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Deterrence on steroids

September 13, 2015

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE good thing about nuclear weapons is that they’re relatively simple to understand. None of that order of battle stuff and how one set of jets stacks up against another set of tanks and what not.

I have a bomb and if you invade me, I’m going to use the bomb, so you better not ever think of attacking me. Simple.

The bad thing about nuclear weapons is that, when their purpose and potential use is articulated by military minds, they can get awfully complicated. And complicatedly dangerous.

Just don’t expect the boys here to let you in on that.


Credible minimum deterrence was simple, elegant — and enough. But then, the boys decided it was not enough.


“In view of the growing conventional asymmetry, the NCA reiterated the national resolve to maintain ‘Full Spectrum Deterrence Capability’ in line with the dictates of ‘Credible Minimum Deterrence’ to deter all forms of aggression, adhering to the policy of avoiding an arms race.”

Thus spake the ISPR this week.

It sounded terribly important, so it made splashy headlines. But what did it mean? Few seemed to understand or even care. Not even some of the civilian participants in the NCA meeting, if the picture accompanying the ISPR press release is anything to go by.

But matter it does, so let’s get down to it.

Gone — though the boys are pretending it’s not — is the old nuclear doctrine of credible minimum deterrence. That was the simple business of having a handful of nukes to ensure India would never invade us.

It was based on the fairly robust presumption that India would not like to be nuked and that, no matter what it did, no matter how massively and widely and quickly it attacked, it could never be sure we didn’t have a surviving nuke or two to lob India’s way.

Credible minimum deterrence was simple, elegant — and enough. But then, because they can and because of the way they see the world and understand security, the boys decided it was not enough.

In its place came this newfangled business of full-spectrum deterrence. It is based on, roughly, four elements. First is the high-end of the spectrum — long-range missiles. In March we tested something called the Shaheen-III, which has the rather specific stated range of 2,750km.

Why 2,750km? Well, if you pull out a map and look for the Andaman and Nicobar islands, you’ll see they’re roughly 2,750km from Pakistan. India controls those islands and is apparently working on militarising them. And India has plenty of long-range missiles of its own.

Theoretically, if India had a land mass somewhere that Pakistani missiles could not reach, then India could put a bunch of nuclear missiles there and apparently threaten Pakistan.

So we need to be able to hit the Andaman and Nicobar islands, the farthest outpost of India from Pakistan, with our own nukes. Because, apparently, being able to hit every other part of India with nuclear missiles is not credible enough.

Second, the low-end of the spectrum: very-short-range missiles, aka tactical nuclear weapons. That controversial expansion was based on an even more controversial idea — vague Indian musings on Cold Start and the possibility of rapid and shallow India military ingresses into Pakistan.

Apparently, there’s a way for India to make war on Pakistan without declaring war on Pakistan — and to contend with that, we needed to develop tiny little nukes that we can use to bomb the Indians on our soil. Go figure.

Third is an assured second-strike capability. Missiles can be found, planes can be knocked out of the sky, but nuclear submarines — now they are always on the move and impossible for an enemy to find all simultaneously.

So, yes, at some point you’re going to hear that Pakistan is going for a sea-based nuclear option, ie nuclear submarines. At that point, you’ll also wonder how it’s possible to keep warheads and missiles physically separate in a nuclear submarine, like we say we do with the rest for security reasons. It’s not.

Fourth is something called ambiguity: we don’t tell the world or India just how many, even in rough terms, nuclear weapons we have. The idea is to keep India guessing — if they can’t be sure how many we have, they can’t be sure if any war plan of theirs will succeed.

Ambiguity works because it creates doubt — but it also turns on its head credible minimum deterrence. That worked by suggesting a few is enough; full-spectrum deterrence works by suggesting you have more bombs at every tier than the enemy can ever be sure his military can find and neutralise.

The boys insist full-spectrum deterrence is not open-ended. The four elements — long-range missiles; tactical nuclear weapons; assured second-strike capability; and ambiguity — add up to a finite, but classified, number of nuclear weapons that we need.

But then they slip in something else — deterrence is not static. Which is just another way of saying an arms race can’t be ruled out. The really wild and woolly frontiers are out there: MIRVs (essentially, multiple warheads atop a single missile — the most dangerous kind); missile defence (you’d need more nukes to swamp a futuristic system); and space.

Scary as that sounds, that’s for the distant future. The more immediate problem is already here: the boys have internalised nukes as the answer to an ever-growing range of threats that they perceive from India.

Indian military base in Andaman and Nicobar? Build a big nuke. Cold Start and Integrated Battle Groups? Build a small nuke. India is going the sea route? Get nuclear submarines and build sea-based nukes.

Full-spectrum deterrence is about the creeping nuclearisation of most conflict scenarios — and the swagger that comes with the belief that defeat can never be suffered.

Really, what could go wrong with that?

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2015

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