JAPAN SHOULD TAKE HINT FROM BRITAIN’S NUCLEAR DETERRENCE
On April 17, Russia called on Ukrainian troops in besieged Mariupol to surrender by midday April 19. The threat from President Vladimir Putin was also dispatched to the US. In a diplomatic note addressed to his American counterpart Joe Biden, Putin warned that US and NATO deliveries of the “most sensitive” weapons systems to Ukraine would aggravate the fighting there and could cause “unpredictable consequences.” But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky flatly refused to budge an inch, with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal vowing to “fight absolutely to the end.”
Foreseeable under the circumstances is a tighter unity among Western nations and a more arduous fight against Russia. The US-led coalition of Western democracies is expected to provide Ukraine weapons with greater offensive power in an effort to avert its complete defeat. They are fully aware a Russian victory would mean that a monstrous outrage on the part of Putin, who has threatened to resort to nuclear weapons, would likely go unpunished.
No matter how strongly Russia may threaten the West with words, its chances of winning a full-scale war against NATO, with the US at the helm, would be next to nil. For that reason, Russia will be extremely careful in launching an attack on any NATO country. The war in Ukraine is therefore expected to drag on. What a tragedy for Ukraine.
So long as Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China plot to extend their spheres of influence, Western nations must make preparations on two fronts by: 1) banding closely together as members of an alliance with capabilities superior to China and Russia; and 2) endeavoring to bolster national defense to the hilt.
The importance of 1) would be obvious from what one sees in what has been happening to Ukraine since February 24, when Russia’s incursion began. As regards 2), it is important for any nation to develop maximum self-defense capabilities under the present no-holds-barred geopolitical circumstances. Japan in particular is facing one of the world’s most precarious situations. Pardon my repeating myself, but I do wish to point out afresh that Japan is the only nation in the world that is encircled by three hostile autocracies—China, North Korea, and Russia, each armed with nuclear weapons and missiles.
I believe Japan has much to learn from Britain in terms of how London has formulated its national defense strategy. In addition to being protected by America’s extended nuclear deterrence as a key member of NATO, Britain owns four nuclear submarines armed with strategic nuclear missiles. Under the Labor Party administration that preceded the administration of Margaret Thatcher, the missiles deployed on board these four submarines were Polaris.
Switching National Defense Policy
After Thatcher took office in May 1979 and Ronald Reagan of the US Republican Party became President by defeating incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter in November the following year, the international situation began to change significantly. Credit goes to Thatcher for switching Britain’s national defense policy through a deep insight into US-Soviet relations and the European situation at that juncture. She swiftly set about selecting a replacement for the outdated Polaris missiles. The best replacement discussed between Britain and the US was the Trident I MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle) system.
The Trident missiles incorporated a critical new MIRV technology allowing multiple nuclear warheads to head simultaneously for individual targets. On December 6, 1979, Britain reached an agreement with the Carter administration to purchase them. But Carter, who at the time was pursuing diplomacy with Moscow in good faith, was concerned that the deal, if made public, might negatively affect his position. But the USSR abused his goodwill by invading Afghanistan on December 24 that same year. In the presidential election the following year, Carter was defeated.
Reagan, who entered the White House in January 1981, concentrated his efforts on substantially expanding and modernizing the US military. Trident I missiles were upgraded to Trident II and a decision was made in 1982 to introduce them to the British Navy to replace the Polaris system.
A total of 16 Trident missiles were deployed for the each of the four nuclear submarines. Each missile carried three nuclear warheads, making for a total of 48 warheads per submarine. The Royal Navy has at least one nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine patrolling the seas undetected at all times. Should Russia initiate a nuclear attack against Britain, it is ready to instantly counterattack by launching Trident missiles underwater. Britain has thus produced its own powerful nuclear deterrence.
Behind Thatcher’s strong desire for Britain to acquire its own powerful nuclear deterrence was the complexity of the relationship between the US and Europe, where the USSR started deploying a new type of missiles, the SS-20s, in 1977. Carrying three warheads each, the high-accuracy MIRVs were reloadable and mobile. The USSR was also in the process of developing five new types of ground-to-ground and new long-range “standoff” anti-ship missiles, including the SS-21s, SS-22s, and SS-23s.
Thatcher was on a visit to (West) Germany just a week after taking office, discussing with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt possible countermeasures against the military threat from the USSR. At the time, western European nations were supposed to counter the USSR first with conventional weapons, but, should such measures be ineffective, could not but turn to the US for protection with powerful strategic nuclear weapons that would be launched from the US mainland. However, Thatcher was able to foresee that any countermeasure Europe envisioned would be ineffective unless medium-range nuclear weapons were deployed in Europe to provide a link between the two defensive measures.
Putting Trust in One’s Own Country
Being of the same opinion as Thatcher, Schmidt strongly hoped for an early development and deployment of US-made medium-range missiles in Europe. The US responded by expeditiously developing medium-range MGM-31 Pershing missiles, which were delivered in late 1983.
During the G7 summit held in Williamsburg, US, in May 1983, France and Canada fiercely protested against the plan. According to a memoir by Reagan, Francois Mitterrand of France and Pierre Trudeau of Canada together condemned as “warmongers” the nations that supported the proposed deployment of the US-made mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe. A fierce argument ensued in Williamsburg among the seven heads of state who took part in the summit. Mitterrand and Trudeau reportedly had to walk to a luncheon completely separated from the rest of the group. The two parties refused to exchange words throughout the luncheon.
There was a deep suspicion on the European side at the time about the extended deterrence by the US, causing pundits to wonder if a consensus could really be reached on the plan to introduce US-manufactured nuclear weapons to safeguard NATO’s security. Amid this complicated situation, Thatcher must have thought that, while developing an international framework to defend Europe was vital, it was equally important to come up with a framework to powerfully complement it. She reached the conclusion that having Britain’s own nuclear weapons would address this issue. In 1981, this led London to purchase the brand-new Trident missiles to be mounted on its nuclear submarines. More than 40 years later, today at least one of them is always still cruising deep in the sea undetected. This is a point worth emulating for Japan.
British and US leaders have many things in common. On top of the list is the trust they put in their own countries. In her memoir, Thatcher states that no country is “more trusted internationally” than Britain, while Reagan reminisces that no country “has contributed more to other countries” than the US.
Needless to say, both Britain and the US have defects, as no nation is perfect. But great power is born when nations put their trust in themselves. Japan is blessed with its own power unmatched in the world—our innate capacity to care for each other gently but firmly over centuries. We would do well to utilize this ability as a means of breaking away from the constraints of Japan’s postwar system and achieving national rejuvenation.
(Translated from Renaissance Japan column no. 997 in the April 28, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)