The Chanciness of Squirming Back from the Brink

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(The article may be accessed at http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5647 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.

 

South Asia: Post Crisis Brief (Balakot)

Published by:

The Nuclear Crisis Group

Read the entire brief here: https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/South-Asia-Post-Crisis-Brief.pdf

Contributors to the dossier: Vice Admiral (ret.) Vijay Shankar, General (ret.) Jehangir Karamat, Dr. Manpreet Sethi, Sadia Tasleem,  Dr. Toby Dalton, and Dr. Vipin Narang.

Balakot: the Strike Across the Line

by

Vice Admiral (Ret.) Vijay Shankar

A former Chief Minister of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir in the immediate wake of the February 26, 2019 Balakot strike by the Indian Airforce remarked: “Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) hit Indian forces and claimed the attack. In turn, Indian forces hit JeM and owned that air strike.” The problem with this credulous statement, on the one hand, is that it persists in viewing a string of terrorist acts as one-offs; and on the other hand, it fails to discern the victim from the villain.

In distinguishing between victim of an act of terror and the terrorist, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 51/210 of 1996 makes clear what defines the act: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them.” Furthermore, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy of 2006 enjoins member states “to refrain from organizing, instigating, facilitating, participating in, financing, encouraging or tolerating terrorist activities and to take…measures to ensure that…respective territories are not used for terrorist installations or training camps, or for the preparation or organization of terrorist acts intended to be committed against other States or their citizens.” The right to respond, pre-emptive or reactive, to an act of terror is enshrined in the same document.

Additionally, the Pulwama terror attack of February 14 being perceived as a ‘one-off’ is far more hazardous as it distorts any concept of response while at the same time skewing mass perception of the character of that act of terror. The Pulwama vehicular bombing must be seen as one of a series of terror attacks beginning with the assault on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the atrocity of killing soldier’s families at Kaluchak in 2002, the terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008, the strikes on Pathankot and Uri in 2016 and now Pulwama. Incidentally, all these attacks were (as evidence indicates) planned in coordination with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and executed by the Pakistan-based internationally outlawed terror outfit, the JeM. Restraint-in-response, which characterized the Indian military rejoinder prior to the Uri terror assault, has been replaced by cross-Line of Control (LoC) punitive strikes that were undertaken to move on the offensive, surgically hit designated terror targets, and return to base; all with speed and precision. Retribution for Pulwama was delivered by airpower that blinded and then sliced through Pakistan air defenses to deliver their precision payloads deep in Pakistani territory to the terror infrastructure of the JeM at Balakot where over
300 new jihadi recruits reportedly were undergoing fidayeen training in preparation for attacks in India.  For Pakistan, the awkward reality was that its two major benefactors, China and Saudi Arabia, did not back it. Was this another nail in the coffin for the Pakistani strategy of nurturing Islamist terror groups and militants as instruments to bleed India? Is the myth of waging unconventional warfare against the Indian State with impunity under the umbrella of nuclear weapons now standing on thin ice?

The following day, the Pakistan Air Force mounted a retaliatory air strike, which was thwarted by Indian air defences. It was not clear what the Pakistani targets were since they were unable to either strike any installations or penetrate defenses. In the skirmish, one Indian Mig-21 was shot down and its pilot captured while the Indian Air Force claimed downing a Pakistani F-16. It is hypothetical to speculate what the Indian reaction may have been had the Pakistani force package reached their targets. Within 48 hours, the captured Indian pilot was returned. It is possible this act served to defuse the situation but it is not clear whether the return was achieved through internal decision-making or external pressure.

It may be premature to analyze the lessons to be learned from the Balakot air strikes, particularly at the tactical or the operational level as there would be many. However, a macro evaluation suggests four salient takeaways:

First, there has been a strategic revisit of the Indian policy of restraint-in-response to terror attacks on India or its assets anywhere (remember the attack on the Indian consulate at Mazar-i-Sharif in 2016) by the JeM or any other Pakistan-sponsored jihadi groups. Hitherto, thinking at the highest levels of India’s political leadership was influenced by the probability that any major trans-LoC strike using airpower would be deemed escalatory. Post-Balakot, the Indian military is less likely to be constrained by the Line or the border in conducting retaliatory precision strikes on non-military terror-related targets as long as it is clear that the Pakistan State is doctrinally, logistically, and materially behind these terror strikes.

Second, India is focused on targeting jihadi terror infrastructure. The dismantlement of those targets by Pakistan or by other means provides the first mechanism for negotiations between Delhi and Islamabad.

Third, the impact on other regional states and major international players not only set up a favourable environ for the furtherance of the campaign against terror but likewise energized Pakistan’s immediate neighbours, who are also victims of state-sponsored terror, to take similar offensive action.

Four, the growing precision and briskness of intelligence—whether human, electronic, cyber, space-based, or through interstate cooperation—has enhanced the ability to plan and conduct surgical strikes against terror targets.

Addressing the issue of how best to manage a future occurrence begins with the understanding that India’s pacific tolerance to terror attacks sponsored by Pakistan and emanating from their territory is not unlimited and will be rejoined by reactive or pre-emptive military action which may not be geographically restricted to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In this perspective, that the Pakistan Army have backed jihadist groups and shielded wanted terrorists like Hafiz Sayyed, Dawood Ibrahim, and Masood Azar are well recognised facts. The real problem is that this duplicity, notoriously dubbed the strategy of a “thousand cuts,” is part of the Pakistani establishment’s policy. To dismantle the terror infrastructure in Pakistan that target India, and to bring to book jihadi terror groups, such as JeM or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), would greatly serve the interest of averting the prospects of recurrence. In the long term, there is no getting away from the pressing need for civil control of the Pakistan deep state (ISI-military combine).

On the issue of the absence of escalation, two considerations may have played a part. First, the nature of the air strikes were designated by the Indian Government as “pre-emptive” air strikes directed against non-military terror infrastructure. The strikes were limited in scope, intensity, and time. Second, the terror averse international environment and the persuasive powers of the United States and Saudi Arabia appear to have been at play. Both states hold Pakistan’s economic jugular at a time when the Pakistani economy is in a quagmire. The reluctance of China either to support Pakistan or to get involved must have been a dampener to any thought by Pakistan to further escalate. From the nuclear stand point, there was neither rhetoric nor any reported attempt to reach for the trigger by either side. This may be an indication of a developing balance and perspicacity as to where nuclear thresholds lie on both sides.

The Balakot air strikes are far too recent for all verified facts to have emerged and, therefore, to stitch together an exhaustive analysis may not be a practical proposition currently. Yet the significance of the incident is very apparent, for it revolves around one notable condition of the international milieu: how long can the global community endure the presence of a state that nurtures and sponsors terrorism so much so that it is today considered the epicentre of global terrorism?

 

 

Why Nuclear Doctrinal Stasis is Not a Bad Idea

by

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

cubanmissile

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.