The Regression of Nuclear Policy


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Contemporary trends positing the reversibility of a nuclear exchange presupposes that the antagonists are able to understand mutual aims, objectives and have unimpeachable knowledge of boundaries within which the conflict is to be played out. In turn, these settings demand unambiguous appreciation of and total knowledge of decisions that will be taken by leadership on all sides. The act of trust that such a relationship rests upon is predicated upon crisis-proofed rapport. At any rate in such a velvet-lined relationship the question that begs to be asked is: why on earth did one of the parties take recourse to nuclear weapons in the first instance? Awkwardly this aberrant trend is gaining currency amongst states in possession of nuclear weapons.

A nation inducting tactical nuclear weapons into its arsenal will in fact have aligned its nuclear doctrine for first use, incentivised proliferation and blurred the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons; in turn, lowering the threshold of a nuclear response whose yield, magnitude and targets remain a choice made by the adversary. Delegation of authority to tactical commanders (which must follow) for release of low-yield nuclear weapons by nature of the tactical environment, runs the peril of being governed for deployment by principles more appropriate for conventional warfare. The posture indulges in the preposterous illusion that the adversary will discern between tactical and strategic yields and suitably moderate his response in the midst of a nuclear exchange, while desisting from escalating and retaliating in a manner of choosing. Irrationality of it all is that some States in possession of nuclear weapons have displayed a ready acceptance of nuclear war-fighting, rather than reconsider their nuclear doctrines, postures, and capabilities towards strategic deterrence. The latter ought to be the hallmark of an evolved nuclear system with seven decades of maturity in approach to its superintendence and of styling policy.

Today, the US counter to a Russian “escalate-to-deescalate” policy remains “to conduct nuclear strike operations below the strategic level.” All that such doctrines have ever done is to push adversaries into a perilous corner of uncertainty where alternatives to the nuclear trigger rapidly fade away. The French nuclear force de frappe and the British deterrent, both ‘declaredly’ independent, have neither abnegated First Use nor have they made any bones of targeting enemy value or population centres without ever disturbing themselves of the conditions of use, suggesting a certain heedlessness of policy.

As early as 1946, Bernard Brodie argued that “nuclear weapons were too powerful to use. Vastly more lethal than all previous arms, the grotesque scale of nuclear destruction overwhelmed any conceivable policy goal.” While the other school of thought, made up largely of the military and policy makers argued that nuclear weapons could be used like any weapon that was a product of technology. The latter school either deliberately, or for motivated reasons, chose not to reveal the scale and absoluteness of destruction that potentially could eclipse populations (both friend and foe) through blast, radiation, firestorms, fallout and the slower, yet assured death, of a nuclear winter. So, if nuclear weapons fail as instruments that win political objectives, then why is it that the logic that remains elusive to the mind of nuclear decision makers is that a nuclear exchange cannot be the accepted normal.

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 drew the two superpowers to the nuclear brink and the hapless rest-of-the-world closer to mass calamity. Inexorably, through a train of uncontrolled political and military actions beginning with induction into Cuba of over 40,000 Soviet troops armed with pre-delegated tactical nuclear weapons in addition to surface-to-air-missiles and nuclear tipped ballistic missiles; the US naval blockade; downing of an American U2 reconnaissance aircraft; action against Soviet submarines poised to release nuclear weapons to the ready amphibious force threatening invasion of Cuba, each event bringing closer nuclear conflict. Today, analysts and records of participants suggest that the chance of a nuclear conflagration was extremely high as blunders followed miscalculations. That a nuclear exchange did not occur is what remains remarkable. The improbable factor that drove strategic decision making was: nature of leadership image being projected to alliance partners and loss of face rather than hard political considerations and their baneful consequences. The perceived timidity of Kennedy versus Khrushchev’s boldness in the backdrop of the Berlin stand-off and the incentive the latter saw in Cuba to not just redress the strategic balance of power, but also to tighten Soviet hold on that nation. Significantly, throughout the crisis the inability to either control or recognise the impact and hazards of escalation was pivotal to precipitating the crisis. As the then Secretary for Defence, McNamara put it rather obscurely 30 years later “No one should believe that a US force could have been attacked by tactical nuclear warheads without responding with nuclear warheads. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster.”

Pakistan and North Korea are two states that have a adopted a policy that challenges common sense; both possess strategic nuclear weapons with a doctrine that blurs the lines between the nuclear and the conventional and advocates nuclear war fighting, neither have abjured First Use nor have they made any moves to proscribe tactical nuclear weapons. From a policy point of view such a protocol strikes a discordant note at a time when efforts to avert a nuclear exchange or at least make improbable an exchange, ought to be the norm.

We have, in the eighth decade of the evolution of strategic nuclear systems, come to the perspective that a first step to preventing a nuclear exchange is necessarily a universal declaration of “No Use” (a No First Use doctrine such as China and India’s, unfortunately, remains a halfway house). None of the states in possession of nuclear weapon have enunciated a strategic doctrine that is both mutually credible and acceptable, making such policy catastrophic if implemented. Experience today confirms that the danger of mass nuclear destruction does not rest even partly on proliferation to non-state and rogue actors, but squarely on the shoulders of leadership whose doctrines of use represent an enduring danger to humanity.


Quad: The Making of a Robust Entente


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” on the IPCS website on 12 March 2018 and available at )

The force planner’s primary task is to ensure that the military element of national power, alongside economic and political elements, can support national strategy. In 1950, India had defined national goals in the Preamble and Directive Principles to its Constitution. It then became a part of each political dispensation to contribute towards nation building. Is this happening?

The history of the National Defence Academy (Bal, Adarsh) provides intriguing perspective that underscores the general apathy that the Indian Military was subjected to by the post-independence administration. Two issues separated in time by seven decades warrant attention. Firstly, how was it that Indian political leadership of that era, “statesmen” such as they were, failed to understand the fundamental imperative of nation building: Security? Secondly, contemporary geo-politics has prompted the emergence of a security entente, “the Quad,” that could assure stability in a region at the substratum of global security. Disdain towards the first, led within a decade to the ’62 debacle in the Himalayas; while the latter, if not understood for its primary security connotations through indifference and sloth, may well lead to a fiasco at sea.

The Government of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan awarded a sum of Pound Sterling 100,000 in 1941, for sacrifices made by Indian Troops. Two Indian Divisions confronted Mussolini’s Armies that threatened the Suez and, indeed, the British Indian Empire. By the end of the campaign Italian forces from Eritrea and Abyssinia were routed. Quarter of a million prisoners taken and the Axis threat to India from the West quashed. A grateful Imperial Office made the grant. However, at War’s end, impending independence of India left the British Government in a quandary; how best was the quick dissipating empire to capitalize on these equally depleting monies? It was at Field Marshall Auckinleck’s (then C-in-C India) intervention that temptation to appropriate for any other cause was evaded and a decision made to establish a National War Academy.

What remained after allocation to Pakistan proved just adequate to acquire land and commence to build. By 1955, the imposing Sudan Block that housed the humanities and administrative departments dominated the Khadakvasla valley. Insouciance of the establishment was apparent when no further budgetary allocation was made. Admittedly those were hard times, yet to deliberately oversee the stillbirth of a primary security building block is perplexing. It is to the credit of military leadership that the remaining infrastructure was constructed using ‘internal resources’.  No help came from the Government which barefacedly had deemed the military superfluous. One is, then, at a loss to explain the foolhardy ‘forward deployment strategy’ at a time when preparedness for war was so parsimonious. The 1959 Chinese incursions at Longju and Kongka La and the 1962 drubbing were consequent.

The profound influence of sea-commerce on the wealth and energy of nations is well known. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) has evolved in response to increased Chinese revisionist trends and the need for a strategic security architecture that could lend stability in the Indo-Pacific. The founding nations: United States, Japan, India and Australia driven by the concept of co-operative security, launched the idea in 2007. The strategy however appeared a non-starter with early withdrawal of Australia. It has been recently revived to counter China’s intrusive military power and its unrelenting thrust for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the region- the Belt and Road Initiative.

The only historical parallel to the Quad is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). World War II had left a devastated Europe sans security that it could neither afford nor envisage. While a militaristic Soviet Union was threatening elected governments with its lure of a Utopian fair-to-middling for all. To contain Soviet expansionism, counter the revival of nationalist militarism and advocacy of European integration; the Treaty was signed in 1949.Three remarkable articles were at the core of its Charter:  Article 5, the new Allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them be considered an attack against all”. Article 3 provided for cooperation in military preparedness while Article 2 lay the under structure for non-military cooperation. Global events of the 1950s and 60s had a dramatic effect upon NATO, for it rapidly adopted an integrated command structure, a permanent secretariat and doctrines to wage conventional or nuclear war. In time political stability was restored and there was growing recognition of the new Order.

The Charter of the Quad is yet to be fleshed out; but conceivably, it will have three objectives. The first, to reinforce a rule-based regional Order that rejects nationalistic militarism of the kind that has emerged in China. Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation, essential to secure passage of close to 60% of global trade through the Indo-Pacific. Third, to provide security assurances. However, just as behind the scenes machinations from Beijing splintered the Quad at inception, the entente faces similar fragmenting stresses that threaten the whole. India is locked into a long standing border dispute with China. Similarly, Japan has maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas while China’s new Air Defence Identification Zone provides the recipe for mutual interference in the air. Australia on the other hand depends on China for approximately 22 % of trade. And there is China’s assignee, the maverick nuclear armed North Korea whose influence cannot be set aside.

As the Quad  push to get their initiative to fly, success will likely hinge on how they hold their ground against pressure from China, nature of the security architecture and an understanding of ‘peril-to-the-whole.’ Key to the structure will be constitution of Charter in terms of identifying the geographic entity within which it would operate, investments in cooperative security and apportioning responsibilities. The question is, does leadership recognize that Chinese realpolitik is at play and that only a system based on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations can confront it?

No Responsible Steward of Nuclear Weapons This

By Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Two seemingly disparate incidents in recent days hold the portents for unsettling times. The first was, the “absconder General” and erstwhile Pakistan President Musharraf’s declaration on 05 December 2017, of not only his cosy ties with the proscribed head of the terror organisation Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) Hafiz Sayeed; but more worrisome, the open invitation to the latter’s political party the Milli Muslim League to join Musharraf’s Pakistan Awami Ittehad (PAI). The second incident is, President Trump while launching his administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), asserted, “Pakistan must demonstrate it is a responsible steward of its nuclear assets… while taking decisive action against terrorist groups operating on their territory.” The NSS, it will be remembered provides strategic guidance to US security agencies for developing policies and implementing them.

Rationally, no nuclear policy, by nature of the weapon involved, can conceivably be inclusive of terror groups. And yet the strategic predicament posed by Pakistan is perverse, for their policy on select terror groups such as the LeT has always been that they are instruments of state policy. The absurd reason proffered is their zeal to fight the external enemies of Pakistan while undermining fissiparous religious elements within.

The question now remains: when militants fundamentally inimical to the Indian State (Israel and the US too) shed the need for subterfuge and quite openly enter Pakistan national politics, is “responsible nuclear stewardship” a prospect at all? Rather, does not this new dimension of political cosiness make for a nuclear nightmare, where an opaque nuclear arsenal under military control is guided by a strategy that not only finds unity with state licensed terror groups but has now unveiled a future for terrorists in politics? Indeed the nuclear nightmare has moved that much closer.

Now, consider this: Pakistan promotes a terrorist strike in India and in order to counter conventional retaliation uses tactical nuclear weapons and then in order to degrade nuclear retaliation launches a full blown counter-force or counter- value strike. This is an awkward but realistic recognition of the logic that drives Pakistan’s nuclear policy.

Cyril Almeida, a columnist for the Dawn newspaper commenting on the reason why the army will not clampdown on terror groups that hurt India suggested that the problem was “the boys (meaning the army) wouldn’t agree, you could see why: you can’t squeeze your asset at the behest of the enemy the asset was recruited to fight against.”

What if the political mainstreaming of jihadists enlarges and gains nation wide acceptance and, while doing so, creates a state and movement largely motivated by fundamental politico-religious ideology? The Taliban and its five year rule in Afghanistan attempted precisely this and failed because a creed that sought a particular kind of Islamic revival through suppression of all else, was but a return to medievalism. A regime of this nature quite wontedly spewed elements that saw salvation only in the destruction of contemporary order. The image of Mullah Omar appearing on the roof of a building in Kandhar 1996 shrouded in the relic of “the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed,” while other mullahs proclaimed him Amir-ul Momineen the Commander of the Faithful, will remain a watershed moment for the ideology. It placed in perspective the unquestionable authority of the Amir as the people’s voice was made increasingly irreconcilable with Sharia, as was regard for human rights and the rule of law. In this ‘divinely ordained’ disposition, the savage destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas as symbol of an end to idolatry, came as no surprise. As events unfolded it also brought to the fore how modernity and the political mainstreaming of jihadists is a doomed enterprise.

And what of “responsible stewardship” of nuclear assets? We have thus far argued the hazards of a political future for terrorists in Pakistan. In this reality, given access to a nuclear arsenal, do we not perceive its utilisation to prosecute jihadi objectives? The Pakistan military hardly minces its words on the use of jihadists and the latter’s correlation with their nuclear policy (Pakistan Army Green Book 2004-2015). And what is the Pakistan sponsored terror objective other than to weaken the secular fabric of the Indian state, subvert society and to bring about enabling conditions for secession of Kashmir. It is not a coincidence that these very same objectives find recurring mention in the strategic aims of the military in Pakistan.

In the nine years after 26/11, terror attacks in India originating from across its western borders persist, however with a difference that principal control from Pakistan has devolved to decentralised and often scattered control. Targets are relatively less sensational, albeit these attacks are executed with no less brutality or with diminished politically motivation. Musharraf’s invitation for militant groups such as the LeT to join the political mainstream in Pakistan will have changed all that for the worse.

Pakistan, decidedly, has legitimate security interests, but when these interests are revisionist in nature, be it an aggressive quest for strategic depth in Afghanistan or attempting to destabilise India through the use of state sponsored terrorists or even to suggest that there is a nuclear dimension to these dynamics is to plead a stimulus much deeper than a politico-ideological pledge. For to challenge India or, in Afghanistan, the United States, is to withdraw from what makes for contemporary order. What is emerging and must be recognized is that with Pakistan there is a virulence that ought not to be allowed to thrive under the duplicitous belief that it can be both legatee of international largesse and continue to cavort with jihadists.