The Dilemma of a Threshold

In nuclear policy parlance, ‘threshold’ indicates when and under what conditions leadership may resort to the use of nuclear weapons


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

            The nuclear planner is acutely involved in analysis of when and under what political conditions opposing leadership (military or otherwise) may resort to the employment of nuclear weapons. For nations with a policy of No-First-Use (NFU), the answer is “in response to the first-use (FU) of a nuclear weapon under conditions as stipulated in the doctrine.” However between nuclear armed nations, the one with a FU policy is faced with a more complex set of issues which will invariably raise the question “are political ends served with first-use of nuclear weapons knowing that an escalatory response may well be massive and place value targets in its cross hair.” Does first-strike come paired with the ability to offset a nuclear response? Indeed there is the theoretical possibility that the first strike may altogether neutralise the opposition’s capability of nuclear response; but this, as the evolution of nuclear thought and development of nuclear arsenals have shown, is a fantasy. Even the smallest retaliation in a nuclear exchange targeting a city will imply horrific destruction that the first striker must contend with. To put matters in perspective consider the following: the destructive potential of a nuclear weapon say a 20 kiloton nuclear weapon airburst targeting a city such as Karachi (in 2017 Karachi’s metropolitan area population was estimated at 23 million) with a population density of 24,000 per square kilometre will result in at least 8,00,000 primary casualties and another 12,00,000 secondary (statistics approximate based on casualty curves, Abraham Henry, Nuclear Weapons and War, 1984).  Or, one only has to recall the geographic extent and casualties of the 1986 “Chernobyl” power plant disaster to appreciate that the hazards of a nuclear encounter are not abstract notions. The radiation fallout spread from Scandinavia to the Black sea, over 116,000 people were affected while Belarus has since shown a 2400% annual increase in the incidents of thyroid cancer.

The capability to respond unfailingly and credibly lies at the heart of a deterrent strategy driven by a NFU policy. Faced with the certainty of appalling destruction in response to a nuclear adventure, why an aggressor should contemplate a first-use of nuclear weapons remains bizarre since it is at odds with the very idea of survival. Whatever may be the conditions of the conflict; the approach of such a threshold when one or the other protagonist may reach for the nuclear trigger must not only be transparent but be declared so that a return to normalcy becomes viable.

The strategic irony of dealing with Pakistan is that not only is it armed with nuclear weapons, but also forewarns ‘first-use’ shorn of a declared doctrine. The weapon, as recent statements from their establishment suggest, is “India specific” and the development of their nuclear arsenal is to deter India’s conventional forces from offensive operations through the use of tactical nuclear weapons (!) and should that elicit a massive response then that would be countered by an assured “limited” (?) second strike capability (a conversation with Khalid Kidwai, 2015). The latter, in their view, serves to “stabilise” the former; never you mind what or who caused the primary provocation. The doctrine remains under a cloak of ambiguity emboldened by the belief in a, yet to be developed, sea-based second strike launched from conventional submarines.

The first deduction that may be made from such a policy is that Pakistan has adopted a nuclear war-fighting doctrine notwithstanding a dangerous absence of technology necessary to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and command and control on land, at sea and in the air. The second deduction is, between their first and second strike Pakistan is convinced of surviving massive retaliation with its second strike intact. Is this a reasonable assumption or is it more bravado than sense? The third understanding is, when such a nuclear doctrine remains cloaked in ambiguity the separation between the Nuclear and principles that govern conventional warfare are blurred. This attains a catastrophic bent significantly when conventional principles such as surprise and deception are integrated into a first or a second strike plan, for the unsaid implication is that Pakistan, in some woolly manner, holds sway over the escalatory dynamic.

In all this what alarms is the lowering of the nuclear threshold while exposing the weapon to unintended use in its movement into the tactical battle area and the truancy of centralised command and control. Also, the deterrent value of the weapon from the standpoint of both time and space is narrowed if not foreclosed. Two more issues need to be recognised relating to the vexed geography of the Indo-Pak situation; the Line of Control (LoC) demarcates extent of geographic control over disputed territory in Jammu and Kashmir, to advocate creating a nuclear wasteland in territorial hankerings does not quite make strategic sense. It is equally clear that, among nations that share common borders, a nuclear exchange will spread devastation irrespective of man-made boundaries.

In the early stages of Pakistan weaponizing its nuclear capability it had, indeed, gestured to where its nuclear threshold lay. As could be deciphered, first-use of nuclear weapons was predicated on four thresholds:  large territorial setbacks, comprehensive military attrition, economic collapse and political precariousness. The deterrent logic these thresholds described was really quite unmistakeable for they also provided to Pakistan a context for maintaining conventional power. However, this rationality flew in the face of the acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). The perception widely held among commentators in India is that the four threshold doctrine has since been trashed. “Full-spectrum deterrence” is what Pakistan today makes its arsenal out to be. Central to this doctrine is the integration of TNWs with conventional forces and a callow belief that the nuclear escalatory ladder is in control of the first striker. This abstruse doctrinal tangle suggests that Pakistan not only fails to take account of India’s nuclear response but is also convinced of their ability to initiate a nuclear war and survive unscathed from the encounter.

To establish where Pakistan’s nuclear threshold lies conceptually is a baffling task. However, for Pakistan to escalate to the nuclear dimension in response to an Indian conventional riposte to a major terror assault traced to GHQ Rawalpindi cannot be consistent with their “full spectrum” doctrine since the riposte does not come as a result of the latters failed conventional action which is the “first tier” of the spectrum. Rather, in this frame of reference, the nuclear first-use threshold must be assessed in the context of political realities, state policy that finds unity with jihadists and military capability. An ambiguous nuclear doctrine in these circumstances cannot alone determine the nuclear threshold; what it can do is calibrate the uncertainty that it imposes and in the process limit both extent and intensity of the riposte.

Nuclear thresholds are neither fixed by geography nor by time but determined more by severity and purpose of military action, which by some national gauge or a combination of triggers, will lead to the decision that a threshold has been breached. As may be deduced from Pakistan’s peace-time nuclear posture, lack of high-technology-persistent-ISR, absence of a cyber and outer-space capability, and the fragility of the second strike, their nuclear threshold may not lie at the low end of the scale. Reason being the first tier of the spectrum may not have quite ruptured in the early stage of a crisis while the second strike remains unfledged. And yet it is equally clear that threat of nuclear use has been brought out of the backdrop to a position from where nuclear deterrence becomes a looming immediacy.


The Regression of Nuclear Policy


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Contemporary trends positing the reversibility of a nuclear exchange presupposes that the antagonists are able to understand mutual aims, objectives and have unimpeachable knowledge of boundaries within which the conflict is to be played out. In turn, these settings demand unambiguous appreciation of and total knowledge of decisions that will be taken by leadership on all sides. The act of trust that such a relationship rests upon is predicated upon crisis-proofed rapport. At any rate in such a velvet-lined relationship the question that begs to be asked is: why on earth did one of the parties take recourse to nuclear weapons in the first instance? Awkwardly this aberrant trend is gaining currency amongst states in possession of nuclear weapons.

A nation inducting tactical nuclear weapons into its arsenal will in fact have aligned its nuclear doctrine for first use, incentivised proliferation and blurred the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons; in turn, lowering the threshold of a nuclear response whose yield, magnitude and targets remain a choice made by the adversary. Delegation of authority to tactical commanders (which must follow) for release of low-yield nuclear weapons by nature of the tactical environment, runs the peril of being governed for deployment by principles more appropriate for conventional warfare. The posture indulges in the preposterous illusion that the adversary will discern between tactical and strategic yields and suitably moderate his response in the midst of a nuclear exchange, while desisting from escalating and retaliating in a manner of choosing. Irrationality of it all is that some States in possession of nuclear weapons have displayed a ready acceptance of nuclear war-fighting, rather than reconsider their nuclear doctrines, postures, and capabilities towards strategic deterrence. The latter ought to be the hallmark of an evolved nuclear system with seven decades of maturity in approach to its superintendence and of styling policy.

Today, the US counter to a Russian “escalate-to-deescalate” policy remains “to conduct nuclear strike operations below the strategic level.” All that such doctrines have ever done is to push adversaries into a perilous corner of uncertainty where alternatives to the nuclear trigger rapidly fade away. The French nuclear force de frappe and the British deterrent, both ‘declaredly’ independent, have neither abnegated First Use nor have they made any bones of targeting enemy value or population centres without ever disturbing themselves of the conditions of use, suggesting a certain heedlessness of policy.

As early as 1946, Bernard Brodie argued that “nuclear weapons were too powerful to use. Vastly more lethal than all previous arms, the grotesque scale of nuclear destruction overwhelmed any conceivable policy goal.” While the other school of thought, made up largely of the military and policy makers argued that nuclear weapons could be used like any weapon that was a product of technology. The latter school either deliberately, or for motivated reasons, chose not to reveal the scale and absoluteness of destruction that potentially could eclipse populations (both friend and foe) through blast, radiation, firestorms, fallout and the slower, yet assured death, of a nuclear winter. So, if nuclear weapons fail as instruments that win political objectives, then why is it that the logic that remains elusive to the mind of nuclear decision makers is that a nuclear exchange cannot be the accepted normal.

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 drew the two superpowers to the nuclear brink and the hapless rest-of-the-world closer to mass calamity. Inexorably, through a train of uncontrolled political and military actions beginning with induction into Cuba of over 40,000 Soviet troops armed with pre-delegated tactical nuclear weapons in addition to surface-to-air-missiles and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles; the US naval blockade; downing of an American U2 reconnaissance aircraft; action against Soviet submarines poised to release nuclear weapons to the ready amphibious force threatening invasion of Cuba, each event bringing closer nuclear conflict. Today, analysts and records of participants suggest that the chance of a nuclear conflagration was extremely high as blunders followed miscalculations. That a nuclear exchange did not occur is what remains remarkable. The improbable factor that drove strategic decision making was: nature of leadership image being projected to alliance partners and loss of face rather than hard political considerations and their baneful consequences. The perceived timidity of Kennedy versus Khrushchev’s boldness in the backdrop of the Berlin stand-off and the incentive the latter saw in Cuba to not just redress the strategic balance of power, but also to tighten Soviet hold on that nation. Significantly, throughout the crisis the inability to either control or recognise the impact and hazards of escalation was pivotal to precipitating the crisis. As the then Secretary for Defence, McNamara put it rather obscurely 30 years later “No one should believe that a US force could have been attacked by tactical nuclear warheads without responding with nuclear warheads. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster.”

Pakistan and North Korea are two states that have a adopted a policy that challenges common sense; both possess strategic nuclear weapons with a doctrine that blurs the lines between the nuclear and the conventional and advocates nuclear war fighting, neither have abjured First Use nor have they made any moves to proscribe tactical nuclear weapons. From a policy point of view such a protocol strikes a discordant note at a time when efforts to avert a nuclear exchange or at least make improbable an exchange, ought to be the norm.

We have, in the eighth decade of the evolution of strategic nuclear systems, come to the perspective that a first step to preventing a nuclear exchange is necessarily a universal declaration of “No Use” (a No First Use doctrine such as China and India’s, unfortunately, remains a halfway house). None of the states in possession of nuclear weapon have enunciated a strategic doctrine that is both mutually credible and acceptable, making such policy catastrophic if implemented. Experience today confirms that the danger of mass nuclear destruction does not rest even partly on proliferation to non-state and rogue actors, but squarely on the shoulders of leadership whose doctrines of use represent an enduring danger to humanity.

Quad: The Making of a Robust Entente


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” on the IPCS website on 12 March 2018 and available at )

The force planner’s primary task is to ensure that the military element of national power, alongside economic and political elements, can support national strategy. In 1950, India had defined national goals in the Preamble and Directive Principles to its Constitution. It then became a part of each political dispensation to contribute towards nation building. Is this happening?

The history of the National Defence Academy (Bal, Adarsh) provides intriguing perspective that underscores the general apathy that the Indian Military was subjected to by the post-independence administration. Two issues separated in time by seven decades warrant attention. Firstly, how was it that Indian political leadership of that era, “statesmen” such as they were, failed to understand the fundamental imperative of nation building: Security? Secondly, contemporary geo-politics has prompted the emergence of a security entente, “the Quad,” that could assure stability in a region at the substratum of global security. Disdain towards the first, led within a decade to the ’62 debacle in the Himalayas; while the latter, if not understood for its primary security connotations through indifference and sloth, may well lead to a fiasco at sea.

The Government of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan awarded a sum of Pound Sterling 100,000 in 1941, for sacrifices made by Indian Troops. Two Indian Divisions confronted Mussolini’s Armies that threatened the Suez and, indeed, the British Indian Empire. By the end of the campaign Italian forces from Eritrea and Abyssinia were routed. Quarter of a million prisoners taken and the Axis threat to India from the West quashed. A grateful Imperial Office made the grant. However, at War’s end, impending independence of India left the British Government in a quandary; how best was the quick dissipating empire to capitalize on these equally depleting monies? It was at Field Marshall Auckinleck’s (then C-in-C India) intervention that temptation to appropriate for any other cause was evaded and a decision made to establish a National War Academy.

What remained after allocation to Pakistan proved just adequate to acquire land and commence to build. By 1955, the imposing Sudan Block that housed the humanities and administrative departments dominated the Khadakvasla valley. Insouciance of the establishment was apparent when no further budgetary allocation was made. Admittedly those were hard times, yet to deliberately oversee the stillbirth of a primary security building block is perplexing. It is to the credit of military leadership that the remaining infrastructure was constructed using ‘internal resources’.  No help came from the Government which barefacedly had deemed the military superfluous. One is, then, at a loss to explain the foolhardy ‘forward deployment strategy’ at a time when preparedness for war was so parsimonious. The 1959 Chinese incursions at Longju and Kongka La and the 1962 drubbing were consequent.

The profound influence of sea-commerce on the wealth and energy of nations is well known. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has evolved in response to increased Chinese revisionist trends and the need for a strategic security architecture that could lend stability in the Indo-Pacific. The founding nations: United States, Japan, India and Australia driven by the concept of co-operative security, launched the idea in 2007. The strategy however appeared a non-starter with early withdrawal of Australia. It has been recently revived to counter China’s intrusive military power and its unrelenting thrust for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the region- the Belt and Road Initiative.

The only historical parallel to the Quad is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). World War II had left a devastated Europe sans security that it could neither afford nor envisage. While a militaristic Soviet Union was threatening elected governments with its lure of a Utopian fair-to-middling for all. To contain Soviet expansionism, counter the revival of nationalist militarism and advocacy of European integration; the Treaty was signed in 1949.Three remarkable articles were at the core of its Charter:  Article 5, the new Allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them be considered an attack against all”. Article 3 provided for cooperation in military preparedness while Article 2 lay the under structure for non-military cooperation. Global events of the 1950s and 60s had a dramatic effect upon NATO, for it rapidly adopted an integrated command structure, a permanent secretariat and doctrines to wage conventional or nuclear war. In time political stability was restored and there was growing recognition of the new Order.

The Charter of the Quad is yet to be fleshed out; but conceivably, it will have three objectives. The first, to reinforce a rule-based regional Order that rejects nationalistic militarism of the kind that has emerged in China. Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation, essential to secure passage of close to 60% of global trade through the Indo-Pacific. Third, to provide security assurances. However, just as behind the scenes machinations from Beijing splintered the Quad at inception, the entente faces similar fragmenting stresses that threaten the whole. India is locked into a long standing border dispute with China. Similarly, Japan has maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas while China’s new Air Defence Identification Zone provides the recipe for mutual interference in the air. Australia on the other hand depends on China for approximately 22 % of trade. And there is China’s assignee, the maverick nuclear armed North Korea whose influence cannot be set aside.

As the Quad  push to get their initiative to fly, success will likely hinge on how they hold their ground against pressure from China, nature of the security architecture and an understanding of ‘peril-to-the-whole.’ Key to the structure will be constitution of Charter in terms of identifying the geographic entity within which it would operate, investments in cooperative security and apportioning responsibilities. The question is, does leadership recognize that Chinese realpolitik is at play and that only a system based on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations can confront it?