To Take the Road Less Travelled By*: Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures

Transcript of a presentation made to the Chaophraya Dialogue in February 2012.


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: Nuclear Risk Assessment, South Asia Nuclearization, Tactical Nuclear Weapons, Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense System, NFU doctrine

The Problem

The real problem with nuclear weapons risk reduction is the ability 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 deployment and use of nuclear weapons, uncertainties and imponderables creep in that sets into motion a chain reaction that continuously aggravates and raises the degree of risk.

Military planners are more than familiar with the fact that risk assessment is an imperative in the development of a strategic plan. The process of its generation is marked by the persistent motivation to not only eliminate uncertainties and bring about balance in the Objectives-Resource-Means equation but also to ensure that the probability of success and the benefits that accrue far outweigh the hazards of failure. However, the abiding conundrum is that the very nature of warfare is in opposition to such precision.

Nuclear Risk Assessment

When we enter the nuclear arena we must note that strategic imbalance is intrinsic to the Objectives-Resources-Means relationship. From the very start, the equation is irrevocably in a state of unstable equilibrium caused by the fact that whatever means are used the impact will invariably be to obliterate the very objectives or interests that were sought to be achieved. This is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in its non usage; its aim is, nuclear war avoidance; its futility is, in attempting to use it to attain political goals. 

Strategic Collaboration

Strategic collaboration with a potential enemy is not a concept that comes naturally to the military planner. Tradition is against it and the very idea of sovereignty militates at the thought of it. Nonetheless it can be no nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity set out to achieve. 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 the direction nuclear weapon policies and arsenals are headed. While technology invites covertness; the lethality, precision, stealth and time compression that it has wrought demands transparency. Demarcation between custodian and controller and central control are imperatives if at all the risks of an unintended exchange are to be averted and stability of a deterrent relationship assured. The belief that escalation control of a nuclear conflict is possible lacks conviction and therefore any attempt to conventionalise nuclear weapons has to be abhorred.

The Descent to Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW)

The absence of transparency manifests itself in ‘speculative bulges’ in the arsenal. The direction in which arsenals are headed with the induction of the ‘Nasr’, ‘Babur’ and the ‘Raad’ is a grim reminder of the upshot of ambiguity and opacity both in policy and control and the risks of a descent to nuclear war fighting becomes a near certainty.

Strategic planners in Pakistan suggest that nuclear weapons have an inalienable place in their military strategy and therefore a flexible response of both the conventional and the nuclear is the order of things. Also, ambiguities and the threat of first use are central to the ‘absence’ of a declared doctrine. Add to this is the actuality of an enfeebled civilian leadership incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger, the active involvement of non-state actors in military strategy and an alarming posture of an intention-to-use all have the makings of a nuclear nightmare in the offing.

Cardinal Principles Governing Risk Reduction

We are now in a position to enunciate some of the cardinal principles that govern risk reduction in the nuclear situation that obtains in the subcontinent:

  • Abiding belief in nuclear war avoidance.
  • Clarity in strategic underpinnings, establishment of coordination centres and a rejection of ambiguities.
  • Stability of the deterrent relationship.
  • Transparency in policy, technology intrusions, intent and alerts.
  • Abhorrence of a descent to tactical nuclear weapons, conventionalising and nuclear war fighting.
  • Centralised command and control with a clear demarcation between Custodian and Controller.

Against the backdrop of what ought to be, an examination of whether nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRM) currently address the rigorous demands of donning the mantle of nuclear weapon states that too in an adversarial predisposition and geographically co-located within a few minutes flight time from each other; the answer must come in the negative. What is striking is that despite several incidents over the last decade and a half that could have escalated to the nuclear level the security establishments on both sides have not set themselves to the task of preparing concrete perspectives on the issue of nuclear risk reduction barring endorsing the principle. Currently the only meaningful risk reduction measure in place is mutual notification of ballistic missile flight tests.

NRRM Measures

There are several NRRMs that can be put in place without in anyway radically altering the material situation. These may be identified as follows:

  • Making transparent strategic and doctrinal underpinnings of nuclear forces and the purpose of technological intrusions.
  • De-alerting of nuclear weapon systems; while this may not be easily verifiable, the process may begin by notifying at all times the alert state of nuclear forces.
  • Making transparent a minimalistic approach by declaring ‘how much is enough’.
  • Developing a common lexicon and understanding of nuclear concepts.
  • Rejecting short range nuclear missiles and the descent to tactical nuclear weapons.
  • Setting up of surveillance and risk reduction centres that provide communication and coordination for implementing these measures

The Value of Ambiguity

The policy of nuclear ambiguity was brought to prominence when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1966 stated that ‘Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region’. Four red lines were linked to its use. These included successful Arab military penetration; destruction of Israeli Air Force; cities attacked by WMD and use of N-Weapons.  It served as Israel’s ultimate guarantor of security.

The value of ambiguity lies in opacity of policy and an unwillingness to disclose status of the weapon program. When disclosure has occurred and a nation has declared its nuclear weapon status in an ambience of multilateralism, ambiguity loses value and increases the hazards of the unintended. For inherent to an ambiguous policy is its tendency to take advantage of risk aversion, a bedrock of a deterrent relationship (this underscores the Pakistan position).

Indistinctness in policy, when TNWs are in the arsenal immediately suggests that conventional principles apply. Resulting in actions that are contradictory to stated policies which in turn provide an incentive for speculative bulges in arsenal and for opting for a first strike capability/counter force capability on the part of the adversary.

Ambiguity has been used as an offset for conventional inferiority with the belief that control over escalation is possible. This is so obviously a fallacy due to the nature of the weapon. Also its effect in disrupting stability is apparent and the ability to bargain or negotiate is greatly diminished since the potential adversary begins with the assumption of a worst case and accordingly builds his arsenal. Ambiguity must thus be seen as an agent in direct opposition to achieving a stable deterrent relationship.

Technology intrusions coupled with ambiguity of intent increases the hazard quotient geometrically and will make the demand for transparency more urgent if a stable deterrent relationship is the aim.

In theory the Anti Ballistic Missile is a defensive system, yet its introduction can not only provoke destabilisation in a deterrent relationship but also can provide the incentive for unpredictability. Where doctrinal underpinnings are similar and the basis of stability is mutually assured destruction, then ABMs would be a destabilising factor for a variety of reasons; chief amongst them is that it undermines the strategic underpinnings of the arsenal and it provides the incentive to launch a first strike.

However, in a situation where a No First Use policy is faced with ambiguity or a First Use situation or there is wide variance in approach to establishing a deterrent relationship, the acquisition of an ABM capability makes strategic sense because of the ‘failure conundrum’ and imponderables that play on the planners mind.


The only way to reduce the risks involved of a nuclear exchange is to convince decision makers that no conceivable advantage can accrue from its use. Its only purpose is to deter its own use. Any attempt to conventionalise the weapon runs the risk of not only decentralising control increasing the risk of unintended application, but also of losing escalatory control and destroying the purpose of polity.

The genii cannot be put back in the lamp, what can be done is to take the road less travelled by and put in place measures that promote transparency, understanding and  de-alerting of nuclear forces.


*Frost, Robert. “Two roads diverge in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”.

4 thoughts on “To Take the Road Less Travelled By*: Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures

  1. Itts like you read my mind! Youu seem to know a
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    little bit, but instead of that, this iis excellent blog.
    An excellent read. I’ll definitely be back.

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