Military & Aerospace

Primacy of Deterrence in Nuclear Age
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Net Edition | Date : 02 Jun , 2015

A real ‘revolution’ in history of warfare was ushered in 1945 when the human beings tapped the forces of nature trapped in tiny atom, a force of vast proportion that has the capability of destroying the entire planet earth. This led to a turnaround in the relationship between politics and warfare. Nuclear war/weapons were no longer a ‘means to achieve political ends’ but instead the principal aims of politics today is to avoid nuclear war.

In the pre-thermonuclear age security strategies had two basic dimensions – defensive and offensive.

While the nuclear technology and its destructive power made nuclear war unthinkable, the socio-economic and political causes that lead to conflict have scarcely changed in last 75 years and wars of varying intensity continue throughout the world. Mercifully for mankind, use of nuclear weapons has not been part of these conflicts so far.

Decision making on war and peace is a serious business and involves not just the professional military but political leaders, civil servants and citizens at large. This brief essay is an effort to promote understanding of the phenomenon, so necessary in the Indian subcontinent that is widely feared to be the next nuclear battlefield.

An Overview of History of Warfare.

Fighting a war is arguably the oldest profession. In the hunter-gatherer stage of human existence, it was often resorted to over greener pastures, better caves or women. In the next human epoch, agricultural civilization spread first to the fertile river valleys. The struggles and wars (right till the industrial revolution) were characterized by the hunters and nomads sweeping down the mountains on to the agricultural communities for plunder. In the industrial era, wars were motivated by race for raw materials and markets and manifested in the colonial empires. In the postindustrial era that is just beginning at the dawn of 21st century, the contours of warfare are yet to emerge. It would be reasonable to suggest that war as an instrument of policy is still relevant and is rooted in the basic theory of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest!

“Offensive” strategies, like defense have several variations. A nation could opt for a ‘war prevention strategy’. The British in the 19th and early 20th century followed it to the hilt.

In the pre-thermonuclear age security strategies had two basic dimensions – defensive and offensive. Within these there were further sub divisions. One type of defensive strategy is of passive defense. Primary reliance in this case is placed on positional defense with attrition as the means to destroy the enemy. In the process of destruction of the enemy by attrition is a function of resistance and time. Simply put,

Attrition = Resistance  X   Time  X  Quality of Technology (A=R x T x Q)

To enhance the factor R, defense took advantage of the terrain. Where terrain obstacles did not exist, artificial obstacles were erected. The Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line of the French or our own ditch cum bundh and defence oriented layout of irrigation canals on Indo Pak border are some well-known examples of this. Opposed to this is the concept of ‘active’ or mobile defense. In nut shell this entails a minimum force holding ground, trading territory for time and ultimately delivering the coup de grace to the ingressed force in a single or several attacks. Though the strategy is defensive the aim in this case is to annihilate the enemy and then go on to a counter offensive.

“Offensive” strategies, like defense have several variations. A nation could opt for a ‘war prevention strategy’. The British in the 19th and early 20th century followed it to the hilt. The British often went to war to forestall the emergence of a potential rival. Wars with Napoleonic France, Crimean war with Russia and even the First World War with Germany, can be understood only as part of a British ‘preventive ‘ strategy. It is no accident that UK since long had ‘war ministry’ and not ‘defense ministry’. Different from ‘preventive war’ is the concept of ‘pre-emptive strike’, Israel’s strategy against the Arabs is the classic example of this. The essential difference between the two is timing. On 5 June 1967, Israel pre-empted the Arabs when it struck at the Arab air power before the Arabs could put their war plans in motion. In addition to these two there exists a concept of “limited offensive”, which falls somewhere between a fully offensive and defensive strategy.

Invention of the hydrogen bomb that was in the multi megaton range changed the situation dramatically after 1954.

The nuclear era brought to the forefront the concept of ‘nuclear deterrence’. Concept of ‘Deterrence ‘ itself is, strictly speaking, not a new phenomenon. The Swiss practiced it successfully in both the world wars. Relying on difficult terrain, highly motivated and well trained population, efficient system of total mobilization and a reputation of being tough fighters, the Swiss avoided the fate of neutral Denmark or Sweden. However in the pre-thermo nuclear weapons era deterrence strategy was a complicated and ambiguous affair. The Swiss success in deterring Germany could well be attributed to the German disinterest in that mountainous country rather than all other factors mentioned earlier.

In the early period of atomic era from 1945 to 1954, the US armed with atomic weapons was held in check by the massive conventional armies of the erstwhile USSR posing a threat to Europe. The American nuclear restraint in those years is often attributed to the American desire for peace. It is even suggested by some analysts as being a unique case of self- denial. As facts have now revealed, the atomic weapons then were in acute short supply, their delivery by means of bombers was uncertain in face of the formidable Soviet air defence and finally the atomic stockpiles were thought to be too meager to cover the huge land mass of Soviet Union effectively.

Invention of the hydrogen bomb that was in the multi megaton range changed the situation dramatically after 1954. Douhet’s prophecy of air war being the decider became true as the multimegaton weapons possessed the power to destroy entire nations; later even the world itself. The only choice available was between total surrender, complete disarmament or deterrence.

Development of ICBMs and nuclear submarines added to the difficulties of defense. Truth is there is no defense against nuclear weapon.

Deterrence in nuclear age is different than the one earlier practiced. Its failure would mean world destruction. It is also no longer a matter of complex calculation of material and psychological factors as the Swiss deterrence was. Deterrence in thermo nuclear age is based on the incontrovertible fact of the destructive capability of the single weapon. Development of ICBMs and nuclear submarines added to the difficulties of defense. Truth is there is no defense against nuclear weapon.

Deterrence strategy over the years has been based on the assured destruction capability that can survive preventive/pre-emptive war and still be in a position to cause unacceptable damage to the enemy. This in turn prevents the adversary from embarking on the course that could lead to war.

In the later years of cold war both the superpowers came to possess MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction Capability). MAD was not a strategy but a situation that came about due to momentum of technology, influence of military industrial complex, inter service rivalry and mutual suspicion. Even the nuclear war fighting capabilities and doctrines that were propagated were mainly to enhance the credibility of deterrence rather than any faith in the efficacy of the strategies themselves.

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left