A nuclear myth

Published August 3, 2014
The writer is the co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington, D.C.
The writer is the co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington, D.C.

NUCLEAR deterrence was conceptualised in the US even before the Soviet Union produced atomic weapons. Anticipating that the Kremlin would acquire the ‘ultimate’ weapon, brilliant minds devised a strategy to dissuade Moscow from using nuclear weapons in warfare or for leverage.

Thomas Schelling, one of the founding fathers of nuclear strategy, wrote that the essence of deterrence was the threat that left something to chance. Nuclear threats were supposed to prevent bad outcomes. If deterrence failed, there would be worse outcomes.

There were other paradoxes and weaknesses in deterrence theory. Strategy had to be rooted in psychology, but this wasn’t easy because adversaries, by definition, think differently. If a bluff were called, one side would have to back down or both would lose. No one had a credible explanation of escalation control. The ransom notes associated with mutual hostage-taking came with rising price tags because deterrence always needed to be strengthened in response to adversarial moves. Failure to compete might imply a weakening of will.


Nuclear deterrence stability is a mirage.


Despite all this, deterrence theory became an article of faith. A key tenet of this faith was that nuclear-armed adversaries have never used the ultimate weapon against each other, despite some close calls. Adherents of deterrence theory took refuge in the belief that, as arsenals grew and when adversaries possessed assured retaliatory capabilities, deterrence would become more stable. Tensions would be relieved. Disputes might be settled.

The evidence so far strongly suggests that this is wishful thinking. Deterrence stability is a myth, except in cases where nuclear-armed states have little, if anything, to fight about. In contrast, deterrence stability bet­ween nuclear-armed adversaries is a mirage. Neither the US nor the Soviet Union achieved deterrence stability during the Cold War, even when their nuclear arsenals and retaliatory capabilities grew to massive proportions.

Instead, they demonstrated that when interests are sharply adversarial and could lead to conflict, additional nuclear firepower on both sides only increases security concerns. Insecurities grew even when incremental capabilities appeared to be best suited for use in retaliation instead of pre-emption or when the competitors sought to improve defences against nuclear attack.

What about nuclear-armed adversaries with smaller arsenals? The same dynamic seems to apply, although on a reduced scale. When a nuclear competition begins, even small increments of capability are unsettling because they are novel.

When countries with serious security dilemmas transition from small to mid-sized arsenals, as is now the case in Pakistan and India, their sense of insecurity grows along with the competition. Every move generates countermoves, whether or not in kind. Countermoves are deemed necessary because an adversary might question one’s resolve or be emboldened to take chances.

India and Pakistan are producing more nuclear weapons, diversifying launch capabilities, growing fissile material stockpiles, increasing targeting options and developing more complex command and control arrangements. These steps do not help resolve sources of friction; they magnify them. But they are taken to avoid feeling even more disadvantaged and insecure by failing to compete.

This dynamic has been characterised by another Western construct — the ‘action-reaction syndrome’. Pakistan and India are now enmeshed in this, despite their initial desire to be content with credible, minimum deterrence. India considers dep­loying missile defe­nces, making Pakis­tan feel less secure. Pakistan states a requirement for short-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons because of Indian conventional military advantages.

The battlefield use of nuclear weapons would create havoc with Pakistani military operations and make Indian air strikes a better option. Pakistan builds up fissile material stocks, as does India. Depending on decisions made over the next five to 10 years, the action-reaction syndrome could also apply much more to China and India, with spill-over effects on Pakistan.

There are several off-ramps for competitors that wish to avoid the pitfalls of a nuclear arms competition. One way is to resolve disputes in mutually reassuring ways. Another is to negotiate treaties limiting or reducing the most destabilising aspects of a nuclear competition. This option seems most unlikely in a triangular nuclear competition among states with very different military potential.

A third way is for one of the contestants to voluntarily drop out of a nuclear competition, feeling it has sufficient firepower, enabling it to redirect resources elsewhere. A fourth way is for one of the contestants to involuntarily drop out of the competition because of economic duress or state failure. This is what happened to the Soviet Union. A fifth way is to reach confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction agreements, tacit or explicit, to defuse the most destabilising aspects of a nuclear competition. These choices are not mutually exclusive.

The writer is the co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington, D.C.

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2014

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