Why Nuclear Doctrinal Stasis is Not a Bad Idea


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar 

(This article is forthcoming in the author’s column, “The Strategist,” on the IPCS website.)

There is an inherent limit to how precisely predictions can be made, let alone prognosticate impact particularly when principalities, polity, power and people are involved. The historian Michael Howard cautioned against those who would play the oracle: “Doctrinal stasis is not a bad thing when the alternative is to match an opponent’s mistakes” (understanding and responding to a military doctrine is in the main an exercise in crystal-ball gazing). This aspect of interstate behaviour, when applied to nuclear armed states, is critical for “Doctrinal stasis is not a bad thing when the alternative is to match an opponent’s mistakes” (understanding and responding to a military doctrine is in the main an exercise in crystal-ball gazing). stability to a deterrent relationship. In this perspective when destructive capability is not in question but intent is.

Nuclear weapons constitute a powerful deterrent against a nuclear attack and this would appear to be the wisdom of the times. However, in practice interstate relationship is often equally influenced by historical biases, irrational leadership, unintended events and hostility. But the essential claim of deterrence theorists that the probability of an intentional nuclear exchange is low, may be acceptable as long as arsenals are survivable, capability of retaliation is assured and there exists mutual belief in the lack of political purpose in its use. Unfortunately, this core claim is flawed.

Frailty of the Theory lurks in an unspoken part of it. That is, can a deterrent relationship hold in the face of persistent nuclear doctrinal changes? After all, the first reaction to strategic military revision is to find ways of defeating it and in the process, upsetting the existing equilibrium. History will suggest that the cold-warriors with each doctrinal attempt to enhance credibility and survivability of their nuclear arsenals only achieved in bringing the world to the brink. In the wake of the first Soviet atomic test in 1950, USA directed the re-examination of national security objectives. A report was tabled titled National Security Council – 68. This report, was to become the mantra that guided world order till the end of the Cold War and in particular defined and drove doctrines for use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. The report contrasted the design of the Authoritarian State with that of the Free State and the inevitable nuclear clash that would ensue. In this scheme of things the crises in Berlin, Korea and Vietnam appeared logical, while “mutually-assured-destruction” was even justifiable.

NSC-68 came at a time when the previous 35 years had witnessed the most cataclysmic events of history; two devastating World Wars, two revolutions that mocked global status quo and the collapse of 5 empires. Change also wrought transformation in the basis and distribution of power; key determinants were now a function of ideology, economic muscle, military prowess and the means of mass destruction. Power had decisively gravitated to the USA and the USSR. The belief that the Soviets were motivated by a faith antithetical to that of the West and driven by ambitions of world domination provided the logic and a verdict that conflict and violence would become endemic. The choice placed before the world was to either watch helplessly the incarceration of civilization or take sides in a “just cause”. Nuclear theology was consequently cast in the mould of armed rivalry; its nature was characterized by friction. The scheme that carved the world was “Containment of Communism”. In turn rationality gave way to the threat of catastrophic force as the basis of stability.

As arsenals developed to the extreme, both sides were pushed to the acceptance of a nuclear strategy that aimed at deterring war rather than fighting it. Even so, the quest for new paradigms that acquiesced to nuclear war-fighting were advanced almost as if control of escalation was a given and yet it was precisely here that all the uncertainties lay. “Flexible response” was considered a defensive doctrine, implemented by the USA in 1961 to address the controlled use of nuclear weapons; it called for mutual deterrence at strategic, operational, tactical, and conventional levels. The concept was unsound in its assumption of ‘mirror imaging’ both process and content of strategic decision making. The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, very quickly debunked the notion when both cold warriors rapidly came to the brink of a thermo-nuclear exchange, if not for a quirk of fate and the balance of a Soviet submarine flotilla commander, Captain Vasily Arkhipov, deployed off Cuba. Unknown to the US three Soviet submarines were armed with nuclear torpedoes that could vaporize a Carrier task group. In the event despite provocation, information blackout and the military incitement to engage; Captain Arkhipov opposed the decision to launch and in doing so single handedly averted a global nuclear catastrophe.

                                           The Cuban Crisis


Source: US Library of Congress website http://www.loc.gov

The Cuban crisis highlighted that in a strategic nuclear war there was going to be no winners. However, despite this obvious lesson, planners were adamant to find accommodation for their arsenals within the unfolding nuclear situation. Solutions only masked the atrocity of a nuclear war for they did not answer the central issues of what political purpose was served? And, did credible means of control exist? Nevertheless, short lived precepts and hollow declarations found their way into nuclear theology: the 1974 ‘Schlesinger doctrine’ sought to obscure the focus from mutually assured destruction by suggesting a wider array of nuclear options (!); ‘the Dead Hand’ a Strangelovesque doomsday machine that could launch an all-annihilating retaliatory nuclear strike automatically; development of new nuclear war-fighting capabilities and the move away from strategic arms limitation.

Crumbling of the Soviet Union brought down the curtains on the distinctive basis of global stability that NSC 68 had spawned. In its trail some scholarly works suggested the emergence of one globalized world and an end to the turbulent history of man’s ideological evolution. Some saw a benign multi polar order. Yet others saw in the Iraq Wars, the invasion of Ukraine, the continuing war in the Levant, Afghan imbroglio and the splintering of Yugoslavia; a clash of civilizations marked by violence and shaped by religio-cultural similitude. However, these illusions were dispelled quickly and found little use in understanding the realities of the post-Cold War world as each of them represented a candour of its own. The paradigm of the day (if there is one) is the tensions of the multi polar; the tyranny of economics; the anarchy of expectations; and polarization of peoples along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the backwash of a technology rush. An uncertain geo-political brew as the world has ever seen has come to pass under the looming shadow of continued proliferation of nuclear weapons.

At Cold War’s end, leaders in Washington and Moscow recognizing how often and how close decentralizing control of nuclear weapons to the tactical level had brought the world to the edge of   nuclear catastrophe; made reciprocal pledges to substantially retain control and  cut-back on tactical nuclear weapons. Collectively known as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives the two pledged to end foreign deployments of entire categories of tactical nuclear weapons. Unfortunately this lofty vow today lies in tatters to the extent that there is now the absurd belief that one could escalate into the nuclear dimension in order to de-escalate a conflictual situation.

The reality of nuclear weapons is that its value lies in non-usage; its futility is, in attempting to use it to attain political goals. And as long as one state armed with nuclear weapons believes some benefit to be had through revision in doctrinal underpinnings, fears creep into the mind of the adversary setting into motion a chain reaction raising the degree of calamitous risk. Indeed in this context, nuclear doctrinal stasis, for starters is a great idea; while this may not assure happy endings, it provides the basis for a historical quest to do away with the obscenity of a nuclear war.


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