The Dilemma of a Threshold

In nuclear policy parlance, ‘threshold’ indicates when and under what conditions leadership may resort to the use of nuclear weapons

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” on the IPCS website and available at http://www.ipcs.org)

The nuclear planner is acutely involved in analysis of when and under what political conditions opposing leadership (military or otherwise) may resort to the employment of nuclear weapons. For nations with a policy of No-First-Use (NFU), the answer is “in response to the first-use (FU) of a nuclear weapon under conditions as stipulated in the doctrine.” However between nuclear armed nations, the one with a FU policy is faced with a more complex set of issues which will invariably raise the question “are political ends served with first-use of nuclear weapons knowing that an escalatory response may well be massive and place value targets in its cross hair.” Does first-strike come paired with the ability to offset a nuclear response? Indeed there is the theoretical possibility that the first strike may altogether neutralise the opposition’s capability of nuclear response; but this, as the evolution of nuclear thought and development of nuclear arsenals have shown, is a fantasy. Even the smallest retaliation in a nuclear exchange targeting a city will imply horrific destruction that the first striker must contend with. To put matters in perspective consider the following: the destructive potential of a nuclear weapon say a 20 kiloton nuclear weapon airburst targeting a city such as Karachi (in 2017 Karachi’s metropolitan area population was estimated at 23 million) with a population density of 24,000 per square kilometre will result in at least 8,00,000 primary casualties and another 12,00,000 secondary (statistics approximate based on casualty curves, Abraham Henry, Nuclear Weapons and War, 1984).  Or, one only has to recall the geographic extent and casualties of the 1986 “Chernobyl” power plant disaster to appreciate that the hazards of a nuclear encounter are not abstract notions. The radiation fallout spread from Scandinavia to the Black sea, over 116,000 people were affected while Belarus has since shown a 2400% annual increase in the incidents of thyroid cancer.

The capability to respond unfailingly and credibly lies at the heart of a deterrent strategy driven by a NFU policy. Faced with the certainty of appalling destruction in response to a nuclear adventure, why an aggressor should contemplate a first-use of nuclear weapons remains bizarre since it is at odds with the very idea of survival. Whatever may be the conditions of the conflict; the approach of such a threshold when one or the other protagonist may reach for the nuclear trigger must not only be transparent but be declared so that a return to normalcy becomes viable.

The strategic irony of dealing with Pakistan is that not only is it armed with nuclear weapons, but also forewarns ‘first-use’ shorn of a declared doctrine. The weapon, as recent statements from their establishment suggest, is “India specific” and the development of their nuclear arsenal is to deter India’s conventional forces from offensive operations through the use of tactical nuclear weapons (!) and should that elicit a massive response then that would be countered by an assured “limited” (?) second strike capability (a conversation with Khalid Kidwai, 2015). The latter, in their view, serves to “stabilise” the former; never you mind what or who caused the primary provocation. The doctrine remains under a cloak of ambiguity emboldened by the belief in a, yet to be developed, sea-based second strike launched from conventional submarines.

The first deduction that may be made from such a policy is that Pakistan has adopted a nuclear war-fighting doctrine notwithstanding a dangerous absence of technology necessary to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and command and control on land, at sea and in the air. The second deduction is, between their first and second strike Pakistan is convinced of surviving massive retaliation with its second strike intact. Is this a reasonable assumption or is it more bravado than sense? The third understanding is, when such a nuclear doctrine remains cloaked in ambiguity the separation between the Nuclear and principles that govern conventional warfare are blurred. This attains a catastrophic bent significantly when conventional principles such as surprise and deception are integrated into a first or a second strike plan, for the unsaid implication is that Pakistan, in some woolly manner, holds sway over the escalatory dynamic.

In all this what alarms is the lowering of the nuclear threshold while exposing the weapon to unintended use in its movement into the tactical battle area and the truancy of centralised command and control. Also, the deterrent value of the weapon from the standpoint of both time and space is narrowed if not foreclosed. Two more issues need to be recognised relating to the vexed geography of the Indo-Pak situation; the Line of Control (LoC) demarcates extent of geographic control over disputed territory in Jammu and Kashmir, to advocate creating a nuclear wasteland in territorial hankerings does not quite make strategic sense. It is equally clear that, among nations that share common borders, a nuclear exchange will spread devastation irrespective of man-made boundaries.

In the early stages of Pakistan weaponizing its nuclear capability it had, indeed, gestured to where its nuclear threshold lay. As could be deciphered, first-use of nuclear weapons was predicated on four thresholds:  large territorial setbacks, comprehensive military attrition, economic collapse and political precariousness. The deterrent logic these thresholds described was really quite unmistakeable for they also provided to Pakistan a context for maintaining conventional power. However, this rationality flew in the face of the acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). The perception widely held among commentators in India is that the four threshold doctrine has since been trashed. “Full-spectrum deterrence” is what Pakistan today makes its arsenal out to be. Central to this doctrine is the integration of TNWs with conventional forces and a callow belief that the nuclear escalatory ladder is in control of the first striker. This abstruse doctrinal tangle suggests that Pakistan not only fails to take account of India’s nuclear response but is also convinced of their ability to initiate a nuclear war and survive unscathed from the encounter.

To establish where Pakistan’s nuclear threshold lies conceptually is a baffling task. However, for Pakistan to escalate to the nuclear dimension in response to an Indian conventional riposte to a major terror assault traced to GHQ Rawalpindi cannot be consistent with their “full spectrum” doctrine since the riposte does not come as a result of the latters failed conventional action which is the “first tier” of the spectrum. Rather, in this frame of reference, the nuclear first-use threshold must be assessed in the context of political realities, state policy that finds unity with jihadists and military capability. An ambiguous nuclear doctrine in these circumstances cannot alone determine the nuclear threshold; what it can do is calibrate the uncertainty that it imposes and in the process limit both extent and intensity of the riposte.

Nuclear thresholds are neither fixed by geography nor by time but determined more by severity and purpose of military action, which by some national gauge or a combination of triggers, will lead to the decision that a threshold has been breached. As may be deduced from Pakistan’s peace-time nuclear posture, lack of high-technology-persistent-ISR, absence of a cyber and outer-space capability, and the fragility of the second strike, their nuclear threshold may not lie at the low end of the scale. Reason being the first tier of the spectrum may not have quite ruptured in the early stage of a crisis while the second strike remains unfledged. And yet it is equally clear that threat of nuclear use has been brought out of the backdrop to a position from where nuclear deterrence becomes a looming immediacy.

The Regression of Nuclear Policy

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” on the IPCS website and available at http://www.ipcs.org)

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.

 

 

 

 

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