The Chanciness of Squirming Back from the Brink


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(The article may be accessed at in the IPCS web journal, where it was first published)

Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov, Colonel Second Rank of the Soviet Strategic Air Defence Forces, stood as watch in charge at the Oko nuclear early warning surveillance system at the Top Secret Serpukhov-15 complex in a South Moscow suburb. His duty was to monitor remote sensing data coming in from the “Molinya” satellite for early warning of ballistic missile launch from the  North Dakota plains, the location of Minuteman III ICBMs of USA’s 455 Strategic Missile Wing and should launch be detected targeting the USSR, to alert the Kremlin for release of a retaliatory strike. The process was rigid and beyond recall.  At civil twilight (US Central Time) on 25 September 1983, the system reported launch of multiple Minuteman missiles. Allowing for a flight of 25 minutes and decision making cum retaliation time of 20 minutes, Petrov had less than 5 minutes to sound the alarm and set in motion the chain of a possible nuclear holocaust. There was neither time for a re-check nor the luxury of second source validation. Given the gravity and tensions intrinsic to the situation, it must have taken enormous fortitude to make the judgement that he did. Petrov classified the six sequential ‘missile attack warnings’ as false alarms even though he had no authority to do so. This decision prevented a possible retaliatory nuclear attack and escalation to full-scale nuclear war. Investigation of the Molniya system later determined that it had malfunctioned.

The Stanislav episode occurred amidst three seemingly unrelated geo-political events that sent the Soviet Union and the USA hurtling to the brink of a nuclear war. Firstly, the deployment of US Pershing II IRBMs in Europe in the autumn of ‘83 heightened fears in the Kremlin of an accelerated (6 minutes) decapitation nuclear strike, drumming hysteria of imminent war. It was briskly followed by NATO war manoeuvres “Able Archer ‘83” intended to validate concepts for transition from conventional to strategic nuclear war. Sandwiched between these two events was the shoot down of Korean Airlines 007 on 01 September in Soviet air space, the run-up to which was marred by tensions caused by three US Carrier Battle Groups aggressively patrolling the North West Pacific. The background noise of Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative stoked a distressing strategic restlessness. Stanislav was an exceptional symptom of what went fortuitously right despite the paranoia that pervaded super-power relations.

The sub-continental nuclear context hardly echoes the scenario of 1983; however when enquiring into relations between nuclear armed states there are three points which bear notice. First,   a high operational state of military alert in a strategic fog of mistrust tends to generate a combative stimulus that places weaponry on a hair-trigger. While this may be unavoidable in the case of conventional ordnance, it must be sworn-off when it comes to the nuclear arsenal; the fact that it took one ‘sane’ man, ironically not in the chain of command to avert a nuclear holocaust is a chilling reminder of the hazards of a hair-trigger. Second, states possessing nuclear weapons, are faced with an awkward paradox; that of vulnerability of both weapon-systems and their Command and Control and therefore the continuous infusion of technology. With tactical nuclear weapons, there is strong motivation to counter vulnerability by sub-delegation of release authority; enhancing the likelihood of an unintended nuclear exchange. Third, the probability of a successful decapitating nuclear first strike is not only low on account of redundancies in the target state, but also ill founded in its premise that it can annihilate leadership all together. These considerations are a vexing part of the sub-continental milieu.

Contemporary nuclear politics is also under stress for the want of, stability in Pakistan’s body polity, clarity in command and control of the nuclear arsenal and unambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings. These must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies of any nature will result in unpredictability and increase the temptation to take pre-emptive action. Even in a crisis, conventional or sub-conventional, the propensity to ‘reach-for-the-nuclear-trigger’ must be abhorred: at the same time recognition of having arrived at a threshold, must be conceded. Against this backdrop, no attempt has been made to reconcile the predicament caused by intrusion of technology into the nuclear calculus and its impact on the arsenal as it compresses readiness and enhances lethality. From this standpoint or from any, the significance of a policy of No First Use remains irrefutable.

No meaningful scrutiny of the sub-continental nuclear situation can avoid looking at either the tri-polar nature of the playing field or internals of Pakistan. China has provided intellectual, material, technological and motivation for the Pakistan nuclear programme. Its purpose is singular; to keep Indo-Pak nuclear relations on the boil despite the internals of Pakistan exposing the use of terror organizations as instruments of their misshapen military policies in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The fear that elements of their arsenal could fall into extremist hands is real. State involvement in terror activities such as their damnable hand in the 26/11 Mumbai assault, sanctuary provided to Osama Bin Laden and AQ Khan’s proliferation networks remain alive and inspires little confidence of Pakistan’s intent.

The iconic Doomsday Clock has ticked its way to 100 seconds to midnight – the closest to disaster it has ever been in its 73-year history. It signals that the world faces an unprecedentedly high risk of nuclear catastrophe caused not only by the dismal state of global nuclear relations and uncontrolled proliferation but also by the menacing presence of jihadists. Military collaboration with a potential adversary is not a concept that comes naturally. Nonetheless it is nobody’s case to argue that political objectives can be subsumed to military destruction and when nuclear armed, destruction would be of the very purpose of polity.

We stand today on the cusp of an extremely dodgy situation, in part caused by reluctance to control the manner in which technology and political events are driving nuclear arsenals. Knee-jerk politicking of the moment shapes the arsenal of the future while barriers to a nuclear exchange are lowered and political will to prohibit nuclear war erodes. This is the predicament that is faced by nuclear planners. There does not appear to be any other answer than to readjust postures and re-tool doctrines with the aim of holding back on nuclear weapons as primary instruments of military strategy; we can hardly expect a Stanislav Petrov to make his appearance on-call.


A Strategic Perspective for Change in the Navy


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(This article is forthcoming in the December 2019 issue of Geopolitics available at

The Act of Passage on the Sea

World change has set in motion a shift that will affect security of the Indian nation. In this churning, the context of revision and how the involved actors must relate to it is critical. Each step towards change will illuminate facets that will reveal the reality of their purport, challenges they characterise and the threats that they hold. In addition strategic thought in the Navy must transcend the temptation to consider these as a continuing current of the past. The question really is, how can we best recast the Navy without having to wait for the full exposure of the new world and not having to play catch-up-if-you-can?

Students of maritime history will not forget that at the turn of the 20th century it was thinkers like Mahan and Julian Corbett who set ablaze the maritime spirit of that century. The former identified principles that influenced naval forces during the first half of the twentieth century; he believed that national greatness was inextricably associated with the commercial use of the sea in peace and its control in war. Sea power was seen as the handmaiden of imperial expansion. This vision, although uncontroversial in his day, lost its strategic flavour in the post-war age of decolonisation. Corbett, on the other hand, believed naval influence to be a part of national policy and saw the fleet not merely an instrument of destruction of the enemy fleet but as an accompaniment to assuring the “act of relative passage on the sea.” It was from this critical tenet that concepts of Sea Denial, Sea Control and Power Projection evolved. In 1915, his essay titled “The Spectre of Navalism” underscored the hazards of arms restructuring when attitudes considered “all power that was not one’s own was a menace that force alone could remove” (a belief amongst Germanic people in the run-up to the First World War and may today be found to thrive in the region). Perhaps his abiding legacy to contemporary naval thought was the idea that “freedom of the seas was an irreducible factor in sane world politics” for in his outlook the sea was not territory that could be conquered; nor were the oceans defensible. What it constituted was a substantial factor in the growth of a nation and prosecution of war. He suggested, “…great issues of nations at war have always been decided … either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory, or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.”

Context of Change

Within an international system that hovers between a facade of order and anarchy, variegated pace of growth among states engenders rivalry over access to resources, control of technology, flow of commerce and entry to markets; resulting in friction amongst competitors. At the same time, abstractions of national honour, prestige and other sovereign interests that separate the state from its citizenry are often at odds with the violence of the “Language” of war (Clausewitz). Experience of the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, East Pakistan, West Asia and Afghanistan will suggest that perceptions of the people that come face-to-face with the “language” of war learn to abhor it and eventually prevail. Add to this the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction with their intrinsic menace of ending political purpose and we have the coming of indirect, relatively scaled down version of conventional wars albeit with high destructive potential and brutality fought under the overhang of a nuclear holocaust.

A Short Primer of Maritime Warfare

A fourfold classification of maritime forces has dominated naval operations since 1945. The grouping is largely task oriented. It comprises of aircraft carriers, denial forces, escorts and auxiliaries (the last include logistic and other support elements such as shore based aircrafts, landing ships, mine layers, tenders, space and cyber assets). In addition contemporary thought has given strategic nuclear forces a restraining role to define and demarcate the limits within which conventional forces operate. The principal demand of the theory is to attain a strategic posture that would permit control of oceanic and littoral spaces for a designated period of time in order to progress and influence the course of conflict, generally, on land. Upon the escorts depends our ability to accomplish control; while on the Aircraft Carrier and its intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces depends the security of control. Control and security of control is the relationship that operationally links all maritime forces. If the doctrine of destroying the enemy’s armed forces asserts itself as the paramount objective then, our maritime exertions would concentrate on the singular aim of dealing that knockout punch. However, the vastness of the hydrosphere is of a nature that encourages dispersion, at the same time the antagonist may hardly be expected to expose his main forces in unfavourable circumstances. As Corbett so eloquently put it “the more closely he induces us to concentrate to face his fleet, the more he frees the sea for the circulation of his own forces, and the more he exposes ours.”

India’s armed forces have traditionally evolved and trained to cope with operational scenarios. But the operational canvas (inexplicable not to have been apparent), is a transient that eschews futuristic force planning. So it was every-year-after-five years the planner was condemned to an exercise that perceived possible threats and/building forces that attempted to cope with those threats. It was, therefore, the instantaneous intimidation that drove plans which unfortunately is a pretender that serves to fill the strategic space and struggles to keep pace with a future that the planner neither sought to shape nor forecast.

The War in Shadows

Corbett’s formulation, adapted for the present, of ‘control-for-causes’ is far more sophisticated and finds application in an era when calibrated escalation of power, coercive diplomacy and sanctions as opposed to a destructive and economically debilitating conflict; finds favour as a political tool. The current situation in Crimea, Syria, Iran, West Asia, North Korea, weaponising of space, access denial strategies, disruptive control of cyber space and indeed the South China Sea imbroglio are marked by just such a ‘War in Shadows’ where the principal tools are persuasive in their threat to dent the adversaries comprehensive power. Three factors play a disproportionate part in evolving such a strategy. First is generation of strategic capability in all dimensions. Second, is the resolve to power of national leadership.  And lastly, is the state’s ability to cope with and manipulate strategic outcomes. This blend of the abstract with the realist’s point of view characterizes the ‘War in Shadows’. The reader will no-doubt note shades of the South Asian Regional situation in this plot. It is against this canvas that the future development and structuring of Indian maritime power must be gauged.

Challenge of China

Of all the uncertainties, it is China, a stated revisionist autocratic power that will impact regional stability; particularly so, in the maritime domain. The planner must in the circumstance examine in some detail the challenge of China. Of significance is the shift in global balance to the Indo-Pacific intricately linked to the stunning growth of China as a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they expect to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests.

China’s latest defence white paper of July 2019 describes “Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity. While drumming the theme of “people’s security” it persists with its re-education camps in Xinjiang revealed recently. It hammers home the brutal repression of Muslim ethnic minorities, mainly Uighurs, and their mass incarceration. The paper warns of the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting in the South China Sea and hazards of strategic competition for resources and control of the seaways.”

The consequences of China enabling its Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and moves to establish proprietary sources of raw materials, domination of sea lines of communication euphemistically called the “maritime silk route” and working to realise the String of Pearls (currently a patchy network of Chinese military and commercial facilities along its silk route). These manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Region evoke increasing anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic settings. Debt traps that have been set by China to inveigle some of the hapless littorals of the Indian Ocean of their maritime facilities are symptomatic of a new form of colonial venture. The paradoxical effects of China’s actions are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments and urge a global logic of cooperative politics over imperial strategies.

Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their discordant Air Defence Identification Zone, the 9-Dash line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea   and breaching international law by constructing and militarising artificial islands. China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy, but the world’s political and security framework as well.

Defining the Strategic Space

With uncertainty driving geopolitical dynamics, the first imperative for India is to bring about policy coherence between strategic space, growth and security interests. It must factor regions from where trade originates, energy lines run, sea lines of communication pass, narrows therein and potential allies. The Oceanic body encompassing the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific provides the back-drop. It is dominated by ten important choke points and narrows. In essence the theatre gives to global trade efficient maritime routes and sea lines of communication that power the region’s growth. It accounts for over 70% of global trade, 60% of energy flow and is home to more than 50% of the world’s population; it also provides the context within which Indian maritime strategy must operate.

Determinants of Future Force Planning

The quest for strategic leverage in the maritime domain is inspired by policy declarations such as the ‘Look East (and now) Act East Policy’, the ‘India Africa Forum Summit’, and formation of alliances. Current membership of the original ten ASEAN grouping plus 6 is symptomatic of the shift in strategic centre of gravity to the East. From a security angle, the inclusion of India, USA, Russia, Japan and South Korea in addition to China provides the rationale for balance. India and China along with ASEAN are set to become the world’s largest economic bloc. The grouping is expected to account for about 27 per cent of Global GDP and will very quickly overtake the EU and USA economies. The buoyancy of the Indo-ASEAN relationship (despite the RCEP) is backed by surging trade slated to hit USD 100 billion. With such burgeoning stakes strategic rebalancing in the region comes as a natural consequence. The expansion of the ASEAN and the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum are also suggestive of the littoral’s aspirations to counter poise the looming presence of China.

Having thus brought about a modicum of coherence between security dynamics, strategic space and growth, it would now be appropriate to derive the broad contours of our strategic objectives and how they may be achieved.

A Denial Strategy

Denial seeks to contest and discredit the ability of regional or extra regional countries to unilaterally engage in destabilizing activities. The instrument to achieve denial is by convincingly raising the cost of military intervention through the use or threat of use of methods that are asymmetrical in form and decisive in substance. To ‘contest and discredit’ would suggest a clear understanding of where the centre of gravity of the intervening forces lie. In China’s case, it is the triumvirate of the Aircraft Carrier; nuclear attack submarine and security of the narrows and of its ‘string of pearls’; these would have to be checkmated.

Leadership and Doctrines

Leaving aside, for the moment, material aspects of generating capabilities, the most critical issue is one of timing, that is, what would be the enabling circumstances that would trigger operationalizing (say) the Indian anti access denial strategy? While the short answer may be “when national interests are threatened” this does not in any way assist in formulating a doctrine empowering operational level leadership to plan and act. Leadership will note two considerations. First, initial moves must be so calibrated that the intervener is unequivocally made aware through diplomacy and notices from allies that a threshold is being approached and that the next rung in the escalatory ladder could well be a ‘hot’ exchange. This may take the form of ‘marking’ and surveillance. Second, initiating demonstrative action which may disrupt and disable operational networks or even measures instituted in some other theatre where correlation of forces would suggest Indian superiority. Under this order of things, we may in general terms define our ‘red lines’ as follows:

  • Any large scale military attempt to change the status quo in our territorial configuration.
  • Large scale military build-up either at Gwadar or on any of the “string of pearls” with the explicit purpose of threatening India.
  • Aggressive deployments that disrupt our own energy and resource traffic or dislocate command networks.
  • Any attempt to provide large scale military support, covert or otherwise, to promote an internal war against the State.

For obvious reasons details of ASAT batteries and cyber warfare teams along with NCA controlled strategic forces will remain discreet.

Technology Plan

The next issue that requires our attention is what nature of technologies would have to be fielded to realise the strategy. In developing a technology plan two considerations will influence our approach; the first being an incremental approach to adapt and modernize existing tools, skills and hardware, while the second is to develop new technologies. Viewed in this perspective areas that would need the notice of our scientific community are identified below:

  • ASAT deployment.
  • Development & Deployment of seabed sensors for tracking attack submarines.
  • Development of non-lethal devices to disable merchant ships.
  • Deploying cyber warfare teams for both defensive and offensive tasks.
  • Development of high speed networks with failsafe firewalls for command and control and information sharing.

 The Quadrilateral Cooperative Security Dialogue (Quad)

The Quad has evolved in response to increased Chinese revisionist trends and the need to lend stability in the Indo-Pacific. The founding countries United States, Japan, India and Australia driven by a concept of co-operative security, launched the idea in 2007. With early withdrawal of Australia the Quad almost “miscarried”. It has been recently revived to counter China’s unrelenting thrust for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the region. The alliance, however, remains fragile. The only historical parallel to the Quad is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Established to contain Soviet expansionism; three remarkable articles are at the core of its Charter:  Article 2, lays the under structure for non-military cooperation. Article 3, provides for cooperation in military preparedness while Article 5, the allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them be considered an attack against all”. The Charter of the Quad is yet to be fleshed out; but conceivably it may follow the NATO template. It may have three objectives. First, to reinforce a rule-based regional Order that rejects nationalistic ‘Navalism’ of the kind that has emerged. Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation. Third, to provide security assurances.

As the Quad pushes to get their initiative to fly, success will likely hinge on how they face pressure from China, nature of  security architecture and an understanding of the peril-to-the-whole.


The reality of the international system is the place that power enjoys in the scheme of assuring stability. Uncertainty in international relations queers the pitch, in view of the expanded space of possibilities. India’s relationship with much of the world is robust. India has shown itself, through restraint, pluralistic and popular form of governance to be a responsible State that upholds the status quo yet invites change through democratic forces. Its rise, in the main, is not only welcomed but is seen as a harmonizing happening that could counterpoise China.

China on the other hand is a declared revisionist autocratic power that will impact globally; particularly so, in the maritime domain where it appears to be challenging not just economic orthodoxy, but geo-political and security order without bringing about a change within. This cannot be allowed to pass without a strategic riposte.

The Sometime Pickle of Civilizational Connects

By  Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar.

Published in the IPCS Web journal in the author’s Column The Strategist  and may be accessed at


The Peloponnesian War (431- 404 BCE), was a significant event of the ancients as it reshaped the Hellenic world. A hegemonistic Athens and its trading vassals, on one side was challenged by Sparta backed by the xenophobic Peloponnesian League. In the end, the Spartan side came on top. But the central question that emerged was, what made like peoples (civilizationally) fight a long and debilitating war?…explanations rarely go beyond Graham Allison’s “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”; and yet what remains unexplored is the ‘invidiousness of civilizational hook ups’.

Through history, as many wars have been fought as there have been civilizationally connected peoples. The Mauryan campaigns of the 4th century BC began with war and conquest of the Nanda Empire; interestingly the protagonists shared a common progenitor. . The Crusades (1096-1291 AD) began with Pope Urban II’s for a war to recover the holy land from Muslim rule. It degenerated to a riot of pillage ending in the fall of Jerusalem and victory to the Muslims. The war ironically was fought between peoples of the “Word”. The interminable wars in Europe waged between 12th and 17th centuries AD were largely fought over family rivalries, prestige and succession. The Colonial Wars that found roots in piracy before expanding into a world-wide feuding network of discriminatory trade practices, was a confrontation between practitioners of ‘western civilization’ that culminated in the World Wars of the 20th century, fought for domination and imperial glory.

The farther back we look the more we note that despite there being civilizational ties nations went to bloody wars, rather than find alternatives. Was it because they knew each other too well? Or were causes due to the nature of nation-states involved, their creation, development and quest for self-sufficiency? What is clear is that no modern nation can lean on a unique history that is in itself self-explanatory. Because a civilization in its life span is faced by a succession of challenges that often fragment the whole resulting in each element providing solutions as best as they may. It brings about self-sustaining divisions that live, work and fight to the dictates of traditions common to them to the exclusion and often in conflict with the other elements. Against this backdrop how relevant and to what effect is the current government in India backing its civilizational ties with China to build a mutually beneficial relationship?

Colonial exhaustion and defeat of imperial powers in the 20th century gave rise to Communism in China and its evolution to a “centrally controlled market economy that tolerated political activity only by the Party”; it is the antithesis of development of a parliamentary democracy in India. Ironically, history attributes the entry of Mahayana Buddhism in 3 BCE from its home in India for the part it played in developing Chinese civilization and it’s implanting amongst the Sinic people. These civilizational bonds over the millennia grew as human interaction and trade flourished, first over land and then by sea.

Imperial competition in the 18th and 19th centuries spurred by search for resources, increasing demand and lure of easy wealth marked the advent of colonial empires and the breakdown of traditional linkages. Awkwardly, trade networks now were routed through the parent colonist. An unintended fallout of this disruption was nationalistic fervour that neither had the experience of managing affairs of the state nor could they see beyond the coloniser and his reviled formula of trade-settlement-conquest. The artificially stretched geography had effectively fragmented civilizational bonds and replaced it by concepts that came unstuck rather than coalesce.

In this milieu it must come as no surprise that China and India opted for self-government so profoundly different and with such a varied interpretation of what and who was the ‘self’ to be governed. While the former claimed exclusive authority of people freed of feudal and capitalistic exploitation and holding membership of the Chinese communist party, the latter derived its authority from a more abstract interpretation of what represented the will of the nation under one constitution. There are inconvenient anomalies to both concepts. That being as it may the reality is that China and India share borders that extends over 3500 kilometres ridden by “cartographic incongruities”. Concurrently historical events such as the invasion of Tibet, flight of the Dalai-lama to India, stoking of Maoist insurgencies in India, the lack of a consensual basis for boundary resolution be it the ‘Johnson, MacDonald or McMahon’ lines, a border war and the underlying looming strategic competition; have all served to stress relations.

Even the approach taken by the two nations to development and growth cannot be at greater odds. China since the mid-seventies has become the manufacturing hub of the world; while India since the mid-nineties has become the favoured destination for outsourcing of a range of services from software development and call centres to “back-room” services and sophisticated research reports for analysts and decision makers. India’s primary aim is of being a dominant knowledge power. But tensions remain, not just caused by legacy. For China it is the inability to reconcile a free market economy with a repressive authoritarian regime. She has chosen to distract her people through whipping up nationalistic passions and implementing aggressive revisionist policies; while for India it is her very population and the nature of its polity that tends to retard. Both have a common quest, to achieve and sustain great power status. China’s striving for dominance in the political arena is backed by a first-rate military power; challenged by the international system, it has turned a competitive face to relations with other powers. While India would appear to have chosen a cooperative slant, its exertion of power is through international bodies, its success at the Financial Action Task Force and to win support at the UN on its stand on climate change, renewable energy and terrorism are issues that have not gone unnoticed.

Given this state of play and the harsh fact that the principle of nationalism is almost always intimately linked to the idea of war it will take an act of great statesmanship between the two diverse Asian giants to bury their differences and build upon their hoary civilizational bonds. But even if this were to be so, the question that begs to be answered is: to whose benefit and to what end?