Counterforce: a Threat to Nuclear Deterrence Stability

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS web journal. Available at the following link:  http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5829 )

Early atomic bombs were crude city-annihilators. Their ability to bring enormous and horrific destruction to the civilian domain was demonstrated by the USA on 06 August 1945 when the Japanese city of Hiroshima was devastated; and if that were not enough, a second atomic weapon was detonated over the city of Nagasaki three days later. The two caused 214,000 primary fatalities to a combined population of 613,000 and an unknowable number of secondary and tertiary casualties.

Targeting Concepts

The use of nuclear weapons is governed by two basic targeting concepts: “Counterforce” and “Countervalue”. The former emphasizes strikes on military forces both nuclear and conventional, their infrastructure and logistics; while the latter focuses on economic targets and population centres. A Countervalue doctrine is limited in complexity and demands relatively simpler capabilities. During the Cold-War It led to a rather macabre belief that “assurance of mass destruction” would bring about a balance-of-terror which in turn guaranteed stability. It led to an amassing of arsenals whose aggregate yield could destroy the world many times over. The Counterforce doctrine, on the other hand, suggests that nuclear war could be limited and nuclear forces could be used to disarm the adversary of nuclear weapons; almost as if, the side adopting a Counterforce doctrine controls retaliation by the victim.

Both targeting concepts lose sight of a cardinal principle of international relations; that war has political purpose. Destruction of purpose debases the application of force to a savage all-obliterating clash. Ironically, we note today how nuclear armed states are, adopting postures that increase prospects of the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflicts.

Bernard Brodie, in 1946, provided an intellectual framework for avoiding nuclear war. In his seminal work The Absolute Weapon (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1946, P76) he suggested: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose”.  Brodie recognised that the possibility of ‘total destruction’ inherent in the use of nuclear weapons had made victory unachievable, at the same time it’s political value lay in the threat it posed to manipulate an adversary’s mind.

Evolution of Nuclear Weapons & Political Purpose

In examining the evolution of the nuclear deterrence theory, we note there is an allegorical tendency to correlate the nature of war with the changing characteristics of the nuclear weapon. War, as Clausewitz pointed out, has an enduring nature that is defined by four continuities: a political dimension, a human dimension as characterised by military genius, pervasiveness of uncertainty and the contest of opposing resolve. All of these exist within an historical, social and political context. While the dynamics that govern characteristics of nuclear weapons, is in the main, influenced by human ability to harness technology. Regardless, it is apparent that if either political purpose is lost or the human dimension is removed; then war itself is deprived of meaning.

 Given man’s facility to exploit technology, nuclear weapons have evolved in three distinct phases: first, from a weapon of use to an instrument that assured a balance of terror. Second, the threat of mutually guaranteed destruction developed into a contrivance for bargaining and devising compromises. Third, it comes full circle to a bizarre situation that today attempts to again justify nuclear war fighting. Such a progression of the weapon has lost sight of the political and human impact of use.

The Counterforce Strategic Narrative

For a nation, a strategic narrative is a lodestone to avoid a return to a trauma of the past around which the narrative was built and accepted. Its essence is often reflected in simple but pithy mantras such as “War on Terror”, “Mutually Assured Destruction” or “Counterforce doctrine”. The narrative that governs policies of nuclear armed states has, largely, been stimulated by that which emerged in the USA and been systematised in the wake of the first nuclear attacks, through the Cold-War and in its aftermath of a multi-polar world.  

In today’s strategic milieu, the lines between nuclear arsenals and conventional weapons have dangerously become intertwined as new offensive technologies such as precision hypersonic glide vehicles are introduced that pose a potent threat to the security of nuclear weapons and the stability of a deterrent relationship. The narrative in turn urges a “nuclear counterforce” strategy which determines policy and fashions a first-strike strategic posture.  And so we note with some alarm, that a nuclear weapon state when confronted by another may decide to use precision nuclear or conventional counterforce in a first strike to annul the possibility of being a victim of a nuclear attack. In this context the “reported” Russian policy Escalate to De-escalate and the US deployment of low yield nuclear weapons is confounding as it presumes total domination of the escalation ladder. 

The blurring of conventional and nuclear deterrence is apparent by the increasing integration of conventional and nuclear warfighting doctrines.  The US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review stresses the possibility of nuclear weapon use in response to non-nuclear attacks is a case in point. The long held view that nuclear weapons are exceptional has been set aside and in its place a dramatic escalation to nuclear warfighting is advocated. That, such use could provoke an unpredictable set of nuclear responses has been, eerily, blanked-out. Concepts that promote ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons are not new, for tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) were deployed with decentralised release authority during the Cold War. Recognising the catastrophic hazards of pre-delegation,  Presidential Nuclear Initiatives  attempted to remove all TNWs from the battlefield.

Conclusion

Counterforce strategies intrinsically translate to heightened nuclear risks as it prompts a ‘first strike’. It is also a flawed premise that response to nuclear escalation can ever be predictable and controlled. To the contrary, foreclosure of the option to use nuclear weapons first would not only enhance the stability of deterrence and reduce the role played by nuclear weapons in security policy; but also provide greater political legitimacy. Therefore, to adopt a ‘No-First-Use’ nuclear-policy provides sagacity to a troubled world in its deference for greater security and, indeed, for survival.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s