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  Ten dilemmas of nuclear deterrence  

  Vol III : issue 5&6

  Godfrey Hodgson
  Achin Vanaik
  Sanjoy Hazarika
  Lucy Nusseibeh
N.S. Madhavan
  Ashok Vajpeyi
  Asghar Wajahat
  M.A. Hashhash
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Achin Vanaik

Oil on canvas by INDRAPRAMIT ROY

Four and a half years after Pokharan II, where do we stand? One sensible way of assessing this is to look at the basic predictions that were made by the pro-bomb lobby which welcomed those tests and justified the new path which India was embarking upon. Not all our pro-bomb experts made each and every one of the following predictions and judgements, but each and every one of these experts did, in the public domain, make at least one, and usually several, of these predictions:

4 It is good that India and Pakistan are now open, self-declared nuclear powers. This will lead to greater regional peace and security.

Since 1998, relations between the two countries have reached their nadir, with at least three major crises and a period that saw the most sustained and largest full-scale mobilisation of troops between any two countries in peacetime anywhere in the world since 1945.

4 The chances of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan will become even more remote. Both countries want nuclear weapons not to raise nuclear tensions through, for example, a politics of ‘nuclear brinkmanship’, but to reduce greatly such tensions and to avoid brinkmanship politics.

Since 1998, nuclear tensions have risen sharply, with the governments and armed forces personnel of both countries exchanging nuclear threats and counter-threats. Both countries have hailed the ‘virtues’ of nuclear brinkmanship, especially during the mid-2002 crisis. Today, the Indian government is also raising the spectre of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands. And a new layer of tension has been added by the recent nuclear sabre-rattling by both the Musharraf and Vajpayee governments.

4 A conventional war between India and Pakistan will be deterred.

There was the Kargil conflict in 1999 and at least one near-miss (mid-2002). The first was brought to a halt and the second averted, not by the logic of nuclear deterrence, but primarily by US intervention and pressure.

4 There will be no competitive nuclear arms race between the two countries.

Both countries are a) accumulating stocks of fissile materials, b) busy weaponising and mating warheads to missiles, c) enhancing the range and accuracy of their missiles, d) putting in place ambitious command and control systems and e) aiming to develop extensive nuclear doctrines and policies.

4 India will establish a ‘minimum credible deterrent’.

No one in the government is prepared to say how much the minimum is or that this minimum position will be fixed and stable. This minimum cannot be stable or fixed but is always a moving position dependent on the changing quantity and quality of the nuclear arsenals of its presumed rivals which, in the eyes of India’s nuclear strategists and experts, include not just Pakistan, but China as well.

4 The acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, by increasing their bargaining power, will actually promote the prospects of global nuclear disarmament.

This argument can be translated as follows: the best way for the world to nuclearly disarm is for more countries to nuclearly arm. This is as silly as it sounds. Since 1998, we have had the US moving forward with its Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) project as well as with preparations to build new kinds of smaller tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons (bunker-busters), taking the global nuclear problem to newer, more dangerous and insane levels. The less said about the above absurd argument of the Indian pro-bomb lobby, the better.

So why are pro-bomb Indian experts and strategists today not shamefaced and apologetic about their revealed ineptitude? There are several reasons for this, among which personal ego and a relatively supine Indian media, which does little or nothing to confront such experts with evidence of their failures of judgement, count for a great deal. But the main reason has to do with these experts’ unshakeable faith in the supposedly wondrous and almost magical powers of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons, it is claimed, because of their ‘threat power’, deter the nuclearly armed opponent, thus preventing nuclear war and bringing about greater nuclear security. Such an argument is called ‘counterfactual’. It is a claim that can neither be decisively refuted nor confirmed because it claims to explain something that has not happened — which is much more difficult than explaining something that has happened — and whose not happening can also be explained by a host of other non-nuclear factors.

This counterfactuality allows both pro- and anti-nuclear thinkers to remain where they are with no decisive refutation of each other. But the issue does not end here. The side whose arguments are more plausible, logically structured and compatible with the historical evidence about the relationship between security/insecurity and nuclear weapons is the side that should be favoured. Here, the anti-nuclear side wins hands down. The pro-nuclear side cannot escape two huge problems — one historical, the other logical — that lie at the heart of its case for nuclear weapons. No sensible notion of the efficacy of nuclear deterrence can justify the existence of the enormous overkill capacities that the US and Russia, in particular, have accumulated and retain to this day — enough to blow up the world many times over! This is explainable once one recognises what is called the degenerative logic of security thinking and behaviour based on the principle of nuclear deterrence. Thus, the historical evidence of overkill capacities and the continuing search (through the BMD) by the US for further reassurances of security through the qualitative extension of the nuclear arms arsenal is powerful testimony to how nuclear weapons, far from resolving the problem of security, only promote greater insecurity. Whatever their formal diplomatic positions about the BMD, given their need to avoid antagonising today’s all-powerful US, you can be sure that Russia and China also feel quite insecure about where all this is heading and what ‘benefits’ the US might have, or think it has, if it succeeds in building the BMD.

The second problem lies in the very nature of the process that is initiated when one seeks security through nuclear deterrence. We shall investigate here what can be called the ‘Ten Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence’:

1. No guarantees: The possession of nuclear weapons by rival countries cannot guarantee the prevention of nuclear exchange or war. It is always a gamble, and it is a gamble that can always fail at some time, in some place. The claim that nuclear deterrence ‘works’, at least to such an extent that you can safely rely upon it, is untenable. It is untenable because the conditions that must be established for assured safety to arise from the workings of nuclear deterrence are so restrictive that these are impossible to establish in practice in the real world in which we live. This defect becomes clear when we understand what nuclear deterrence is: it is simply a psychological state of mind! It is a state of mind that must exist in one’s nuclear opponents, i.e., among those who decide on whether or not to push the nuclear button. And it is a state of mind that you (who are relying on nuclear deterrence for your country’s security) must ensure will always exist in your opponent, although you can never guarantee or ensure that it will always so hold.

To put it another way, nuclear deterrence is nothing but the irrational hope that a terrible fear of the consequences of nuclear war will continuously promote wise decisions by fallible human beings operating under intense pressure in changing circumstances that neither they nor you can fully control.

2. The vulnerability paradox: If you need the threat power of nuclear weapons to become more secure, then you are trying to establish your security by making the other side vulnerable and more insecure, because they are afraid of what your nuclear weapons can do to them. Similarly, the other side must try to make itself more secure by making you more vulnerable and insecure with respect to its own nuclear arsenal. This situation is often called the ‘security-insecurity paradox’. Your own security is supposed to rest on making the other side more fearful and insecure, so that it behaves the way you want it to. Then the other side seeks to overcome its insecurity and to make itself more secure by promoting greater insecurity and vulnerability in its opponent. Thus we have what can also be called the ‘vulnerability paradox’. The way out of this would seem to lie in both sides accepting mutual vulnerability and a mutual ‘balance of terror’. This, then, should be a form of stability in the nuclear equation.

Unfortunately, no such stability arises and, instead, we have a constant and powerful incentive to continuous nuclear arms racing. To appreciate why this is so, we first need to understand the basic conditions that have to be met if there is to be nuclear security, even by the logic of nuclear deterrence thinking. According to this ‘logic’, a country must have what is called ‘an assured second-strike capacity’. Between two countries with nuclear weapons, there is always the possibility (and the temptation) that the country that uses its nuclear weapons in a properly targeted fashion first can hope or expect to finish off all or most of the opponent’s nuclear capacity to retaliate after such a first strike. Therefore, a country must be able to ‘absorb’ a first strike and have enough left over to devastate the opponent so that the opponent is not tempted to strike first.

Developing more nuclear weapons in this way may seem, to the side doing it, a reasonable thing to do in order to protect itself. But to the other side this means your opponent is making itself stronger in the name of developing second-strike capacities, but can also make an even more massive first strike (regardless of whether or not it declares a policy of No First Use), and therefore spur the threatened side to also develop more nuclear weapons in the name of strengthening and ensuring the survival of its own second-strike capacity.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

Political commentator and former journalist, Achin Vanaik is currently Visiting Lecturer
at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He lives in New Delhi