We don't need nuclear bombs

The opportunity exists - though it may not last long - to choose to conduct our affairs without these weapons

Share
Last year, I was rung up by Gareth Evans, then the Australian Foreign minister, who told me that, in the backwash from protests about French nuclear tests in the Pacific, the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, had decided to establish an international commission to report on the feasibility of totally eliminating nuclear weapons. He wanted me to serve on it. Once he told me that respected figures such as Robert McNamara, the former US Defence Secretary, had already accepted, I agreed.

When we first met in Canberra, I was already inclined to accept total elimination as the goal. Discussion convinced me that the target was indeed feasible, and that an opportunity existed, in the absence of any serious tension between the major powers. It became clear that if the US and Russia perceived abandonment of nuclear weapons to be in their interests, it would become possible and achievable within a period significantly shorter than most people envisaged.

Our report, presented last month, was unanimously agreed, without any qualification. Yet no difficult issue was fudged. That was surprising, when one considers what a mixed bunch we were. Our commission included General Lee Butler, former Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Air and Strategic Commands; from Sweden, Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, who heads the UN mission investigating Iraq's mass-destruction weapon programme; from France, Michel Rocard, MEP, former Prime Minister, and Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the well known environmentalist; from Russia, Professor Roald Sagdeev, former science adviser to President Gorbachev, now head of the East-West Space Center in the US; from China, Ambassador Qian Jiadong, former Ambassador to the UN Disarmament Conference; and from this country, Professor Joseph Rotblat, FRS, Nobel Peace Prizewinner and President of the Pugwash Conferences.

We have listed many reasons for supporting the goal of total elimination of nuclear arms. First, they are such horrible weapons. To use them against a similarly equipped opponent invites catastrophe: to use them against a non-nuclear opponent is politically and morally indefensible. Their only purpose now is to deter a similarly equipped opponent from using his: their elimination would remove that justification. They have no utility as a military weapon.

Second, the indefinite deployment of the weapons carries a high risk of their ultimate use - intentionally, by accident or inadvertence. We have been lucky that, since 1945, no nuclear weapon has been exploded, except in tests, either intentionally or by accident. We owe that good fortune to the fact that nuclear weapons have been held only by nations with strong and efficient governmental machinery and with access to the latest technology. Today, with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the actual and potential proliferation of nuclear weapons to states, or even possibly to groups within states, the risk of intentional or accidental use is higher. If their possession proliferates, that risk will probably increase.

Third, the possession of the weapons by some states stimulates others to acquire them, reducing the security of all. Nuclear weapons are a source of instability in the relations between Russia and the West, within and between the former members of the Soviet Union, between the states of North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and between the nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states.

We did not produce a blueprint for verifying elimination of weapons. If the US and Russia cannot be persuaded to make the commitment we seek, a blueprint, invented by others, is irrelevant. If they do make the commitment, they themselves must devise the methods, including verification, by which, stage by stage, they reduce from their present levels to zero. Any system that satisfies them should also satisfy the other declared states, the threshold and potential threshold states, and the non-nuclear weapon states.

We accepted that no verification could be 100 per cent effective, but, if sufficient effort is put behind checking, it can probably be about 85 per cent effective. Whether or not that is acceptable is a political judgement to be made at the time.

But we must compare the risks between the present, and possible future, situation, in which there are a large number of weapons in existence and the possibilities of proliferation and lack of control, with one in which there has been a progressive, verified reduction to zero, and in which the political or military advantage of retaining, or attempting to develop, a few weapons would be doubtful. There can surely be no doubt that total elimination would involve less risk and would lead to a safer world for us all.

We did not call for any nation to disarm unilaterally. We believe strongly that, because there is at present no major source of tension between the great powers, the opportunity exists, which may not last long if not seized, to make a new and clear choice to enable the world to conduct its affairs without nuclear weapons.

We gave no time scale for this, but, if Russia and the US can be persuaded, and put in anything like the effort they have expended on building up and maintaining their arsenals, matters could move much more quickly than most people imagine possible. We have listed a number of initial steps, such as taking weapon systems off alert and removing warheads from delivery platforms. These would both demonstrate commitment and also make the world safer.

The commission now no longer exists and the Australian government, although it has distributed the report, is not committed to further effort in promoting its recommendations. Hitherto our report has received little media attention, and the task of persuading governments to take it seriously poses a difficult challenge.

The writer was Chief of Defence Staff, 1973-76.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
More From
Field Marshal Lord Carver
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate