Jeffrey LewisWard Wilson Wednesdays Part 3

Another Wednesday, another Ward Wilson entry.  This one tackles two of my favorite cases: the  Yom Kippur and Falklands Islands  Wars.

In case you are interesting, Parts 1 and 2 are also available.

Doubts about Nuclear Deterrence, Part III: Yom Kippur and Falkland Islands

by Ward Wilson

In 1945 there was nothing that nuclear weapons couldn’t do. Secretary of State James Byrnes told a friend that nuclear weapons would assure success in negotiations. Others said that a nuclear arsenal would make a country entirely safe. Who would launch an attack (conventional or nuclear) against a country armed with these fearsome weapons? And it didn’t take long before the United States was trying to think of ways to use these multifaceted weapons to protect its friends and allies. Eventually they developed “extended deterrence”–protecting your friends with a nuclear umbrella. Four remarkable capabilities: provide diplomatic power, prevent conventional attacks, prevent nuclear attacks, and protect our friends.

But these early, sky-high expectations have not been fulfilled. The history of nuclear deterrence since 1945 has been a steady, step-by-step retreat. The circle of nuclear deterrence capabilities keeps getting smaller. It’s discouraging.

First came the post-World War II negotiations over the shape of Europe. Byrnes left for Europe confident. He came back chastened. The Russians, he reported, were “stubborn, obstinate, and they don’t scare.” Subsequent negotiations (like those between the United States and North Vietnam) ratified Byrnes’s judgment: you can’t always rely on nuclear weapons in diplomatic negotiations. So the first of the four capabilities of nuclear weapons was disproved.

But nuclear proponents were not unduly discouraged. They said, “You can’t use a weapon as horrible as nuclear weapons as a threat. It’s a weapon of last resort. You can’t threaten to blow some country off the face of the map if they don’t give you mining concessions or whatever. It’s just not credible.” And they had something of a point. It is hard to threaten something so out of proportion and be believed.

The notion that nuclear weapons prevented countries from launching wars against nuclear-armed countries, though, remained intact. The reason is that war is a fundamentally incalculable event. You don’t need Clausewitz to tell you that war is unpredictable, it’s end is enveloped in impenetrable fog, and that of all human events, war is the one most likely to swirl out of control. Whenever you engage in war with a nuclear-armed country, you risk a spiral ending in nuclear attack. Wars just get out of control that way. People get angry, they feel a desire for revenge, they get swept up in blood lust or some idiot doesn’t get the word. Going to war with a nation that has nuclear weapons is extraordinarily risky. Even if the object of the war is limited and you imagine that the war will be short. (People always imagine that wars will be short, by the way. Geoffrey Blainey argues that the main cause of wars is too much optimism.) Anyone with the slightest knowledge of history would know that engaging in a war with an adversary armed with nuclear weapons is no joke. So nuclear deterrence should prevent conventional war with ease.

But it didn’t. Twice. And these two events stand as a stark challenge to the assertion that nuclear deterrence is a powerful and reliable capability when it comes to conventional war.

Middle East War 1973

When nuclear proponents talk about the 1973 Middle East War they mostly talk about the deterrence “success.” In the last days of the war, Henry Kissinger ordered U.S. nuclear forces on alert worldwide. The move was intended to send a signal to the Soviets not to send paratroopers to reinforce Egypt (which they were planning to do.) And, according to nuclear deterrence proponents, it worked. The Soviets did not, in fact, air lift paratroopers to Egypt and some people claim it was the nuclear threat that stopped them.

But that doesn’t face up to the real problem. The real problem is what were Sadat and Assad thinking? The leaders of Egypt and Syria must have known that Israel had nuclear weapons. It had been reported in the New York Times. They must have known that Israel is a pretty small place and any attack that breaks through has the potential to be in Tel Aviv the next day. We’re not talking about invading Russia here. In Russia you can break through and drive for weeks, as the Germans found out, and still not even be close to Moscow. Any attack on Israel can quickly because an existential attack. How is it that Sadat and Assad were not deterred? How could they launch a shooting war, in which people would bleed and die, and not fear that it would spiral out of control?

Proponents say that Egypt and Syria knew that the war would be limited. They were, after all, only attacking the occupied territories. They weren’t attacking Israel proper. And such a strictly limited war would not cause Israel to reach for the nuclear option. They could reasonably assume, proponents claim, that Israel would not use nuclear weapons in a limited war.

I have real doubts about the notion that it’s rational to assume that a war can be kept limited. That’s not the way I read the history of war. That’s not why Clausewitz asserts that war tends to violent extremes. But let’s leave the proponents with the last word for the moment.

Falkland Islands War

The second fly in the ointment is the Falkland Islands War. Again, it’s curious that most of the discussion you read about this war has to do with Margaret Thatcher telling the French that if they didn’t give up the codes to the Exocet missiles that Argentina was using to sink British ships, she’d have to use nuclear weapons against Argentina. Proponents smile and shake their heads (as if to say, “That Maggie. She’s a tough one.”) They imply that the danger of nuclear war was crucial to convincing the French into surrendering the codes. And it is true that they gave up the codes.

What they don’t talk about is what the leaders of the Argentine junta were thinking. The British had nuclear weapons. Argentina did not. How is it possible that you could get into a shooting war with a nuclear-armed nation and not worry about nuclear attack? Even if you weren’t worried that the Brits would attack you out of hand, you ought to have at least been concerned that the war might take some unexpected turn and escalate to nuclear conflict. For example, you sink a bunch of British ships, the Brits get furious, they launch a bombing raid against one of your cities, you sneak some ships off the British coast and shell Plymouth, and then things get out of hand. If the fear of nuclear war is so powerful, why weren’t the Argentines deterred?

Some proponents tut-tut and say (condescendingly, usually) that this is all completely understandable. Of course nuclear deterrence didn’t prevent the Falkland Wars or the Middle East War. Only a naive person would expect it to. (In fact, a fellow made this very point in a recent off-the-record briefing I was giving. Although more politely.) Proponents of nuclear weapons say, “Nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort, and as such they only deter attacks on vital interests. Attacks on far flung islands or occupied territory simply don’t count. If the Argentines had attacked London, now that would have been a different matter.” They argue what I would call the “vital interests” exception to nuclear deterrence.

There is a certain logical consistency to this. It could make sense that because nuclear weapons are so horrible, they can only be used in really dire circumstances. But if that’s so, if you want to argue that nuclear weapons can only deter attacks against vital interests, then you have to throw over NATO and much of current U.S. foreign policy. Because much of that policy is intimately linked to extended deterrence–the idea that you can extend nuclear protection over distant friends and allies. The United States uses nuclear guarantees to defend Europe, Japan, South Korea and other important places. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to make a case for extended deterrence if you argue the vital interests argument. If you can’t extend deterrence over far flung islands that are part of your own country, how are you going to extend it over, say, Japan? If you can’t extend deterrence over territories that your troops are occupying and your civil authorities are administering, how are you going to make people believe that you can extend it over Germany?

By arguing the vital interests exception for nuclear deterrence, you can save deterrence from the contradicting cases of the 1973 Middle East War and the Falkland Islands War. But you do have to surrender 60 years of U.S. foreign policy. And you should probably spend some time trying to figure out what other magic glue you are going to use to bind its allies to the United States. So your choice: explain away the cases that contradict reliable deterrence of conventional war and give up extended deterrence, or keep extended deterrence but have to live with two irreconcilable contradictions in the heart of the “deters conventional war” evidence.


What do these potential failures of nuclear deterrence prove? What is there significance? It seems to me that the real problem here is that no one is debating these questions. Check the literature on the Middle East war and you’ll find that even critics of nuclear weapons spend most of their time talking about the Kissinger threat and almost none on what Sadat and Assad could possibly have been thinking. It’s not entirely ignored. James Acton found a book about this by Jewish scholars (in Hebrew). But it’s not a big topic in the debate. Given the dangers involved with nuclear deterrence (in case you’ve forgotten “the dangers involved with nuclear deterrence” include catastrophic nuclear war), wouldn’t you expect that these sorts of things were being rigorously gone over and double checked? Should all possible failures of nuclear deterrence be completely understood and explained? Blithely relying on nuclear deterrence without digging into and examining the doubtful cases doesn’t seem exactly prudent to me.

Of course, there are those who argue that although the three other kinds of deterrence have proved doubtful (diplomatic power, preventing conventional war, extended deterrence) that the most important kind of deterrence–preventing nuclear attacks–is still reliable. There has, after all, never been a nuclear war. And maybe they’re right. But the circle has been contracting for sixty years. Proponents claim that although they were wrong in the past, although the area of nuclear deterrence’s influence has continually shrunk, that now the shrinking has finally stopped. Even though those other uses for nuclear deterrence turned out not to be so effective, this last use of nuclear deterrence will work for sure. They say, in effect, “This time for sure.” Somehow I’m not reassured.


  1. Silent Hunter (History)

    The Argentines weren’t deterred in 1982 because they knew that the Falklands was not something the UK was prepared to use nukes over. There was also no way that the Argentine Navy could have gotten to within shelling range of Plymouth without somebody detecting them.

    • John Schilling (History)

      More to the point, there was no way the Argentine Navy could have come within range of England without the Argentine Government ordering it. That part of the escalatory process was solidly under Galtieri’s control.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I agree. The Falklands conflict was too picayune to be regarded as a “win” in the Ward Wilson column. Who would use or threaten nukes over islands with 300 sheepherders?

      Also, there is the “nuclear taboo” (aka, “tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons”) to consider. All of the major nuclear powers had incentive to refrain from using nuclear weapons in small-potatoes conflicts, lest their use set a precedent for constant use in every conflict, or worse, if they failed to achieve their objective in a small conflict, set an example that would cast doubt on their future deterrence value.

    • kme (History)

      Jonah, it’s still a “win”, as you put it, because it significantly narrows the scope from “deters conventional wars against nuclear powers” to “deters conventional wars against nuclear power, unless the war doesn’t seem to threaten any important interests of that power”. You admit as much.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      O.K. Let me put it this way. Suppose I carry a gun. A man grievously insults me, but I don’t shoot him. A second man shoots me with a rubber band, but I don’t shoot him with my gun. A third man throws a rock at me, but I don’t shoot him either. Ward announces, “See, deterrence has failed.”

      Now, how confident do you feel that: If you punch me in the nose, I won’t shoot? If you try to steal my money, I won’t shoot? If you attack me with a knife, I won’t shoot? If you point a gun at me, I won’t shoot? Unless you are supremely confident I will never shoot, deterrence can still work.

      One has to judge the reasonableness or propriety of shooting (or bombing) someone based on the level of provocation and what is at stake. At best, Ward “wins” a small rhetorical point on the Falkland Islands; he does not score a big win against the main argument.

    • Ward (History)

      Silent Hunter:

      You seem to know a lot about what the Argentine leadership was thinking, what they knew about the British leadership, and how certain they were that they could predict British behavior.

      (One of the difference between IR types and historians is that people who work in IR seem to know a lot more about accurately predicting behavior than historians do. We find human behavior endlessly surprising. IR people seem to never be surprised in this way.)

    • Jonah Speaks (History)


      In response to your challenge to look at history, here is what I learned from Wikipedia: Argentine Admiral Jorge Anaya was the main architect of a military solution “calculating that the United Kingdom would never respond militarily.” In other words, the Argentine Junta did not even expect a British conventional military response, let alone nuclear weapons. For islands comprising a population of less than 3,000, “649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and 3 Falkland Islanders died.”

      The alleged nuclear threat by Thatcher to the French appears to be an unconfirmed rumor, not even mentioned by Wikipedia.

    • FOARP (History)

      “Who would use or threaten nukes over islands with 300 sheepherders?

      I think the more obvious reason why nuclear weapons might have been considered would be in defence of the task-force. Britain deployed two aircraft carriers, 40 other ships, and two fully-manned brigades to the Falklands. Destruction of the task force would have been a national disaster to the UK, relegating it to third-rate power status.

      In spite of this, there is no evidence that any plans, preparation, or even the most minimal level of consideration was given to using nuclear weapons.

  2. John Schilling (History)

    “The British had nuclear weapons. Argentina did not. How is it possible that you could get into a shooting war with a nuclear-armed nation and not worry about nuclear attack?”

    By the time Argentina had to face that question, the North Vietnamese had demonstrated that one could win a shooting war with a nuclear-armed nation, humiliating them on the world stage and killing fifty thousand of their young men, without having to worry about nuclear weapons. Unless “pretend we are still an Empire” was more important to the UK than “stop the spread of world communism” was to the US a decade earlier, Galtieri was probably pretty safe.

    Which leaves Yom Kippur as the clear anomaly, as that wasn’t just a shooting war but an actual invasion of the homeland of a nuclear power.

    My gut feel is that this was deemed feasible (and, in fact, was feasible) because, A: Israel had not claimed or demonstrated a nuclear capabilty, and B: Egypt and Syria percieved an existential threat in continuing under the percieved humiliation of 1967. If the choice is between a border war with a nation that might have nukes, or an “Arab Spring” in 1975, and if you are a top Syrian or Egyptian government official rather than an ordinary Syrian or Egyptian citizen, well, the early 1970s were not a comfortable time for Arab leaders in that region.

    • Ward (History)

      When I argue that nuclear deterrence isn’t that reliable, people often say back to me that nuclear deterrence is pretty reliable because nuclear war is so scary.

      You think Galtieri was “probably pretty safe” in predicting that a war with the UK would not lead to nuclear attacks on Argentina. How can you risk a nuclear attack? Even if you think you’re “probably pretty safe”?

      Let’s say I promise to give you fifty bucks if you’ll close your eyes and speed through a red light at an intersection without checking to see if there’s traffic coming. I tell you it’s “probably pretty safe” that no cares will be coming the other way. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?

    • Cameron (History)

      Ward, you’re assuming that the actors are being rational. In both the cases you cite, the drive for action was predicated by the actors domestic political position. In the case of Argentina, the junta was crumbling and wanted a nationalist victory over a colonial power to rally public support. In their case a tiny chance the Thatcher uses nuclear weapons to reclaim an island that their intel suspects the British wouldn’t wage conventional war over is overcome by the urge to not be shot at dawn the day after the revolution comes.

    • seb (History)

      John, if you think “pretend we’re still an empire” was the UK perspective, you are making the same mistake the Argentines did. They expected no response as they have the view that the islands are a remote colony and as unlikely to provoke a response given policies of decolonisation followed elsewhere, and misread inept diplomatic positioning as conforming that.

      In actual fact the uk regarded it, given the population of the islands, much as the US might view an attack on a far flung island.

      Comparisons with Vietnam are not quite the same as Vietnam had a nuclear umbrella to some degree, and both the us and ussr had a closer understanding of the position and perspective of the other.

      The UK had no need to use nuclear weapons in the end, but it’s trivial to imagine a situation where it could have been unable to capture the islands conventionally. A decision to use nukes there would have to weigh the retention of the islands, no matter how they were viewed, with the wider strategic constraints of the inevitable loss of diplomatic and military support and cooperation, and impact on maintaining nuclear capabilities that would result.

  3. Mark Gubrud (History)

    I’m not a proponent of nuclear weapons; I favor arms control, disarmament, and the abolition of nuclear weapons, which I think could be achieved in a time frame as short as people are willing to believe possible. However, I basically agree with the views you attribute here to “proponents,” although you state those a bit too glibly.

    What were Sadat and Assad thinking? Perhaps that Israel had launched a suprise attack in 1967, stolen (“conquered”, some like to say) territory, and defied the United Nations and international law by refusing to give it back. A reasonable guess is that they thought they’d even the score with their own surprise attack, and take back their lands, or at least redeem their honor by daring to try. They were probably confident that Israel would not use nuclear weapons as long as the Arabs weren’t actually overrunning Israel and threatening to throw the Jews into the sea.

    Does this look to American eyes like a tendentious, anti-Israeli reading of history? Maybe that explains the dearth of scholarship looking into the question or Arab motives, except among Israeli scholars.

    As it happened, the surprise attack was remarkably successful, and Israel, facing defeat, began to ready its nuclear weapons. The US rushed to Israel’s rescue, airlifting tanks and sending planes flown by American pilots “contracted” to Israel. Two weeks later, Israeli troops were deep inside Syria and Egypt, shelling Damascus and advancing on Cairo, despite a UNSC-ordered ceasefire. That’s when Brezhnev threatened to intervene unilaterally, if need be, to enforce the ceasefire. In response, US nuclear forces went on alert, and the Israelis were told to S.T.O.P.

    Nuclear deterrence worked, in some sense, three times: the Israeli threat of resort to nuclear weapons brought the US in on their side; the Soviet threat to interve made the US enforce the cease-fire on the Israelis; and the US response made the Soviets back off.

    In the Falklands/Malvinas war, the Argentines obviously thought the British would not have the stomach to fight them over these islands close to Argentina and far from Britain, or, in any case, there was little risk in finding out. It was the Argentine military regime in power then. They no doubt felt the ice melting beneath them, and gambled for a glorious victory over British imperialists to rally the nation (oil was also reputedly at stake). There was no reason to think Britain would respond with nuclear weapons, and Galtieri probably did not give any serious consideration to the notion of shelling Plymouth.

    In both cases, the first military mover had no nuclear weapons but could reason that the opponent would be deterred from using nuclear weapons by the fact that such use would rock the foundations of its national (and global) security.

    Ironically, the risk was probably lower than if both sides in each conflict had been nuclear-armed, because then the question of preemption would have been raised. It’s been said that the lesson of the 1991 Gulf War was that “If you are going to take on the United States, you’d better have a nuclear weapon.” Perhaps the opposite is true, at least if you do end up in direct, open combat with the main military forces of a nuclear power, you may be safer if you don’t have any nukes.

    Anyway, I continue to believe that we will all be safer when nobody has any nukes.

    • Captain Ned (History)

      Ergo we’ll never be “that” safer. Some djinn simply can’t be stuffed back in the bottle and believing otherwise is Pollyanna on steroids.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      “Nuclear deterrence worked, in some sense, three times: (1) the Israeli threat of resort to nuclear weapons brought the US in on their side; (2) the Soviet threat to intervene made the US enforce the cease-fire on the Israelis; and (3) the US response made the Soviets back off.”

      Not sure I can count any of these as a “win” for deterrence. (1) and (2) sound like attempts at compellance. (2) and (3) sound like nuclear risk taking, similar to what happened in the Cuban missile crisis. Not sure (1) required a nuclear threat: If the U.S. failed to help a non-nuclear ally in desperate need, that would not look good for the U.S. willingness to help other allies.

      I can’t count this as a “win” for Ward Wilson either. Presumably both sides knew this was a limited war to recapture lost territory. If Israel’s existence were jeopardized and the U.S. would not or could not help, Israel could give a verbal warning and/or physical demonstration of its nuclear weapons. For example, an air-burst near Cairo, but not close enough to do serious harm, could be used to scare the Egyptians into retreating from any Israeli red line. Only then would we have a true test of deterrence.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      It is often forgotten today that prior to 1973 Israel was not so closely allied with the United States. The US was initially reluctant to intervene in the war and only did so when it appeared the Israelis might lose (I should probably have written “fearing defeat” rather than “facing”), and the risk of nuclear use was raised. For a quick summary, see

      You are right that the sense of the word “deterrence” here is a bit relaxed, which is why I qualified it with “in some sense”. We might say “avoidance.” Israel did not order the US to come to its aid; rather, given the situation, the US acted to mitigate the risk that nuclear weapons might been used, which would have “rocked the foundations”, as I put it, of global security.

      Even your hypothetical demonstration shot would have been extremely dangerous for the entire world. What would the Soviets have done then? It’s just as well we didn’t find out. We need to keep the dragon in his lair, if not sound asleep.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)


    • Jonah Speaks (History)


      I think we are on the same page about the hypothetical demonstration. It would violate the “nuclear taboo” and no telling how the Soviets would react. Also, no way to know how Egypt or Syria would react. Would they back off (be “deterred”), would they ignore it and continue fighting, would they feel “humiliated” and fight even more aggressively? Who knows? I am glad that history never tested this particular hypothesis.

      Not sure about the “Israel not an ally” before 1973 hypothesis. U.S. aid to Israel, specifically military aid, increased substantially in the 3-year period before the Yom Kippur war (FY 1971-1973), and increased still more afterwards. See the Congressional Research Service report (p. 35) available here:

  4. Cthippo (History)

    I agree with the others that the Falklands is not really a relevant case due to the probabilities of escalation being so low. Yom Kippur on the other hand…

    I have to wonder what Sadat and Assad were thinking. My guess is that they knew this was intended to be a limited attack and so assumed that Israel knew it too. They may also have assumed that the US would restrain it’s Israeli ally from pushing the button, or that they fell under the Soviet Union’s extended deterrence umbrella. I think we’re not taking the superpower politics angle into account enough in this discussion.

    All that said, it seems to me that where the Argentines made an accurate assessment of the intentions and willingness of their foes to escalate the conflict, the Arabs guessed wrong and nearly ended up with two large glowing holes in the sand for their efforts.

    One of the things this brings up though is the value of distance and time in crisis situations. In the Falklands all the players had weeks to figure out what was going on and to make decisions in response. In Israel, especially in the northern sector, that time was measured in hours because the battle space was so small.

    I suppose the bigger lesson here is that if you’re going to engage in limited conventional war against a nuclear armed state, it pays to make it clear what your objectives are and to prosecute the war in such a way that they don’t feel that their core interests are threatened. Argentina did that, Egypt and Syria did not.

    I would say that nuclear weapons are good for deterring existential threats, but not much else. Part of the problem with them is that they have been tried as a tool for so many other jobs, and unsurprisingly have turned out to be unsuitable.

    • Ward (History)

      Cthippo: It’s only unsurprising in retrospect. Time travel back to a National Security Council meeting in 1949 and argue that nuclear weapons aren’t useful for much and you might get an argument. Or more recently. Thirty years ago people could lose their jobs in the Air Force for even suggesting that nuclear weapons weren’t all that useful.

    • Cthippo (History)

      If your job is selling hammers then every task looks like a nail?

      There could be an essay there on how the nuclear weapons advocates drove defense policy.

  5. George William Herbert (History)

    Case studies on the leadership in all three situations listed – Argentina / Falklands, Sadat/1973, Assad/1973, are in Jervis et al “Psychology and Deterrence”.

    Argentina believed (convinced themselves) the English could not focus political will or power projection capability. These were wrongish (Thatcher could, others didn’t), And wrong (though it was a huge stretch and borrowed NATO committed forces).

    Sadat *wanted* peace; he needed a minor military victory to give him domestic political maneuvering room to negotiate the treaty. He essentially just wanted a minimal crossing of the Suez and then stability to negotiate.

    Assad appears to have thought he had a 48 hr or 72 hr window that would give him the Heights, defensible before Israeli mobilization was effective.

    He was failed by insufficiently aggressive company, battalion, division, and army leaders. The better half of those present were good enough; the worse half were not. They were not consistently able to execute on breakthroughs and push advantage. If he’d known ahead of time which officers were combat effective / aggressive enough and formed a couple of aggressive shock divisions with them, to pish the breakthroughs, he’d have not completely cleared the Heights but probably would have been able to push to all the access roads and interdict reinforcements.

  6. Marius (History)

    When a non nuclear state goes to war with a nuclear power, it also has to take the eventual use of chemical weapons into consideration. Chemical weapons are less devastating than nuclear weapons, but still capable of killing hundreds or even thousands of people, leaving all structures of a city intact. So, chemical weapons seem to be an enticing alternative to nuclear weapons, because of the absence of long term consequences like radioactive fallout.

    Galtieri should have taken the use of chemical weapons into consideration, because Great Britain could have made the Falkland War a very lossy one for Argentina. The use of chemical weapons against argentinian soldiers would have finally resulted in heavy protests, forcing Galtieri to give up the Falkland Islands.

    • Alex (History)

      I don’t think we actually had that capability.

    • Marius (History)

      Great Britain was running a chemical weapons program from 1939 to 1989 according to this Wikipedia article.

    • FOARP (History)

      The problem is that there is no evidence that either chemical or nuclear weapons (other than nuclear depth-charges) were deployed with the Falklands task force. That is: the British military did not include these weapons in their tool-kit for fighting the Falklands war despite having ample opportunity to equip the task force with them as a last-resort weapon.

      Now, theoretically they could have been made available to be dropped by the Vulcan bombers operating out of Ascention Island – one can perhaps imagine them being deployed to rescue British forces – but is there any evidence that plans were made for this?

      Basically, I’m pretty dubious that the British military and civil leaders ever even considered using nuclear weapons in the Falklands war.

    • Marius (History)

      I agree with you FOARP. I would never claim, that the british task force had chemical or nuclear weapons in their tool-kit.

      If Great Britain would have threatened Galtieri with the use of chemical weapons against his soldiers, he would have withdrawn his troops immediately, because chemical weapons are less devastating than nuclear weapons, and not considered a total exaggerated measure in such a war scenario.

      If a nuclear power want’s to make a war with a non nuclear power as short as possible it should prefer chemical weapons over nuclear weapons, because they are much more suited for such war scenarios.

      Nuking Argentina would equal the killing of ants with a flamethrower. It would simply raise a lot of questions.

    • Alex (History)

      Yes, I know Porton exists, and the UK has a chemical industry, but my point is that AFAIK there were no actual, kickable, deployable weapons you could load in a Vulcan, nor any doctrine or tactics or training.

      Similarly, we could theoretically have built a fleet of new aircraft carriers – we had shipyards – but it wasn’t a practical proposition.

    • FOARP (History)

      I don’t know if the UK had any chemical weapons that could have been deployed to the Falklands. I do know that threatening to use them on-the-record would have been a disasterously bad mistake at a time when Britain was focusing on the rights of Falkland islanders to live under a government of their own choosing. I don’t think the impact on Galtieri would have been that great either – the Argentines were equipped with standard CW gear, as most armies of a reasonable level of capability are.

  7. shaheen (History)

    “If you can’t extend deterrence over far flung islands that are part of your own country, how are you going to extend it over, say, Japan? If you can’t extend deterrence over territories that your troops are occupying and your civil authorities are administering, how are you going to make people believe that you can extend it over Germany?”

    This assessment is politically flawed. In 1982, the fate of Germany was more important to London than the fate of the Falklands. In 2013, the fate of East Asia and Europe is more important to Washington than the fate of, say, Guam.

    • Ward (History)

      Shaheen: You don’t remember Pearl Harbor, I take it.

    • Derek (History)

      And that would be a fair point if Guam was the only thing at stake in the Pacific War. It wasn’t. The Phillipines alone had a population of ~17 million in 1941 — about 6000 times that of the Falklands in 82. I know politicians are bad with numbers, but a factor of 6000 is hard to miss.

    • shaheen (History)

      (1) A Pearl Harbor-like attack WOULD be covered by nuclear deterrence. The fate of the US fleet in the Pacific was much more important to Washington in 1941 than the fate of the Falklands was to London in 1982.

      (2) Replace “Guam” with “the American Samoa” if you want.

  8. anon (History)

    One has to differentiate between failures of deterrence and failures to employ nuclear deterrence. If conventional war occurs in a situation where one would have thought nuclear weapons would have served as a deterrent, one has to ask whether the nation with nukes ever bothered to tell the other nation that it would respond with nuclear weapons if the attack occured. Every good scholar of nuclear weapons policy can tell you that communications are critical to establishing the credibility of the nuclear threat. In these two examples, I’d argue that, clearly, the Falklands were a failure to employ nuclear deterrence (i.e. the UK never included an Argentine attack on the Falklands in its declarations about why it had nuclear weapons). For me, the Middle East War is a little more gray. Israel still doesn’t acknowledge that it has nukes, and has never presented a declaratory policy on them. One could argue that Sadat and Assad should have assumed that Israel would see their attack as risking a nuclear response, but one could also argue that they did not consider the role of nuclear weapons in the circumstance because Israel had never communicated that nuclear weapons would have a role.

    The contemporary analogy to these two cases occurs whenever North Korea launches a “provocation” against South Korean interests. I’ve heard, directly, from South Koreans that U.S. extended nuclear deterrence failed because NK sunk their ship and shelled their island. However, I never heard the U.S. say, to anyone, that it would respond with nuclear weapons in such circumstances. Conventional deterrence may have failed, but the U.S. never employed nuclear deterrence in these circumstances.

    This is not the same as your “vital interests” exclusion. This is about communication and credibility, both of which are critical to nuclear deterrence. You make the nuclear threat credible in a number of ways (capability and will to use it are both necessary), but nuclear threats are often ambiguous, and ambiguity leaves room for misunderstanding. So, if you want to extend nuclear deterrence to your allies, you need to make sure that both your allies and adversaries know when and why you’d use nukes for that purpose.

  9. Shashank (History)

    One partial solution to the puzzle, from ‘What Does It Take to Deter?Regional Power Nuclear Postures and International Conflict’ (

    “I find that an asymmetric escalation nuclear posture uniquely deters conflict initiation and escalation. Not only do small arsenals have little deterrence success, but I find that even assured retaliation postures fail to deter intense conventional conflict. This suggests that the deterrence dividend is distributed unequally across nuclear powers, and that states may need to do more than simply acquire nuclear weapons to successfully deter conventional attacks”

    Although the data-set (wrongly, in my view) excludes the UK on the basis of “its tight integration with US nuclear forces since 1958, when it essentially became an adjunct force to the United States”, it does acknowledge that, if included, “the attack the United Kingdom experienced in the Falklands War does attenuate the results”.

    • krepon (History)

      I like Vipin’s use of the term “differential deterrence.”

      It does seem to me that there are a sufficient and growing number of cases where states with nuclear weapons have (1) not done well in warfare, and (2) have not deterred others from taking actions harmful to their interests. From this I conclude, without the benefit of a Ph.D., that nuclear weapons are of limited utility.


  10. Ara Barsamian (History)

    North Korea is surely deterring us and the S. Koreans with a handful of primitive nukes, since we are not willing to risk huge casualties no matter what the provocation.

    Iran’s watching, and if they get nukes, they’ll walk all over Bibi’s “red line”, and there isn’t much Bibi can do short of WWIII.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Do you think that if North Korea did not have nukes the US and/or South Korea would attack North Korea?

      Granted the North Koreans may have been alarmed when GWB queued them up on the “Axis of Evil” and proceeded to knock down the first duckpin. But you claimed NK “is surely deterring us” and specifically with their “nukes” not just their scary enough lineup of artillery, missiles and other “conventional” firecrackers.

      Similarly, I may have missed something, but apart from Stuxnet, some other sabotage and assassinated scientists, Israel doesn’t seem to have attacked Iran, or vice versa. The Iranians are reportedly shipping boatloads of weapons to their friends in Lebanon and Gaza, and bombing Israelis in Bangkok, so I’m not sure what “red line” you are referring to that they haven’t already walked over and would if they had a nuke.

      If somehow it does come to a hot war between the US/ROK and DPRK, the North Korean nukes are perhaps the only thing that makes the US use of nukes on North Korea a real possibility. Likewise even if Israel does attack Iran it is very unlikely that they would do it with nuclear weapons… unless this takes place after the Iranians already have some. That might be less likely, but it would likely be more dangerous for Iran.

      That is the paradox of nuclear deterrence: It works pretty well, but that is because if it fails, it fails pretty badly.

  11. Ara Barsamian (History)

    DPRK sank ROK ship, shelled ROK island, abducted people, etc. and “we” turned the other cheek…We have become “paper tigers” because we are afraid to take large scale casualties in the Korean peninsula from DPRK’s handful of nukes…If that is not deterrence, I don’t know what is…

    • John Schilling (History)

      The DPRK repeatedly shelled the ROK, launched company-scale armed incursions of the ROK, attempted to assassinate the president of the ROK, succeeded in assassinating the foreign minister and first lady of the ROK, hijacked a South Korean airline, shot down a USAF aircraft over international waters, attacked and captured a United States Navy warship in international waters, and kidnapped hundreds of South Korean and dozens of Japanese citizens – mostly young women. All without retaliation from the ROK, Japan, or the United States.

      Insofar as all of these things happened in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it is hard to credit your theory that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons are serving as a deterrent. Possibly we are being deterred by North Korea’s KN-312 series IPBM, which will be deployed in the late 23rd century and be capable of doing warp-drive slingshot maneuvers around the sun to strike targets several centuries in the past.

      More likely, we have all along been deterred by a fairly powerful conventional army, and by the prospect of being suddenly responsible for twenty million or so starving refugees with no useful skills.

  12. Ian (History)

    I’m a little late to this thread, but have one comment on the Falklands issue.

    The use of a nuclear-capable bomber (the Vulcan) to bomb Port Stanley airfield, even though only using 1000lb dumb bombs, did cause air defence re-arrangements on the Argentinean mainland, and has been described in later accounts as ‘sending a message’.

    That’s the nearest I can remember to a nuclear issue ever occurring in the Falklands conflict – I have never heard of the ‘give us the Exocet codes or we nuke the Argies’ event before.

  13. Carey Sublette (History)

    Looking at the Falkland Island War as a question of “the failure of nuclear deterrence” is a case of mis-framing I think.

    Before I explain why, consider the disastrous decision by Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait. Why did he do this?

    Short answer is that he did not expect the U.S. to come to Kuwait’s aid. If he had he would at least have waited until Iraq’s nuclear deterrent was ready.

    Why did he not think the U.S. would defend Kuwait? Apparently because he misinterpreted his meeting with U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie in which she asserted that the U.S. has no opinion on his border dispute with Kuwait.

    Hussein obviously grossly over-interpreted what she said, hearing what he liked to hear, but nonetheless he was clearly quite surprised by the U.S. reaction to the invasion.

    Now about the Falklands.

    At the time the UK had been cutting back on its support for the Falklands to save money. The Royal Navy had ceased operations in the area five years prior.

    And then the UK cut air service to the Falklands.

    This meant that the Falkland Islanders had to fly to Argentina to leave the islands, effectively surrendering passport control to Argentina, which forced the native islanders (but not visitors) to get Argentine Identity Cards. Not only did the UK not object, they elicited a promise from Argentina that the Falkland Islanders would not be drafted into the Argentine military. The Islanders thought this implied that they were being regarded as Argentine citizens, and Argentina thought so also.

    So the reason that Argentina tried to take physical possession was that they though the UK had signaled an intention to surrender sovereignty, and (like Hussein in Kuwait) did not expect a military response.

  14. Carey Sublette (History)

    “Any attack on Israel can quickly because an existential attack. How is it that Sadat and Assad were not deterred? How could they launch a shooting war, in which people would bleed and die, and not fear that it would spiral out of control?”

    The Israelis have a habit of over-doing this ‘existential threat’ business for foreign consumption. Sharon used to claim settlements on the West Bank were essential for military purposes.

    There was clearly no existential threat in the Egyptian invasion of the western side of the Sinai desert – they could not venture beyond the protection of their SA-6 batteries on the west side of the canal.

    It is a bit less obvious on the Golan, but the Syrian’s objective was simply to retake the Heights. Their plan explicitly depended on clearing the Heights before Israel reached full mobilization. After that they knew they had no chance.

    Unfortunately for them, the Israeli mobilization schedule ran 9 hours faster than expected, and Syrian command and coordination under fire proved inadequate, still they came within sight of achieving their goal.

    The notion that things might have spiraled out of control such that the Israelis felt they would need to resort to nuclear weapons seems to require that the Israelis collapse under the Syrian Blitzkrieg like the French/UK in May 1940 AND that the Syrians could and would successfully exploit this and descend into the Huleh Valley.

    There is nothing in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict to make this a credible hypothesis. And the Syrians do not seem to have subscribed to this idea.

  15. Carey Sublette (History)

    Odd that no one here mentions the Kargil War between two nuclear armed nations.

    • FOARP (History)

      Or the Korean war – you can argue that the North didn’t know they would end up fighting the US, but the Chinese intervention genuinely risked a nuclear response.

  16. rwendland (History)

    The Treaty of Tlatelolco (South American nuclear-weapon-free zone) obliged the UK not to take any nuclear weapons into the territorial waters/land of the Falkland Islands, South Georgia or the South Sandwich Islands – or much of the mainland. I’ve not checked the text, but I assume it also prevents the UK from using nuclear weapons there!

    The Royal Navy fleet actually took 65% of it’s WE.177A nuclear depth bombs to the Falklands area. Once the politicians realised this, they explicitly instructed the Royal Navy not to take any ships with WE.177As into Falkland territorial waters to comply with the treaty.

    The fleet moved the WE.177As from frigates to the two aircraft carriers and two large fleet auxiliaries with the fleet, which had better protected magazines.

    Consideration was given to removing the WE.177As at Ascension Island, “However in the absence of suitable
    facilities to meet both the safety and security needs, the numbers of weapons involved could not be stored on the island for more than a very few days [and it] would attract attention”. So the Royal Navy took the WE.177As to war, not planning to use them (asserted by the MOD).

    This is all documented by the MOD here:

    I must admit I still this episode a bit puzzling. Surely for the UK-based ships at least (including both carriers), it would have been worth the few hours delay to offload them in the UK. Though the fleet did leave in a great hurry. Perhaps not possible for ships already at sea or at non-UK ports, rounded up for the operation. It makes you wonder if a few senior RN officers initially thought taking WE177As along was perhaps a good idea, until the politicians cottoned onto this issue and decided the policy. On April 27, over 3 weeks after the fleet left the UK, the govt announced in parliament “there is no question at all of our using nuclear weapons in this dispute”.

    The document does give reasons/rationale/excuses for taking the WE177As, briefly:
    – if tension with the Soviets arose, not having the WE177As would delay re-deployment back from the Falklands
    – they didn’t want the Soviets to monitor the moves (useful data)
    – they didn’t want it to become known RN ships carried NDBs in peacetime, as it could jeopardise visits by RN ships to foreign ports


    • Alex (History)

      A lot of the escorts were coming from the Springtrain exercise with NATO in the Mediterranean. Also, only some of the RFAs were cleared to carry special weapons – I think the Fort-class stores ships, and there was no point offloading to a Fort ship that was heading south. And there was no way the RN could spare auxiliaries to go back north in April 1982.

      Leaving them next to the airfield on Ascension may just have seemed…untidy. And NDBs were simply irrelevant to the conflict. What target could there possibly have been – imaginary Argentine SSBNs?

    • Alex (History)

      Reading the document, this is a key point: “In addition, such storage [i.e. offloaded at Ascension] would not comply with agreed security standards.”

      Agreed = NATO and/or US requirement, I think.

      Also, you’ve got to be aware of the fragility of the logistics chain involved; when Fearless had to run ahead to Ascension so that the Amphibious Group commander could make a meeting with Woodward and Fieldhouse, she missed a refuelling rendezvous, and therefore was too high in the water to move various things, which had a whole string of knock-on effects.

      Also, very early in the day, accomodation and especially water for the various logistic units on Ascension became problematic and the support unit there started turning people back as they came off aircraft if they thought they weren’t vital. The doc mentions needing various specialist accident response and security units as a prerequisite of offloading the NDBs, and the extra footprint would have been a concern.

      The table on page 7 shows that Broadsword and Argonaut both remembered to leave theirs behind at Gibraltar and Devonport respectively. Even as it was there was a great deal of crossdecking, as Fort Austin and Resource were both needed for the landings and they didn’t want to take them into Bomb Alley.

    • rwendland (History)

      Reading the report shows just how much hassle and trouble taking the live WE.177As with them turned out to be, both planning effort and time transferring them at sea. It rather looks like taking a few extra hours off-loading them before setting off would have saved the fleet time overall.

      Broadsword and Argonaut left behind training weapons, not live ones. Very interesting to note that while HMS Broadsword left behind its training weapon, it took its live WE.177A to sea, only to transfer it to RFA Resource on 20 April – this would be compatible with a theory that initially the RN decided taking them was a good idea.

      BTW there is a published claim (which I disbelieve), by Mitterrand’s psychoanalyst(!) that Mitterrand told him that “[Thatcher is] threatening to unleash an atomic weapon against Argentina if I don’t provide her with the secret codes that will make the missiles we sold the Argentinians deaf and blind.”

      Thatcher ‘threatened to nuke Argentina’ – Jon Henley, The Guardian, 22 November 2005

  17. FOARP (History)

    @rwendland – Argentina was not a signatory of the agreement at the time (not until 1994 for that matter) and so therefore was not protected by the treaty. As an aside, whilst occasionally breaching of the treaty through the deployment of nuclear weapons to the Falklands has been levelled as an accusation against the UK, this accusation requires the accusaer to tacitly recognise the Falklands as British territory.

    And no, there was no situation in which it was conceivable that the NDBs would be deployed against the Argentines. In every instance in which a sub contact was detected (which greatly exceeded the number of times real submarines were detected) conventional weapons were used.

  18. rwendland (History)

    @Alex, @FOARP,

    I should have made it clearer above that the WE.177A functioned both as a tactical nuclear bomb on land and as a NDB. As you say, it’s not very conceivable that they could have been of use as NDBs there. But if anyone had been pondering a crazy option including the use of nuclear weapons, WE.177A used as a land strike weapon (by Sea Harrier) would probably have been the ideal UK weapon for this purpose. The Sea Harrier could deliver the weapon in air burst, ground burst or laydown modes with a selected yield of 10 kt or 0.5 kt I believe.