Written by Sir Jeremy Blackham and Sir Michael Graydon



This article was first published in Briefings for Britain and we republish it with their kind permission. This is Part I of a three-part series. Part I was published here yesterday.



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Nuclear deterrence ‘theology’ tends to support this view. As the Cold War progressed, the two then superpowers decided that the only safe and balanced way to proceed was to allow themselves to be vulnerable to the other side’s nuclear arsenal, thus making the conventional arm of deterrence more significant. Things could not be allowed to get ‘out of hand’. The inevitable consequence of this was a gradual move to limit the numbers of nuclear weapons and prevent nuclear proliferation to the position where we now have a proposed Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which has already attracted the signature of 82 nations and will enter force upon ratification by 50 states – so far 44 nations have done this.  Whilst it is true that most of these are small nations and that no nuclear capable state has yet signed the treaty, the direction of travel for most nations is clear and the pressure to remove an existential threat to the whole of mankind will not go away. Any further movement in this field will heighten the importance of adequate conventional defence and the dangers of conventional weakness.

The key issue here is the balance of investment in conventional and nuclear capability. Any ‘fundamental’ review must examine both carefully and ensure that the cost of nuclear weaponry does not so reduce conventional capability that the credibility of nuclear deterrence itself is fatally undermined. If this happens then it is highly debatable whether we should continue to deploy a nuclear deterrent, and whether our security might not be better assured by greater conventional capability.

‘New ways of warfare’ and asymmetric warfare

It is currently fashionable to say that the growth in hostile cyber attacks has completely changed the face of warfare, such that significant conventional kinetic force is no longer necessary.

Let us, therefore, consider the advent of technology and asymmetric warfare in the equation. And equation it is:

As most security practitioners now accept, the credibility of a threat is some function of its capability, multiplied by the resolve and the enemy’s belief in the credibility of the deterrer.

Deterrence = f(Capability x Resolve x Credibility). Keep this in mind.

The situation has become further complicated by the development of so-called ‘new ways of warfare’ of which the best known, but not the only, example is cyber warfare. This phenomenon has become categorised, perhaps rather lazily, as ‘asymmetric warfare’ and is held by some to signal the decline of kinetic warfare and to justify an assumption that future wars will not be of the kinetic variety and thus to smuggle in an assumption that they may also replace nuclear warfare and the risk of it.

This is surely to misunderstand the nature of asymmetric warfare. It is not warfare of any particular kind. Rather it is an attempt to fight the war on a battlefield where the enemy is not significantly present – to find his greatest vulnerability, his ‘weakest link’ and attack that. The unfortunate consequence of this is that, whenever a new way of war fighting is developed, it does not mean ipso facto that an existing form is rendered obsolete and unnecessary. It means rather that there is a new vulnerability, a new base to be covered. But if the old base is stripped of cover in order to fortify the new one, then the old base may become a new vulnerability, and more attractive for an enemy to target. This leads to the very uncomfortable consequence that kinetic warfare is not dead (as a brief glance round the world will confirm, Russia and China, for example, are increasing and modernising the capability of both their cyber and kinetic capability) whilst both are masters of a range of hostile activities crafted to remain below conventional retaliatory level. Rather this new form of warfare means that kinetic warfare is only one of the possible forms of warfare.  We face not asymmetric warfare but hybrid warfare. The invention of new forms almost certainly means that a nation’s defence becomes more complex and more expensive as new types of threat appear. This was probably best put by the late Sir Michael Quinlan:

“In matters of military contingency, the expected, precisely because it is expected, is not to be expected… What we expect we plan and provide for; what we plan and provide for, we thereby deter; what we deter does not happen. What does happen is what we did not deter, because we did not plan and provide for it, because we did not expect it.”[1]

The greater the risk of defeat in any of these varying forms of warfare, the closer comes the decision point for a nuclear nation between capitulation and escalation to nuclear use, which the whole concept of deterrence is designed to avoid. From a rational strategic viewpoint therefore, and for as long as nuclear weapons exist, we would argue that it is not possible to separate nuclear doctrine, and hybrid capabilities across an increasingly wide range of non-nuclear war making capabilities. Moreover, this is of particular relevance to the second-rank nuclear powers, such as Britain and France which have tended to sacrifice substantial conventional and other non-nuclear capabilities in order to finance their strategic nuclear forces, thus undermining the credibility of those very forces.

Of course, this all appears to argue for increased money to be spent on security, ‘the first duty of government’ as our politicians frequently remind us, though currently our fifth highest public expenditure. How can we approach this conundrum?

[1] Sir Michael Quinlan, ‘Quinlan’s Law’ 2008, unpublished but quoted in Hennessy,P., Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the History of One’s Own Time, Biteback Publishing, London, 2012. For a more idiosyncratic and fuller treatment of the unexpected, readers may wish to read Taleb, N.N., The Black Swan, Penguin Books, London, 2007.


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Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon served as a fast jet pilot (Lightnings), later as Air Officer Commander in Chief Support Command during the first Gulf War and subsequently AOC in C Strike Command. His final appointment was as Chief of the Air Staff. Importantly for this article he once served as Assistant Chief of Staff (Policy) at SHAPE.

Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham commanded the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich. Subsequently he served as Deputy Commander in Chief Fleet and as Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff for Capability. On retirement he edited The Naval Review and is a visiting lecturer at KCL. Both authors are frequently published writers and lecturers on defence and security matters.

[To be continued tomorrow with the final Part III] 

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