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.


The Value of a Declared No First Use Nuclear Policy

This article was first published on the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies site.

Can it be a nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain; or as Milton put it “Our Cure, To Be No More; Sad Cure!”


Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Ret.)


The sensibility of negotiated agreements to assuage friction between nations during the ‘Time of Troubles’ (as Toynbee so sagely suggested) is well recognised. This dynamic in turn sets into motion a search for a deeper concord that establishes and maintains order, however stormy the process may be (the fact of continued endurance of the ‘Westphalian’ state being the basis of international relations is a case in point). Lessons of history have persistently refuted the idea of non-violence and altruism as guiding instrumentalities of relations between nations for at best, non-violence and altruism are a state of mind and higher principles of behaviour. The concord, however, is in favour of ‘real politik’ and seeks mutuality. The latter affects its beneficiaries in varying degrees as it brings about a levelling between the dominant power and the lesser. The relative incapacity to generate conditions that favour the dominant power has at times been at the cost of longevity of the concord while at others the dominant power has paid of its political legacy. But in cases when the concord determines inhibition or non-use of a weapon of war that can potentially destroy political intent, then it becomes an instrument of balance.

India’s declared policy of No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons makes for such an instrument of balance. Credibility of its deterrent at a minimal level is sought through periodic technological intrusions. The form of India’s doctrine has remained unchanged since 2003. It is ironic that among the remaining eight nuclear weapon states (barring China), their doctrine has not been declared with any clarity while their nuclear weapons postures and policies remain, at best, ambiguous.

The United Kingdom, since 1958, has had deep nuclear links with the USA, so much so that its arsenal of Trident II D5 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (it has since 1998 retired other vectors) along with its doctrine and nuclear policy is pooled with that of the US. Yet it subscribes to the idea of “sub-strategic tasks” (no explanation) and an independent nuclear deterrent with neither transparent command and control organisation nor coded control devices.

France also maintains an independent nuclear deterrent; its doctrine is a little less enigmatic and is characterised by “nonemployment” within the framework of a conflict which does not threaten “vital interests” (what these interests are, is never made clear). General understanding is that nuclear weapons are not intended for the battlefield. Contrary to the American doctrine which once envisaged graduated response, the French doctrine refutes nuclear warfighting “up an escalatory ladder.”

In the meantime Russia, without declaring so, has increased reliance on nuclear weapons since 1993, when it formally dropped the Soviet NFU policy and discarded its defensive nuclear posture of the cold war era. Today its doctrine is more Orwellian: “To escalate in order to de-escalate.”[i] The stated rationales for emergence of their new nuclear doctrine are: sensitivity to external threat, particularly so after the invasion of Crimea, eastern Ukraine and involvement in Syria; and perceived weakness of Russia’s conventional forces. The idea to be first to go nuclear in order to deescalate a conventional conflict is an unprecedented awareness, for it suggests two contrarieties that not only can a nuclear tit-for-tat be controlled, but also that a nuclear war was winnable.

China’s nuclear doctrine embraces two concepts of contemporary nuclear thought: the doctrine of NFU and the maintenance of a credible minimum nuclear deterrent. In form, the doctrine has been consistent since 1964. These two tenets have, in turn, sculpted the nature and size of their arsenal. China’s efforts to modernize nuclear forces have, in some quarters, been seen as a transformation of the basis of their doctrine. This however, would appear a misperception since technological updates primarily improve survivability, lethality and precision of their arsenal, with a view to enhance credibility of the deterrent. So far it would appear that China’s nuclear policy has been predictable and undeviating over the years. It is also where the benign nature of China’s nuclear policy ends. A significant feature of the nuclear correlations in the region is China’s proliferatory activities which has given an antagonistic tri-polar character to matters. This applies equally to both North Korea and Pakistan. As is well known today, it is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship which created and sustains the latter’s nuclear weapons programme. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there also exists doctrinal links between the two which permits duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared NFU policy masks the First Use intent of Pakistan that the former has so assiduously nurtured from development of the weapons programme to the supply of tactical nuclear weapons. China’s proliferation policy may have been driven by a balance-of-power logic but it would appear to have forgotten the actuality in the Pakistan case; of a much weakened civilian leadership incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger, the active involvement of non-state actors in military strategy and an alarming posture of intention-to-use. Indeed, the Pak proxy gives to China doctrinal flexibility vis-à-vis India, but involvement of Jihadis and world repugnance to nuclear proliferation, even China must know, can boomerang on its aspirations. The same would apply to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and doctrine of which very little is known particularly after the failure of the “1994 Agreed Framework”.. While academics have ruminated over several possible North Korean nuclear strategies ranging from political, catalytic (meaning threat of use to provoke international intervention), retaliatory to war fighting, what is apparent is that China has taken centre stage and has been elevated to the unlikely role of an ‘honest’ broker in the matter. Somewhere over the years since the Korean War of 1950, China’s unwavering support of Pyong Yang has been consigned to a “memory warp.” China and North Korea signed a mutual aid and arms treaty in 1961. The treaty obliges the allies to provide immediate assistance should either come under armed attack. What we are currently witness to is on-going history when China continues to provide economic and high-tech support to North Korea’s arms programme. There is also no movement towards abrogating or even watering down the 1961 Treaty . The next episode of history is a nuclear-armed North Korea as China’s only formal ally in the region. The strategic complications for the East and South China Sea and the region at large have just begun.

Pakistan has no declared doctrine. Its collaborative nuclear programme with China drives its nuclear policy. It espouses an opaque deterrent under military control steered by precepts obscure in form, seeped in ambiguity and guided by a military strategy that not only finds unity with non-state actors, but also perceives conventional and nuclear weapons as one continuum. The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons exacerbates credibility of control. It has periodically professed four thresholds each of which, if transgressed, may trigger a nuclear response; these are geographic, economic, military and political. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertion to declare whose case lowering of the nuclear threshold promotes.

Israel does not officially confirm or deny having nuclear weapons. Its ambiguous stance puts it in a difficult position since to issue a statement pledging NFU would confirm possession. Israel has however declared that it “would not be the first in region to introduce nuclear weapons.”

The United States has refused to adopt a NFU policy, saying that it “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first.” Yet the doctrine reduces the role of U.S. nuclear weapons to deter nuclear attack on the United States, allies, and partners. The Nuclear Posture Review of 2010 notes, a less abstruse long term vision: “it is in the U.S. interest and that of all other nations that the nearly 65-year record of nuclear non-use be extended forever.”

We have argued earlier that nuclear weapons are instruments of state that can potentially destroy political intent, indeed when a nuclear exchange occurs then it is survival of the protagonists that is threatened. And if survival is an enduring feature of every nation’s interest then it is logical that incipient combatants desist from escalating to a nuclear exchange. This logic provides the determinate sensibility for a NFU policy. A compact appraisal of doctrines of nations in possession of nuclear weapons was done here primarily to highlight the intrinsic hypocrisy or should we say realpolitik that drives them. But if realpolitik is taken to mean politics that strives to secure practical national interests rather than higher ideals, then even in this frame of reference NFU advances an irrefutable case. There is another awkward irony, these nations recognise two central attributes of policy; first, the inability to control escalation of a nuclear exchange and second, the value of nuclear disarmament. 72 years since the last use of nuclear weapons, neither has proliferation occurred en masse nor have nuclear weapons found tactical favour. The world’s ontogeny in nuclear realpolitik now suggests that the first step towards the negation of nuclear weapons is to find value in a universal declaration of No First Use.

[i]V. Levshin, A. Nedelin, M. Sosnovskiy, “O primenenii yadernogo oruzhiya dlya deeskalatsii voennykh deystviy,” (Use of Nuclear Weapons for Deescalating Conflicts- authors transalation) Voennaya Mysl Vol. 3, May-June 1999, pp. 34-37.

Perils of Nuclear Paranoia


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in the author’s weekly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website.)

Nuclear Brinkmanship Plus

The late Thomas Schelling, remarking on how dangerously skewed a nuclear deterrent relationship could get, famously drew the analogy of “one driver in a game of chicken who tears out and brandishes his steering column.” Conventional wisdom suggests that nuclear brinkmanship is the deliberate creation of a recognizable risk, denoting intimidation of an adversary and exposing him to a mutual risk; and if that risk is slanted such as by tearing out and brandishing the steering column, then that very act has a high probability of unleashing a nuclear catastrophe. By dramatically tossing the steering wheel out of the driver’s window, the reckless motorist assumes that this act would force the other player to concede the tourney. But this is not necessarily so since removal of the steering wheel to the other protagonist may well constitute a breakdown in the deterrent relationship and therefore releasing the latter from nuclear restraint or any risk reducing obligation that the relationship may have notionally implied.

The Zhenbao Incident

On 02 March 1969, Chinese troops ambushed and killed a group of Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island; one of the many (then) disputed islands on the Ussuri River. As Sino-Soviet tensions heightened in the 1960s, ownership of these tiny riverine islands designated as a boundary line between China and the Soviet Union by the 1860 Treaty of Peking, became an issue of grave contention. Beijing was convinced that ownership of the islands was symptomatic of forcing a weak China to submit to the Soviet Union. According to Moscow, the Treaty of Peking clearly identified the boundary line between China and the Soviet Union in this area as running along the Chinese riverbank. China saw in its military action resolve to deter future Soviet provocations partly aggravated by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and further incited by the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ that gave sweeping rights to the Soviet Union to intervene in the affairs of Communist countries to strengthen Communism. Mao intended the limited attack to demonstrate that it could not be bullied. Moscow, however interpreted China’s actions as aggressive and characteristic of a revisionist tendency. By end March, the conventional battle escalated and was fought with increasing ferocity across a wider front. In the following months the tempo and scale of operations was upped.

On the diplomatic front each armed escalation was paired with threats of further increase in combat operations. So extensive was the intimidation that Mao feared a Soviet invasion preceded by a nuclear ‘first strike’. Behind the frontline USSR had been trying to warn the USA of China’s power aspirations and requested US neutrality in the matter. But unbeknownst to the USSR, there were other diplomatic manoeuvres afoot that sought to use China as a means of containing the Soviets. By August the USSR threatened to cross the nuclear Rubicon. For Beijing, the knowledge that Moscow had approached other countries for disposition and response   to a nuclear strike greatly increased the credibility of the impending Soviet nuclear attack. As such, this case stands out as a rare instance of the use of nuclear threats to attempt to compel a weaker adversary to the negotiating table (that eventually went awry). However, Beijing’s ensuing perception of the credibility of Soviet nuclear threats had unintended consequences that greatly increased the possibility of a nuclear exchange. China believed that negotiations were a thinly veiled mask for a nuclear “sneak attack.” By October 1969, so alarmed of an imminent Soviet nuclear strike, Chinese leadership evacuated Beijing, and placed its nuclear forces, a stockpile of between 60 to 80 warheads, on hair trigger alert.

Had China wrenched out the steering column? Had it arrived at a ‘Schelling Point’? There is much to suggest that it had. Kremlin, as more recent reports have pointed out, was stunned at the prospects now of a people’s war under the overhang of a steering-less nuclear arsenal. It would appear that the Soviets had swerved out of the path of an uncontrolled Armageddon and as in Schelling’s game of chicken conceded the tourney. The two nations, by end October, were on the negotiation table.

Skewing Against Gravity

A central argument in much of contemporary deterrence literature is that nuclear weapons induce predictable rationality in interstate relations and prompts mirror imaging in policy making; this in turn transforms national behaviour and reduces the likelihood of direct conflict between nuclear-armed states. Nuclear weapons, according to this school of thought, define the spectrum of acceptable policies and circumscribe the limits of conventional warfare. To the contrary, the substantiation from the Zhenbao war suggests that there can be conflicts and other armed actions that, for the initiator, have nothing to do with the military balance both conventional and nuclear. Critically it raises the probability of unintended consequences and the prospect that balance may indeed be skewed against gravity. The India Pakistan hostile correlation; China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea and the North Korea nuclear standoff are stark reminders of this precept.

Differing Ideas of Deterrence and its Fragility

Strategic culture and the differing idea of deterrence characterise a key role in determining actions taken by international players. China’s traditional word for deterrence, weishe, quite bluntly means “to intimidate militarily” without nuances. While the Oxford English dictionary defines the meaning of the verb “to deter” as to discourage (from acting) or prevent (from occurring), usually by instilling fear, doubt, or anxiety; from this is derived the accepted idea that essentially upholds the status quo. What Pakistan understands remains blurred; whether it is to discourage all forms of armed conflict against India or to provide an umbrella for non-state actors to continue a war to bleed India is ambiguous. The introduction of Jihadists and non-state actors is unique in that it delivers an asymmetricity that keeps the level of warfare well under the nuclear shadow, is deniable and yet its impact can be as consequential as any act of war.

Indian strategic planners will do well to appreciate that the international nuclear milieu today is complex and multilateral in nature which increases the chances of strategic misunderstandings to the detriment of balanced decision-making. The demand is for explicit credibility if deterrence is to be functional and exertive. In addition, these issues also highlight an important dilemma: for deterrence to be effective, an opponent must fear the consequences of his actions; however, excessive anxiety is also a potential peril, as it can lead to paranoia and dangerous behaviour such as ‘tearing out the steering column’.