The Challenge of a Multi-Polar Nuclear Age

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

To be published in the IPCS Web Journal in the authors column The Strategist.

Of Parity, Assured Destruction & Mistrust

For the last 77 years, since the USA first detonated nuclear weapons and annihilated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an eerie ambivalence has prevailed concerning their use. On the one hand some scholars and practitioners are convinced of the myth of usable nuclear weapons; while on the other, governments are devising policies for use . In the meanwhile, Russia toys with the idea of escalating to nuclear warfare in order to de-escalate on-going conflict; while China designs a strategy to provide greater flexibility in the use of nuclear forces.

Significantly, the first nuclear attacks also defined the basis of nuclear stability. Relationship between bellicose nuclear armed states was marked by three characteristics: quest for parity in arsenals, certitude of mutual destruction and a bizarre level of mistrust that drove states to adopt grotesque stratagems. Just how abominable nuclear war plans could be was pointed out by Noam Chomsky (the renowned pacifist). US nuclear posture, he said, called “for the delivery of 3200 nuclear weapons to 1060 targets in Russia, China, and allied countries,” all together impervious to the fact that nuclear weapons destroyed political purpose. General Butler, a former Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Command put it succinctly when he renounced the current nuclear programs and systems as a death warrant for humanity.

 Flawed New START

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) was signed 08 April, 2010, by the US and Russia. The instrument was a continuum of a bipartisan process to reduce nuclear arsenals. The two parties agreed in 2021, to extend the Treaty by five years. The key provision of the agreement limits nuclear warheads, delivery vectors and launchers and institutes a system of verification.

The Accord is, however, amiss both conceptually and in its substance. Conceptually it is neither inclusive of all nuclear armed states nor does it identify “mistrust” as a key factor that stokes scepticism. While in substance it fails to recognise that all nuclear weapons, including tactical, are weapons in the same category; for when used they have the potential to escalate to mass destruction. In addition it pays no heed to the fact that warheads held in reserve can very quickly be deployed. But where the treaty is fatally flawed is its inability to institute measures that diminish intent “to-use” by demanding all nuclear armed nations to abjure “First Use” of nuclear weapons as an essential doctrinal-point that allays perils of nuclear devastation.

Nuclear Weapons an Umbrella for Conventional War

Just how consequential this last consideration can be has been demonstrated In the course of the Ukraine conflict. Russia has obliquely threatened use of nuclear weapons to provide an umbrella for its war. This has turned the Cold-War idea of deterrence on its head as Moscow uses the deterrence value of its nuclear arsenal not to protect Russia but rather to provide space for conventional action. The Kremlin introduced an explicit nuclear dimension through its various declarations. On 18 February 2022, Russia conducted manoeuvres of its nuclear forces prior incursion into Ukraine. The event left little doubt that choice of timing was linked to the impending crisis. On 24 February, Moscow warned NATO in a declaration that there would be unprecedented consequences should a third state attempt to “obstruct” Russia’s designs. The Russian president went further on 27 February, announcing that Russia’s nuclear forces had been placed on “special alert”. Such public announcement regarding nuclear forces was last proclaimed by the United States during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later noted, cryptically, that a third world war would be “nuclear”.

The Bluff of Extended Deterrence

In this milieu, the very idea of “extended nuclear deterrence” takes an outlandish turn. The logic of guarantee against a nuclear attack on a third nation implies that the guarantor launch a retaliatory nuclear strike and accept the consequences irrespective of circumstance, extent of convergence of interests or degree of mutuality. This, as recent events in Ukraine has exposed, is not rational.

Extended nuclear deterrence demands both guarantor and beneficiary accept the same conditions of nuclear use, magnitude of response, norms for escalation and share the same strategic interests. Since none of these propositions are indubitable, the substance of extended nuclear deterrence is ultimately dependent on the guarantor accepting catastrophic consequences on behalf of a third party. Nations under this canopy might want to re-consider the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence in the contemporary strategic circumstance. Reliance on the nuclear deterrent capabilities of a major power is much more an “act of clutching at a straw” than a reflection of reality. This is the dilemma of extended nuclear deterrence.

Prospects of Nuclear Stability – A Revisit

              Many factors that deterred military conflict during the Cold War and after have weakened. The growing parity of arsenal, absence of moderating pressures and power imbalances between states have exposed the underlying stresses within the global system and increased the probability of conflict.

   Russia’s case is symptomatic of the current anarchic state of affairs. Having lost its economic, technological, and political heft of the Soviet era; it retains great power aspirations, demands exceptionalism and clings to nuclear superpower status. Its nuclear arsenal is a key component of leverage, for it endows immunity from military pressure and the leeway to pursue an independent foreign policy.

Nuclear deterrence today can only work in conjunction with agreements, limitations and transparency. Without which, it brings antagonistic powers to the brink of nuclear war in a crisis. In the present fragile condition of deterrent relationships the prospects of nuclear stability amongst the nine nuclear armed nations will remain forlorn.

The Challenge

Cold-War nuclear paradigms can no further be tweaked to provide an illusion of stability to the nine nuclear armed states. Priority should be given to identifying methods to dispel ‘mistrust’, while advancing the idea that globally, nuclear surety is neither served by ‘parity’ in arsenals nor ‘assurance’ of total devastation. The former has brought into play a multi-polar encore of an arms race, while the latter is a return to barbaric times when extinction was propagated as a solution.

  Global affairs of-the-day is a paradox. Economics and interdependence are the engines of power and yet there is reluctance to step back from military situations such as what we see in Ukraine. Nuclear weapons cannot be reduced to a gamblers game of “dare”. But to remove it from arsenals is neither practicable nor are nations ready to wean themselves from an instrument of power that nurtured them. The answer lies in transparency shadowed by withdrawal from this calamitous obsession through a general adoption of a policy of ‘No-First-Use’ of nuclear weapons. This is a first step towards disarmament.

Power Paradigms & the Vexed Path to Peace in Ukraine

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS Web Journal on theauthors site “The Strategistavailable at  http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5811

The multipolar distribution of power which marks contemporary geopolitics has spawned   security imbalances on account of economic inequities, geography, demographics, the military and nature of government. It has incited jostling for control and power-ascendancy, which in Ukraine has distorted into conflict. The twentieth century mass violence of the two World Wars was caused by these very imbalances. It gave way, in 1945, to relative ‘stability’ distinguished by bi-polar tensions in Europe and the Cold War. It did not by any means provide the same rude comfort in the other continents. Demise of the Cold War in 1991, ushered in two decades of an unrestrained militaristic unipolar world order before a return to a complex agglomeration of multipolar powers of the day.

The early 20th century multi-polar power distribution was different. The context was a world of imperial powers, colonies and a debased system that served the interests of the prevailing hegemon. The primary actors were from Europe, the USA and Japan. In contrast, the contemporary world is notable by an array of interdependent actors critical in domains that go beyond the military.

There is a view that believes bi-polarity assured a modicum of security, guaranteed by the two superpowers. Wars fought between 1945-89 and onwards, however, rubbish such an analysis. Given intensity and casualties; occurrences of war tell a different story. Between 1945 and the end of the Cold War, 236 wars were fought; while 147 were battled from 1990 to 2020. These statistics hardly suggest that the Cold War set into motion a pacific period in geo-politics. Clearly, peace is not entirely a function of power distribution.

The path to peace, another school of thought holds, is through economic cooperation. This assumes that each state big or small plays a role in the global economic system. In theory, such a circumstance makes upholding security and sovereignty of the state a collective responsibility. Unfortunately, competition for security and the absence of acceptable rules for partnership makes economic cooperation abstruse. The barrage of economic sanctions that the West have levied on Russia for the military onslaught on Ukraine, Russia’s counter injunctions and their impact tell exactly how complex economic relations can be.

When the state is weak, economic activity can be threatened by more powerful states that seek strategic advantage and internally, by self-seeking elements. So peace cannot just be a function of cooperative economics. The case of South Sudan, suggests that weakness of a nation is doggedly enduring and does not invite peace.

An examination of the three power paradigm considered thus far, presents a rather perplexing perspective of the larger consequences of dispersion or concentration of power. There is no convincing argument as to which of the systems is conducive for a more stable world. With the caveat that any prescription must account for the nature of power and its distribution.

A core principle of international stability after World War II is that nations have a right to self-determination, and borders are inviolable. Yet, Russia, transgressed this belief, when in, 2014 it annexed parts of Ukraine in the Crimean peninsula and in February 2022, invaded Ukraine on grounds of ethnic conformity and strategic security demanding creation of a defensive bulwark against an eastward advancing NATO.

The challenge to the post-Cold War global order is reflected in the Putin Doctrine . Driven by a vision of reversal of the fallout of collapse of the Soviet Union; Russia considers the use of force as appropriate when its security is threatened. Its primary purpose is the rejection of a western conceived global order and acceptance of Russian exceptionalism.

Digging deeper, it is discernible that the “contemporary multi-polar power” exemplar has in many ways set into motion the events leading to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

 The crisis is a test case of whether democratic institutions will stick-by their principles. While autocratic dispensations, view the rapidly changing events with an eye on how resolutely the West upholds its security structures. The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is under the scanner. Beijing, in particular, will be roused as it formulates plans to invade Taiwan, consolidate claims in the South China Sea and stirs its aggressive design in Ladakh.  At stake is international order and its systems of superintendence. That being as it may, potential aggressors must be deterred by an idea; that of abhorrence of geographic subjugation. The tragedy of the times is that grand principles neither usher peace nor do they challenge realpolitik.

The road to peace perhaps begins with an acceptance of realities and then attempts a harmonious amalgam of principles. The idea that peace is kindred to democracy is a vision in international relations that some may, rule out as Quixotic. Events in Ukraine advance the thought that democracies are as susceptible to war hysteria as authoritarian states. While each side spins its own self-indulgent narrative that justifies conflict, what suffers is the very idea of global interdependence.

There is, therefore, a need for profound institutional reconstitution. Current systems, in the main, respond to a past driven by self-interests and balance of power. However, global concerns and realities such as the pandemic and indeed the impact of conflicts on world-wide economic networks make individual survival and prosperity a collective function. The necessity is therefore for universal policies that inspire stability and have regional expression that makes security of the smallest a shared responsibility. These are not prescriptions but principles that must guide action.

The UN is seen as even more toothless today than it was during the pandemic. It is hopelessly impotent when a major power is involved, therefore not only must its security architecture be remodelled to expand permanent membership of the Security Council, but the intervention of a peace keeping force or a negotiating body must be mandatory at first indication of armed conflict.

During the Cold-War, nuclear deterrence is credited for preventing conflict between the super-powers. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine casts a harsh light on how the idea has been turned on its head. Most obvious is that Moscow is using nuclear deterrence not to protect Russia but rather to provide space for conventional action. NATO’s nuclear weapons deter Russia from engaging in a wider European conflict but leaves Ukraine in a hopeless war (See Map 1).

So why does NATO provide weapons without committing heavy arms, air defence or troops in defence of Ukraine? Is it to prolong the conflict and make Ukraine a testing ground for doctrines and hardware? After all, NATO is aware that to engage Russia in direct conflict will signal the start of World War III, so why not take bolder steps to encourage negotiations? 

For the present peace is a far cry, it would appear the EU and NATO is determined to fight to the last Ukrainian.

Map 1. Progress of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

USS Theodore Roosevelt: Cracks in the Command Structure and the Demolition of its Captain

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Extracts from the Captain’s Journal INS Viraat, 2000hrs 1996 on deployment in the Arabian Sea:

“The Chicken-pox outbreak that began with four cases from the Seaman’s Mess two days ago has spread to seventy sailors. Infected personnel include Air Handlers, Mechanical Engineers and Seaman. Intentions: isolate all effected personnel in the vacant Amphibious troops Mess; make a South Easterly MLA at 20 knots for accomplishing night flying and surface attack Mission; close port of G… to 400 nautical miles for transfer of casualties along with sick bay attendants and a medical officer to consort at 0600h and onward to the base hospital at G… Intentions signalled to FOCWF info FOCinC West” (Command chain).

Occurrence of infections on board warships is not uncommon, but rarely is it allowed to jeopardise the mission at hand and even rarer is the occasion that a capital man-of-war steams “full ahead” into international headlines for want of decisiveness to control an internal situation. Indeed the infection and its context on board INS Viraat (see extracts from Captain’s Journal, above) bears little semblance to the USS Theodore Roosevelt (TR) and the Coronavirus episode, for in the former case not only was the contagion a known factor with a large percentage of the   crew having developed herd immunity (the varicella vaccine being available from 1995 onwards) and the scale of proportions being different (Viraat complement 1800, TR 4865); yet the operational imperative remains the same: primacy of the imminent task. And for an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group to put to pasture its main strike element is to recuse itself from the strategic dominance that it could have exercised in its area of responsibility.

The principal demand of naval war is to attain a posture that would permit control of oceanic spaces in order to influence the course of conflict. Elemental to this objective is therefore to provide the means to seize and exercise that control. The Aircraft Carrier’s intrinsic air power assisted by strike and denial forces provides the means to collar and assure security to maritime spaces of interest. Operational flexibility that the Carrier Group brings to bear include deterrence, support of amphibious operations, land attack missions, wide area domain awareness and domination and lastly command and control of large forces. The Carrier Group can also sustain conditions for long term offensive presence and power projection. The agility, firepower and suppleness that the Carrier Group bestows on a Commander is unmatched by any other maritime force. The removal of TR from its area of responsibility will have left a gaping hole in the US ability to exercise control in the Western Pacific region. Currently TR remains pier side in Guam “completing carrier qualification before returning to sea.”

From a philosophical standpoint the culture in the Navy demands of its leadership single point ‘responsibility’ for actions, ‘accountability’ for the impact of those actions  and then gives the leader the necessary ‘authority’ to drive towards his objective. The responsibility-accountability-authority nexus lies at the heart of leadership at sea. Above all else, the job of a naval leader is to prepare to fight and win wars. Too often in the daily grind of processing paperwork amidst misplaced career ambitions, leaders forget the reason the nation has a Navy and why they serve. From US naval tradition stands out Captain John Paul Jones who was hardly obsessing with daily drudgery when in 1778, he exhorted “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm’s way.” Those words which today form a part of maritime folklore contained the essence of leadership at sea, decisiveness.

Coming back to the TR case, the sequence of events that unfolded (salient excerpts only) tell its own ignoble story of wooliness:

  • 17 January 2020. USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, departs San Diego with 4,865 sailors aboard. Capt. Brett Crozier is in command. In company is its strike elements for deployment in the western Pacific. A special “preventive medical unit” is aboard.
  • 26 February. Defense Secretary Mark Esper directs combatant commanders to tell him before they make decisions about COVID-19.
  • 22 March. First sailor onboard diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • 26 March. TR begins testing entire crew for COVID-19.
  • 29 March. Washington Post report: Crozier and his superior officers are “struggling” to reach a consensus on a plan of action. Chain of command included Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, embarked strike group commander; Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Both admirals favoured smaller mitigation efforts for fear of mission jeopardy.”
  • 30 March. Acting Secretary Modly, emphasizes “ that if [Crozier] felt that he was not getting the proper response from his chain of command, he had a direct line into his office. Crozier sends an unclassified e-mail comprising a 4-page memo to 20 or 30 Naval addressees, both within and without his chain of command. Crozier wrote: “The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating. Decisive action is required…We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.
  • Wednesday 01 April. Crozier and his heads of department brief sailors on the evacuation plan, and begin to execute it. The plan, according to Modly, is: To leave 700 to 800 to 1,000 people on or near the ship to operate its nuclear reactors, guard weapons and keep the ship ready to sail. Modly calls Crozier directly and asks, “What’s the story?” and Crozier answered: “Sir, we were getting a lot more cases. I felt it was time to send out a signal flare.” About 4 p.m. at the Pentagon, Modly holds a joint press conference with CNO Adm. Michael Gilday, to address the situation onboard the Roosevelt. Modly suggests Commanders “should not be inhibited from telling us and being transparent about the issues that they see. But they need to do it through their chains of command. And if they’re not getting the proper responses from their chains of command, then they need to maybe go outside of it.”
  • 02 April. Modly asserts Crozier told him that he didn’t ask for permission to bypass his chain of command because he knew Admiral Baker wouldn’t give it. He reaches the conclusion that “Captain Crozier had allowed the complexity of his challenge with the COVID breakout on the ship to overwhelm his ability to act professionally… and sends word down the chain of command that Crozier is to be relieved of Command. The CNO in turn directs VCNO Burke, to “conduct an investigation into the circumstances and the climate across the entire Pacific Fleet to help determine what may have contributed to this breakdown in the chain of command.” In the meantime at the Pentagon, Modly in a press conference proclaims Crozier was “absolutely correct” in raising his concerns. The error was “the way in which he did it.”
  • 03 April 3. Acting Secretary Modly concludes, that “If Crozier didn’t think that information contained in his e-mail was going to get out into the public, then he was too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternative is that he did this on purpose. And that’s a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice”. Crozier’s memo was a “betrayal of trust” to me and to you, he told the crew. “What your captain did was very, very wrong. There is never a situation where you should consider the media a part of your chain of command because the media has an agenda. And the agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit on.  By April 14 total crew members that tested positive: 589, remainder negative.
  • Captain Crozier has been washed ashore as the Special Assistant to the the Navy Air forces Chief of Staff; he is neither eligible for command nor to go to sea in any capacity as of date (24 June 2020).

The Sea is an unrelenting mistress; it brooks no dawdling and provides no quarter for exculpation. The author, having commanded an Aircraft Carrier and a Fleet, notes a host of disquieting points that stand out in this sordid affair: Firstly, the outrageous levels of incompetent and unsolicited political interference in the operational control of a warship and the willing compliance of the Naval hierarchy. Secondly, the appalling indecisiveness of the chain of command. Why was it that the first-response, a traditional function of the man at sea, took all of 8 days (22 Mar-30 Mar) to engineer? Lastly it is perplexing how readily the chain of command was violated and the Captain so brazenly annexed authority to second guess the reaction of his immediate superior Rear Admiral Baker. Of course, the Captain is responsible for the safety of his ship’s company and “sailors do not (indeed) need to die” so, what action did he take (for crying out aloud) other than release snivelling e-mails that  neither have the vitality nor the gravitas to stimulate a vigorous response.

Whatever became of the much cherished US naval chain of command? Was it sacrificed on the altar of the Supreme Commander’s view in the fall out of what he calls the “Wuhan Virus”… after all as reports suggest were the Presidents courtiers all too blind to the realities of command of an aircraft carrier.