The Strategist

India-Pakistan: Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures

10 Feb, 2014    ·   4301

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar recommends taking the road less travelled

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

The Problem
The problem with nuclear weapons is the complexity of convincing decision-makers that no conceivable advantage can be achieved from a nuclear exchange. As long as one side believes that there is some value to be had through the deployment and use of nuclear weapons, uncertainties and imponderables creep in that sets into motion a chain reaction that provokes and raises the degree of risk.

Military planners are familiar with the fact that risk assessment is an imperative in the development of a strategic plan. The process is marked by persistent motivation to not only eliminate uncertainties and bring about balance in the ‘Political Objectives-Resources-Means’ equation but also to ensure that probability of success and benefits outweigh the hazards of failure. In the nuclear arena, it is noted that strategic imbalance is intrinsic to the relationship. From the start, the equation is irrevocably in a state of unstable equilibrium caused by the fact that when nuclear means are used the impact will invariably be to obliterate the very objectives that were sought to be achieved. This is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in non-usage; its aim is nuclear war avoidance; its futility is in attempting to use it to attain political goals.

Strategic collaboration with a potential enemy is not a concept that comes naturally to the military planner. Tradition is against it and the very idea of sovereignty rejects the thought of it. Nonetheless it can be no nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain and therefore strategic empathy lies at the heart nuclear risk reduction.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW)
Planners in Pakistan suggest that nuclear weapons have an inalienable place in their military strategy and therefore a flexible response of the conventional, tactical nuclear weapons and strategic weapons is in the order of things. Also, that ambiguity and the threat of first use are central to the absence of a declared doctrine. The direction in which arsenals are headed with the induction of the Nasr, Babur and the Raad into the Pakistani armoury is a grim reminder of the upshot of ambiguity and opacity.

Added to this is the actuality of an enfeebled 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 an intention-to-use - all of which have the makings of a nuclear nightmare.

Principles Governing Risk Reduction
The cardinal principles that govern nuclear risk reduction are five-fold: an abiding belief in nuclear war avoidance; clarity in strategic underpinnings and rejection of ambiguities; stability of the deterrent relationship where incentives to use and expansion of arsenal are abhorred; transparency in policy, technology intrusions, intent and alerts; renouncing tactical nuclear weapons; and centralised command and control with clear demarcation between Custodian and Controller.

What is striking is that despite several incidents over the last decade and a half that could have escalated to the nuclear level, security establishments on both sides have not set themselves to the task of preparing concrete perspectives on the issue of nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRM) barring endorsing the idea. Currently, the only meaningful measure in place is mutual notification of ballistic missile flight tests. On the perilous side is ever increasing ambiguities and devolution of control.

The Blight of Ambiguity
The policy of nuclear ambiguity was brought to prominence when Prime Minister Eshkol in 1966 stated that “Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region.” Four red lines were linked to its use. These included successful Arab military penetration; destruction of the Israeli Air Force; cities attacked by weapons of mass destruction. It served as Israel's ultimate guarantor of security.

The worth of ambiguity and its corollary, opacity of policy, only serve to accentuate the hazards of the unintended. Indistinctness in policy when TNWs are in the arsenal immediately suggests that conventional principles apply. This provides the incentive for use and a reactionary generation of a first strike capability or an anti-ballistic missile competence or counter-force potential on the part of the adversary. Ambiguity has been used as an offset for conventional inferiority with the belief that control over escalation is possible. This is so obviously a fallacy due to the nature of the weapon. Also its effect in disrupting stability is apparent. Covert technology intrusions coupled with ambiguity of intent increases the hazard geometrically, making the demand for transparency more urgent.

Risk Diminution
There are several NRRMs that can be put in place. These may be identified as follows:

• Making transparent strategic and doctrinal underpinnings of nuclear forces and the purpose of technological intrusions
• De-alerting of nuclear weapon systems; while this may not be easily verifiable, the process may begin by notifying at all times the alert state of nuclear forces.
• Making transparent a minimalistic approach by declaring ‘how much is enough’
• Developing a common lexicon and understanding of nuclear concepts
• Rejecting short-range nuclear missiles and the descent to tactical nuclear weapons
• Setting up of surveillance and risk reduction centres that provide communication and coordination for implementing these measures. 

The only way to reduce the risks of a nuclear exchange is to convince decision-makers that the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter its own use. Any attempt to conventionalise the weapon runs the hazard of not only decentralising control and increasing the risk of unintended use, but also of destroying the purpose of polity.

The genie cannot be put back in the lamp, what can be done is to take the road less travelled and put in place measures that promote transparency, reject ambiguities and  abhor TNWs.