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  Ten dilemmas of nuclear deterrence - 3  

  Bloodsport
  Vol III : issue 5&6

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

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Achin Vanaik

As for adopting a ‘launch-on-warning’ posture to ensure second-strike capacity, this was the dominant form taken by the stationing of land-based missiles of both the USSR and the US during most of the Cold War. What this means, of course, is that there is an inescapable trade-off between the requirements of nuclear safety and guarding against the risks of a launch by accident or miscalculation, and the requirements of deterrence efficacy. During the Cold War period (and even afterwards) there were various false alarms and in some of those cases, matters came close to a head with the near-launch of missiles (The best study in the area is The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War by Bruce Blair, Brookings Institution, 1993.). But another rarely noticed point is that launch-on-warning raised a fundamental question about nuclear deterrence. This question is not about whether or not deterrence actually worked, but whether it ever existed!

A launch-on-warning posture meant that the US had less than 25 minutes before a Soviet missile could hit it and, therefore, a maximum of only that much time to decide whether the alarm was a false one or not. Since the US had submarines much more closely positioned to the Soviet mainland, the latter had only around 10 minutes before a hit — that much less time to decide on its response. In the case of the US, from the time the alarm is raised about a possible Soviet launch, ten to twelve minutes would have to elapse for the missile to be identified, its path tracked and the necessary information relayed to the top command. Another two to three minutes would elapse before this could be communicated to the President. Any decision (whether this was a false alarm or a real one calling for the order to launch) taken by the President, if it was to be communicated to all necessary stations so as to be carried out, would require another eight to ten minutes. In short, out of the roughly 25 minutes in which a decision by the President has to be made — even if the President was in direct telephonic communication with key aides — he has literally only one or two minutes in which to take a truly momentous decision. When the space and time allowed for human decision is so shortened by adopting the posture of launch-on-warning, what is one to make of the claim that deterrence is in operation when there can never be any foolproof check on an accidental launch by an opponent or a false alarm by one’s own system?

In the case of India, the best survivability practice would be for both sides to move towards a launch-on-warning posture, which is something they may well do in the future. But the missile flight time between the two countries of five to eight minutes is so much shorter than even in the Cold War case for the US. There is no way there can be even the illusion of being able to maintain a proper check on preventing launches by accident or miscalculation. The trade-off between wanting greater nuclear safety and deterrence efficacy in South Asia is an even starker one than was the case between the great Cold War rivals.


The US ended up targeting over 16,000 locations in the USSR with ready delivery systems, but could still never be sure that they could have an ‘adequate’ second-strike capacity to cause ‘unacceptable damage’. Butler revealed that he was himself so shaken, when he took over supreme command, by the revelation of the insane logic that was operating in US nuclear preparations in the name of deterrence efficacy, that he began to systematically question the basic assumptions of such thinking and the security paradigm based on it

8. Defining ‘unacceptable damage’: According to the logic of nuclear deterrence thinking, it is not enough to have a second-strike capacity that survives a possible first strike. This capacity must be able to inflict what is called ‘unacceptable damage’ on the opponent. If after a first strike you only have a few weapons left over, then your opponent may be prepared to take the risk of a first strike and ‘absorb’ the second strike. But what is ‘unacceptable damage’? And how do you ensure that you have it after a devastating first strike? The simple answer is that the concept is inescapably vague and impossible to quantify and there is no assurance that you can retain the ability to inflict such ‘unacceptable damage’ after an enemy first strike on you, or that the damage you might be able to inflict would be unacceptable to the opponent. All that happens is that both sides have to embark on the escalator of making more and better nuclear weapons in the futile search for such second-strike capacity. George Lee Butler, who for 12 years headed the US Strategic Air Command (the service that has overall control of the US nuclear arsenal) and who, between 1992, and 1995 was the key Presidential adviser (the one person the President must consult before pressing the nuclear button) and subsequently turned nuclear disarmer, said quite correctly in regard to the ‘unacceptable damage’ issue that this was impossible to quantify or operationalise. The US ended up targeting over 16,000 locations in the USSR with ready delivery systems, but could still never be sure that they could have an ‘adequate’ second-strike capacity to cause ‘unacceptable damage’. Butler revealed that he was himself so shaken, when he took over supreme command, by the revelation of the insane logic that was operating in US nuclear preparations in the name of deterrence efficacy, that he began to systematically question the basic assumptions of such thinking and the security paradigm based on it.

9. Real vs. Surreal: Seeking security through nuclear weapons and the supposedly wondrous powers of deterrence is itself reflective of a particular political approach to matters of security for a country. This approach has a name — it is called Realism or Realist thinking in international relations. This approach gives prime importance in politics to military power (even more than to economic power) and believes that great military power provides the leverage for getting great political advantages. It is this kind of thinking that lies behind the belief in the efficacy of nuclear weapons through its ‘threat power’. Given this mental-intellectual predilection, invariably the justifications for the importance of nuclear weapons go beyond the simple claim that they provide, through deterrence, security against a nuclear attack. Since nuclear weapons are the supreme form of military threat power, and since military threat power is considered to provide so many other potential political advantages, even greater value is attributed to nuclear arsenals and it comes to be seen as the means for pursuing many more political goals.

Nuclear weapons are then seen as not just preventing nuclear war but as helping to achieve crisis-stability, to prevent even conventional war, to provide general foreign policy support, to provide global status and prestige, to help secure arms control and even to secure eventual nuclear disarmament. Now if one thing — nuclear weapons — can help give us all these advantages, then how on earth can one oppose having them? Alternatively, one can see this ridiculous expansion of the qualities attributed to the possession of nuclear weapons as reflecting a profound inability to think through the complexities of the notion of power, the inability to perceive its different forms and the specific limitations of each. What we have here is a set of God-worshippers for whom nuclear weapons have become the new God that can magically deliver all kinds of political goodies. This unwarranted expansion of the ‘value’ of nuclear weapons, then, makes it even more difficult to want to, or work to, get rid of them.

10. What if? Finally, there is the ‘What if?’ question. What if nuclear deterrence breaks down and there is a nuclear exchange? In fact, those involved in running a nuclear weapons system, for all their publicly pronounced assurances, know that neither they nor anyone else can ever guarantee that someone, somewhere, including their enemies, will not use such weapons. All countries with nuclear weapons must think about, and have some plans for, what to do if deterrence breaks down. That is to say, they have to make some kind of preparations to actually fight a nuclear war. This itself mocks their claim that since one has nuclear weapons, there is less danger of having a nuclear exchange or war. India, for all its pretentious claims about the efficacy of deterrence after Pokharan II, had to subsequently launch Operation Purnima Vijay with General Padmanabhan, the first Chief of Army Staff of a nuclear India, publicly declaring that these were exercises to help equip the Indian forces to fight in actual nuclear warfare conditions. But these very war-fighting preparations themselves undermine confidence in deterrence postures and the claim that one can rely on the efficacy of deterrence.


Has the world become more nuclearly safe over all these decades? If nuclear deterrence is efficacious, then its spread to more countries should logically make the world safer. If it works to make India and Pakistan more secure, then surely the same logic applies to other countries striving to make themselves more nuclearly secure? Does anybody in his or her right mind think this is actually the case? That their spread to Iran, Iraq (Israel already has them) and elsewhere, or their possession by non-State actors, will mean greater safety?

At the end of it all, one can still imagine Indian nuclear hawks resorting to the counterfactual and saying, "Look, deterrence works because after 1945, there has still been no nuclear exchange between nuclear weapons powers." This is not a serious form of reassurance. Indeed, no one who has studied the record of the nuclear age since 1945 would ever try to pass off this absence of nuclear war as a source of reassurance. There have been some very close misses, with the Cuban Missile crisis bringing the world to within a hair’s breadth of a nuclear holocaust. On a number of occasions, there were key people advocating the use of such weapons but, fortunately, each time those who opposed them got the better of the decision, if not always the argument. There is never any guarantee that such a situation will always prevail in the future. Indeed, some of the key former believers in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence have turned against their earlier beliefs, and many like George Lee Butler have said that it was only "by the grace of God" that a nuclear disaster was averted during the Cold War era. Today, the danger of a nuclear conflict has taken a more regional turn. If the chances of a global nuclear holocaust have receded due to the end of the Cold War, the chances of a regional nuclear exchange (with South Asia the current frontrunner for fulfilling this possibility) have become greater.

Moreover, the test for whether nuclear weapons bring about greater security is not established simply by asking whether or not deterrence has broken down completely through the eruption of a nuclear war. There is another, more routine, test question for assessing whether or not nuclear deterrence works. And that question is simply whether the countries that have such weapons are or feel more nuclearly secure from their rivals or enemies, actual or potential! Has the world become more nuclearly safe over all these decades? If nuclear deterrence is efficacious, then its spread to more countries should logically make the world safer. If it works to make India and Pakistan more secure, then surely the same logic applies to other countries striving to make themselves more nuclearly secure? Does anybody in his or her right mind think this is actually the case? That their spread to Iran, Iraq (Israel already has them) and elsewhere, or their possession by non-State actors, will mean greater safety?

Why is it so difficult for people, especially our bomb-supporters, to see what is staring them in the face — that the world is in a deep nuclear mess? The single biggest culprit for helping to create this mess is the mindset of those who believe in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. This is the mindset that must be delegitimised, undermined and exposed for the bankrupt politics that it leads to, if we are ever to secure a truly nuclear-safe world. This can only be in a nuclear-free world.

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