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.

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2 thoughts on “A Faltering Return to Reason: ‘Global Zero’ Less of an Illusion

  1. Deterrence stability on the way down to zero can be maintained if the metric is changed from ‘numbers of weapons’ to ‘total deliverable mega-tonnage’.at each ‘verification resting point’ on the way down. The verification issue is made rather more complex with such a metric, but the margins of verification-uncertainty will not be more fatal to any treaty than any weapons that may have been SALT-ed away.

  2. Having realised that the Pak military establishment can go to any extent in a proxy war with India, that should include a non state actor planted to blow up a low fission device or even a dirty bomb in Delhi or Mumbai, India needs to have multiple tactics to deal with the threat, militarily and otherwise.
    What if we move to mobilise the Global Islamic Community with a fact that Indo-Pak nuclear exchange will kill more muslims and put aside the aspiration of being a Religious power on the strength of increasing population.

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