The Strategist

Why Nuclear Doctrinal Stasis is Not a Bad Idea

24 Apr, 2019    ·   5582

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar on the risk-mitigating benefits of fixity in nuclear doctrines

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Distinguished Fellow

There is an inherent limit to how precisely predictions can be made, let alone prognosticate impact particularly when polity, power, and people are involved. The historian Michael Howard cautioned against those who would play the oracle: "Doctrinal stasis is not a bad thing when the alternative is to match an opponent’s mistakes" - which implies that understanding and responding to a military doctrine is in the main an exercise in crystal-ball gazing. This, when applied to nuclear-armed states, is critical for stability primarily when destructive capability is not in question but intent is.

Nuclear weapons constitute a powerful deterrent against a nuclear attack; this would appear to be the wisdom of the times. However, an interstate relationship is often equally influenced by historical biases, irrational leadership, unintended events, and hostility. But the essential claim of deterrence theorists, that the probability of an intentional nuclear exchange is low, may be acceptable as long as arsenals are survivable, capability of retaliation is assured, and there exists belief in the lack of political purpose in its use. Unfortunately, this core claim is flawed.

The frailty of this theory lurks in an unspoken part of it. That is, can a deterrent relationship hold in the face of persistent nuclear doctrinal changes? After all, the first reaction to strategic military revision is to find ways of defeating it, and in the process upsetting the existing equilibrium. History will suggest that the cold-warriors with each doctrinal attempt to enhance credibility and survivability of their nuclear arsenals only achieved in bringing the world to the brink.

In the wake of the first Soviet atomic test in 1950, the US tabled a report titled National Security Council – 68 (NSC-68). This report was to become the mantra that guided world order till the end of the Cold War, and in particular defined and drove doctrines for use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. The report contrasted the design of the 'authoritarian' with that of the 'free state' and the inevitable nuclear clash that would ensue. In this scheme of things, the crises in Berlin,  the Korea peninsula, and Vietnam appeared logical, while the threat of mutually-assured destruction was even justifiable.

NSC-68 came at a time when the previous 35 years had witnessed the most cataclysmic events of history; two devastating World Wars, two revolutions that mocked global status quo, and the collapse of five empires. Change also transformed the basis of power; key determinants were now a function of ideology, economic muscle, military prowess, and the means of mass destruction. Power had decisively gravitated to the US and the USSR. The belief that the Soviets were motivated by a faith antithetical to that of the west and driven by ambitions of world domination provided the logic and a verdict that conflict and violence had become endemic. Nuclear theology was consequently cast in the mould of armed rivalry andits nature characterised by friction. The scheme that carved the world was 'containment of Communism'. In turn, rationality gave way to the threat of catastrophic force as the basis of stability.

As arsenals developed to the extreme, both sides were pushed to the acceptance of a nuclear strategy that aimed at deterring war rather than fighting it. Even so, the quest for doctrines that acquiesced to nuclear war-fighting were advanced, almost as if control of escalation was a given, and yet, it was precisely here that all the uncertainties lay. Fielded in 1961, 'flexible response' was considered a defensive doctrine. Purportedly to address the controlled use of nuclear weapons, it called for mutual deterrence at strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Before all else, the concept was unsound in its assumption of ‘mirror imaging’ both the process and content of strategic decision-making. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis very quickly debunked that notion when both cold warriors rapidly came to the brink of a thermo-nuclear exchange, if not for a quirk of fate and the balance of a Soviet submarine flotilla commander, Captain Arkhipov. Unknown to the US, three Soviet submarines deployed off Cuba were armed with nuclear torpedoes that could vaporise a Carrier task group. In the event, despite provocation, information blackout, and the military incitement to engage, Arkhipov opposed the decision to launch and in doing so averted a global nuclear catastrophe.

The Cuban episode highlighted that in a strategic nuclear war there was going to be no winners. However, despite this obvious lesson, planners were adamant to find accommodation for their arsenals within the unfolding nuclear situation.Solutions only masked the atrocity of a nuclear war, they did not answer the central issues of what political purpose was served. And, did credible means of control exist? Nevertheless, short-lived precepts found their way into nuclear theology; they included: the 1974 ‘Schlesinger doctrine’ that suggested a wider array of nuclear options(!); ‘the Dead Hand’ a Strangelovesque doomsday machine that could launch an all-annihilating retaliatory nuclear strike automatically; development of new nuclear war-fighting capabilities, and the move away from strategic arms limitation.

The crumbling of the Soviet Union brought down the curtains on the NSC-68 basis of global stability. In its trail, some scholarly works suggested the emergence of one globalised world and an end to the turbulent history of man’s ideological evolution. Some saw a benign multi-polar order. Yet others saw ­- in the Iraq Wars, the invasion of Ukraine, the continuing war in the Levant, Afghan imbroglio, and the splintering of Yugoslavia - a violent clash of civilisations shaped by religio-cultural similitude. However, these illusions were dispelled and found little use in understanding the realities of the post-Cold War world as each of them represented a candour of their own. The paradigm of the day (perhaps) are the tensions of the multi-polar; the tyranny of economics; the anarchy of expectations; and polarisation of peoples along religio-cultural lines, all compacted in the backwash of a technology rush. An uncertain geopolitical brew as the world has ever seen seethes under the looming shadow of continued nuclear weapons proliferation.

At Cold War’s end, leaders, recognising how often and how close to a nuclear catastrophe decentralising control of nuclear weapons had brought the world to, made reciprocal pledges to substantially retain control and cut-back on tactical nuclear weapons. Collectively, the pledge was to end foreign deployment of entire categories of tactical nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this lofty vow today lies in tatters to the extent that there is the absurd belief that one could escalate into the nuclear dimension in order to de-escalate a conflictual situation.

The reality of nuclear weapons is that its value lies in non-usage; its futility is in attempting to use it to attain political goals. And as long as one state armed with nuclear weapons believes some benefit to be had through revision in doctrinal underpinnings, fears creep into the mind of the adversary setting into motion a chain reaction raising the degree of calamitous risk. Indeed, in this context, nuclear doctrinal stasis, for starters, is a great idea; while this may not assure happy endings, it provides a footing for a historical quest to do away with the obscenity of a nuclear war.

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar is former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command of India.