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.


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