significant country, it’s unlikely to be targeted.

Some say that the future is uncertain and we can’t know whether we’ll need Trident. To me, this seems like a somewhat paranoid viewpoint given that there’s no real reason to believe we’ll end up in a situation such as the one described above. Developing lethal weapons on the off-chance that we might need them in the distant future seems like a dangerous path to go down.

Status symbols

For most countries, nuclear weapons are likely nothing more than a status symbol. It may seem as though no-one would be stupid enough to actually use them. But whilst they exist, there’s always a real danger.

In his thought-provoking book Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Mark Kurlansky points out that every nation which has ever built a military force as a deterrent has ended up using it. If this applies to nuclear weapons, the consequences will be terrifying.

Many now consider nuclear warfare to be one of the greatest threats to humankind. The idea that we can diminish this threat by possessing nuclear weapons as a ‘deterrent’ is clearly absurd. Politicians try to convince us that weapons with the capacity to kill millions of people can help keep the peace. This is something we all intuitively know to be untrue. If the only thing that prevents other countries from attacking us is fear of retaliation, we aren’t truly at peace.

Many will find this idealistic, but my idea of peace is a world where no-one wants to attack anyone else; where we keep the peace because we recognise that our quarrels aren’t worth the death and suffering of countless individuals.

In school, children who argue have to shake hands and apologise – perhaps this should be true of countries too! Being the ‘evolved’ species that we are, we ought to be able to resolve things without bloodshed.

What do you think?


  1. http://www.cnduk.org/images/stories/Bestival_2014/trident%20QA.pdf
  2. http://www.cnduk.org/images/stories/briefings/missiledefence/QA.pdf
  3. http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2015/06/what-is-trident-and-why-do-we-need-it/
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/defence-and-security-blog/2013/mar/15/trident-nuclear-disarmament
  5. http://www.atomicarchive.com/Effects/effects17.shtml


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