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.


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.






Nuclear Crises in the Time of Orwellian Wars

This article was first published in my column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies A longer version of the article can be found here.

[…] The consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.               

 – George Orwell, 1984                           

 The Stalin-Churchill Exchange

In 1946, a fustian exchange of rhetoric between Stalin and Churchill was to set the stage for incessant crises in international relations since. It would take countries to the brink and often over it. In assessing the state of the world and character of relations between nations, Stalin, on 9th February, declared to a Moscow audience, “[…] development of world capitalism does not proceed smoothly and evenly, but through crises and catastrophic wars.” His point was that inequities lead to instability; as perceptions of insecurities in access to raw materials and markets provoke the impulse to redistribute favourable “spheres of influence,” often by employing armed force. The awkward irony is that this state of affairs of an uncertain world fragmented into hostile economic and military camps on the brink in perpetuity is the reality, with the effects of climate change being the only sobering moderator. The inelegant skepticism of the US in the climate change context makes for a deranged future. While Churchill (the former Prime Minister), on 5th March 1946, responded by condemning Soviet policies in Europe and declared in a speech at Westminster University Missouri, “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

There was a self-fulfilling prophecy in these words as the world knuckled down to the ideological declaration of war by the two belligerent blocs. Stalin’s words were taken to mean the inevitability of conflict between the two; while Churchill’s speech is considered one of the opening volleys of the ‘Cold War.’ With each passing year, heightened tensions between states retreating into the idea of closed dominions, the rise of nations that promote revisionist ideologies, and to add to it all the disrupting role of non-state actors and nuclear proliferation thrust new elements into the cauldron, deepening and making more catastrophic the probability of a global crisis spinning out of control.

Nuclear Crisis Group

Recognising that peril lay in the inability of formal establishments to monitor potential situations of nuclear conflict and that contemporary nuclear security had introduced dynamics vastly dissimilar to the two-bloc confrontation, a crisis group was formed as a sub-sect of the Global Zero Commission. Its mission is to analyse these predicaments, develop proposals for de-escalation and consult with appropriate agencies to diminish the danger of a nuclear exchange. The Group, an international assemblage of experts from nuclear armed countries and supporters, met for the first time on 5th-6th May 2017 in Vienna. (Details of proceedings may be found here.

Wink-and-Nod Perils: Proliferation, Non-State Actors and Orwellian Wars

Dangers of nuclear proliferation and the deranging role of non-state actors accessing nuclear technologies has been well acknowledged but more often acted upon with a “wink-a facetious rebuke-and-a nod.” This selective look-away has consequences. The imbroglio in US dealings with Pakistan in the Afghan war exemplifies the penalties. Pakistan, an acknowledged dishonest American partner was, the US establishment asserts, “living a lie.” Pakistan’s military played “both ends against the middle.” It provided logistic conduits for money, while giving financial, material, intelligence and weapons to the jihadists. Indeed, there have been tactical gains but these pale to insignificance faced by the most conspicuous strategic failure: Pakistan providing sanctuary and sustenance to jihadis.  Combat, over the last 16 years (or 38?) in the absence of genuine strategic impetus, has morphed to an “Orwellian” war. And as war rages, Pakistan remains a haven to the highest concentration of terrorist groups while its nuclear fervour advances undiminished.

China has been central to nuclear proliferation in the region and the Pakistan weapon program; from blueprint of a nuclear device, through testing, to the AQ Khan enterprise and now, to tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). The reasons for China’s profligate orientation may have originally reflected balance-of-power logic. However, the costs are perilous. Are we living another wink?

In strategic persuasion, Pakistan’s military is convinced that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will leave a devastated, warring Afghanistan and an enfeebled insurgency-wracked Pakistan. They envisage a lonely and losing confrontation against the growing economic and military influence of the avowed enemy, India. This had to be countered by persisting with jihadis as the sine qua non of military strategy. While some have suggested that terror organizations may not be under their control, this is denial of the internals of that state where the nexus between the Army, intelligence service and jihadists is as old as the state. Unmistakably, the Islamic State (IS) has been seduced into the sub-continent; can the world, China and indeed this Group now be blind to the looming jihadist access to a nuclear arsenal?

Technology Intrusions and the Cyber Dimension

Nuclear weapons have put us on a razor’s edge, in part because of our powerlessness to control how political events and technology are driving policy. While technology invites covertness; lethality, precision, stealth and time compression that accompanies it demands transparency. This is the dilemma faced by planners: to balance the impact of technology with the need for openness. In the cyber domain, transparency will reduce hazards of unintended actions as nations prepare to use this arena to manipulate command networks.

The Road to Abolishment

The only way to eliminate the risk of nuclear weapons is through abolition. If this is the leitmotif, NFU posture is its first handmaiden backed by reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and the removal of battlefield and tactical nuclear weapons. This proposition, in toto, was unanimously welcomed by the Nuclear Crisis Group (NCG).

Flash Points.  Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists is the biggest global concern. Discriminating between terror groups and making them instruments of state policy had to be rejected collectively. In addition to this overarching perspective, the Group identified four priority geopolitical dynamics that risked escalation to nuclear conflagration: the Korean Peninsula predicament, US/NATO-Russia meltdown in relations, South Asia conundrum and U.S.-China confrontation.

Korean Peninsula. The NCG aimed for complete denuclearization through negotiations with North Korea balanced against a calibrated end to US military exercises and provocative deployments in the Republic of Korea and easing of sanctions. China’s role in the North Korean problem had to be leveraged (not only has China fought a war on its behalf but provides existential sustenance).

US, Russia, NATO. Crisis instability between the US, Russia and NATO has taken a dangerous turn, triggered by Russian nuclear war fighting doctrine and statements that the US has neither obligation to limit nuclear-arms nor testing. In this circumstance, the impending US nuclear posture review (NPR) will likely cause disquiet given the current turbulence in West Asia, confused war on the IS in Syria, the ‘perpetual’ wars in Iraq and the AF-Pak region, Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, recalcitrant Chinese activities in the South and East China Sea and increased nuclear activity by North Korea. But the real discounted problem in the entanglement is how to device measures that will prevent a slide back to the early Cold War era.

South Asia Situation.  India has a declared nuclear doctrine; at its heart is NFU and generation of a credible minimum deterrent. India does not differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons on the grounds that use of nuclear weapons introduces an uncontrollable development. To suggest that ambiguity and First Use provide options, is to suggest that nuclear war fighting, in conventional terms, is an option. This is a denial of the nature of nuclear weapons. With Pakistan there are foundational complications; it has no declared doctrine, while the hold of the “deep state” (the military-intelligence-jihadi combine) on the nation is so smothering that dialogue is confounded by the question “who to dialogue with?” Duplicity and denial on issues related to state support, sanctuary and complicity with terror organisations makes confabulations with civilian government a sterile exercise. Continued collusion with China on nuclear weapons production and proliferation is an area that must be seized. If multilateral constraints are not in place then the probability of these technologies falling into jihadi hands is high.

US-China Relations. US-China relations remain fragile as the latter’s growth and aspirations come in conflict with America’s global influence, as is apparent in the sporadic friction that flares in the South and East China seas. China’s revisionist drive in this expanse and its military modernisation plans and policy has not helped to pacify matters. Rather it has increased the probability of escalation. Its surreptitious nuclear proliferatory enterprises have further exacerbated the situation. While China has, over the years, quite steadfastly adhered to its NFU nuclear policy, it is its support of states such as North Korea and Pakistan that is worrisome.

A Half Way Conclusion 

Fragmentation in geopolitics, rise of bigoted revisionist ideologies, nuclear perfidy of authoritarian dispensations and the end of an overwrought global order makes for fragility in nuclear affairs. As nations see themselves besieged by forces beyond control, it is timely that the Group has raised its collective voice to temper the idealistic nuclear agenda of abolition with a dose of realism that first charts a course across two pragmatic way points: No First Use and removal of tactical nuclear weapons.