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.


Hillary Nuclear Policy: A Time of Change, Dither or Sameness?


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(First published on the IPCS web site on 02 Nov 2016, as a part of their Impact Series. may be accessed at:

An Inexpedient Second

The last time that a Democrat President of the USA was elected to office after two terms of a Democratic Presidency was 180 years ago. A certain Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in 1836. Coincidentally he was a former Secretary of State. The occurrence is unique in an unflattering way for a variety of reasons which has little to do with the candidate’s merits but more with ballotter’s disposition. Significant of these fancies are: exaction for change, anti-incumbency, voter fatigue, absence of choice and the resigned philosophical knowledge that this would be a one-off, destined to enter office as a ‘lame-duck.’

In the current Presidential race, two candidates have been thrust on the electorate who under circumstances of choice would have been spurned. Donald Trump comes with dangerous impetuousness while Hillary carries a baggage of alleged chicanery and unimaginativeness. However reality and opinion polls suggests that Hillary would enter the Oval office as America’s 45th President (this assumption is central to the narrative).

The 1837 inauguration of Van Buren proved less of a celebration and more of banality. His inaugural address took melancholy note of it: “In receiving from the people the sacred trust twice confided to my illustrious predecessor… I know that I cannot expect to perform the task with equal ability and success. But, I may hope that somewhat of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend upon my path.” … and Van Buren pledged to “tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson.” Needless to state that Buren lasted just one term, his Presidency was troubled, weak and had little success to legate; collapse of the economy, hostility to Native Americans and compromises in securing the frontiers with Canada and Mexico. On leaving office he was re-baptized ‘Martin Van Ruin’. Clearly if history is to prevail and Hillary elected, then ‘Continuity’ is her only deliverance.

Survival of Obama’s Nuclear Policy

In addition to his ‘Global Zero’ initiative, one of the most significant promises Obama made in his, now less-than-lustrous, 2009 Prague speech was to “put an end to Cold War thinking” by reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy. The Cold War had ended decades earlier and while the U.S. nuclear arsenal had decreased, little else had changed in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. As the Commander-in-Chief he could have made meaningful changes without the agreement of Russia or Congress. He did not. Changing the deeply entrenched status quo and overcoming inertia in the U.S. security establishment, however, demanded more than a vision; it required statesmanship, profoundly lacking, it would now seem. In some areas his administration has made nuclear matters worse. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, considered “making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.” However, it did not take this step. Instead, U.S. policy still allows the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis. This suggests that nuclear weapons have legitimate uses in war fighting. Add to this, Obama announced a $1 trillion plan to rebuild and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Whatever became of the resolve to bemoan the Cold War nuclear paradigm? With such a distracted policy inheritance, Hillary’s by now well acknowledged dawdling on nuclear matters is more than likely to return to Cold War beliefs.

The No-First-Use Non Starter

Obama, towards the last few months of his term in office, toyed with the idea of unilaterally declaring a No-First-Use (NFU) nuclear weapons policy to impel a first step towards goals of Global Zero. It would have been a landmark change in the U.S. nuclear posture. America’s overwhelming conventional weapon superiority provided the logic for such a step and the probable dividend was that the other nuclear weapon states would follow suit. This, notwithstanding, protests from allies who believe that “extended first use deterrence” works, despite convincing arguments of the “first-use-illusion” (after all, first-use not only suggests a break down in deterrence but also brings with it an assurance of retaliation). To declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter and if necessary only respond to the use of nuclear weapons by other countries; would not only conform to the Nuclear Posture Review of 2010, but would also provide incentive for Hillary to veer away from Cold War nuclear theology and set the NFU agenda in order to give fresh meaning to the idea of Continuity. Nevertheless, the question is really not of rationality but of whether the Hillary administration will have the resolve to take on a Republican dominated Congress? Clearly if Cold War thinking were to prevail, then such a transformatory change in posture is destined to collapse.


Test Ban and START

Seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution affirming a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons was Obama’s scheme to enshrine the United States’ pledge not to test without having to seek the Senate’s unlikely ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Then again, this runs contrary to the one trillion Dollar upgrade of the nuclear arsenal. Could the state really contemplate warhead and vector enhancements without testing was the conundrum? Hillary will have to juggle with this very complex issue of making large investments without a corresponding assurance of reliability; and then will the nuclear establishment give her the lee way to make such compromises? Time will of course tell, but, the prospect of such an event transpiring is stacked against her.

The Obama administration had noted that offering Russia a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty’s limits on deployed nuclear weapons (even though those limits don’t expire until 2021) would pave the way for his successor to not let the treaty lapse. Hillary, undoubtedly would have recognised this and it is reasonable that she will take steps to give legitimacy to the proposition provided Russia ‘plays ball’.

Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSOW)

The development of a new LRSOW nuclear cruise missile may have held logic for a limited nuclear strike but it also suggests a warped rationality that can only push the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. In the circumstance of it being used against a nuclear weapon state, then, the risk of retaliation and a nuclear exchange spinning out of control is very real. It is a capability Obama doesn’t believe the United States needs and by any wisdom, worthy of cancellation. It would also fulfil his campaign promise to take U.S. land-based missile off hair-trigger alert. Discarding the option of launching weapons-on-warning was his way of rejecting the very Cold War thinking he was calling the world to castoff. It will remain an awkward irony that Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his vision of a world without nuclear weapons if he is unable to pass down such a legacy to his successor. Yet robust opposition to such a dramatic remodelling of nuclear doctrine can, with some certainty, be expected to come from the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex.

U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

There are two issues related to America’s nuclear arsenal that the establishment has never really attempted to resolve, these are: Firstly, why the Pentagon is embarking upon a trillion-dollar programme to modernize the Triad? Is the program necessary (remember Hillary, in Jan 2016, had already dismissed the expenditure as meaningless)? And secondly, how do advances in non-nuclear weaponry affect theories of nuclear deterrence devised during the 1950s and 1960s? Does the logic of those early theories still hold, particularly in the light of overwhelming conventional and technological superiority? And will the Hillary Administration be resolute enough to put ‘actions where their mouth is’ and review the trillion-dollar proposed outlay in addition to challenging the ‘Word’ of Washington’s nuclear Ayatollahs? The matter seems dubious; given current relationship with Russia and China’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal. This will imply more of Cold War rationality rather than less.

The Future of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal

On successful conclusion of the Indo-US civil Nuclear Deal on 10 October 2008, the late     K. Subramanian, one of the early proponents of India’s independent nuclear deterrent and an architect of her nuclear doctrine, argued that the convergence of strategic interests between the two nations made such a remarkable agreement a reality, overcoming decades-long US stand on non-proliferation; what he did not mention was, it also put an end to an equally long antagonism between the two establishments. While much of the world’s approach to India in the past had been to limit its access to nuclear technology, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratories (a leading institution for nuclear weapons design during the Cold War) in a Senate hearing in 2008 put the matter in perspective. He suggested that it may well be that today we (the U.S.) limit ourselves by not having access to India’s nuclear technology developing such entrée should help to advice… efforts with India because India’s nuclear program was developed mostly indigenously, the country used unique techniques that other countries can learn from. Given this technical standpoint and not for a moment losing sight of the commercial prospects, the element of mutuality must come as no surprise and neither must the contract for 6 Westinghouse AP 1000 nuclear reactors due to be inked in June 2017.

While the full potential of the civil nuclear deal is yet to be realised, there can be no two opinions on changes in bilateral strategic orientation since the deal was struck. The extent to which transformation has occurred may be judged by several episodes in the relationship which include: deletion of many high technology sanctions imposed on India since 1974. Enhancing nuclear power generation through imported uranium and purchase of new reactors is an example; while convergence of strategic perspectives holds great promise for the future whether it be measures to bring about strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific or whole hearted support to India’s admission into the UN Security Council as a permanent member and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a steps to buttress stability in global security and nuclear politics and commerce. The U.S. has become India’s largest trading partner in goods and services and the two sides have set an ambitious goal of half a trillion dollars for future trade; cooperation on counter-terrorism, information-sharing and intelligence-partnership have expanded rapidly in recent years. In military cooperation the America has become one of India’s major suppliers of arms, and the two sides have on the table agreements that were improbable a few years ago such as the Logistic Memorandum of Understanding or entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime or even rejecting the idea of mediating between India and Pakistan, especially on the Kashmir question. All these advances are direct dividends of the nuclear deal for it provided the strategic ambience that facilitated partnership.

About the UNSC and NSG membership, Hillary has made it amply clear that her backing for India’s full membership is comprehensive. It includes the three Nuclear/ Chemical & Biological Weapon export control regimes; the NSG, Wassernaar Arrangement (an export control regime for conventional arms and dual-use Goods and Technologies) and the Australia Group.

Continuity and a Retreat to Cold War Thinking-A Forecast

Much like the hapless Buren, the 45th Presidency is more than likely to face an unsympathetic Congress, a hostile Pentagon and the prospect of a near certain ‘lame duck’ term. The only virtue that history may remember Hillary for is that she stayed-the-course laid by her predecessor. And yet even here it cannot be easy, for the geopolitical script has changed. There is, today, a far more assertive Russia than was in the first decade and a more forceful China set on rewriting the rule book. In the nuclear field the early flirtation with ending Cold War thinking is a pipe-dream. So for Hillary, Continuity may prove an arduous abstraction that could boomerang with more recoil than forward momentum. Perhaps her only redemption may come from building an entente cordiale with India as a balancing power.