Carnage Ahead?


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website)

With the quickening of changed power relations, already apparent in the larger context of Brexit and the growing bonhomie between the US and Russia; the pulling away from multi-lateral alliances and the potential for new strategic orientation would appear to be the new norm. And lurking in the shadows is the real possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamic terrorists which along with the only comparable danger, in terms of scale of destruction, is environmental catastrophe; both must be seen for what they are, and perhaps, provide the imperative for unified response. All the while what appeared to be an accepted ‘post-internet globalized world view’ is rapidly confronted by an absolutist conception of national sovereignty.

Donald Trump in his inaugural speech, vowed “…this American carnage must stop here.” What preceded his vow suggested, with more intensity and less clarity, what the carnage was. Presumably he implied a host of current circumstances whose balm included the advent of an era marked by mass mobilisation,  bellicism, end of idealism, a blow out of the liberal left, abrogation of the spoils of the political and power elites, imposition of a draconian immigration policy, discarding multilateral alliances in favour of the bi-lateral, a baleful threat to eradicate radical Islamic terror and a promise to ease the agonizing ‘reality of the citizen’s state.’ His prescriptive mantra was simplistic; Nationalism, protectionism, a menacing portent of a war on radical Islam and the nebulous abstraction of “America First” (an odd declaration, were not American interests always first?!) And yet coming from the mouth of a democratically elected leader of the planet’s sole super power, it must indeed set the stage for serious debate of what foreshadows the immediate future. It is his mantra that will disproportionately influence any strategic prognostication. Global events such as Brexit and the rise of the far right in Europe, Russia and other parts of the world are symptomatic and a precursor of the geopolitical trends that Donald Trump articulated.

Clearly the challenges are complex and in an intertwined world of global economic and security networks the need for reconciling competing and often conflicting perspectives through empathy and compromise is on a collision course with insular politics. Given events that disparage (often correctly) established leadership as corrupt and the quest for mutuality involving far reaching alliances as acknowledgement of frailty; nationalism has been ignited to mould malevolent distinctiveness that threatens to derange the integrative forces that have brought North and South together in a beneficial embrace. All this has been fuelled by the rapidity of technological changes and the inability of leadership to fully come to grips with the reach of the individual which extends far beyond the ambit of the nation state. And yet, at a point in the evolution of a world order which begs for robust international institutions that manage and regulate current global shifts, we are faced with forces that unhinge existing systems.

Nationalism, as one such unhinging force, conventionally, snatches control from the ‘gilt edged’ and sets into motion undercurrents that progressively redistributes power. However, nationalism in the context of the masses damning-ruling-elites and challenging the beneficiaries-of-privilege has historically been double edged. While being a powerful dynamic of change, the history of the twentieth century has shown, it invariably is accompanied by anarchy in the absence of systems that serve to provide social solidity. Russia, China and Europe in the run-up to the First World War and in the frenzied interregnum between the two wars are all precedents that cannot be easily set aside. But 21st century citizens’ voluntary and non-violent electing for chauvinistic administration is different. It is, not only an indication of deep seated frustration that targets the status-quo, but is also an expression of “disruptive discontent” that is, a conception of the crisis without either the competence or the wherewithal to direct events. Paradoxically, it remains at odds with the gains of order, inclusive economics and globalisation. And because of the unique temper of contemporary times dominated by a cult of popular power laced liberally with nationalism; collaborative structures, both economic and security, that were hitherto evolving are severely undermined.

A quick geo-political scan will be helpful in putting the dangerous pall of instability in perspective. Russia, over the last quarter of a century since the end of the cold war and disintegration of the Soviet Union, has emerged out of strategic limbo and again transformed to a major global player. It is today expanding and assimilating the western confines of what was the erstwhile Czarist Empire and has, with relatively more success than USA and NATO, established its influence in West Asia. Eastward it is building bridges with Communist China. While, China on a winning march of influence over East Asia and the South China Sea, is yet to reconcile its autocratic rule with the aspirations of its people, leaving it a trifle inadequate to don the mantle of global or even regional leadership. Unfortunately, the tide of history is turning towards these authoritarian states. In the meantime, the promise of an Arab awakening in West Asia and North Africa has been belied. The stalled transformation has given way to implosions within and the rise of a host of medieval ‘jihadist ideologies’ bent on re-establishing a Caliphate through the instruments of terror and radical Islam. In what is historically an awkward irony, the very destruction of Saddam’s Iraq has paved the way for fragmentation of the Sykes-Picot borders and the tri-furcation of Iraq into a Kurdish enclave in the northeast, a Shia enclave in the south and the Islamic State running riot in the centre and in Syria. The delusion that a new West Asia was in the build flies in the face of the current situation. In the interim radical Islam has spread its tentacles from Pakistan through Afghanistan, into the Levant, Yemen, Somalia and all of the Maghreb. The Islamic State (IS) has swept from Syria into Iraq in a maelstrom of destruction. No political Islam or civilizational impulse here, just rabid intolerance. In its wake it has disrupted the correlation of political forces in the region as the US seek a quick blocking entente with Iran; Syria sees in the situation an opportunity to settle scores with the insurgency raging within; Shia organisations find common cause to offset the IS; Sunni States carry a cloaked bias towards the IS to the extent that recent reports suggest funding by Turkey, Saudi and Qatar; terror organisations in Afghanistan and Pakistan welcome the new leadership that has displaced al-Qaeda. As the fanatical outburst of xenophobia stretches south, west and eastward the IS’ influence has manifested in the fertile Jihadist breeding grounds of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many perceptive analysts have noted that Pakistan today, represents a very dangerous condition as its establishment nurtures fundamentalist and terrorist organizations as instruments of their misshapen policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir; the essence of Pakistan’s rogue links will, unmistakably seduce the IS, underscoring the distressing probability of extending its reach into a nuclear arsenal. These anarchic conditions have set into motion a refugee crisis that, unfortunately, no nation is willing to provide permanent relief to or even recognise.

The linkage between extreme nationalism, protectionism and authoritarian government is historically unassailable and its impact on the world as a rising force of global disarray is unmistakable. Civil society in Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and elsewhere is in retreat, greatly pressured by governments fearful of an empowered citizenry and liberal thinking amongst them (the question is will the US take a slant in this direction?)  Disinformation is now galvanized by the use of social media and international relations are marred by large scale cyber-attacks. States, quite openly, “loan” tens of millions of dollars to nationalist parties in countries such as France, Hungary, Romania, etc. to dislocate politics through electoral means. Arbitrary laws constrain foreign entities into narrower channels of activity under increasing pressure. Misperceptions commonly provide the controllable framework not only for public discourse but also for, as recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan has demonstrated, intelligence services to weave “alternate facts.”

With the quickening of changed power relations, already apparent in the larger context of Brexit and the growing bonhomie between the US and Russia; the pulling away from multi-lateral alliances and the potential for new strategic orientation would appear to be the new norm. The strategic unleashing of Japan and its ramifications for stability in the Asia-Pacific could well re-define the power balance in the region. And lurking in the shadows is the real possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamic terrorists which along with the only comparable danger, in terms of scale of destruction, is environmental catastrophe; both must be seen for what they are, and perhaps, provide the imperative for unified response.

All the while what appeared to be an accepted ‘post-internet globalized world view’ is rapidly confronted by an absolutist conception of national sovereignty. The shaping influence of this complex of events that we have so far deliberated has just begun to loom large over the new century. More than anything else, it separates the world of the twentieth century from the twenty first. Efforts to cope with this globe splitting xenophobic embrace, particularly for a large developing nation such as India is not just to rapidly advance its internal pattern of growth, development, demand and consumption but also to ensure that its security is in no way jeopardised through either appeasement or due lack of preparation. This will remain an abiding balancing act to master in the remaining years of this century.

Perils of Nuclear Paranoia


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

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

Nuclear Brinkmanship Plus

The late Thomas Schelling, remarking on how dangerously skewed a nuclear deterrent relationship could get, famously drew the analogy of “one driver in a game of chicken who tears out and brandishes his steering column.” Conventional wisdom suggests that nuclear brinkmanship is the deliberate creation of a recognizable risk, denoting intimidation of an adversary and exposing him to a mutual risk; and if that risk is slanted such as by tearing out and brandishing the steering column, then that very act has a high probability of unleashing a nuclear catastrophe. By dramatically tossing the steering wheel out of the driver’s window, the reckless motorist assumes that this act would force the other player to concede the tourney. But this is not necessarily so since removal of the steering wheel to the other protagonist may well constitute a breakdown in the deterrent relationship and therefore releasing the latter from nuclear restraint or any risk reducing obligation that the relationship may have notionally implied.

The Zhenbao Incident

On 02 March 1969, Chinese troops ambushed and killed a group of Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island; one of the many (then) disputed islands on the Ussuri River. As Sino-Soviet tensions heightened in the 1960s, ownership of these tiny riverine islands designated as a boundary line between China and the Soviet Union by the 1860 Treaty of Peking, became an issue of grave contention. Beijing was convinced that ownership of the islands was symptomatic of forcing a weak China to submit to the Soviet Union. According to Moscow, the Treaty of Peking clearly identified the boundary line between China and the Soviet Union in this area as running along the Chinese riverbank. China saw in its military action resolve to deter future Soviet provocations partly aggravated by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and further incited by the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ that gave sweeping rights to the Soviet Union to intervene in the affairs of Communist countries to strengthen Communism. Mao intended the limited attack to demonstrate that it could not be bullied. Moscow, however interpreted China’s actions as aggressive and characteristic of a revisionist tendency. By end March, the conventional battle escalated and was fought with increasing ferocity across a wider front. In the following months the tempo and scale of operations was upped.

On the diplomatic front each armed escalation was paired with threats of further increase in combat operations. So extensive was the intimidation that Mao feared a Soviet invasion preceded by a nuclear ‘first strike’. Behind the frontline USSR had been trying to warn the USA of China’s power aspirations and requested US neutrality in the matter. But unbeknownst to the USSR, there were other diplomatic manoeuvres afoot that sought to use China as a means of containing the Soviets. By August the USSR threatened to cross the nuclear Rubicon. For Beijing, the knowledge that Moscow had approached other countries for disposition and response   to a nuclear strike greatly increased the credibility of the impending Soviet nuclear attack. As such, this case stands out as a rare instance of the use of nuclear threats to attempt to compel a weaker adversary to the negotiating table (that eventually went awry). However, Beijing’s ensuing perception of the credibility of Soviet nuclear threats had unintended consequences that greatly increased the possibility of a nuclear exchange. China believed that negotiations were a thinly veiled mask for a nuclear “sneak attack.” By October 1969, so alarmed of an imminent Soviet nuclear strike, Chinese leadership evacuated Beijing, and placed its nuclear forces, a stockpile of between 60 to 80 warheads, on hair trigger alert.

Had China wrenched out the steering column? Had it arrived at a ‘Schelling Point’? There is much to suggest that it had. Kremlin, as more recent reports have pointed out, was stunned at the prospects now of a people’s war under the overhang of a steering-less nuclear arsenal. It would appear that the Soviets had swerved out of the path of an uncontrolled Armageddon and as in Schelling’s game of chicken conceded the tourney. The two nations, by end October, were on the negotiation table.

Skewing Against Gravity

A central argument in much of contemporary deterrence literature is that nuclear weapons induce predictable rationality in interstate relations and prompts mirror imaging in policy making; this in turn transforms national behaviour and reduces the likelihood of direct conflict between nuclear-armed states. Nuclear weapons, according to this school of thought, define the spectrum of acceptable policies and circumscribe the limits of conventional warfare. To the contrary, the substantiation from the Zhenbao war suggests that there can be conflicts and other armed actions that, for the initiator, have nothing to do with the military balance both conventional and nuclear. Critically it raises the probability of unintended consequences and the prospect that balance may indeed be skewed against gravity. The India Pakistan hostile correlation; China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea and the North Korea nuclear standoff are stark reminders of this precept.

Differing Ideas of Deterrence and its Fragility

Strategic culture and the differing idea of deterrence characterise a key role in determining actions taken by international players. China’s traditional word for deterrence, weishe, quite bluntly means “to intimidate militarily” without nuances. While the Oxford English dictionary defines the meaning of the verb “to deter” as to discourage (from acting) or prevent (from occurring), usually by instilling fear, doubt, or anxiety; from this is derived the accepted idea that essentially upholds the status quo. What Pakistan understands remains blurred; whether it is to discourage all forms of armed conflict against India or to provide an umbrella for non-state actors to continue a war to bleed India is ambiguous. The introduction of Jihadists and non-state actors is unique in that it delivers an asymmetricity that keeps the level of warfare well under the nuclear shadow, is deniable and yet its impact can be as consequential as any act of war.

Indian strategic planners will do well to appreciate that the international nuclear milieu today is complex and multilateral in nature which increases the chances of strategic misunderstandings to the detriment of balanced decision-making. The demand is for explicit credibility if deterrence is to be functional and exertive. In addition, these issues also highlight an important dilemma: for deterrence to be effective, an opponent must fear the consequences of his actions; however, excessive anxiety is also a potential peril, as it can lead to paranoia and dangerous behaviour such as ‘tearing out the steering column’.

The Catechism of a Minister


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

The honourable Raksha Mantri was at a public book release function on 10 November 2016. Addressing the gathering he suggested that India should not bind itself to a No First Use (NFU) nuclear policy; continuing in the same vein, he blathered, “…in strategic warfare, there is a need to be unpredictable (with the use of nuclear weapons) while being responsible… I ought to declare that I am a responsible nuclear power and will not use (nuclear weapons) irresponsibly.” Such mindless derogation of an existing developed and sophisticated policy must surely promise him a place in Pyong Yang’s or even Islamabad’s nuclear establishment!

When Marshal Ferdinand Foch, one of the lesser meat grinding generals of the First World War, was faced with strategic perplexity, he is said to have countered with a fundamental question “de quoi s’agit-il?” – What is it all about? Indeed had the Minister Mr Parrikar, paused just a fraction to ask himself as to what it was all about, it may have revealed to him the woeful lack of discernment he possessed on the matter. And this coming from a key member of the Political Council of India’s Nuclear Command Authority can only make for a Dr Strangelovesque parody, if it were not serious.

Foundations of a Deterrent Relationship or ‘A Strategic Primer to Warfare’

The Clausewitzian understanding of warfare holds many truisms that remain relevant to the relationship between nations to this very day. Its significance lies in the manner in which a theory of total war, is advanced from the abstract and then moderated by uncertainties, shaped by friction and confounded by paucity of predictive surety. His labours breathed life into the concept of ‘limited wars’ the nature of which was determined by symmetricity, available means and limits on political purpose.

With the advent of nuclear arsenals not only has the wheel come full circle and war in abstraction has become a definite reality; but it also poses a peculiar dilemma to the strategist because nuclear weapons seek to obliterate what polity pursues to win; in which case what purpose do such weapons of mass destruction serve? The answer is to be found in what may be termed as ‘limits to conflict’ and ‘coercive appeal’ both settings solicit rationality of leadership. In such a frame of reference nuclear forces, in fact, become politics and not just an extension of it. As a natural corollary, its unpredictable and irrational control is a negation of polity. The appeal is made at two distinct levels and is intended to keep the scope of an armed conflict to mutually tolerable bounds. Firstly, it urges leadership to constantly indulge in an ‘interest-benefit’ analysis and secondly, it announces an unambiguous threat that beyond a certain threshold the antagonist would be made to suffer ‘more pain than gain.’  Nuclear forces today, therefore is the “shadow face” of warfare from where it scripts the perimeter and imposes cut-offs on the limits of the primary face as represented by conventional forces. This perspicacity lies at the core of India’s nuclear doctrine. To toy with it is reckless.

Lesson I, for the Mantri, may now be summarised by stating that in orthodox analysis of nuclear correlation, leaders are assumed to be rational and willing to engage in ‘interest-benefit’ calculations when contemplating a nuclear solution to a soured political relationship. The assumption of rationality is considered universal in terms of context and challenges and is largely a labour in mirror imaging. A deterrent relationship is premised on this assumption. From such a standpoint, the idea of ‘unpredictability’ is anathema.

Thus far it will be noted that the working of a deterrent relationship is less than perfect; while theoretically it attempts to arrive at a state where the level of understanding is such that the protagonists know where tolerance thresholds lie and that rationality is the basic premise that drives the relationship. On the part of the ‘deterree’ there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks of hostile action; and on the part of the ‘deterrer’ rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of the risks involved in a manner that strategic miscalculations are avoided. The exceptional feature of this transaction is that the roles are reversible, provided it is in the common interest to maintain stability in the relationship.  However reality is far from this surmise. For, rationality itself is conditioned by human behaviour and a liberal sprinkling of all the elements of power—including wealth, geography, values, strategic culture, dynamism, history etc. This leaves the relationship riddled with deep suspicions that provides the incentive for overkill and for covert programs. Under the circumstances it is a “nuclear armed peace” that holds. Half-baked declarations such as those that sent quivers down the air-waves on 10 November only serve to further confound the problem.

Lesson II, is that the quest for a stable nuclear deterrent relationship begins by putting in place measures and structures that remove suspicion and bring about transparency. This is much easier said than done. It is also equally clear that any confidence building measure that does not target these two factors condemns the relationship.

The Problem

The real problem with the possession of a nuclear arsenal is to find ‘goofproof’ means to convince decision makers that no conceivable advantage can be achieved from a nuclear exchange; for as long as one side believes that there is some value to be had through the use of nuclear weapons, uncertainties and imponderables creep in that sets into motion a chain reaction that aggravates and raises the degree of risk of a catastrophe.

Military planners are more than familiar with the fact that risk assessment is an imperative in the generation of a strategic plan. Its evolution is marked by persistent motivation to not only eliminate uncertainties and bring about balance in the ‘objectives-resources-means’ equation but also to ensure that the benefits that accrue far outweigh hazards. However, the abiding conundrum is that the nature of warfare is in opposition to such precision. And, as we enter the nuclear arena we must note that strategic imbalance is intrinsic to the objectives-resources-means relationship. For, from the very start, the equation is irrevocably in a state of unstable equilibrium activated by the fact that whatever nuclear means are used, sets into motion an uncontrollable chain reaction of nuclear escalation that will invariably obliterate the very objectives that were sought to be attained.

Lesson III, is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in its non-usage; its aim is, to deter nuclear war; its futility is, in attempting to use it to attain political goals.

The Razor’s Edge

Nuclear weapons have put us on a razors edge, in part because of our inability to control the manner in which political events and technology are driving nuclear weapon policies. While technology invites covertness; lethality, precision, stealth and time compression that it has wrought demands transparency, demarcation between custodian and controller and central control if at all the risks of an exchange is to be averted and stability of a deterrent relationship assured. The development of tactical nuclear weapons only serves to enhance fragility of the relationship as control is easily lost. A whimsical approach consequently enlarges vulnerabilities of a deterrent correlation.

Lesson IV, is that escalation control of a nuclear exchange lacks conviction and to conventionalise the weapon’s use has to be abhorred. Nuclear weapons do not provide answers to low intensity conflicts. So also, to suggest conventional principles of war such as surprise or deception apply, is ludicrous. Besides, policy must remain sensitive to the multi-lateral nature of contemporary nuclear dynamics.  The bottom line: capricious and erratic behaviour in crafting a nuclear posture increases the perils of unintended use.

Indian Nuclear Doctrine and an Abiding Counsel

The genesis of India’s nuclear doctrine is rooted in three guiding canons; primarily, the nation would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, secondly that a nuclear first use would invite an assured massive retaliation and thirdly, India would develop a credible minimum arsenal. There was a fourth equally important unwritten faith and that was, under no condition would the weapon be conventionalized. The last principle, it is significant to note, was advanced in the wake  of the Cold War and yet remained oddly divorced from the one absurd tenet that characterized that war, that is, the belief that a nuclear war was not only fightable, but was also winnable. This last precept has currently been universally debunked.

The Doctrine is distinctive for it identified, with as much clarity as no similar document by any nuclear weapon state had done in the past; the role, purpose and relationship between Controller and Custodian in realizing the overall nuclear strategy of the nation. There remains the unwavering belief that nuclear weapons are, primarily, political weapons of war avoidance rather than devices of war fighting. Indeed Reviews of the Nuclear Doctrine is a cyclic phenomenon that is influenced by current geopolitics and challenges that are perceived to prejudice the status-quo. In fact over the last decade two such reviews have scrutinised India’s Doctrine for relevance and efficacy. Both reviews were neither public nor were they a wool gathering exercise. They were conducted objectively and by those in the know; the outcome (Mantri must note): no substantial changes to the doctrine.