|Ten dilemmas of nuclear deterrence - 2|
3. The predictability issue: Since deterrence is a state of mind in your opponent, you are always tempted to try ways of making that opponent’s behaviour more predictable, i.e., in accordance with what you want. Rather than simply hope that fear of your nuclear arsenal will make the opponent behave the way you want it to, you try and replace hope with some form of compulsion. To demand a high degree of predictability about an opponent’s behaviour means to demand repeated, regular, institutionalised predictability and symmetry by each nuclear player vis-à-vis the other. In reality, this is not possible. But as long as one nuclear player or the other seeks to establish what it thinks can be the conditions in which such assured and predictable behaviour by the other side will be forthcoming, then this slides easily into a strategy of not just simple deterrence but aggressive compellence.
This strategy of compellence involves certain kinds of nuclear preparations and their associated political implications and signals, whereby the other side is supposedly ‘compelled’ to follow the pattern set by, and more ‘controlled’ by, the first nuclear player. Not only is nuclear arms escalation written into this ‘compellence’ script, but nuclear tensions are even more heightened than otherwise. The ‘certainties’ of compellence are substituted for the ‘uncertain certainties’ of ‘normal’ deterrence. Something like this happened with the US pursuing such a compellence strategy as part of its efforts to ‘stabilise’ and ‘control’ to its own ‘advantage’ the nuclear arms race of the late Seventies and Eighties. It is also a script written into the BMD, which represents the US ambition, nuclearly and militarily, to dominate the world via domination of space itself. Compellence is a more aggressive form of seeking ‘political advantage’ through nuclear weapons and there is no natural firebreak between the dangerous instability of deterrence-based nuclear behaviour and the more dangerous instability of compellence-based nuclear behaviour.
4. The credibility conundrum: It is not enough just to have nuclear weapons or to claim that they are never going to be used and that their purpose is only to prevent a nuclear conflict. Your nuclear threat must be credible. Indeed, an opponent will not be deterred if it believes that the deterrer will never use his nuclear weapons. Thus the ‘capability’ and the ‘will’ of the deterring country must not be doubted. The ‘enemy’ should be convinced that its nuclear opponent will use nuclear weapons if pushed to the brink, or at least be uncertain whether or not they will be used, but never certain or confident that they will not be used. However, any second-use of nuclear weapons is not, and cannot be, an act of security retrieval or enhancement. Once an opponent has launched a first strike against you, your security is gone. By using your nuclear weapons second, all you are doing is engaging in an act of revenge — to make the other country suffer too. This is also a senseless act of revenge because it only sets off a chain of further launches and counter-launches, which further devastates both countries. This being so, the side using nuclear weapons first can entertain ideas that a second strike is not credible.
Thus the question of ‘credibility’ or willingness to use nuclear weapons becomes very important. So governments that have nuclear weapons, despite occasional pronouncements that these will never be used, do not actually want the public or other governments to seriously believe them. This would undermine that country’s credibility. In the face of all kinds of challenges and uncertainties — technological, military, etc. — the capability to use nuclear weapons must be constantly updated and fine-tuned and available for showing in a variety of circumstances. Also, the political will to use nuclear weapons (presumably in the last resort) must be periodically displayed. Thus the requirements of making one’s nuclear deterrence credible creates powerful pressure for the generation and sustenance of both an enduring politics of nuclear-related hostility — including nuclear brandishing and brinkmanship — and of arms racing between rivals.
5. Shifting equations: Nuclear perspectives and behaviour are the prisoner of and subordinated to the more fundamental and overarching framework and context of political hostility between nuclear-political rivals. Nuclearisation and militarisation are themselves the symptoms or results or expressions of this prior hostility. They are not their primary causes and, therefore, cannot be the solutions undoing this hostility. Indeed, they exacerbate such tensions and hostilities because nuclearisation is itself the announcement that one is willing to inflict the utmost devastation on the opponent country and its society. It was not the supposed deterrent qualities of the US-Soviet nuclear standoff that eroded political hostilities but the other way around. It was the Gorbachev-initiated unravelling of Cold War politics that paved the way for the erosion of nuclear tensions. The same principle of the prior importance of politics applies to the India-Pakistan situation. And nuclear weapons, including the presumed powers of nuclear deterrence, operate within this wider and more determining political context. The rhythms of deterrence behaviour are subordinated to the more powerful rhythms of political behaviour between mutually hostile countries.
This gives rise to a classic paradox in the search for stable deterrence: the conditions that are thought to make it necessary to apply deterrence guarantee that it will not be stable. The extent to which deterrence is genuinely stable is the extent to which it is unnecessary! India and Pakistan cannot have a stable deterrence equation, and nor did the US and the Soviet Union. But Britain and France can have a stable deterrent equation with each other precisely because it is unnecessary for them to have such a nuclear equation.
6. Technological advances: Constant technology advances in the development of nuclear warheads and in the designing of the range and accuracy of delivery systems is also a major input in ensuring the degenerative logic of deterrence-based thinking and behaviour. The more inaccurate and relatively invulnerable or undetectable nuclear missiles are, the more ‘stabilising’ they are. That is to say, if the missiles are not very accurate then they can be used to attack cities but not specific military targets. This makes them less useful as first-strike weapons aiming to, or capable of, knocking out an opponent’s military installations (including its nuclear missile installations and airbases) and more useful as second-strike weapons able to devastate cities. In the jargon, this is called the difference between counter-value targets (e.g. cities) and counter-force ones (e.g. military/nuclear infrastructure). Moreover, the best second-strike nuclear weapons are considered to be those that combine low accuracy with relative invulnerability to a first strike. Thus, submarine-based nuclear-tipped missiles are seen as the best guarantors of second-strike capacity.
What happens, however, when land missile systems become more mobile (always being moved around on rail or road systems rather than being stationed in fixed silos), when there is 24-hour rotation of airplanes carrying nuclear weapons, and when submarine-launched missiles become ever more accurate (which is happening), and when efforts at detection of submarines and anti-submarine warfare make steady technical advances? What all this means is that technology advances are themselves undermining the distinction between ‘stabilising’ second-strike weapons and ‘destabilising’ first-strike weapons, since the former can increasingly double up to do the job of the latter. In short, this undermines hopes of stabilising the nuclear equation. What is more, new technological breakthroughs, like a developed Star Wars project of the kind envisaged by the US, are profoundly destabilising. One would need a separate essay to explain this complexity fully. In short, because technology does not stand still, neither does nuclear arms development. This is not just a matter of replacing the old with the new, but also of creating new problems, difficulties and dangers.
7. To centralise or not: The fear of a first strike leads to the search for what are called ‘survivability-enhancing practices’. These are measures aiming to ensure that one’s second-strike capacity, even after a first strike, is relatively unimpaired. But these very practices themselves undermine the stability of the deterrence equation. The two most important such measures are a) to disperse one’s nuclear arsenal as widely as possible, and b) to adopt what is in effect a ‘launch-on-warning’ posture for one’s missiles. Both give rise to grave problems. The first involves a centralisation-decentralisation dilemma. It is not enough to disperse the locations of nuclear delivery systems. There is also the problem of decentralising command and control over such systems. This is because there is always the danger of what is called a ‘decapitating first strike’. That is to say, an opponent can not only strike first, but also seek to decapitate the command and control system of the opponent by finishing off the key decision-makers at the apex of the chain of command over the nuclear arsenal. Even the establishment of ‘redundant’ or multiple chains of command which become operative in wartime may not prove equal to the impact of an effective decapitating first strike.
To avoid this dilemma, one has to greatly decentralise command and control to junior levels and more localised personnel at much lower rungs of the chain of command, so that they can carry out a second strike. But any such decentralisation greatly enhances the possibility of an accidental launch or a miscalculation (especially in wartime situations) that leads to a launch on the presumption that an enemy nuclear attack is taking place or is about to take place. We now know from recently disclosed official documents how close a Russian submarine was to launching a nuclear attack on a US ship during the Cuban Missile crisis on the basis of just such decentralised authority, because it thought the ship was torpedoing it (This event is now to be enshrined in a Hollywood movie). Pakistan, as a much smaller country fearful of a possible decapitating first strike by India, will have to face a particularly acute dilemma of centralisation-decentralisation. But the problem is acute enough for India as well.
Political commentator and former journalist, Achin Vanaik is currently Visiting Lecturer
at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He lives in New Delhi