‘Jihadi Aggression’ and Nuclear Deterrence


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies Website in September 2015

Pakistan’s use of terror organizations as a tool of state policy to wage unconventional war against India [1] has perverse consequences that link sub-conventional warfare with nuclear escalation. This bizarre correlation, Pakistan will have the world believe, comes to play if and when India chooses to respond with conventional forces to a terror strike puppeteered by their “Deep State.”[2]

Notwithstanding the reality of interstate relations that finds expression in a byzantine system of the larger un-codified international relations, common ground exists in the challenges that threaten the very existence of the State. Military power, economics, politics, religion and the dynamics of change provide very convincing provinces within which to fix challenges, yet it is the hazard of mass destruction that, without debate, presents itself as the “emperor-of-challenges.” Willingness of the Deep State in Pakistan to catalyze such a scenario, keeping that country always “on the brink” in order to preserve the position of the army, the ISI and the jihadis as upholders of the State, is the peril of our times. And yet if this be the substance then it must equally be true that willfully enabling a nuclear exchange carries the immanence that will finish the Deep State. Keeping the nation persistently on the edge has left Pakistan’s internals in a state of violent turmoil, as several interest networks such as the elites that drive military autonomy, the security apparatus, enfeebled political groups and the fractured jihadis battle for supremacy. The circumstances are fraught since the fallout is demise of (already impoverished) democratic institutions and the wasted idea of a unified Pakistan. In this milieu the cracks in control of nuclear weapons are apparent. After all, the internals may, in the extreme, catalyze the use of nuclear weapons in a plot that begins with a terror strike on India.

The question of motivating Pakistan to demobilize anti-India terrorist groups and thus defuse the reason for escalation of conflict is the most pressing strategic imperative. China, in this frame of reference, though cognate, is a more distant strategic intimidation. Relations between India and China have been stable and improving, save for occasional flares on account of a border that has denied definition. There have not been sustained hostilities since 1962 nor has there been a predilection to reach, even in rhetoric, for nuclear weapons. Deterrence between the two large states has also been relatively stable, since the Chinese nuclear doctrine founded on NFU and minimality finds accord with India’s doctrine and neither country is seeking to change the status quo by exploring space below the nuclear threshold. India’s nuclear deterrent is not country specific; its credibility will remain an abstraction in the mind of the potential adversary, while minimality is magnitude in the mind of the Deterrer (India in this case). On the other hand, Pakistan and India have experienced four wars, two of which were initiated and waged in concert with non-state actors. The two states have also confronted two major crises initiated by terror attacks in India. To strategic planners in India, Pakistani use of jihadi groups as an instrument of state policy is a factor that is always considered when mapping a conventional riposte. Despite successes in recent history, it is equally clear that that sub-conventional warfare can only be beaten by state policy on both sides coupled with conventional forces. The clamping down on terror activities from Pakistan post operation “Parakram” (the military standoff between India and Pakistan between December 2001 and October 2002 following jihadi assault on the Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001) that resulted in the massing of troops on either side of the border and along the Line of Control in Kashmir. One of the positive outcomes of the mobilization and coercive threat of military action was President Musharraf’s policy statement of 12 January 2002 not to permit Pakistan soil to be used for launch of terror activities. Significantly, on ground, the declaration held till 2008. This aftermath stands in testimony as to what works.

Evolving Nuclear Context

The link between sub-conventional warfare and nuclear war fighting is at best a tenuous one. Conceptually, no amount of tinkering or reconstitution of nuclear policy can deter terror attacks. Such a notion would appear far fetched because of the very nature of the weapon involved. Clearly it is the policy that harbours terror groups as instruments of state policy that has to be targeted. Pakistan has today inducted tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) into its arsenal with the stated purpose of countering an Indian response to a terror strike. Almost as if to suggest that they control the levers of nuclear escalation. This an odd proposition since India does not differentiate between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, (this is not only stated by most scholars in the know, but is also the bed rock of a nuclear deterrent relationship). Also, TNWs involve decentralization and dispersal, both of which dilute command and control and multiply the risk of the weapon falling into wrong hands. In the end analysis, the use of nuclear weapons introduces a new and uncontrollable dimension. Logically, if a Pak sponsored terror attack is the triggering event of a sequence of reactions, then it must equally be clear that their nuclear red lines give space for a conventional response. After all, the premise that a terror attack is seamlessly backed by nuclear weapons is not only ludicrous but is not even the Pak case. For, when dealing with the threat of use of nuclear weapons, to suggest that ambiguity and first use provide options, is to suggest that nuclear war fighting almost in conventional terms is an option. This, by most, is denial of the nature of nuclear weapons, characterized by mass destruction and uncontrollability.

There is a suggestion in some scholarly quarters, that there was little or no Pakistan sponsored terror activity before nuclear umbrellas were raised in the sub-continent. This is repudiation of history (whether at partition in 1947-48, in 1965 or in the 1980s to 90s). Unfortunately this mistaken assumption has led the narrative on a quest to seek answers to sub-conventional warfare in nuclear weapons and their deterrent effect, increasing in turn the dangers of early use. This does not serve the interest of deterrent stability. Yet, as with the conventional military options, some experts and former military officials in India, echoed by western analysts, have begun to question whether India should alter its approach to nuclear deterrence in ways that would affect Pakistan’s calculus. The relationship between nuclear deterrence and sub conventional aggression—what has been colorfully described as “jihad under the nuclear umbrella”—is not a new phenomenon in South Asia. But since 2008, and especially after Pakistan tested a new short-range missile in 2011 and declared it part of a policy of “full spectrum” deterrence, Indian strategists have begun to question more vocally whether New Delhi’s approach to nuclear deterrence should more directly confront this challenge through the induction of TNWs. Nuclear weapons in any nuclear weapon state, barring Pakistan, are today a political tool. So why there is a contrary belief is, least to say, inexplicable. To advocate that deterrence success has been achieved by Pakistan because it was able to indulge in terror activities since 2008 is also to suggest that India’s nuclear weapons were made to deter jihadist-this is quaint! Analogous would be that Pakistan achieved deterrence success over the US since it harboured Osama bin Laden till 2011 or Mullah Omar till 2013!

Pakistan has suggested that the induction of TNWs into its nuclear arsenal is in response to India’s Cold Start doctrine. It must be noted that the Cold Start is a conventional war fighting strategy that aims at overcoming the ponderous mobilization process. Remember, it is a reactive conventional artifice that clutches in, should the need arise to take rapid military action across the border. Its pre-emption does not lie in a nuclear response but in reining in terror activities. For Pakistan to turn to TNWs and varyingly call them “Full spectrum deterrence” or “shoot and scoot” options, one wonders if the lessons of the cold war have sunk home or, where they intend to scoot.

Some scholars question India’s nuclear doctrine as an emerging contest between “policy and strategy”, presumably that is to imply military control over a slice of the nuclear arsenal limited by yield, vector and purpose; that is, provide the military with a limited nuclear war fighting alternative (LNWA). This option, for reasons that have been laboured upon earlier is characterised by the absence of escalatory control, a denial of political oversight and ambiguity between Controller and Custodian of the nuclear arsenal. To the Indian strategic planner there is no such thing as LNWA since the absence of escalatory control negates any notional gains that it may bestow. Retaliation that is either punitive or proportional implies a nuclear war fighting strategy; this is anathema to Indian strategic thought. As far as the correlation of Policy and Strategy is concerned, it remains the influence of policy on military strategy with a clear demarcation between conventional military resources and control over all nuclear forces.

The Perverse Nuclear Chain of Events and Capabilities

The nuclear scenario and the chain of events that currently finds articulation may in essence be outlined as follows: Pakistan promotes a militant strike and in order to counter conventional retaliation uses TNWs and then in order to degrade a massive retaliatory second strike launches a full blown counter force/counter value strike. This is perverse for by this logic even a bolt from the blue strike is in the realm of possibilities and for Pakistan to launch a nuclear strike it does not even need a nuclear adversary at all! The use of nuclear weapons releases restraints on retaliation. It is compelling to note that the Kargil conflict of 1999 was brought to closure because both military and economic pressures were becoming intolerable for Pakistan. Of equal significance is that it did not reach for the nuclear trigger but capitulated.

Western sources have in recent times has been quick to point out that India has either fallen behind in quality, technology or quantity of nuclear weapons. It need hardly be underscored that the 4th and 5th of the 1998 tests were low-yield warheads. India’s nuclear doctrine, NFU policy, minimalistic approach to its arsenal size and the current quest for strategic nuclear stability is more swayed by China than Pakistan. Doubts that have also been cast on the technical capabilities and yields of the nuclear weapon programme based on the words of one disengaged member of the Indian scientific community, these are misplaced.Yields that have been operationalised are far in excess of 25kt, they include thermonuclear devices. Numbers are adequate. The ability to reconstitute to low yield weapons also exists.[3]

Seeking Escalation Dominance

For India to emulate Pakistan’s nuclear policies i.e. FU and TNWs, runs counter to every logic that has so far been propounded. To promote that the solution to nuclear deterrence asymmetry is escalation dominance is not to state the entire theorem, which is, that the corollary is nuclear war fighting, which most scholars agree is a rather flaky concept. LNWA and proportionality of nuclear response are all sub-texts to the same. To transpose conventional strategy on nuclear policy can prove disastrous more so when dealing with a state controlled by its military and intelligence apparatus. Once again the logic of orderly nuclear escalation is fallacious. Deterrence in essence is a mind game that does not brook any logic other than total escalation when confronted by a nuclear strike. The three options before India in response to a TNW strike are LNWA, punitive nuclear strike or doctrinal massive retaliation. The former two may sound reasonable on paper but notions of counter force strikes, flexible response, LNWA etc. do not make sense in the face of total escalation.

A Conclusion: One Answer to Jihadist Aggression

Conventional forces are different by nature from nuclear forces. The former is susceptible to control, escalation, geographic spread, and indeed to economic pressures. The latter is not. Tolerance to conventional forces is the rub; where their limits lie is the question that planners must answer. India’s incentive to keep below the nuclear threshold is as pressing as it is for Pakistan. This is deterrence at play. The conclusion that nuclear weapons do not deter sub-conventional warfare is appropriate. At the same time conventional forces can and do suppress the use of jihadists and if this policy is brought to bear in concert with anti terror polity answers may be found to jihadist violence.



[1] Fair Christine, Fighting to the End, pg 226

[2] Tariq Khosa’s admission of the complicity of organs of the state in launching acts of terrorism in neighbouring countries. It is said that there was an entire rogue ISI and that Gen. Gul, hardliner among hardliners — he said 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy — was its head. For many people he continued being a spymaster. If the regular ISI is a “state within the state”, then the rogue ISI was/is a state within that “state within the state”; a “deeper” state. Nonetheless, after Gen. Gul died on 15 August 2015, there was a spontaneous outpour of praise for him in Pakistan. The Urdu press was unanimous in praising him as a nationalist and patriot; even liberals in the Urdu media, like Nazir Naji of Roznama Dunya, who is unapologetically anti-Taliban, called Gen. Gul a patriot. His funeral was attended by former Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as well as current Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif — who is supposedly against terrorism. It would appear they were mourning the passing of the man who was, more than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the ideologue of modern Pakistan, led by its Deep State.

[3] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/1998-nuclear-tests-were-perfect-says-kakodkar/article64687.ece

Unmanned Naval Warfare: Developing a Mechanism for the Future of Unmanned Systems


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

(This article was first published in Geopolitics Magazine, May 2015.)

The year is 2020. A strategic entente has long been reached between the USA, India, Australia, Japan and the ASEAN to provide cooperative security in the waters of the Indian Ocean and the West Pacific. Japan has since 2018 been unleashed from military strictures imposed after the World War II by the San Francisco treaty of 1951, the Potsdam Declaration of 1945 and the Cairo Declaration of 1943. In the meantime the situation in the South China Sea has reached a flashpoint. China has unilaterally declared the South China Sea as defined by the 9-dash line as a territorial sea while enabling the third island chain strategy to provide security to their energy and trade routes. The third island chain runs an arc from the north of Japan, east of the Mariana Trench passing through the Makkasar and the Lombok Straits extending to the Chagos archipelago. The US installation of ABM batteries in the littorals, series of hot incidents in China’s East China Sea air defense identification zone and the escalating clashes between maritime security forces in the South China Sea has provoked an aggressive reaction from China. In a rapid joint amphibious assault PLA forces have occupied the disputed islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait.

In the Indian Ocean, China as a part of their Africa strategy has laid stifling embargos on use by the entente of all “Maritime Silk Road” gateways and infrastructures that they helped finance particularly the TanZam rail corridor and ports of Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya, ports of Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo in Tanzania and the port of Djibouti. They have similarly denied access to the ports on the west coast of Africa particularly Kirbi in Cameroon. The PLAN have deployed the Liaoning carrier group along with supporting nuclear attack submarines and surveillance elements for SLOC control and security in the North Indian Ocean.

The Indian CCS have accepted the need for joint Entente operations to enhance surveillance and mark PLAN forces. Accordingly the Vikramaditya carrier group has been deployed in standoff mode while several US long endurance surveillance and strike UAVs have been tasked for surveillance of Chinese forces.US unmanned denial forces have been assigned distant ‘marking’ tasks. The composite Entente task force is designated TF 911; it is supported by precision and persistent satellite surveillance, ABM batteries and nuclear attack submarines.

 After a series of fruitless diplomatic exchanges and strident demarches, Chinese high command establishes a 200 nautical mile moving Exclusion Zone around the Liaoning Group. Task Force Commander (TFC) 911 is ordered to challenge this zone. Accordingly he prepares to tighten the surveillance perimeter and bring in his long range strike and surveillance UAVs to maintain shadowing distance of 190 nautical miles by reprogramming their surveillance sectors while deploying his unmanned denial forces to marking range of 100 nautical miles. As the new deployment pattern is executed TFC 911 receives an alarm report that the satellite surveillance picture is snowed out while both UAVs and unmanned denial forces were not under command and had reverted to their default “come home” mode which would navigate them away from the scene of operations to a distant stand by way point.

Cyber attacks unleashed by the PLAN had breached and spoofed the satellite surveillance networks; while the command and control links of the unmanned vehicles had been penetrated, their command computers disabled and control codes hacked into; effectively both UAVs and unmanned denial forces had turned rogue! CTF 911 is faced with a serious operational quandary, should he risk man with material to go in harms way? Would the introduction of manned units comprise an escalation of the situation? Will an engagement involving casualties spin out of control? At a more profound level was a doubt; could the unmanned replace the manned combatant?

To be sure this is a gaming scenario, but the fear of loss of control of remote forces is a reality that no Commander at sea can wish away particularly when cyber security is an inverse function of use, while use is central to efficiency. Also, the gap in singularity between man and remote weapon will always exists as an exploitable vulnerability. The CTFs’ operational dilemma is an existential predicament when the option to use unmanned vehicles is available. His more profound doubt captured the essence of the unmanned combatant; to integrate and enhance rather than replace.

The Battle of Lake Poyang [i]

In 1363 CE a curious battle was fought between the ruling Han fleet of Chen Youliang and the warring founder of the Ming Dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang, the outcome of the battle would decide control of China. Chen had amassed a large Han armada comprising big deep draught heavy artillery tower ships for the investment of the riverine city of Nanchang along the south west bank of the Poyang lake, the largest inland fresh water body in China. The aim was to gain a strategic foothold in Ming territory. Drought conditions and nature of the waters made pilotage difficult due shallows and strong shore setting currents created by the river Ga Jiang that drained into the lake. The Han armada was restricted in manoeuvre to a disproportionately small deep water pool. The Ming fleet however saw tactical advantage in speed, mobility and manoeuvre. Accordingly their fleet depended on agility, shallow draught and lightly cannoned hulls. The engagement between the two was pitched, asymmetric and prolonged without reaching a decision till the Ming Navy introduced small unmanned fire ships into the fray. The crafts were loaded with straw and tinder, dummies were erected to simulate a watch on deck and they were towed stealthily to their release points upstream and upwind of the Han armada. The straw was set afire just as the tow was slipped. With their helms seized the fire-ships drifted rapidly on to the bunched Han armada, ramming and setting ablaze the lumbering tower ships. Nanchang was relieved and the Han never recovered from this defeat.

The Battle of Poyang is important to our study for two reasons: firstly, the use of unmanned war ships is not a new phenomenon in maritime conflicts as the 14th century Zhu Yuanzhang will testify; secondly, planning, coordination and direction is a command function that cannot be left to the ‘intelligence of a drifting fire ship; thirdly, as the Commander of Task Force 911 realized in our creative scenario of 2020, the future of unmanned systems at sea and across the entire spectrum of maritime operations must remain focused on integrating with the manned platform.

Case for Unmanned Combat Platforms

Convergence of three critical factors will impact the development and constituents of tomorrows’ Fleet, and indeed, will form the driving force for the adoption of unmanned combat platforms. Firstly, a convincing argument may be made of how unmanned platforms will improve combat capabilities without the risks involved in committing humans for high hazard operations such as minesweeping, surveillance, low intensity operations and marking of high value potentially hostile units. Secondly, a cost benefit analysis will readily reveal the obvious that payload to platform dimensions is adversely affected by the need to provide safety and hotel services for manned platforms, as a thumb rule this may be taken between 20% to 25% by volume and an equal amount by cost. Lastly, the economics of matching tight budgets with increasing demands on the operational tempo of the Navy will call for cutting back on manpower through increased automation, technology substitutes and incorporating artificial intelligence; this in turn will have a positive effect on reducing bulk, increasing platform lethality and enhancing mobility.

Technology Trends and the Planner’s Vision        

The spectrum of applications where unmanned systems may find use, range from automated systems that ease operator load and in turn reduce complement of crew to completely autonomous platforms that makes decisions based on artificial intelligence and may be programmed for a variety of missions from start to termination without human intervention. However our 2020 scenario will suggest an operational vision that is tempered by four guiding factors:

  • Unmanned systems will augment and not replace existing and projected manned force structures.
  • Unmanned systems will be standardized to four basic design categories: Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV), Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV to include sea bed mobility). Mission packages will be modular and will conform to respective design categories. Platform size will be minimized.
  • Unmanned systems will be compatible for operations by all major surface combatants.
  • While automation will be enhanced to give near autonomy to platforms, high level human supervision will, however, prevail. Weapon release will in most cases require human control.

Platform Priority for development may be distinguished by operational needs, a suggested set of priorities are: Priority 1: Scouting, Priority 2: Mine sweeping and hunting, Priority 3: Undersea offensive operations.

Operational Mission Requirements: Unmanned Combat Systems

We have thus far, through the devices of a simulated scenario and historical reference made a macro case for the development, induction and integration of unmanned systems into the Navy of the foreseeable future. While our approach has been evolutionary we have to remain sensitive to the fact that risk aversion and economics alone cannot be the reason for an unmanned orientation. After all from a moral standpoint, armed conflict is a national political endeavour that is characterized by human violence; to remove the human from one side in order to sanitize war fighting is to run the danger of trivializing armed conflict to a video game. The man must not only take responsibility for decisions he makes, but also for the consequences of his action. Because the systems we are dealing with are maritime systems, in peacetime they will be forward deployed in international waters for operations that aim at monitoring and projecting presence to a greater degree than other technologies. As discussed earlier their very character will encourage their use in a wider variety of contexts than current manned units. Both forward deployment and broader applications give to the unmanned maritime systems an operational potential that in theory places them in the vanguard of operational utility. Given such a potential it is extremely important that the Commander at sea envision what transformation the system will bring about and how both man and material must respond. Two factors play a pivotal role in understanding the altered circumstance; firstly, the unmanned system remains a tool in the hands of planners to further, as always, political objectives whether these are humanitarian, economic, surveillance or power projection. Second, most contemporary assessments about these systems build a rationale a that unmanned systems, being defenceless against a well equipped foe, can figure with any prominence only in the Navy’s benign and policing roles without a mention on the impact that it may have on the future operational maritime space. This second consideration is hardly surprising since assessments can only be made with some anticipated use in mind and perhaps the most simplistic is that it extends an existing capability; overlooking the discreet strike role that these systems played in America’s war on terror in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan and the surveillance role that they continue to play in disputed waters such as the South China Sea.

Deployments of unmanned systems in numbers particularly space based systems for operational and even tactical scenarios will require changes to our command and control doctrines and structures. This is significantly true in dense and complex situations when the fleet commander and his deployed combatant elements are recipients of combat information from unmanned systems over which they have no control yet will have to respond to. Satellite and long range surveillance imagery are cases in point when the sensors and remote sensing devices could well be national assets that deliver right up to the tactical level. Therefore while defining the mission requirements for the instruments of unmanned naval warfare it is important to keep the larger context of the nature of armed conflict in stark perspective. The primary requirement, within the parameters of the planner’s vision (discussed earlier) is for war fighting. This will include scouting by which is meant missions’ involving search, patrol, tracking or reconnaissance.[ii] All four design categories of unmanned systems may be engaged in scouting operations. It must be noted that when deployed on patrol missions, a strike capability is intrinsic either by a cooperating unit or by the unmanned system. Human supervision is an essential part of our requirements for our unmanned combat systems accordingly a special cadre will have to be raised for control. Tactical and operational assignments may include deception, electronic warfare, information warfare and environment data collection (both meteorological and hydrological) in all three dimensions. The planner will also remind us that operational decisions always carry with them a probabilistic uncertainty much in the mould of CTF 911’s quandary. In the aggregate what the planner behind his desk will do well to pay heed to while defining the mission requirements of the unmanned combat system and the Commander at sea hark back to before deploying his mission is Clausewitz’ insightful message on the non-linearity of warfare, that the “complexity of war is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Mission Packages

Mission packages for the four standard design categories identified earlier must necessarily lead off from the operational mission requirements identified earlier and conform to the considerations that influence the planner’s vision. Platform standardisation, modularity of mission packages that would permit easy role configuration changes within a standard platform as well as between platforms (where possible) as well as adaptation of the technology trends particularly those related to automation, autonomy and control will be central to the realisation of the mission packages. In broad terms, five main mission packages have been identified which may further be de-aggregated to functional modules. The 5 packages are:

  • Scouting, navigation, target acquisition and weapon delivery.
  • Sensors.
  • Meteorology, hydrology, bathythermal and underwater topography.
  • Information warfare, Electronic warfare and communication relay.
  • Battle Damage Assessment.

Conclusion: To Catch the Transformatory Moment

Induction of unmanned combat systems into the Indian Navy has thus far been haphazard. It has neither been guided by an integrated approach between services nor has development of unmanned systems for the navy followed a set of priority driven requirements. The approach hitherto has been, unique designs for stand alone specific missions and a concentration on performance. How else does one explain the sponsoring of the Nishant short endurance UAV, acquisition of the medium endurance UAV Searcher, acquisition of the long endurance Heron and the induction of an assortment of mine sweeping and mine hunting UUVs? There has been no movement towards developing a planner’s vision nor a policy orientation directed at standardisation of platforms, modularity of mission packages, recognising technology trends or creating control compatibility and interoperability. So currently the Navy finds itself with non interactive systems segregated into unique and specific platform “stove pipes” with little or no compatibility with major manned combatants.

In the absence of a mechanism that first, makes a prognostication of the direction that unmanned naval warfare is likely to take and then formulates plans and coordinates the future of unmanned systems; the Indian Navy is quite likely to miss a tranformatory moment in the course of maritime warfare. We began with a hypothetical maritime scenario when the Commander of Task Force 911 was placed on the horns of an operational dilemma through loss of control of his unmanned forces, the situation was more a planner’s lesson that unmanned forces are not intended to replace manned combatants but to integrate and enhance capability. In order to do so a case was made in support of the unmanned combat platform at sea and a tempered operational vision was developed for standardising unmanned platforms. This led to the macro definition of mission requirements in all three dimensions and then zeroed in on the essential mission packages. While emphasising the need for an integrated approach what should not be lost sight of is the perils of viewing the unmanned system as an economical weapon that could avert risks to the man behind the machine, rather the intention is not to replace but combine. In our historical review of the Battle of Poyang we saw how well directed unmanned fire ships delivered victory to an inferior force; the question before us is clear do we choose the Zhu Yuanzhang model and catch the transformatory moment or not.

End Notes 

[i] Dreyer Edward L, The Poyang Campaign, 1363. The Chinese Ways of Warfare edited by Frank A Keirman and John K Fairbank. Harvard University Press 1974. pgs 202-242.

[ii] Allied Naval Manoeuvring Instructions. NATO Publication 1957, Pg 8-3

A Faltering Return to Reason: ‘Global Zero’ Less of an Illusion


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

            Since August of 1945 when two nuclear weapons destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and unimaginable horrors visited over 199,000 of its inhabitants, the world has lived with the implicit fear of widespread annihilation. The Cold War that rapidly shadowed the mass killings of World War II was marked by a persistent threat of a nuclear holocaust, placing in jeopardy the very existence of mankind. The two power blocs, in ‘Strangelovesque’ logic, amassed over 70,000 nuclear warheads, with the fatal knowledge that the use of a nuclear weapon would set into motion an uncontrollable chain reaction. Their arsenals contained enough to destroy the world many, many times over and then again. All the while irrational and often outlandish doctrines of intent-to-use were hatched in the opaque corridors of power in Washington and Kremlin. ‘Nuclear mysticism’ of the period embraced Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), hair trigger arsenals, Launch on Warning (LoW), war-fighting with nuclear weapons, and the idea of flexible response encompassing the prolific use of tactical nuclear weapons, almost as if the resultant escalation could be controlled. Influenced by these very dangerously opposing concepts, the idea was that deterrence would prevail and strategic stability would be the outcome.

The Cold War, in a debilitating conclusion, saw the break up of the Soviet bloc, emergence of a multi-polar world, proliferation of nuclear weapons, emergence of a clandestine nuclear black market and the rise of Islamic radicalism; the aggregate of it all was strategic uncertainty. In this wobbly milieu an international movement was launched in 2008 with the improbable purpose of eliminating all nuclear weapons. Central to the concept is to check the spread of nuclear weapons and associated technologies, account for and secure all fissile material, eradicate the threat of nuclear terrorism and abolish nuclear weapons. Most world leaders including those of the USA, Russia, China, Europe and India have endorsed Global Zero.

The plan envisages achieving a global zero accord by 2023 and complete nuclear disarmament by 2030. Implementation visualizes a four-phased action plan. Phase1 proposed a bilateral treaty between the USA and Russia to reduce arsenals to 1000 warheads each. Phase 2 conceives a further reduction of arsenals by the USA and Russia to 500 warheads each, while a multilateral framework called for all other nuclear weapon nations to freeze their stockpiles until 2018 and enjoins them to put in place verifiable safeguards and enforcement systems to prevent diversion of fissile material towards weapon production. Phase 3 requires these nations to negotiate a global zero accord by 2023 for the proportional reduction of all nuclear arsenals to the zero level. The final Phase is reduction to zero and the continuation of the verification, safeguard and enforcement systems.

Till recently, the problem with the entire scheme was lack of clarity of what measures would need to be put in place, in order to establish a multilateral structure that addresses immediate nuclear risks. These immediate nuclear risks are presented by nations adopting a posture of intent to use nuclear weapons first; absence of transparency in strategic underpinnings; development and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons and its corollary of decentralizing control; and lastly the hazards of terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons. During a meeting of the Global Zero Commission in Athens on 30-31 March 2015 a draft report was presented, its aim was to reduce the risks of deliberate or unintended use of nuclear weapons through the instrument of establishing a multilateral norm that de-alerts nuclear forces. Refreshingly encouraging was a suggested paradigm shift from intention-to-use to that of intent-to-avoid the use of nuclear weapons.

Addressing the Commission, as one of the Indian participants, the author underscored that the nation’s nuclear posture was founded on its declared policy of No First Use (NFU), which formed the basis of operationalizing the arsenal. Intrinsic to its nuclear orientation was the separation of the custodian of nuclear weapons from controller, achieved not just in word, but by robust technological systems supported by stringent procedures and redundancies at every stage. Central to control was supremacy of polity. In this framework there was no room for conflict between operational goals and strategic policy. On matters of hair-trigger state of alert of nuclear forces with intent-to-use, the author suggested that de-alerting of nuclear forces without a commitment to NFU did not in any way assuage the situation since there were no apparent restraints to reverse transition from the de-alerted to the alert stage. The Indian and Chinese NFU posture provided a first step towards stability and the final goal of disarmament. On tactical nuclear weapons, the author was unequivocal on India’s stand of being unwilling to distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons on grounds that control of escalation was not possible once the weapon was used. The hazards of non-state actors gaining access to nuclear weapons as a real danger, was highlighted, primarily because jihadists are an integral part of Pakistan’s military strategy, making subversion of their nuclear establishment an existential threat. The narrative was rounded off by re-emphasizing that de-alerting of nuclear forces was a natural hand-maiden of a policy of No First Use of these weapons.

Despite the doubts expressed by the Russian participants over the credibility of NFU, what was surprising was the traction that the twin ideas of de-alerting and NFU generated amongst the Commission. Equally surprising was the Japanese reservations of how such a policy would affect extended deterrence, perhaps this was more on account of the inability to see a time when the need for nuclear deterrent forces would be a thing of the past.