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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Because the bluff might just be called

Taking all the factors (elaborated on these pages yesterday) into account,the national security advisory board...

Written by K. Subrahmanyam |
September 16, 2009 2:25:25 am

Taking all the factors (elaborated on these pages yesterday) into account,the national security advisory board recommended to the government in August 1999 that India should adopt a strategy of ‘no first use’ and a credible minimum deterrence. This was accepted with some modifications by the government in January 2003. There have always been critics of the ‘no first use’ strategy. It is argued that if there is absolutely foolproof intelligence that the adversary is preparing to strike,why should not there be a pre-emptive strike? These critics do not follow up their own scenario further and explain how the pre-emptive strike will avoid a retaliatory strike which the adversary is bound to carry out. While the pre-emptive strike,because of its very nature,will be a counter-force one,the adversary’s retaliation is bound to be a counter-value one compelling the initiator of the attack to follow up the pre-emptive strike with a second strike to inflict commensurate counter-value damage. In a situation where a pre-emptive strike is considered,there may still be a miniscule possibility that the adversary may have a very last minute change of mind; but a pre-emptive strike will compel him to strike back. Therefore,it is not clear what advantage will be gained by resorting to a pre-emptive strike.

It is argued that the adversary’s first strike may be designed to decapitate the command and control of the country and the nuclear force,and in such circumstances the pre-emptive strike would be advantageous. The country should take all necessary precautions to ensure the continuity of command and control under all circumstances. The most effective way of ensuring that the adversary will not succeed in his objective in carrying out such a decapitating strike is to ensure a continuity in respect of succession in both political and military commands. If that is in place,the decapitation strike will lose all its strategic significance. It will evoke a punitive response. The ‘no first use’ strategy is a signal to potential adversaries that the country is in a position to weather a nuclear attack and retaliate punitively.

There was a time when,in the nuclear discourse in the US,people talked casually about millions of casualities. Now a couple of hundred casualties in Iraq or Afghanistan per year is considered unacceptable. A limited Pakistani army campaign against a few hundred insurgents produces more than a couple of million internally displaced persons. Imagine what could happen if a few cities of Pakistan are hit with nuclear weapons. Apart from fatalities in hundreds of thousands and wounded many times that number,millions of persons will be running away not only from cities already hit,but also from cities which will be considered potential targets. And governance will collapse. Medical services will not be able to cope up with it. Herman Kahn raised the pertinent question: whether in those circumstances the living will envy the dead?

Robert McNamara,the US defence secretary of the sixties who made those fanciful calculations of what percentage of the Soviet population and industry should be threatened with assured destruction for deterrence to be effective,wrote in Foreign Policy in May/June 2005 that launching a nuclear weapon against a nuclear armed adverasary would be suicidal. He said he had never seen any US or NATO war plans that concluded that initiating the use of nuclear weapons would yield the US or the alliance any benefit. He also said that his statement to this effect had never been refuted by NATO defence ministers or senior military leaders,Yet,it was impossible for any of them,including US presidents,to make such statements publicly because they were totally contrary to established NATO policy.

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In respect of conventional war,the side with military superiority used to be able to dominate the battle field,the air space and the seas and inflict disproportionate losses to the side with lesser resources till a militarily meaningful result was achieved. Even this does not happen in respect of asymmetric war as happened in Vietnam where the US won all the battles,inflicted millions of casualties on the Vietnamese and yet lost the war at the end. A similar fate overtook the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In the case of a nuclear war with long reach missiles,whole countries on both sides become battlefields and irrespective of the relative strengths of nuclear arsenal, two neighbouring countries engaging in a nuclear exchange will inflict unacceptable damage on each other without being able to achieve any meaningful military results. Once the first missiles are launched,it is impossible to control and regulate further launches for fear of losing the missiles before they are used. In these circumstances,nuclear weapons are rationally usable only as a deterrent against nuclear threats since a nuclear asymmetric situation will give the nuclear threatener an enormous advantage in coercive diplomacy and subject the armed forces of the nuclear unarmed country to enormous psychological disadvantage. Dr A.Q.Khan has disclosed that the Pakistani bomb was ready in 1984 and they did not test it because General Zia did not want to annoy the US at that stage. The Kargil Committee report records that in 1987, at the time of Brasstacks crisis,the Indian high commissioner was summoned and told that Pakistan was capable of inflicting unacceptable damage (code word for use of a nuclear weapon) on India if India violated Pakistani territorial integrity. Pakistan at that stage had a proven Chinese nuclear weapon design to copy . The book The Nuclear Express by the Livermore nuclear scientist Thomas Reed and Los Alamos nuclear physicist Danny Stillman,discloses that China conducted a nuclear test for Pakistan at the LopNor test site on May 26 1990. China and North Korea armed Pakistan with a panoply of missiles of different ranges through the ’90s.

In 1996,the Chinese managed to include India as one of the 45 countries that should sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in spite of India’s opposition to it,to bring it into force by 1999. Then came the Ghauri missile test by Pakistan in April 1998. Faced with this nuclear asymmetric situation,it became rational for India to carry out the Shakti series of tests and declare itself a nuclear-weapons state and exercise deterrence vis a vis its nuclear neighbours. ‘No first use’ strategy is the optimal compromise between India’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and its nuclear security imperatives.


The writer is a senior defence analyst

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