The Ups and Downs of Nuclear Politics

‘War’ said Clausewitz, ‘is the continuation of politics by other means’. One would have thought that with the onset of the nuclear age, the politics of war should have taken a backseat, but it didn’t. The Allied and Axis powers were replaced by NATO and the Warsaw Pact, whose forces, though arrayed against each other along the East-West European divide, actually fought its ideological battles on the periphery. The stalemate didn’t prevent the two blocs from conjuring up weird deterrence and war-fighting theories. While the US emerged from the ruins of the Second World War as the sole nuclear power, others like the Soviet Union, Britain and France didn’t waste much time following suit. US President Truman viewed the Berlin blockade of 1948 and the Korean War of 1950-53 as an endorsement of the greater conventional might of communism within the Eurasian landmass and till the time the West managed to catch up, he displayed no qualms in using the US nuclear superiority card as leverage.

His successor, whose worries extended more towards the economic burden of having to defend his Allies, introduced the concept of Massive Retaliation against any military misadventure. Dissenting voices were raised against this policy, because the only two choices that it presented, suicide or surrender, were both too extreme. For the next 15 years, amidst a host of technological developments like thermonuclear devices, intercontinental ballistic missiles and deep diving nuclear powered ballistic missile carrying submarines, mistrust between the two opposing camps continued to deepen. Improved precision guidance systems enabled the US to entertain thoughts of a disabling first strike on the assumption that it’s adversary was also contemplating the same. By the mid-1960s, so many nuclear warheads and delivery systems had been accumulated as part of a Nuclear Triad that it made nuclear war unthinkable, since that would most assuredly result in Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). With a high level of uncertainty being injected in any aggressor’s design of trying to get away with a crippling first strike, nuclear stability thus came about. Let alone a supposedly foolproof second strike capability, the simple presence of unacceptable risks was enough to dissuade any would-be attacker.

The introduction of ICBMs led to a scramble to develop a counter, an anti-missile system. The development of Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRV), incorporating as many as 10 separate warheads in a single missile, further complicated the picture, more so with the introduction of decoys, with up to 40 of them in a single ICBM, designed to saturate and confuse the enemy defences. With an effective counter proving to be economically infeasible, the US had to perforce turn to diplomacy.

The proposal floated by the US in 1967 of an ABM treaty finally materialised in 1972 under the aegis of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, whose main objective was the maintenance of strategic stability. SALT 1 also led to an interim agreement which froze the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers at existing levels. Better sense had prevailed, with realisation finally sinking in that the best way to address worries about survivability was not redundancy but a negotiated trim down. Even so, the second round of talks on Strategic Arms Limitation, which took seven years (1972-79) to hammer out an agreement on the more ambitious agenda of mutual  curtailment of strategic nuclear weapons, fell a victim to politics (Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), which prevented its ratification.

The thread of the stalled SALT 2 agreement was picked up a decade later by the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (the word ‘Reduction’ sending a more positive message) which, on its entry into force on 5 Dec ‘94, barred the two sides from fielding more than 6000 nuclear warheads atop 1600 ICBMs. It’s final implementation in late 2001 resulted in the removal of about 80% of all strategic nuclear weapons in the US-Russian inventory, something that was unprecedented. The next round of talks resulted in the so-called Moscow treaty of May 2002 or the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT), which laid greater emphasis on limiting the operationally deployed warheads regardless of their attributed means of delivery. The later version of START, signed in April 2010 (superseding SORT) imposed more severe limits of 1550 nuclear warheads in toto on each side.

The ABM treaty managed to survive the needless turmoil generated by the US on political grounds as well as the upheavals in the erstwhile Soviet Union by lasting for a good three decades. The first point of discomfiture was the announcement by the US Administration on 23 March 1983 of a grand Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). Though President Reagan took pains to point out that the ballistic missile defence research programme would be consistent with the country’s ABM treaty obligations, the Soviets saw through this deception, promptly labelling it an irresponsible and mad attempt to unleash nuclear war in the hope of winning it. Though the so-called Star Wars programme died a natural death through funding strangulation shortly after President Reagan left office, the next Republican President sought to revive it under a different name, National Missile Defence (NMD). This being violative of the ABM treaty, the Administration gave the mandatory 6-month notice on 13 Dec 2001 for withdrawal, in order to seriously pursue the program. The Russian response was revealed earlier this year(March) when none other than President Putin showcased a series of new innovative missile systems capable of dodging all existing defences. And so the game begins anew!

US reliance on the strategy of flexible response, which envisaged a graduated escalation along tactical, intermediate and intercontinental lines, caused understandable consternation in Western Europe because it signified a foolhardy attempt to restrict the war to continental Europe. The plan was also scoffed at by the Soviet Union which did not feel constrained to abide by these escalatory steps. In order to address the intermediate range nuclear missile dilemma, which posed the greatest threat to Western Europe, talks on the limitation of Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces were resorted to in October 1980, which soon broke down however just as the first lot of Pershing 2 missiles made their appearance in West Germany. The talks were revived on 15 January 1986 on the urging of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and as per agreement, a total of 2692 such weapons, a vast majority belonging to the USSR, were destroyed in accordance with the treaty’s deadline of 1 June 1991. It was only in February of last year (2017) that President Putin expressed his unhappiness at the INF treaty, which had enabled countries on the Russian periphery to outnumber his own repertoire. As per US assessment, Russia may already be in violation of the said treaty.

At the time the Cold War was heating up, however, two European countries, Britain and France, the former actively assisted by the US, scrambled to develop their own nuclear arsenals as an independent counter to the rising Soviet threat. Though this reflected a lack of faith in America’s commitment to European security, the former’s deployment of some 325,000 troops in West Germany notwithstanding, the US still welcomed the additional hardware. Apart from four Resolution Class SSBNs equipped with 16 US-built Polaris A3 SLBMs, UK had also amassed a whole lot of tactical weapons for use in land, sea and air platforms, all under the aegis of NATO. France likewise went on to maintain a more robust and more formidable Nuclear Triad, inclusive of four Le Redoutable SSBNs as an independent nuclear deterrent.

The end of the Cold War saw the removal of a vast majority of NATOs tactical nuclear weapons and all of Europe’s ground-based delivery systems. UK now maintains the Vanguard SSBN-Trident SLBM combination, while France deploys the newer Triomphant SSBN-M 51 SLBM combination along with the new ASM-A, constituting 300 warheads in all.

China, as the last of the world’s five nuclear weapon states (NWS) recognised by the NPT, which it ratified in 1992, was in no doubt as to the importance of this status. Having endured the horrors of Japanese occupation during WW2 and braved an equally brutal civil war immediately afterwards, China felt hemmed in by the US support for the nationalists in Taiwan and by the threatening nuclear posture that it adopted during the Korean War. China subsequently sought and received help from the Soviet Union, particularly in the field of fissile material production, till the two countries had a falling out in mid-1959.

China exploded its first nuclear fission device in 1964, followed by a thermonuclear one three years later. Such tests continued till 1996, when China signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In strict adherence to its policy of minimum deterrence, China is believed to maintain a limited nuclear arsenal of some 250 warheads. Four recently constructed Jin class SSBNs have been recently handed  over to the PLA(N) for mating with the JL-2 SLBMs.

Apart from the five nuclear weapon states, countries like Israel, India, Pakistan and N. Korea, while decidedly nuclear, have not been recognised as such by the NPT, to which none of them is a signatory. Two of these countries, Israel and India, have largely escaped censure, India because it is huge, democratic and economically attractive, and Israel because of its close alliance with the US. Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities remain under constant covert threats, while N. Korea’s spurt of activity during the past decade has enabled it to cross many red lines.

Israel is one country, which since its inception in 1948, has always looked to a nuclear weapons program as an ‘ultimate insurance policy’. This dream came closer to realisation when the French agreed to extend full cooperation in the field. Work on the secret nuclear facility in the Negev desert at Dimona began in 1958, with the reactor going critical in Dec 1963 and the reprocessing plant becoming operational a few years later. Israel is believed to have deployed its first nuclear capable ballistic missile around 1973 and to have conducted its thermonuclear test in South Africa in Sep 1979. The first three German-built nuclear warhead capable Dolphin class conventional submarines entered service around 2000.

Despite the country’s professed policy of nuclear ambiguity and its post-1967 shift to a more pragmatic posture of ‘nuclear opacity’, Israel has maintained its nuclear credibility through subtle and calculated leaks. It was in Oct 1986 that Mordechai Vanunu, an erstwhile employee, blew the whistle on Israel’s top secret nuclear program, augmenting the accuracy of his assertions with 58 odd photographs that he shared of equipment such as a full-scale model of a hydrogen bomb and glove boxes where plutonium devices were fashioned into pits.

Though Israel went on to sign the CTBT in 1996, it has not ratified it as yet. The country was also instrumental in derailing a rare consensus on The Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty(FMCT) in 1998. But ever since it cobbled together its first three rudimentary devices on the eve of the 1967 war, Israel has let known by its veiled rhetoric that it would not be loath to use its nuclear weapons whenever it feels that its conventional superiority is under undue strain. It is presumably because of this edge that most Arab states have sought rapprochement with Israel, with the latter’s only battles since 1973 being one-sided ones against non-state entities.

North Korea is a completely different kettle of fish. Though vilified as a rogue state and thus slammed with heavy sanctions, the country’s prime motivation for going nuclear has been regime preservation. Three years of bloody fighting in the Korean Peninsula paved the way for the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953. Given America’s traditional animosity towards communism, a formal peace treaty has proved to be illusory thus far, which means that technically, the two Korea’s are still locked in a state of war. The said armistice agreement prohibited the introduction of new types of weapons or ammunition in the peninsula by either side. Hardly three years had elapsed, however, before the new US Administration began thinking about the introduction of ‘weapons of dual capability’. By the mid-1960s, the US, unmindful of the restrictions imposed, had amassed more than 900 nuclear artillery shells, tactical bombs, surface to surface rockets, anti-aircraft missiles and nuclear land mines in South Korea. From then onwards, development of a nuclear capability became a strategic imperative for the North. By the time the US decided to withdraw its nuclear inventory from South Korea in 1991, the North was sufficiently well advanced in its nuclear and missile development program. The Clinton Administration, which assumed office shortly afterwards, tried to keep the North’s nuclear advancements in check when it signed an Agreed Framework accord in 1994 to supply the country with two light water reactors in return for putting a halt to all production of plutonium. The reactors were never supplied and the deal fizzled out. Subsequent sabre rattling by President Bush, who famously included North Korea in the axis of evil during his State of the Union address in January 2002 caused the country to further speed up its technological prowess, its most significant achievements being the detonation of a thermonuclear device in September 2017 and the flight test of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching mainland USA. These developments, which resulted in the slapping of stringent UN sanctions, resulted in a flurry of diplomatic activity. After blowing hot and cold for many months, the two mercurial leaders, President Trump of the United States and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, finally met at a Summit meeting at Singapore, where the two leaders pledged to work for a lasting and stable peace, with the North Korean leader agreeing to a complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for US security guarantees. A good start has been made, but as they say, the devil is in the details.

Pakistan, on the other hand, tries to project itself as a reluctant nuclear weapon state, and perhaps rightly so, as it was only stirred into action once India first tested its ‘Smiling Buddha’ device in 1974. Rather than abjectly surrendering to nuclear blackmail, which was destined to be its lot, Pakistan was left with no choice but to take the same route. The Afghan resistance of the 1980s, during which Pakistan was a much favoured ally of the US, allowed the country’s fledgling nuclear program to flourish under the radar. No sooner did the Soviet Union announce their unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pressler amendment kicked in, with the US President refusing to certify that Pakistan’s nuclear program was peaceful in nature. Plausible deniability on Pakistan’s part had changed overnight to implausible deniability.

It was again India’s detonation of a further five devices that enabled Pakistan to emerge out of the closet and become an overt nuclear power by following suit. Pakistan’s nuclear program has since thundered along, amassing a variety of missiles and delivery systems along the way. Though India has tried to project it’s ever increasing nuclear arsenal as a counter to China, the more likely conclusion is that it simply wants to boost up its big power credentials, which would inter alia give it a fair shot at the UN Security Council permanent membership. It has correctly gauged that UK and France are continuing to maintain their membership status on the back of their nuclear capability.

Pakistan on the other hand, has adopted a completely Indo-centric approach. It started its nuclear weapons program after India tested its first device in 1974; it went on to conduct six nuclear tests over two days in response to India’s five in May 1998; it started developing tactical warheads as a response to India’s Cold Start doctrine; and again India’s Arihant class SSBNs was the trigger that yielded the conventional submarine launched Babur cruise missile. So far as a supposedly reluctant nuclear power like Pakistan is concerned, a strategy of minimum deterrence appeared to be the best approach. The problem lay in defining what ‘minimum’ actually represented. Pakistan’s apprehensions about FMCT also caused it to accelerate its efforts towards amassing as much of a nuclear arsenal as possible before the treaty actually kicked in. It appears that Pakistan was then caught between its avowed aim of maintaining a minimum credible deterrence and its endeavour to match its larger adversary blow for blow. Such a nuclear arms race against a larger and more economically robust adversary doesn’t seem to be a good idea. An additional driver could be the self-preservation of an agency that regards itself as the country’s sole bulwark against certain annihilation. The day that it announces that Pakistan has achieved minimum credible deterrence is the day that its sense of importance and perhaps relevance gets perceptibly lowered. It is no wonder then that we have progressed on from minimum credible deterrence to full spectrum deterrence. Since the minimum credible deterrence strategy didn’t really stop us from going full spectrum, one plausible explanation for the shift could be that the new strategy allows greater space for unhindered expansion.

It stands to reason that whatever India is doing in terms of expanding its nuclear capabilities can most assuredly be brought to bear against Pakistan, yet Pakistan is by no means the yardstick which helps determine its path. Indian nuclear ambitions are most likely guided by its desire to achieve big power status. If its sole focus was Pakistan, India would have been far better served by not going nuclear at all. That way it could have continued enjoying conventional superiority without being impeded by the spectre of nuclear deterrence. It’s development of long range intercontinental ballistic missiles like the Surya, or SSBNs like Arihant is certainly not Pakistan-specific, or put another way, their non-availability would in no way have weakened the Indian nuclear posture vis-a-vis Pakistan.

When Pakistan went overtly nuclear in 1998, the development of nuclear weapons was portrayed as an opportunity to curtail its conventional expenditure. That didn’t happen, presumably because of two compulsions, one born out of the country’s internal security dynamics, and the other stemming from the need to maintain an adequate nuclear threshold. But what the current balance of power has done is to push wars underground, wars that are increasingly being undertaken at low cost and through remote control. Such hybrid wars are not expected to bring about much of a change in the regions in which they are being fuelled, and their aim appears to be to inflict pain for the sake of pain, enabling victory to be claimed as per the pain ratio. They are mostly justified as tit for tat moves to make the other realise the consequences of its unwarranted interference. Such mutually debilitating actions are pointless when viewed from a broader perspective and it may therefore be advisable to maintain a hands-off policy under a mutually agreed mechanism. Since both sides have by now come to recognise that the flashpoint of Kashmir is certainly not going to be solved by military means, they might as well devote their energies to meaningful talks with an open mind.

As Pakistan became an overt nuclear power, the initial feeling was that of nationalistic pride and a spirit of exultation. Realisation soon sunk in that there is much to worry about too. The primary concern pertained to unauthorised or accidental use, with understandably severe ramifications. This necessitated the introduction of an effective command and control system, which controlled every aspect of the nuclear tree. In view of the ever-increasing diversity and complexity of our nuclear arsenal, this system had to be hierarchical in nature, with the final decision resting in the hands of just a few individuals. In order to prevent unauthorised use at every stage from manufacturing to storage to mating to deployment, the standard two-man rule is generally preferred. Technology in the form of Permissive Action Links, incorporating a set of combination locks, is also employed in tandem with administrative systems. Pakistan appears confident that the coded locks it employs completely rules out the possibility of unauthorised use.

It is also important to address detonation risks associated with a warhead getting damaged or even worse, catching fire. Such risks can be minimised through the adoption of special safety design features. One of the times that a nuclear weapon came closest to accidental detonation was in 1961, when two hydrogen bombs got released from a military plane just as it broke apart over North Carolina. While in one of them the embedded safety features kicked in, the other started behaving as in a wartime scenario; its triggers deployed and five out of six fail-safe interlocks went off in the prescribed sequence. The only reason that the warhead didn’t detonate was because the sixth switch suffered a technical failure. The moral of the episode is that anything can happen if we are not careful to the nth degree.

Another issue Pakistan has had to address is whether some weapons or all weapons should always be ready for instant use. The more the number of weapons kept ready, the greater the risk of accidents. On the other hand, if mass scale mobilisation and deployment is resorted to in a dire crisis, a potential adversary can be tempted into a preemptive strike, hypothetically speaking, particularly if it has access to real time data through satellites, drones and remote sensing.

It is indeed heartening to see the high level of confidence Pakistan displays in its ability to safeguard its nuclear inventory. Other countries, the US and India in particular, do not hesitate to voice their misgivings on the issue, their major worry being an odd warhead or two falling in the wrong hands, those of terrorists and  extremists. Pakistan has sought to allay such apprehensions through adoption of a three pronged strategy. First and foremost is the need to maintain internal stability and cohesion: this is being undertaken under Operation Rad al Fasad and the flagging National Counterterrorism Strategy. Next in line is the physical security of nuclear weapons, inclusive of their storage, mating and deployment sites. A dedicated force of 25000 personnel (and growing) has been set up for the purpose. And finally, to deal with the nightmarish scenario of nuclear warheads having fallen into the wrong hands, a number of safeties have been incorporated into the warhead design as well as fail-safe (reliance on orders to fire) mechanisms.

Another debilitating problem can arise if the nuclear command and control is disabled by any means in a surprise decapitation strike. The US is perfecting a system called the Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) which uses a non-nuclear warhead moving at fabulous speeds (Mach 5 +) to destroy any target with unerring accuracy. Loss of command systems is presently being countered through improved means of detection, comprehensive defensive arrangements, alternative command posts and establishment of multiple command links with nuclear stations. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, fearful of such an occurrence, had operationalised a system that automatically launched its own ballistic missiles in the form of a massive retaliation. The system’s major drawback of an accidental launch was countered by incorporating numerous safeguards into its design.

By far the biggest harm inflicted on Pakistan through the introduction of nuclear weapons lies in the psychological realm. The Pakistani establishment has started perceiving nuclear deterrence as a panacea for all our security-related woes. Nothing could be further from the truth. The need to keep within the perceived nuclear threshold has not prevented conflicts from erupting but just pushed them down to the low convention or sub-conventional level. The Pakistan Military, whose exclusive focus used to be towards its eastern border, has been forced to redeploy to take care of festering insurgencies along its western frontier. The biggest change however  occurred in the psychological make-up of the military, which prides itself on its professionalism, but has yet come around to unquestionably accepting its adversary’s conventional superiority. Resultantly, instead of trying to thwart an unproven doctrine like Cold Start through conventional means, this self-defeatist mentality has caused Pakistan to resort to building up its tactical nuclear arsenal, eroding thereby its conventional deterrence. An additional question we need to ask ourselves is as to how exactly tactical nukes would be more effective in deterring a conventional strike as opposed to the ballistic missiles already held in our inventory. What makes us think that a tactical nuclear deterrent would work where a ballistic one wouldn’t is not clear. While framing a doctrine, any doctrine, it is important to keep in mind that the enemy has a mind of its own and may not react as we think it should. We may think of tactical nukes as being a step or two down from ballistic missile in the escalatory ladder, and yet our adversary may not differentiate between the two. It makes one realise, come to think of it, how easy it is to throw us off the track by injecting a red herring, Cold Start in this case. The fallacy of NATOs Flexible Response Strategy, from which we borrowed our own theory of tactical nuclear deterrence against a rapid conventional strike, stood exposed when the Soviet Union categorically dispelled the notion that their response to tactical missiles would be any different from any other nuclear weapon. Whenever the first nuke, tactical or otherwise, is fired, all hell is likely to break loose, with thoughts of a graduated response under such conditions, merely wishful thinking.

Pakistan has been lucky, in one sense at least, to have just one Director General heading the SPD for an uninterrupted and prolonged duration of 14 years (2000-2014). It is however disadvantageous in another sense that such a person, blessed with longevity, would be less inclined to listen to alternate points of view from ‘novices’. While it is creditable that such a large pool of scholars pursuing nuclear related research has been created in a relatively short timespan, the worrisome aspect nevertheless is that they tend to speak the same language. Mid-course corrections to our nuclear strategy can only be effectively undertaken if the right sort of environment is furnished, one in which discussions featuring alternate world views are encouraged.

Nuclear projects are a literal black hole when it comes to funding; they gobble up funds without much external visibility, and perhaps accountability. While nuclear weapons are now a reality and their deterrence value undeniable, there is no harm in revisiting our original stance of minimum credible deterrence, with greater emphasis being laid on ‘minimum’ instead of ‘credible’. China’s example is relevant: it is believed to have capped its nuclear warheads at 250, the bare minimum for a credible deterrence against super powerful adversaries, while focussing on its economy, which has become a role model for all developing countries.

If realisation sinks in that nuclear deterrence is just that, deterrence, then things will automatically fall into place. But if we become a part of an arms race of the nuclear variety, then we are pursuing an unsustainable model. Apart from the hybrid wars a nuclear arsenal is incapable of preventing, our wargaming scenarios invariably start off with a Cold Start driven conventional thrust, with the option of a nuclear retaliation resting with us. And indeed it makes little sense for a more powerful conventional power to launch a nuclear attack in the first instance. So with Pakistan the one most likely to fire the initial nuclear salvo, the need for a credible second strike capability, becomes debatable. Our concept of an assured second strike capability is a borrowed, albeit flawed one. So while being inspired by the British and French models of having one deep diving nuclear powered ballistic missile carrying submarine on station at all times, we have opted for a low cost version of modifying the torpedo tubes of our conventional submarines to enable them to fire tactical nuclear missiles. But then Israel is also using its conventional Dolphin class submarines to do likewise. The context is however altogether different: being the only nuclear power in a troubled region, Israel endeavours to keep it that way, and the nuclear missiles housed in conventional submarines are presumably for the purpose of plausible deniability in case it decides to opt for a limited nuclear strike on specific targets.

Security consciousness is a good thing, but blowing it out of proportion by correlating it with a burgeoning nuclear arsenal is a zero sum game. Amidst a stressful setting, where political rhetoric is the order of the day, there are two things both countries, India and Pakistan, need to avoid at all costs. One is brinkmanship, which can cause a nuclear weapon release in anger or in haste. The second is not to treat the other as an irrational actor to the point that one starts behaving in a similar vein. Thinking of the other as MAD is the only way to justify his contemplating a preemptive counterforce strike, with the narrative feeding into one’s desire for an assured second strike capability. The trouble with both countries is that instead of its nuclear arsenal blossoming under a clearly articulated doctrine, it is the ever expanding arsenal that goes on to define the doctrine.

To be sure, nuclear related technology has evolved and is continuing to evolve, as explained earlier, but since it extends to both the offensive and defensive spheres, the applecart of nuclear stability doesn’t get upset to any significant extent. The fail-deadly nuclear concept is designed to guarantee an immediate, automatic and massive response to to a detected strike in a ‘use it or lose it’ sort of way. The uncertainty surrounding the complete avoidance of any retaliation serves as an inhibitory factor, particularly for a conventionally powerful country, which has other options. So if we can overcome our paranoia to some extent, we may arrive at the conclusion that beyond a limited number of nukes needed for deterrence, the law of diminishing returns sets in. Thinking of nuclear weapons as part of a war fighting strategy may lead to catastrophic consequences. A nation hosting such a large population can always survive the consequences of a conventional thrust, but any misadventure in the nuclear domain would result in assured destruction. It will be little consolation to those floundering in a radioactive jungle to know that their adversary is also in the same soup. It is thus vital that decision makers having their fingers on the nuclear trigger should remain well-briefed about the consequences of their choices.

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