Military & Aerospace

Principles of War for Nuclear Age
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 05 Jun , 2015

In any discipline, some theoretical principles govern or explain most of actions/events. For long time Principles of War have played that role in Art of War. These are not laws in formal sciences or even formulae for success but mere guide lines to think logically. Nuclear age as distinct from earlier era of warfare can be understood better with reference to these principles.

Clausewitz and Modern Strategic Thought.

Warfare has been variously described as a science or an art. Semantics apart, over the years there is now a growing recognition that the science or art of war is separate recognizable discipline with its own independent structure. For over nearly two centuries, the strong pillars of this structure were the principles of war propounded by a German General Carl Von Clausewitz. These ‘laws’ of the science/art of warfare can be criticized as being too nebulous and imprecise. Yet, they are no more ambiguous than say the various laws of economics.

The science of warfare is essentially a part of social sciences and has a large human element present in it. It is therefore logical that anything in which the human element predominates, that discipline is bound not be too exact. But within this limitation inherent in any social science, the principles of war as a guiding foundation have remained relevant despite major changes in technology and international politics.

The ultimate aim of all warfare is to subjugate the enemy’s will to fight. This could be achieved either through the destruction of his armed forces or capture of his territory or important nerve centers.

The first principle of war, (probably the most misunderstood as well) is, selection and maintenance of aim. Clausewitz also firmly believed that the military or the strategic aim must flow from the political aim and be subordinated to it.The ultimate aim of all warfare is to subjugate the enemy’s will to fight. This could be achieved either through the destruction of his armed forces or capture of his territory or important nerve centers. The aim so selected must conform to the means available and the likely enemy reaction. The strategic aim must have a direct bearing on the achievement of political aim, the central purpose of war. Once having ‘correctly and carefully’ selected the strategic aim, it must be ‘maintained’ relentlessly. One has to be particularly careful not to get diverted to subsidiary tasks at the expense of the main aim. Frequent changes in aim are also frowned upon by Clausewitz. The First World War is classic example of the wooden headed military leadership misunderstanding this to mean ‘status-quo’ approach to strategy and tactics. On the other hand the failure of Schliefen plan in WW I to achieve the decisive results can be directly attributed to the diversion of resources from the main aim.

Offensive action is another important principle of war. The war aim can only be achieved through positive action-defense though tactically superior to offense can never achieve the war aim.

War, during Clausewitz’s time and even at a later date continued to be characterized by scarcity of fire power and limited ranges of weapons. This made manoeuvre, the art of getting into an advantageous position vis-à-vis the enemy, the true test of Generalship. Clausewitz accords this the status of a principle of war, and rightly so. Concentration of effort in both time and space is another consideration that has to underlie all planning for war. Surprise or the art of doing the unexpected has been recognized since pre historic times as a war winning factor. Clausewitz, in keeping with Napoleon, also laid great stress on moral force or ‘morale’ as a vital ingredient of strategy. All in all, the principles of war admirably surmise the often contradictory considerations that have to be kept in mind while evolving a strategy.

The quick surrender by the tenacious Japanese established the nuclear weapon as a `decisive’ weapon of war.

The Nuclear Weapon Revolution: Why are nuclear weapons unique?

Project Manhattan that gave birth to the nuclear weapons in 1945 was conceived and executed by scientists with virtually no inputs from the professional military. Most of the military leadership was not even aware of the existence of the atomic bomb till after the event. This was first instance in history of warfare where a new weapon was developed in total isolation from the military.

The main motive of the scientists working on the project was to forestall Hitler from getting the weapon first. Thus deterrence, and not `use,’ was the primary objective. The moment the Allies landed in France in June 1944, a special operation was launched under code name ~Alsos Mission’ to collect all available material on the status of German research on nuclear weapon. On 15 November 1944, General Patton’s third army captured the city of Strasbourg and important papers belonging to Professor Wiezacker, fell into the hands of the Americans. These important documents gave a clear signal that the Germans were way behind the allies in the field of nuclear research and the prospect of a German atomic bomb in existence were close to nil. As this news filtered back to the scientists working on Project Manhattan, the very scientists who were earlier the staunchest advocates of making the bomb changed their views and urged the abandonment of the project.

In June 1945, Professor Niels Bohr, the Swedish scientist met President Roosevelt in an attempt to stop further research on the atomic bomb. President Roosevelt died soon thereafter and his successor, Harry Truman, took the decision to use the bomb against the Japanese to save American lives in a costly attack on Japanese mainland. The scientist had lost control over the genie of their own creation. The quick surrender by the tenacious Japanese established the nuclear weapon as a `decisive’ weapon of war. The terrifying power and decisive effect made the nuclear weapon use an issue of strategic decision and hence the control rested with the highest political authority and not the soldier. It was not a weapon to win battles but war. In decades since Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the end of WW II, there has been no change in this equation between political control of nuclear weapons and subordinate role of the military in affairs nuclear.

…a single missile today carries a punch four times bigger than all the explosives used in the second world war- and that punch is delivered against a single target.

The global nature of radiation effect, fear of nuclear winter and destruction of earth’s ecology, make nuclear weapons truly doomsday weapons and mark a clear break from other forms of warfare. Similarly the explosives used in the second world war, by both the sides from 1939 to 1945 (including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) accounted for close to 6 megatons. In the nuclear age, a single multiple warhead missile carries anything upto 20 megatons of destructive power. In short, a single missile today carries a punch four times bigger than all the explosives used in the second world war- and that punch is delivered against a single target. This quantitative change has forced a fundamental change in the relationship between use of nuclear force and politics.

First Principle:  Aim of National Security Policy is prevention of Nuclear Holocaust.

Once a nation possesses nuclear weapons the oft repeated cliché- nuclear war cannot be won and therefore must never be fought, comes into play. Nuclear weapons are like life insurances, we must have it to deal with risks but would want it never to be put to use. The only exception to this law/principle is when survival of nation is at stake. By its very nature of being ‘un usable,’ power of nuclear weapons is useless to achieve political aims other than survival since threats of use lack credibility. This is especially true when a potential adversary also has nuclear weapons. These are indeed the modern version of the ‘great equalizer’ (the famous 4.5 pistol of the Wild West).

Second Principle: Primacy of Deterrence.

If nuclear weapons are un usable  and if nuclear war must never be fought does that mean that nuclear weapons are useless? Far from it, since it is these that kept peace between the two sides during the Cold War. Since use is last option and world government and complete disarmament a distant dream, the only feasible strategy is the role of nuclear weapons as a ‘deterrent’.

Mere possession of nuclear weapons will not yield deterrence and peace dividend if we fail to convince the potential adversary that we will indeed use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances irrespective of the likely cost to ourselves.

Deterrence is a psychological concept and means that a nation possesses such a retaliatory capability, irrespective of whether one strikes first or second, that the potential adversary will dare not act in a manner that  we perceive as posing a threat to our survival. When both the sides possess these capabilities, the deterrence becomes mutual and leads to a stable strategic balance and armed peace.

Third Principle: Credibility.

Deterrence is a sum total of capability and credibility. Mere possession of nuclear weapons will not yield deterrence and peace dividend if we fail to convince the potential adversary that we will indeed use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances irrespective of the likely cost to ourselves.

Credibility of our threats depends on our physical capability and resolve as demonstrated by our actions. Integral to establishing credibility of deterrent is the clear laying down of the ‘red lines’ that an opponent must respect. The clearest example of this was seen during the cold war when the West successfully convinced the Communist Block that starkly vulnerable West Berlin was one such red line that the Soviet’s must not cross. Similar successful ‘red lines’ were laid down by the Soviet Union as concerns the erstwhile East European Communist regimes. Thus the West stayed away from interference in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1967 when the Soviet Union used massive force to crush local revolts.

The red lines so laid down must meet the criterion of being realistic. The same West failed to laydown similar red line in South East Asia, especially Vietnam! There has to be a virtual (or tacit) agreement between the two sides for the ‘red lines’ to be effective.

Fourth Principle: Communication and Information.

Surprise, one of the prime weapons in the conventional warfare is redundant in Nuclear scenario as this pre supposes the ‘use’ of nuclear weapons thus negating the first and second principle. The principle of information and communication really re-in forces the principle of credibility. Here one is not referring to mere statements of threats but hard information about the possession of weapons and means of delivery as well as the ‘will’ to use them. Frequent nuclear tests and missile launches served this purpose during the cold war. With the test ban treaty in force, the ’signaling’ is now confined to tests of delivery vehicles and state of readiness that signifies.

…Kargil intrusion and Mumbai attack of 26/11, in both these cases the Indian lack of response has been glaring. This happened since the Indian decision makers had not thought through conflict management and failed to lay down red lines that the adversary must not cross.

At all times, the nuclear adversaries must maintain reliable, fail safe lines of communication so that nuclear war does not take place by misperception or accident.

Fifth Principle: Conflict Management.

Based on the means used and tactics adopted conflicts can be classified as

  • Insurgencies with or without external support by proxy.
  • Conventional conflict between regular armed forces.
  • Cold War using covert actions, subversion, sabotage , espionage and psychological warfare.
  • Nuclear war.

It has to be clearly understood that ‘deterrence’ is effective only in last case. Irrespective of the possession of nuclear weapons, conflicts at the lower end of the spectrum are likely to continue till such time as the underlying political issues are not resolved. The underlying assumption about this classification or the ‘escalation ladder’ is that conflicts can be frozen at any of the above given steps since neither side wants resort to nuclear weapons. Thus today it is essential to match the appropriate response to adversary action. It is here that the stillborn Indian concept of ‘Cold start’ doctrine of automatic extension of conflict to conventional stage failed the rest being unrealistic. This in essence is ‘conflict management’ so clearly seen in case of Vietnam war where even at the cost of military humiliation, the US stopped short of use of nuclear weapons. This further reinforces the argument that nuclear weapons are essentially ‘strategic’ and tactical stage is indistinguishable from its more general counterpart. Seen in this light Pakistan’s belief that it could ‘use’ tactical nuclear weapons without provoking general nuclear war are fanciful.

Post nuclearisation, Indian subcontinent witnessed two major conflicts, the Kargil intrusion and Mumbai attack of 26/11. In both these cases the Indian lack of response has been glaring. This happened since the Indian decision makers had not thought through conflict management and failed to lay down red lines that the adversary must not cross.

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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

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.

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2 thoughts on “Principles of War for Nuclear Age

  1. The failure of the Indian establishment to draw the red line to caution the adversaries was dictated by the domestic compulsions of political sustenance. The votes of the minorities and the support from the communist intelligentsia have ensured the policy of obfuscation and perfidies on the external front which was fed by appeasement at home. No wonder, inspite of suffering 26/11 policy paralysis ensured no deterrence against its perpetrators. During 1999 Kargil, the NDA government was care taker, and during Parliament attack 2001, the ‘secular’ media played the role of quislings very admirably. This excess baggage of secularism has to be dumped to regain masculinity.

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