Geopolitics

Are Nuclear Weapons Losing their Sheen of Strategic Deterrence?
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Issue Vol. 32.2 Apr-Jun 2017 | Date : 12 Jul , 2017

“A process of interacting expectations with additional motive for attack being produced by successive cycles of ‘He thinks we think he thinks we think… He thinks we think he will attack; so he thinks we shall; so he will; so we must.’”
Thomas C. Schelling

‘He thinks we think… So we must’! The dilemma of when to use a nuclear weapon; how many to use; where to use is indicative of failure of deterrence!! Mao Tse-tung may have said (in August 1946), “The atom bomb is a ‘paper tiger’ which the United States reactionaries use to scare people. It looks terrible, but in fact it isn’t.” However, the Chinese did not restrain themselves in exploding an ‘atom bomb’ in 1964 and have since then given highest priority to developing nuclear capability. The reality that has emerged is that as long as nuclear weapons are around, even in small numbers, there will be a need to deter their use. Deterring these being used in a conflict between two nations, both possessing nuclear weapons, is the test of a nation’s determination. There is also a need to ensure that these weapons are not being used by one that possesses nuclear weapons against a nation not possessing nuclear weapons and that this self-restraint is to be a nation’s moral code.

Deterrence doctrine withstood the pressures through the trying period of the Cold War. The world was then bipolar. Now the players are more diverse, more enigmatic and also, more reckless if not ruthless. To make deterrence work, newer parameters arising out of this diversity, diffusion due to the enigmatic nature of the entities involved and potential of one player’s recklessness have to be taken into account. For India, Pakistan’s perceived irrationality and recklessness and its apparent inability to deal with the potentially mortal threat of extremism provide major deterrence challenges.

During the Cold War era, Western powers did rely on a threat to use nuclear weapons if all else failed. This was based on a cold rationale that nuclear retaliation for any attack is assured. Ironically, it would destroy that which is what is being fought to be saved – the country’s citizens!!!

During the Cold War era, Western powers did rely on a threat to use nuclear weapons if all else failed. This was based on a cold rationale that nuclear retaliation for any attack is assured. Ironically, it would destroy that which is what is being fought to be saved – the country’s citizens!!! Nuclear war and the threat of nuclear war are both equally irrational. But is it so in the Pakistani context?!! Scholarly debate talks of credibility of nuclear deterrence only when there exists the possibility for any conventional conflict to escalate out of control. The threat then is not a certainty, but rather a probability of mutual destruction. Thus nuclear deterrence requires accepting the risk of mutual destruction. Much of the current debate on nuclear deterrence centres on this risk. The leaders need to seek measures to lower the probability of nuclear war without losing the value of deterrence. This may not be an easy task, not only because of potential volatility and recklessness, but because of mounting violence and the absence of recognised rules. These states (and non-state actors) are already employing a mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, cyberspace, terrorism and non-traditional means to further their objectives. Pakistan leads here. The world cannot ignore Pakistan’s irrationality and its absurd recklessness any longer while India is asked to exercise restraint.

During the Cold War, a mix of deterrence, containment, conventional capabilities and arms control seemed successful in preventing a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union. New threats are arising – nuclear terrorism; radical Islamists running amok; the ability of non-state actors precipitating a war between India and Pakistan!! The West tends to see nuclear as weapons of the past while other newer actors see them as weapons of the future. In an era of extraordinary uncertainty, turmoil and extreme situations, it is necessary to war-game the most dangerous strategic situations contemporary leaders may have to face. There is little doubt that a nuclear crisis – or worse, a nuclear attack – whether by a state or non-state actor, would be a crisis situation. Former US President Barack Obama acknowledged in Prague in 2009, that, “the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.”

Besides having declared the nuclear doctrine, there is virtually no debate in India on a strategy for deterrence with regard to both India’s neighbours, but more so directed at Pakistan. Merely stating that there will be “massive retaliation” may not suffice as a doctrine of strategic deterrence. Therefore, the doctrines of deterrence strategies have to be debated here where they are needed most today – no cut-copy-paste solutions will do.

An argument put forth by Therese Delpech in her monograph with RAND Corporation, illustrates the complexity of the issue saying that deterrence – “is a potent argument in favour of maintaining existing nuclear arsenals (that is, deterrence, is contributing to the prevention of major wars, provides legitimacy to nuclear weapons). In addition, a widespread analytical confusion arises from the fact that nuclear deterrence is not credible unless actual use of nuclear weapons is contemplated”. The short conclusion drawn to suit ones argument is that doctrine of nuclear deterrence is thus inseparable from the doctrine of its use! When, in fact, the purpose of deterrence is to prevent its use. Deterrence must apply to the entire range of nuclear weapons – strategic, non-strategic and non-deployed nuclear weapons.

At various times, Pakistan has been described as a ‘rogue state’, ‘failed state’, ‘in terminal decline’, ‘on the edge’, surviving on repeated external financial support. What can be expected from such a state in terms of rationality when it is always seeking out an Armageddon!!!

The non-strategic nuclear weapons are a category of low yield, short range weapons, which might be used to attack troops and facilities on the battlefield. They have included in this group – nuclear mines, artillery projectiles, short-, medium-, intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and gravity bomb. Due to the nature of their targeting, these were intended for use by troops on the battlefield or within the theatre of battle to achieve more limited, objectives. Per force some of these were found well forward in the zone of battle in the European theatre.

While these had relevance in the Cold War period in the European theatre, the significance of non-strategic nuclear weapons in the India-Pakistan context has a different dimension. The Pakistan Army is building an arsenal of “tiny” nuclear weapons and as C. Christine Fair says it’s going to backfire. Why should Pakistan want the world’s smallest nuclear weapons? Will its size and yield change the basic nature of the weapons? Therefore, the first fundamental difference may be that low yield nuclear weapons or Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) should not be categorised as ‘non-strategic’ nuclear weapons since India has not developed TNWs. There has been much debate on whether India too should develop TNWs. Those who talk of nuclear war-fighting and are configuring nuclear damage templates for such scenarios are for TNWs. However, there is an equal number, if not more, of proponents who do not support the development of TNWs for strategic reasons. This strategic posture read in conjunction with the nuclear doctrine, is in sync with the larger Indian motive of global nuclear weapons ban.

Pakistan’s quest for parity with India, rather than being buried with its creation, has become more obsessive. Its leadership has sought to equate Pakistan with India in this puzzling quest for parity. To the extent it has demanded of India and the rest of the world to be so recognised. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme has been aimed at achieving this parity. Nuclear weapons were seen as balancing the asymmetric conventional relationship between the two. In that, Pakistan has used ‘borrowed power’, in the past from the US and now from China, to try and somehow achieve this. Pakistan and Pakistani people too, see nuclear weapons as a ‘magic wand’ that would make Pakistan India’s equal and guarantee security.

Where there are no legacies of memories or desire for solidarity, it is a tough calling to engage with such nations where there are diverse interests of the numerous groups who want to maintain their separate identities.

Pakistan has made the threat from India a leveraging ‘business strategy’. It looks at security in primarily physical terms and seeks support to shore up its military component of national power at the expense of the others. It continues to be a hotbed of terrorism, both external and internal, ridded with sectarian violence of such extreme and a nuclear proliferator!! At various times, Pakistan has been described as a ‘rogue state’, ‘failed state’, ‘in terminal decline’, ‘on the edge’, surviving on repeated external financial support. What can be expected from such a state in terms of rationality when it is always seeking out an Armageddon!!!

A country is a geographical entity. However, a nation is more than just physical space and geographical territory. Ernest Renan, in ‘What’s a Nation?’ (1882) describes a nation as “…a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form…A Nation is, therefore, a large-scale solidarity”. Where there are no legacies of memories or desire for solidarity, it is a tough calling to engage with such nations where there are diverse interests of the numerous groups who want to maintain their separate identities.

The physical dimension of nuclear weapons is better understood than the political or strategic consequences of its use. Therefore, it would be worthwhile to understand as to what constitutes a ‘strategic’ target. Firstly, the target would be one or a set of them the destruction of which will impose a heavy penalty on the war-waging potential of the adversary. Secondly, it could be directed at assets that would be used for a retaliatory strike and render these as ineffective. Thirdly, decapitation of the political and military central command and control is another oft stated target. Fourthly, as has been the precedent in World War II, pressurise the government through massive casualties to its citizens. In reality, counterforce (military oriented) targeting is more costly in terms of lesser number of casualties and the need for a larger number of delivery systems each with more accurate precision guidance along with more compact and compressed Circular Error Probable (CEP), since the targets are smaller, more mobile and difficult to track. While counter-value targeting, which mainly means cities and populated areas, become easier targets to identify and destroy even with less accurate systems, but with a higher degree of sensational impact forcing the government in power to take an early decision.

“It’s politically sensitive, but it’s going to happen…..We’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space.” – General Joseph Ashy, former Commander in Chief, US Space Command.

Every government is responsible for the security of each one of its citizens. Territorial integrity is an essential responsibility towards safeguarding its peoples’ “living space” (as opposed to the German concept of ‘Lebensraum’ which had forcibly removed indigenous people to resettle their own racial stock – as done by the European colonists globally). In the nuclear weapons scenario, the more serious question is protection of its citizens who seems to be the prime target of nuclear weapons. While that is morally enough reason to rid the world of nuclear weapons, the reality is that there have to be measures adopted to effectively deter the use of nuclear weapons against such vulnerable populations.

The deterrence theory states that an assured-destruction capability which gives it the ability to make the cost that an adversary has to bear in any conflict outweighs any possible gains. There are three main aspects to it – credibility, communication and resolve. Powerful conventional forces along with nuclear weapons are what will give credibility to deterrence. Bernard Brodie said way back in 1945, “Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them.” Unambiguous signalling and bargaining power need to be communicated to the adversaries. Alongside these is the resolve of the leadership to carry out all rational actions to counter a threat of use or actual use of nuclear weapons. The survivable second strike capability, though not so much applicable to Pakistan, but very relevant to China, needs to be in place. Having a potent triad deployed cannot be overlooked either. India’s decision not to replace the Canberra medium bomber with a more contemporary light/medium bomber and not going in for a replacement of the Mig-25 strategic reconnaissance aircraft was abject operational short-sightedness and strategic naivety.

Pakistan has often underestimated the resolve of the Indian political leadership and in the conventional war arena, has come out as cropper on four occasions. As one Pakistani observed, “The Pakistan army is the best army in the world which has lost all the wars it fought!!!!!”

Deterrence by denial achieved through increasingly sophisticated defences including Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), is a technological asset. These measures augment the signalling and resolve which make deterrence credible. ing out an Armageddon!!!

India is faced with terrorism sponsored by a ‘rogue’ neighbour. Suitable formulations need to be made for deterrence in this regard too. How to deter violent non-state actors with no territory to defend, but are bent on martyrdom and suicide? Will the state sponsor be held responsible for the actions of non-state actors in the event of nuclear terrorism? Does it prepare grounds for pre-emption against the sponsor nation? India will need to consider more ‘surgical strike’ type of conventional operations. It should prepare to use armed drones (the ‘Predator’ class, RUSTOM II/TAPAS 201) to monitor and target terrorist leaders and congregations in POK just like the missions undertaken by US Drones from Afghanistan into FATA and NWFP. Violation of hostile air space by a drone is of a different magnitude when compared to that of a manned military aircraft.

In its race for possessing nuclear weapons, Pakistan was more than helped by China as also the US which chose to look away while Pakistan built and proliferated its nuclear arsenal. China’s interest in its Road Belt Initiative (RBI) of which the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has now become an indispensable part, may see a larger role for China in protecting Pakistan from an Indian conventional or nuclear attack. However, most analysts in the West view China as increasingly self-confident, arrogant and hyper nationalistic. With its imperial culture and its political condescension, China sees itself as a legitimate successor to the US in the global arena and claims it deserves to be number one. Its neighbours are already feeling the strain in the relationships. It may, therefore, be too optimistic to expect that China would at the same time be a factor which may reign in the Pakistan Army in taking a foolhardy irrational decision to use nuclear weapons. Egging it on is more likely.

“Cyber security risks pose some of the most serious economic and national security challenges of the 21st Century” – Cyber Policy Review 2010. Cyber operations and space-based operations have added another dimension to nuclear deterrence. STUXNET is a telling example of the power of cyber operations. If the recent inconspicuous news report of US orchestrating the detonation of a North Korean missile soon after launch is authentic, then India needs to put its money here where it will yield dividends. Intelligence is the most vital component of the fabric of deterrence. The Mumbai terrorist attack, Parliament attack, Kargil, Pathankot airfield attack and the attack on Uri administrative base have indicated a major weakness in the area of intelligence. The agency’s stock response is that it is due to the effort to these agencies that numerous attacks have been foiled, but these go unnoticed. That is a rather facile argument. What could be those foiled attempts by terrorist that intelligence agencies claim which would have more serious repressions than these attacks that were not foiled??!! The claims by intelligence agencies are specious and sort of self-congratulatory.

“It’s politically sensitive, but it’s going to happen…..We’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space.” – General Joseph Ashy, former Commander in Chief, US Space Command.

Without doubt, development of cyber operations, both defensive and offensive, needs to be accelerated. In addition, India should not display reticence in developing space weapons and prepare on fast track for space-based operations.

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Deterrence by denial achieved through increasingly sophisticated defences including Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), is a technological asset. These measures augment the signalling and resolve which make deterrence credible. The Cabinet needs to meet every six months with all stakeholders to war game options and plan response options. Decision making in the face of a massive crisis is not the forte of even a seasoned politician or some charismatic mass leader. Contingencies have to be worked out and response to each war game. It may be recalled that in April 2010, there were 11 cases of exposure to radioactive Cobolt-60 in a scrap yard in an industrial area of Delhi. The National Disaster Management Authority, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre were actively involved in the investigations. There was no department in any hospital in Delhi which was competent to handle casualties caused by exposure to even mild radioactive radiation.

Another incident occurred in October 2016, at the Delhi international airport cargo complex where six packets of Sodium Molybdate/Molybdenum-99, a medicinal isotope, leaked from medical equipment, were detected. It was panic reaction all over. If these are examples of the preparation for such emergencies then the message to the adversary is clear – we are not geared to handle victims of even a small nuclear attack. It also seems outrageously simple for a terrorist, on a suicide mission, to walk around with a few hundred grams of potent radioactive material strapped to his torso in a crowded public place without the need to blow himself up. Chemical attack of such sort is likely to catch the administration unaware too.

There is no doubt that strategic nuclear weapons are Weapons of “Mass Murder”. It is murder of the very citizens that the government is entrusted to protect. Self-deterrence is NOT a practical option when confronted with a real situation as ominous as a nuclear attack by a failing regime in a radicalised rogue state with irrational irresponsible leaders and where fanatical terrorists, on whom the state has lost control, jump into the fray themselves armed with nuclear devices. Glib talk and half measures will not do. Nor is ‘bullet versus butter’ debates succour for budget constraints. The reality is that with no ‘bullets’, the adversary will have the ‘butter’ you craved for!!!

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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4 thoughts on “Are Nuclear Weapons Losing their Sheen of Strategic Deterrence?

  1. “The West tends to see nuclear as weapons of the past ..” -

    I would not agree with the respected General on this point. True even during the last years of the Soviet Union, many nuclear weapons were destroyed both by the USA and the Soviets by negotiations, but that was just a hoodwink for the (third-?)world at large. Reality was, and even today is, those nuclear explosives were just outdated nuclear technology products. And there was no further need for the super powers to maintain them. Nuclear weapons were getting more refined and sophisticated with the progress of nuclear technology. One development was, and still going on, miniaturisation but with enhanced devastating impact. So the two super powers still go on refining their nuclear arsenal, while discarding those from outdated technology era. The cold war has ended, but the two super power do go on advancing their nuclear punch capability covertly and create newer stockpiles. Anyway, I have enjoyed reading this column.

    • Thank you.
      It is heavy stuff and too serious not to be considered deeply. Disagreement is never a ‘deterrent’ in interaction between those who express themselves. In fact I believe in thrashing out issues so that a comprehensive idea emerges – ego has no role.
      Yesterday I up-loaded on our web magazine the UN Agreement on Nuclear Disarmament which is likely to be signed by 129 countries but boycotted by the nuclear armed nations. People have to move governments to ensure that governments listen to the people. The governments exist for the people not the other way round.
      The issue is too serious to be left only to politicians and dictators/autocrats!!
      Thanks again for sharing your point of view.
      Regards
      Aye

      • Thank you General for reading my post and responding. I may add that I fully subscribe to the observation made by Churchill, that peace can be obtained only by the threat of war which up till now the Indian nation has not absorbed. In fact, all such UN conventions and weapons control mechanisms are just hogwash – these are meant for “have-nots” so that they could not stand up militarily. Many missile systems are getting outdated with the passage of time and the UN is introducing “missile control” resolutions since for those who have that technology, they are discarding those missiles as their use by date has expired. I did not agree with the late strategist K. Subramanium’s position when he put forward the case that India could further her nuclear capability by the art of computer simulation without experimentation. In my assessment that is an absurd opinion unsubstantiated technologically.
        I am also astounded at why the policymakers in Delhi do not adhere to the insight of the great Prussian General Clausewitz for a nation state, that economy, political stance and military power are intrinsically locked together. It comes to mind, Modi is eager for more economic development with China while China kicks around India and her interests in the world. He is dismissing territory nibbling by China by shoving the matter as border issues as if irrelevant for trade and other matters. India must understand international boundaries have come into existence by fighting wars where the military plays the central role, not the diplomatic negotiators. Diplomacy could lead to some breathing ground only when backed up by power projection militarily.

        • Hi Sankar,
          As you stated, diplomacy needs to be backed by military power. Since honourable Diplomats do not resort to fisticuffs nor do they fling mikes and chairs at the other party, hard-power to the govts diplomatic initiatives lies with the military. The politician is more comfortable with the policeman than the military always fearing that there could be a coup!!!! So the army is kept at minimum sustenance levels. Then when the Dragon comes snorting fire there is panic. Weakness will be taken advantage of by an adversary.
          Browse on!
          Regards

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