A Faltering Return to Reason: ‘Global Zero’ Less of an Illusion

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

            Since August of 1945 when two nuclear weapons destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and unimaginable horrors visited over 199,000 of its inhabitants, the world has lived with the implicit fear of widespread annihilation. The Cold War that rapidly shadowed the mass killings of World War II was marked by a persistent threat of a nuclear holocaust, placing in jeopardy the very existence of mankind. The two power blocs, in ‘Strangelovesque’ logic, amassed over 70,000 nuclear warheads, with the fatal knowledge that the use of a nuclear weapon would set into motion an uncontrollable chain reaction. Their arsenals contained enough to destroy the world many, many times over and then again. All the while irrational and often outlandish doctrines of intent-to-use were hatched in the opaque corridors of power in Washington and Kremlin. ‘Nuclear mysticism’ of the period embraced Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), hair trigger arsenals, Launch on Warning (LoW), war-fighting with nuclear weapons, and the idea of flexible response encompassing the prolific use of tactical nuclear weapons, almost as if the resultant escalation could be controlled. Influenced by these very dangerously opposing concepts, the idea was that deterrence would prevail and strategic stability would be the outcome.

The Cold War, in a debilitating conclusion, saw the break up of the Soviet bloc, emergence of a multi-polar world, proliferation of nuclear weapons, emergence of a clandestine nuclear black market and the rise of Islamic radicalism; the aggregate of it all was strategic uncertainty. In this wobbly milieu an international movement was launched in 2008 with the improbable purpose of eliminating all nuclear weapons. Central to the concept is to check the spread of nuclear weapons and associated technologies, account for and secure all fissile material, eradicate the threat of nuclear terrorism and abolish nuclear weapons. Most world leaders including those of the USA, Russia, China, Europe and India have endorsed Global Zero.

The plan envisages achieving a global zero accord by 2023 and complete nuclear disarmament by 2030. Implementation visualizes a four-phased action plan. Phase1 proposed a bilateral treaty between the USA and Russia to reduce arsenals to 1000 warheads each. Phase 2 conceives a further reduction of arsenals by the USA and Russia to 500 warheads each, while a multilateral framework called for all other nuclear weapon nations to freeze their stockpiles until 2018 and enjoins them to put in place verifiable safeguards and enforcement systems to prevent diversion of fissile material towards weapon production. Phase 3 requires these nations to negotiate a global zero accord by 2023 for the proportional reduction of all nuclear arsenals to the zero level. The final Phase is reduction to zero and the continuation of the verification, safeguard and enforcement systems.

Till recently, the problem with the entire scheme was lack of clarity of what measures would need to be put in place, in order to establish a multilateral structure that addresses immediate nuclear risks. These immediate nuclear risks are presented by nations adopting a posture of intent to use nuclear weapons first; absence of transparency in strategic underpinnings; development and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons and its corollary of decentralizing control; and lastly the hazards of terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons. During a meeting of the Global Zero Commission in Athens on 30-31 March 2015 a draft report was presented, its aim was to reduce the risks of deliberate or unintended use of nuclear weapons through the instrument of establishing a multilateral norm that de-alerts nuclear forces. Refreshingly encouraging was a suggested paradigm shift from intention-to-use to that of intent-to-avoid the use of nuclear weapons.

Addressing the Commission, as one of the Indian participants, the author underscored that the nation’s nuclear posture was founded on its declared policy of No First Use (NFU), which formed the basis of operationalizing the arsenal. Intrinsic to its nuclear orientation was the separation of the custodian of nuclear weapons from controller, achieved not just in word, but by robust technological systems supported by stringent procedures and redundancies at every stage. Central to control was supremacy of polity. In this framework there was no room for conflict between operational goals and strategic policy. On matters of hair-trigger state of alert of nuclear forces with intent-to-use, the author suggested that de-alerting of nuclear forces without a commitment to NFU did not in any way assuage the situation since there were no apparent restraints to reverse transition from the de-alerted to the alert stage. The Indian and Chinese NFU posture provided a first step towards stability and the final goal of disarmament. On tactical nuclear weapons, the author was unequivocal on India’s stand of being unwilling to distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons on grounds that control of escalation was not possible once the weapon was used. The hazards of non-state actors gaining access to nuclear weapons as a real danger, was highlighted, primarily because jihadists are an integral part of Pakistan’s military strategy, making subversion of their nuclear establishment an existential threat. The narrative was rounded off by re-emphasizing that de-alerting of nuclear forces was a natural hand-maiden of a policy of No First Use of these weapons.

Despite the doubts expressed by the Russian participants over the credibility of NFU, what was surprising was the traction that the twin ideas of de-alerting and NFU generated amongst the Commission. Equally surprising was the Japanese reservations of how such a policy would affect extended deterrence, perhaps this was more on account of the inability to see a time when the need for nuclear deterrent forces would be a thing of the past.

State of Play: Non-Proliferation, Fissile Material Cut-offs and Nuclear Transparency

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

 Tools that promote a stable nuclear relationship between nations are characterized by a congruence of views on non-proliferation of weapon and vector technologies, fissile material control and strategic transparency; the last makes clear the strategic underpinnings that motivate weapon programmes. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was negotiated in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, is the cornerstone of all international efforts to provide stability within the bounds of a globally ‘iniquitous’ nuclear regulatory system by limiting access to nuclear weapons. The impetus behind the NPT was a stated concern for the safety of a world with many nuclear weapon states. It was recognized that the cold war deterrent relationship between just the United States and Soviet Union was fragile. Having more nuclear-weapon states would reduce security for all, multiplying the risks of miscalculation, accidents, unauthorized use of weapons and the hazards of regional tensions escalating to nuclear conflict. The concept of the NPT process was formulated by Frank Aiken, Irish Minister for External Affairs, in 1958. A total of 190 states have joined the Treaty, though North Korea, which acceded to the NPT in 1985 but never came into compliance, announced its withdrawal in 2003. States that have never joined the NPT are India, Israel and Pakistan.

The NPT is, unfortunately a flawed treaty, while its origins pre-dates the Cuban crisis, it was the fragility of the existing fraught relationship between the two super powers that pushed leadership towards a pact that restricted possession of nuclear weapons. Based on a ‘bargain’ that traded denial of nuclear weapons for peaceful use technologies, it distinguishes between three categories of states: nuclear-weapon states (the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China), non-nuclear weapons states and thirdly states that are not signatories of the Treaty in possession of nuclear weapons (India, Israel and Pakistan). Many of the non-nuclear weapons states agreed to forego nuclear armament because the nuclear-armed states made a promise that in return they would work towards nuclear reductions with the ultimate aim of abandoning all nuclear weapons and because the nuclear have-nots had been promised support in making strictly peaceful use of nuclear energy. The system has not evolved to find a status for the last category of players whose security needs was neither addressed nor any remission given.

Western thinking (by which is implied the nuclear Haves) on the matter is, regrettably, dominated by only two issues: how best to retain the power exclusivity of the ‘Nuclear Club’ and the situation in the Middle East. Questions related to nuclear proliferation, hazards of non-state actors gaining access to nuclear weapons and stability of nuclear relations; on the other hand, have taken a back seat. The US and Russia, as the states with by far the biggest nuclear arsenals, have neither shown the imagination nor the will to formulate a new dispensation that holds nuclear stability as a function of enforceable transparency and an acceptance of No First Use as an inviolable first step towards disarmament.

On the ground, the US accuses Russia of violating the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty that commits both sides to abolishing their intermediate-range nuclear arms; there is no progress in matters of multilateral nuclear disarmament; the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is a distant illusion as the US has still failed to ratify the treaty; there are no negotiations or an agreed agenda over stopping the production of fissile material for military purposes; the Geneva Conference on Disarmament that is intended for this purpose cannot agree on the principles that will govern the Treaty. While transparency in arsenals and doctrines has been rendered opaque as nuclear weapon states have found new reason to enlarge and modernise. In this mileu ‘Global Zero’ remains a Utopian ideal.

The ‘cardiac’ arrest in the nuclear disarmament agenda is more symptomatic of the growing perception that in an uncertain world, nuclear weapons provide a persuasive argument for strategic stability. During the Cold War, strategic doctrines relied heavily on nuclear weapons for their deterrent effect; it resulted in a veritable freeze in the probability of war in Europe. Today, while the picture may have changed due to tensions of the multi polar and the competitive tyranny of economics, the need to underscore the boundaries of interstate behaviour remains an imperative. In the absence of globally accepted regulatory regimes not only are conflictual situations likely to arise and have indeed arisen, but there is also a necessity that these conflicts remain restrained; this is where the deterrent value of nuclear weapons play a role till such time that an alternate disincentive can be devised. It is also for this reason that nations are increasingly demanding reliable extended nuclear deterrence. The escalating friction in the South and East China Sea; the war in Ukraine where a nuclear-armed Moscow has arrogated Crimea (and parts of eastern Ukraine) in defiance of the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum; the seemingly irrational nature of North Korea’s nuclear threats; the continued existence of nuclear black market networks of AQ Khan notoriety; the appearance of non-state actors into the equation and China’s programme of nuclear proliferation which has nurtured and continues to sustain and enlarge Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, are all demonstrative of the current apocalyptical state of play. For many nations, this has reinforced the impression that possession of nuclear weapons adds-up-to strength, protection, and inviolability; while foregoing nuclear weapons can threaten the very existence of the State. As the importance of nuclear weapons increases in a geopolitical environment of uncertainty, the prospects of stability becomes bleaker.

An appraisal of the contemporary universal state of nuclear affairs will suggest that the three pillars of global nuclear stability, namely, non proliferation, control of fissile material production and transparency of nuclear arsenals are wobbly for lack of foundational support. And in the truancy of global foundational support the answer may well lie in establishing a regional framework of détente.

Swabbing the Bleakness of Sub-Continental Nuclear Instability

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website)

Nuclear Stability: Where does it Begin?

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, it dawned upon President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev how catastrophically close to nuclear war they had blundered due to a misshapen military-led nuclear policy and a ludicrous nuclear doctrine that believed that a nuclear war could be fought, controlled and won. Both leaders sought a change to the nuclear status-quo. As Khrushchev described it, “The two most powerful nations had been squared off against each other, each with its finger on the button.” Kennedy shared this distress, remarking at a White House meeting, “It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.” He called for an end to the Cold War. “If we cannot end our differences,” he said, “at least we can help make the world a safe place for diversity.” In a series of private letters, Khrushchev and Kennedy opened a dialogue on banning nuclear testing. Thus began a progression of political moves and agreements that sought to dampen the risk of a nuclear war, contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons, do away with tactical nuclear weapons, limit strategic arms, cut arsenal size and indeed, bring stability to nuclear relations. If at all there is a historical lesson to be learned then it is that nuclear risk reduction and stability begins with serious dialogue between leadership.

The Sub-Continental Nightmare

If one were to hypothesise what form a nuclear nightmare may take, then it is a hair-trigger, opaque, nuclear arsenal that has embraced tactical use under decentralised military control, steered by a doctrine seeped in ambiguity and guided by a military strategy that carouses and finds unity with non-state actors. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertion to declare that this nightmare is upon the Sub-Continent. The need to bring about an awakening to the dangers of a nuclear conflagration is therefore pressing. The effect of an enfeebled civilian leadership in Pakistan that is incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger; the active attendance and involvement of jihadists in swaying strategy; technology intrusions brought in by covert means; absence or at best ambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings that make Pakistan’s nuclear posture indecipherable, and the alarming reality of ‘intention-to-use’, all, in aggregate, make the status-quo untenable. The need for change in the manner in which we transact nuclear business is urgent.

Strategic restraint predicated on failsafe controls, verification in a transparent environment, providing logic to size and nature of the arsenal, and putting the brakes on the slide to nuclear capriciousness become imperatives to stabilizing deterrent relationship on the Sub-Continent. But the catch is, how does one begin a meaningful nuclear dialogue with a weakened Pakistan civilian establishment that does not control a military which, in turn, finds no reason to come to terms with a subordinate role? And as Cohen so succinctly put it “Pakistan will continue to be a state in possession of a uniformed bureaucracy even when civilian governments are perched on the seat of power. Regardless of what may be desirable, the army will continue to set the limits on what is possible in Pakistan.” [1]

The Tri-Polar Tangle

A singular feature of the deterrent relationship in the region is its tri-polar character. As is well known today, it is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship which created and sustains its nuclear weapons programme. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there exists doctrinal links between the two which permits a duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared No-First-Use can readily fall back on Pakistan’s developing First-Use capability, as far as India is concerned. Such links have made China blind to the dangers of nuclear proliferation as exemplified by the AQ Khan affair. No scrutiny, of any consequence, of the regional nuclear situation can avoid looking at the internals of Pakistan. The country today represents a condition that has been brought about by the precarious recipe that the establishment has brewed in nurturing fundamentalist and terrorist organizations as instruments of their military strategy. The extent to which their security establishment has been infiltrated is suggested by the attacks on PNS Mehran, Kamra air base, Karachi naval harbour and the assassination of the Punjab Governor; while the recent murderous assault on the Army School in Peshawar and the every day terror killings are more symptomatic of the free run that these elements enjoy across the length and breadth of the country. Such a state of affairs does not inspire any confidence in the likelihood of the nuclear nightmare fading away or the robustness of their nuclear command and control structures to keep it in check.

Failure of the US Af-Pak Policy

As early as 2003, the USA set out two major policy goals towards Pakistan, firstly holding it as an indispensable ally in its war in Afghanistan and secondly ending the proliferation of nuclear weapons in and from the region. However, over a decade later, both goals have failed dismally. There are confirmed reports that the Pakistan military has persistently deceived the US forces while elements within the former either lack the will to combat the insurgency or are actively involved with the jihadists. On the nuclear front, the rapid setting up of the unsafeguarded Khushab series (II, III an IV) nuclear reactors with Chinese collaboration, having no other purpose than production of weapon grade Plutonium, development of tactical nuclear weapons, and the uninhibited growth of their arsenal, do not in anyway enthuse belief in US ability to exercise any stewardship over Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile. The inexplicable disappearance of key nuclear scientists who had recorded liaisons with the Al Qaeda remain alarming episodes that must cause anxieties. With US involvement in the Af-Pak greatly diminished and their focus on nuclear proliferation much sharper, the time is ripe for the US to clamp down on the maverick Pak nuclear posture.

Orientation of Sino-Pak Nuclear Collusion

The key to GHQ Rawalpindi’s compliance with rational norms of nuclear behaviour lies in Beijing. And the direction, in which Sino-Pak collusion is headed will, to a large extent, influence nuclear stability in the region. If the alliance was intended (as it now appears) to nurture a first use capability in order to keep sub-continental nuclear stability on the boil then the scope for achieving lasting stability is that much weakened. However, the current political situation in Pakistan, presents a frightening possibility which is not in China’s interest to promote, more so, since Islamic terrorist elements have sworn to obtain nuclear weapons and the politico-ethnic situation in western China remains fragile. This in turn provides an opportunity to Indian leadership to bring about change in the current ‘tri-polar tangle’.

A Blue Print for Regional Nuclear Stability

Against the reality of conventional war with its limited goals, moderated ends and the unlikelihood of it being outlawed in the foreseeable future, the separation of the conventional from the nuclear is a logical severance. Nuclear weapons are to deter and not for use; intent is the key; coherence and transparency are its basis. These remain the foundational principles that a nuclear weapon state must adhere to. However, given the politics of the region, historical animosities and the persisting dominance of the military in Pakistan, the dangers of adding nuclear malefeseance to military perfidy is more than just a possibility. Stability in this context would then suggest the importance of not only reinforcing assured retaliation to nuclear violence, but at the same time for India to bring about a consensus among both China and the USA to compel Pakistan to harmonize with foundational rules of nuclear conduct. India’s current strategic relations with USA and Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visit to China provide a timely opportunity to bring an end to the nightmare by swabbing the bleakness of subcontinental nuclear instability.

Endnotes

[1] Stephen Cohen, The Idea of Pakistan, The Brookings Institution: Washington DC, 2004, p. 97