NUCLEAR confusion

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 As with climate, there’s a great deal of genuine confusion about the danger of nuclear weapons—in addition to deliberate attempts to maintain and increase this confusion. When people are challenged on the issue of nuclear weapons, common responses include: “Don’t we need them to keep us safe?”“They’re dangerous, I get that. But they’re just a deterrent, so they’ll never be used.” “We’ve been living with nuclear weapons since 1945, so why start worrying about them now?”

Understanding the concept of deterrence[1]

It’s crucial to understand that a nuclear weapon is not “a deterrent” in and of itself. A government possessing nuclear weapons hopes that these weapons will act as a deterrent and say they will never actually be used as weapons. But deterrence is actually a psychological term, not a military term. It’s about trying to create a sense of fear that is intended to convince someone that they don’t actually want to do something they might otherwise choose to do.[2]

As a strategy for controlling someone else’s behavior, deterrence relies on threatening them with some form of punishment if they do something you don’t want them to do. Leaving aside whether coercion through fear is morally palatable, “successful” deterrence means the punishment never has to be carried out because the mere threat of it is sufficient to control the behavior. “Failed” deterrence is when the threat has to be carried out in order to control the behavior in question.

Deterrence in everyday life  

Even if deterrence seems to work, it’s not particularly consistent. As any parent knows, it’s not easy to keep a child from doing what they want to do. Sometimes threatening punishment seems to work, if the child remembers prior punishments vividly, if the parent can carry out the threat then and there, if the child knows they can’t get away with the undesirable behavior. If the threat doesn’t work, parents may find themselves inflicting punishments to “teach a lesson” for the next time. But deterrence has clearly failed by that point. (And nobody is happy.)

In the field of criminal justice, deterrence is a well-known but highly controversial concept. Although the primary function of arrest and detention is to punish criminal behavior, it is secondarily aimed at deterring further criminal behavior.

Does it work? The threat of legal action isn’t very effective at preventing crime, unless people expect to be caught.[1] Even those with recent experience of incarceration are not deterred by the threat of going back inside; recidivism is commonplace (43.3% in the US, 53% in the UK).[2]

 Furthermore, the severity of the consequence doesn’t seem to matter much.  Even the threat of death apparently does little to deter murderers. Almost without exception, countries that still have capital punishment have higher murder rates, higher rates of crime generally, and higher prison populations than those countries that have abolished it – the exact opposite if what the theory of deterrence would suggest.[3]

These correlations, it should be pointed out, do not prove that the death penalty increases the likelihood of murder. However, they certainly do not provide strong evidence to support the theory of deterrence.

[1] See Nagin, D. S. (2013). Deterrence in the Twenty-First century. Crime and Justice42(1), 199–263., also

National Institute of Justice. (2016, June 5). Five things about Deterrence

[2] Average re-offending rate in UK after 5 years, 2000-2005, see pg 35 ff in Ministry of Justice. (2012). 2012 Compendium of re-offending statistics and analysis. In Ministry of Justice

[3] Death Penalty Information Center. (n.d.). Murder Rate of Death Penalty States Compared to Non-Death Penalty States.

Military forms of deterrence

Deterrence in warfare is nothing new. Standing armies, armaments, and fortifications are meant to warn off any potential invader with the threat of inflicting serious damage should they attempt it.

In 1914, a massive network of military alliances was considered by many to be a sufficient deterrent to prevent a major war in Europe. If any one country were so foolish as to attack another one, that would automatically drag the whole of Europe into a suicidal war that nobody wanted. When that deterrent failed, Europe was then locked into a devastating war which took many millions of lives.

Another failed deterrent: following the devastation of WWI, the French began construction of the most advanced set of fortifications ever known. The Maginot Line consisted of 22 underground fortresses, tank traps, tunnels, rail links and 500 smaller buildings constructed along the 280 mile border with Germany. One quarter of France’s entire army was stationed along this line. In May 1940, Hitler’s invasion simply went around it.[1]

Whether you’re trying to control a child, prevent a crime, or defend a homeland, deterrence is an inconsistent strategy. Even if it may appear to work in some cases, deterrence is never guaranteed to work in all cases. In fact, if history is anything to go by, deterrence is guaranteed not to work at some point or other.

[1] As did Genghis Khan when confronted by the Great Wall of China that was supposedly built to keep him out. “Great wall” he is reputed to have said as he marched his army around it.

Nuclear deterrence

The theory of nuclear deterrence depends upon it working not just most of the time but all the time – and for all time. There is no margin for error if the consequence of failure is an all-out nuclear war that destroys the whole of human civilization.

The logic of nuclear deterrence gets more and more convoluted the deeper you look. It is assumed, for instance, that the leaders of Russia, in contemplating an attack on the US, would be sufficiently sane and rational as to weigh up the consequences of a possible retaliatory nuclear strike from the US and decide on that basis to refrain from attacking. On the other hand, it is assumed that those same leaders would base their sane and rational decision on the likelihood of their counterparts in the US acting so insanely and irrationally as to be willing to launch nuclear weapons against Russia that would almost certainly bring about their own total self-destruction.

Furthermore, the theory demands that “we” must be willing to use our nuclear weapons “if necessary.” We must convince our opponent of that willingness sufficiently that they believe we really will actually use our nuclear weapons if they dare to attack us. On the other hand, if we are willing “if necessary” to use our nuclear weapons against another country which also has nuclear weapons, then at some level we are not “deterred” by them having nuclear weapons. That other country is likewise not deterred by the fact that we have nuclear weapons if it is to be believed that they also would use their nuclear weapons “if necessary” against us.

Ultimately, nuclear deterrence rests on the assumption that no ordinary, sane person would choose to bring death and destruction down upon family and friends and loved ones, and would therefore choose some alternative route other than to invite nuclear retaliation.

The problem with this line of thinking is that nuclear deterrence does not operate at the level of ordinary, sane people who care about their loved ones. It operates at the level of generals and politicians who make their decisions according to quite different criteria. In WWI, it was generals and politicians who sent millions to their certain death in the trenches. In WWII, it was generals and politicians who authorized the saturation bombing of German and Japanese cities and the dropping of atom bombs.

The actual use of nuclear weapons would cause wholesale slaughter on an unimaginable scale, but there is no evidence that this fact would necessarily “deter” generals and politicians from embarking on such a course should they decide the circumstances “justified” it.

Indeed, they have been ready to launch nuclear war on several occasions and it is luck, more than “deterrence,” that has kept us from having a nuclear war up to now.[1] General MacArthur wanted to drop atom bombs on China during the Korean War. President Nixon was considering the use of nuclear weapons during the Vietnam War. Prime Minister Thatcher apparently threatened to use nuclear weapons during the Falklands War.[2] Plans were readied for the use of nuclear weapons during the first Gulf War. And President Trump threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea in order to stop North Korea from firing its nuclear weapons.

[1] See quote from General Lee Butler, former supreme commander of US nuclear forces, who claims it was only “a combination of skill, luck and divine intervention” that has saved us so far from a nuclear holocaust. International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, & Butler, L. (2014, December 6). US General (Ret) Lee Butler speaks for a ban on nuclear weapons #goodbyenukes [Video]. YouTube.

[2] Henley, J. (2005, November 21). Thatcher “threatened to nuke Argentina.” The Guardian

Deterrence vs. defense

Traditionally, “deterrence” means attempting to prevent an attack by making a credible threat to retaliate after the attack has already happened. If the threat fails, conventional weapons can be converted to “defense” purposes. For example, during the 1930s, Britain’s air and sea power were strengthened in the hope of deterring Hitler from invading. When that didn’t work as a deterrent, those military resources were used to actually defend Britain from the impending invasion. In other words, the planes and ships were converted from deterrence to defense.

But nuclear weapons don’t work the same way. If Britain had launched nuclear missiles at Hitler’s ships crossing the English Channel, or at planes bombing London, it would have been suicidal.

The only way to defend against incoming nuclear missiles is to intercept them with anti-ballistic missiles (which cannot be guaranteed to work 100% of the time). But nuclear weapons themselves cannot provide defense in the traditional sense – even against incoming nuclear weapons.

If nuclear deterrence “fails,” all you can do is launch nuclear weapons at the other side – or not. In neither case is anyone being “defended” from attack by having nuclear weapons. This is an important distinction. Nuclear weapons are useless for defense in a traditional sense.

Faulty logic: “They’ll never be used”

In any case, warheads intended for use as “deterrents” are not somehow distinct from warheads intended for use as a weapons. In the words of the late Sir Michael Quinlan, one of the architects of nuclear deterrence theory:

We cannot say that nuclear weapons are for deterrence and never for use, however remote we judge the latter possibility to be. Weapons deter by the possibility of their use and by no other route.[1]

Despite their claims that the nuclear threat is credible, immediate, and realistic, we don’t know whether any President or Prime Minister really would “press the button” if another potential opponent called their bluff and launched an attack. Saying that they would does not by itself make the threat credible.

It all comes down to psychology, and there are countless unknowns. That is what makes the whole theory of deterrence so dangerously fanciful.

The logic of deterrence: these weapons must be used

We know that deterrence in everyday life is not effective 100% of the time, and it only works if the intention to follow through with the threat is credible, immediate, and realistic. These same principles apply to nuclear deterrence.

Nuclear weapons cannot be said to act as a deterrent unless there is a credible, immediate, and realistic intention to use them. Thus it is a contradiction in terms to say that nuclear weapons will never be used “because they are only a deterrent.”

Nuclear weapons are designed and deployed as weapons of mass destruction. To function as a credible deterrent, these weapons must be used sooner or later as intended, otherwise the threat is no longer believable.

Immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union had every reason to believe that the United States might use these weapons again. So for a time, the threat was credible and these weapons might well have acted as a deterrent.

But no country possessing nuclear weapons has ever detonated one in war in nearly 80 years. So the belief that the US or any other nuclear-armed nation will actually use a nuclear weapon is very much weaker than it was in the late 1940s. Every passing year that a nuclear weapon is not used makes the concept of nuclear deterrence inevitably less credible. There is therefore an ever-increasing pressure on those who believe in nuclear deterrence to “prove” that the threat is a real one by using a nuclear weapon in war.

The theory of deterrence increases the risk that these weapons will be used, if only to prove that the threat is a credible one.

[1] Quinlan, M. (2005). Thinking about nuclear weapons (2nd ed.). Royal United Services Institute For Defense Studies.

[1] This section, revised and updated, taken directly from Wallis, T (2017), Disarming the Nuclear Argument, Luath Press, Chapter 3, pp.41ff.

[2] According to the US Department of Defense, deterrence is “the prevention from action by fear of the consequences. Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction.” See deterrence (US DoD Definition). (n.d.).


There are many other myths and misunderstandings surrounding nuclear weapons, not least because of the secrecy involved. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electric chair in 1953 for allegedly passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.[1] So it is not altogether surprising that people are wary of even discussing nuclear weapons, let alone challenging the official storyline that goes with them.

When we try to discover the actual numbers of nuclear weapons, the ongoing cost of these weapons to taxpayers, the capabilities of nuclear weapons, why we have them, where they are being targeted, or even the true effects of nuclear weapons on human beings, we can expect complete silence from official sources.

Luckily, some of this information is public and some of it can be obtained through freedom of information requests and other means. A number of researchers worldwide specialize in obtaining and sharing this information, so while it may not be officially verified as accurate, the information we do have is widely accessible and rarely challenged as being incorrect.

We can find raw numbers of US nuclear weapons, but precious little detail or analysis.[2] And the actual maintenance cost to the taxpayer is almost impossible to ascertain (see Chapter 14).

The numbers game

Most people looking at the chart on the following page will see right away that the numbers of nuclear weapons in the world peaked in the 1980s, when there were almost 70,000 nuclear weapons held by the seven nuclear-armed states (now there are nine). They will see that since the 1980s, the total number of nuclear weapons has dropped dramatically to just a fifth of that number today (roughly 12,700). On the face of it, that chart makes it look like the nuclear weapons “problem” was solved almost 40 years ago, and we just need to be patient a bit longer for those numbers to keep going down until they reach zero.

Unfortunately, that would be a gross misrepresentation of the reality. As we shall see in the next chapter, one of the reasons those raw numbers are misleading is that nuclear arsenals have been weeded out and pared down to a level that the nuclear-armed states are comfortable with and want to maintain more or less indefinitely. Old, rusty, leaky, less reliable and less “usable” nuclear weapons are taken out of the arsenals, while shiny, new, more powerful, more “usable” ones remain.

Figure 8.1 Global stockpiles of nuclear weapons[3]

Raw numbers are one thing, but technological capabilities are much more significant. Russia, for instance, has tens of thousands of tanks left over from World War II. The US has far fewer tanks, but they are modern, faster, more powerful, more resistant to attack, etc. Just looking at numbers of tanks would give the impression that the US lags way behind Russia in terms of tank warfare, when the opposite is actually true. The same applies to nuclear weapons.

There is even a measurement available to compare older nuclear weapons with newer ones. It’s called the “circular error probable,” or CEP. This describes how accurately a missile is likely to reach its target, and therefore how many missiles are needed to destroy a particular target.

It turns out that destroying a hardened nuclear missile silo requires either a lot of very big missiles that don’t necessarily land all that near the center of the silo or a smaller but much more accurate missile that strikes right in the middle of the target.[4]

The CEP of the Trident I submarine-launched nuclear missile, for example, was 380 meters, while the CEP of the Trident II missile is only 90 meters. The CEP of the Minuteman II ICBM was 480 meters, while the CEP of Minuteman III is 120 meters.[5] These differences in CEP allowed the US to deploy far fewer missiles and still get the same – or even better – “bang for the buck” in terms of destructive effect.

Other technological advances compensate for reduced numbers of nuclear weapons by increasing the “kill capability” of the missiles. A new “super-fuze,” for example, has enabled US nuclear weapons to explode at just the right moment above a hardened silo to achieve maximum effect.[6] These new super-fuzes have already been retrofitted to existing weapon systems, but more developments are on the way, each one giving the US a key technological advantage with fewer numbers of nuclear weapons.

Stockpiles: deployed, stored, and retired missiles

Classification is another numbers game. Normally, the complete “inventory” of nuclear weapons for each of the nuclear-armed states includes (1) warheads that are currently “deployed,” (2) warheads that are currently in “storage” but available for deployment, and (3) warheads that are “retired” and awaiting dismantlement.

Total inventory includes all three. Russia leads with 5,977 as of January 2022. The US follows with a total of 5,428.[7] The “stockpile” includes the first two categories. Here again, Russia is in the lead with 4,477 warheads compared to 3,708 for the US.

But the deployed warheads matter the most. In that category, the US leads with 1,744 and Russia only has 1,588.[8]

You can see that raw numbers of nuclear weapons don’t tell the whole story. However, throughout the Cold War and again today, governments and corporations use the numbers that suit them to justify expanding nuclear weapons programs and to push for development of ever more advanced weapons systems that are supposedly needed to “keep up” with the adversary.


To avoid confusion, it’s also important to distinguish between concepts such as disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation.

Disarmament is getting rid of weapons: “dis-arming.” Theoretically, more and more weapons are to be destroyed until eventually they have all been eliminated. For example, the Landmines Treaty and the Biological Weapons Convention have led to the near- complete elimination of certain types of weapons.

 When disarmament is unilateral, one country just goes ahead and does it, and maybe starts a trend. For example, the US unilaterally stopped its biological weapons program in 1972.[9] South Africa stopped its nuclear weapons program at the end of apartheid.

When disarmament is multilateral, negotiations lead to multiple countries reducing and eventually eliminating their arsenals, as in the treaties banning land mines and chemical weapons.

When disarmament is bilateral, there are only two countries involved, like the INF Treaty of 1987 that got rid of a whole class of nuclear weapons in Europe, and the START and New START treaties that reduced the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons held by the two superpowers.

Historically, unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral disarmament programs have succeeded.

Arms control, on the other hand, is not disarmament. It covers attempts to curtail certain activities, but these do not necessarily lead directly or indirectly to reducing or eliminating arsenals. For example, Test Ban Treaties try to stop or limit testing but have not reduced or eliminated any nuclear weapons.

Non-proliferation means stopping the further growth of nuclear arsenals, but says nothing about reducing or eliminating existing arsenals. “Horizontal” proliferation refers to the spread of weapons to more countries. “Vertical” proliferation refers to the growth of arsenals in the countries that already have them. As we have seen, numbers alone do not tell the whole story. And when non-proliferation refers only to horizontal proliferation, it implies that the nuclear-armed states can keep the weapons they already have, “modernize” them, and even expand their arsenals, so long as other countries do not acquire them. This is a far cry from talking about disarmament of existing arsenals or even applying some arms control on those arsenals.

Actively pursuing disarmament

When pressed, almost every politician who supports the continued retention of nuclear weapons will say that of course they’re in favor of nuclear disarmament—who wouldn’t want to see a world that is eventually free of nuclear weapons? (Since the ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, this is not just an aspiration but a legal obligation – see Chapter 9.)

But, they add, getting rid of our own nuclear weapons “unilaterally” is not the way to achieve this. Rather, they say, they’re for “multilateral” nuclear disarmament and that they have always been fully committed to this approach.[10]

It is certainly the case that the US and the original nuclear weapons states have taken part in various negotiations concerning nuclear weapons. But what is their actual record on disarmament, multilateral or otherwise? And just how serious are they about achieving nuclear disarmament through multilateral negotiations?

Conference on Disarmament[11] 

The nuclear weapons states’ preferred mechanism for multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament is the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD).[12] This is a forum established by the international community in 1979 for multilateral negotiations on disarmament issues. The Chemical Weapons Convention, signed in 1993, was successfully negotiated there. Other negotiations have been initiated there, including the CTBT.[13] Currently the conference is made up of 65 countries. It operates on the basis of consensus, meaning that any one of the 65 countries can veto a decision.

Since 1997, the CD has been deadlocked. Vetoes are used to prevent agreement on programs of work, and, worse, to prevent agendas from even being set. So, for much of that time, the CD has been unable to agree on what they are going to talk about, let alone on any matters of substance. This stalemate has made the CD the laughingstock of the international community. Sixty-five countries have been sitting around a table in Geneva, week after week, year after year, giving speeches to each other, but accomplishing absolutely nothing.[14] And this is the forum through which the claim is made that the US and other nuclear weapons states are “actively pursuing” multilateral nuclear disarmament.

There are other multilateral forums available for discussing nuclear disarmament, including the UN First Committee, which deals with disarmament affairs, the UN General Assembly, which votes every year on a raft of resolutions from the First Committee, and the UN Security Council, which also has its share of discussions and resolutions relating to matters of nuclear disarmament.

The main nuclear weapon states have voted against nearly every initiative or proposal ever put forward for multilateral disarmament in the United Nations General Assembly.[15] This voting behavior goes back not just years, but decades. Sometimes it’s only been the US and the UK who vote no, and sometimes it’s other NATO allies and/or other countries.

The nuclear weapons states agree on one thing, at least: keeping their nuclear weapons. At the UN General Assembly in 2015, for instance, they agreed that it is “divisive” to “promote nuclear disarmament whilst ignoring security considerations.”[16]

[1] See original source material at Eisenhower Presidential Library. (n.d.). Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

[2] And even the raw numbers are becoming more scarce.

[3] Kristensen, Hans and Korda, Matt (2022), “World Nuclear Forces,” Chapter 10 in SIPRI Yearbook 2022 (p. 342). Oxford University Press.

[4] See Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters. (2020). Nuclear Matters Handbook 2020 [Revised]. Nuclear Matters Handbook.

[5] Missile Defense Project. (2021, August 2). Minuteman III. Missile Threat.

[6] See Kristensen, H. M., McKinzie, M., & Postal, T. A. (2017, March 1). How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

[7] Kristensen, Hans and Korda, Matt (2022), “World Nuclear Forces,” Chapter 10 in SIPRI Yearbook 2022 (p. 342). Oxford University Press.

[8] Kristensen, Hans and Korda, Matt (2022), “World Nuclear Forces,” Chapter 10 in SIPRI Yearbook 2022 (p. 342). Oxford University Press.


[10] See descriptions by the US State Department and by the UK Foreign Office: Conference on Disarmament – U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva – Learn about U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Disarmament. (2023, September 13). U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva. and

House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations. (2019). Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In UK Parliament

[11] This section and the following taken from Wallis, T, Disarming the Nuclear Argument, Chapter 15, p.130 ff.

[12] See US government description of their work at the CD: Conference on Disarmament – U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva – Learn about U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Disarmament. (2023, September 13). U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva.

[13] The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was negotiated in 1996, but has never entered into force because the US and some other countries have still not ratified it.

[14] For a complete breakdown of what the CD has done in each of its sessions since 1998, see

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. (2023, March 14). Conference on Disarmament (CD). The Nuclear Threat Initiative.

[15] See Wallis, T. (2017), Disarming the Nuclear Argument: The Truth About Nuclear Weapons, Luath Press, p. 134ff.

[16] Guitton, A. (2015, November 2). Explanation of vote [Online]. 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly First Committee.