The Strategist

Counterforce Strategies are a Threat to Nuclear Deterrence Stability

15 Sep, 2022    ·   5829

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Retd) argues against the premise that counterforce postures can predict or control nuclear escalation

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Distinguished Fellow

Early atomic bombs were crude city-annihilators. Their ability to bring enormous and horrific civilian destruction was demonstrated by the US in 1945. The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused 2,14,000 primary fatalities to a combined population of 6,13,000 and an unknowable number of secondary and tertiary casualties.

Targeting Concepts
The use of nuclear weapons is governed by two basic targeting concepts: counterforce and countervalue. The former emphasises strikes on military forces, both nuclear and conventional, and their infrastructure and logistics. The latter focuses on economic targets and population centres. A countervalue doctrine is limited in complexity and demands relatively simpler capabilities. During the Cold War, it led to a rather macabre belief that ‘assurance of mass destruction’ would bring about a balance of terror that in turn guaranteed stability. It contributed to an amassing of arsenals whose aggregate yield could destroy the world many times over. The counterforce doctrine, on the other hand, suggests that nuclear war could be limited and nuclear forces could be used to disarm the adversary of their nuclear weapons; almost as if the side adopting a counterforce doctrine controls retaliation options available to the victim.

Both targeting concepts lose sight of a cardinal principle of international relations: that war has political purpose. The destruction of purpose debases the application of force to a savage, all-obliterating clash. Ironically, we note today how nuclear-armed states are adopting postures that increase the prospects of the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict.

Bernard Brodie provided an intellectual framework for avoiding nuclear war in 1946. In his seminal work, The Absolute Weapon, he suggested, “Thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.” Brodie recognised that the possibility of ‘total destruction’ inherent in the use of nuclear weapons made victory unachievable. At the same time, its political value lay in the threat it posed by manipulating an adversary’s mind.

Evolution of Nuclear Weapons and Political Purpose
In examining the evolution of nuclear deterrence theory, we note there is an allegorical tendency to correlate the nature of war with the changing characteristics of the nuclear weapon. War, as Clausewitz pointed out, has an enduring nature that is defined by four continuities: a political dimension, a human dimension as characterised by military genius, pervasiveness of uncertainty, and the contest of opposing resolve. All of these exist within a historical, social, and political context. While the dynamics that govern the characteristics of nuclear weapons are, in the main, influenced by the human ability to harness technology, it is apparent that if either political purpose were lost or the human dimension removed, then war itself would be deprived of meaning.

 Given a human being’s facility to exploit technology, nuclear weapons have evolved in three distinct phases. First, from a weapon of use to an instrument that ensured a balance of terror. Second, the threat of mutually guaranteed destruction has developed into a contrivance for bargaining and devising compromises. Third, it comes full circle to a bizarre situation that today attempts to justify nuclear war. This progression has lost sight of the political and human impact of use.

Counterforce Strategic Narrative
For a state, a strategic narrative is a lodestone to avoid returning to the trauma of the past, around which such a narrative was built and accepted. Its essence is often reflected in simple but pithy mantras such as ‘War on Terror’, ‘mutually assured destruction’, or ‘counterforce doctrine’. The narrative that governs policies of nuclear-armed states has largely been stimulated by that which emerged in the US, and been systematised in the wake of the first nuclear attacks, through the Cold War and in its aftermath of a multipolar world.  

In today’s strategic milieu, the lines between nuclear arsenals and conventional weapons have become dangerously intertwined with new offensive technologies such as precision hypersonic glide vehicles, which pose a potent threat to the security of nuclear weapons and the stability of a deterrent relationship. The narrative urges a ‘nuclear counterforce’ strategy that determines policy and fashions a first-strike strategic posture. And so we note with some alarm that a nuclear-armed state, when confronted by another, may decide to use precision nuclear or conventional counterforce in a first strike, to annul the possibility of being a victim of a nuclear attack. In this context, the reported Russian policy of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ and the US deployment of low yield nuclear weapons are both confounding as they, presume the total domination of the escalation ladder.

The blurring of conventional and nuclear deterrence is apparent in the increasing integration of conventional and nuclear warfighting doctrines. The US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which stresses the possibility of nuclear weapon use in response to non-nuclear attacks, is a case-in-point. The long-held view that nuclear weapons are exceptional has been set aside. In its place, a dramatic escalation to nuclear warfighting is advocated. That such use could provoke an unpredictable set of nuclear responses has been eerily blanked-out. Concepts that promote ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons are not new—tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) were deployed with decentralised release authority during the Cold War. Recognising the catastrophic hazards of pre-delegation,  presidential nuclear initiatives attempted to remove all TNWs from the battlefield.

Counterforce strategies intrinsically translate to heightened nuclear risks as they prompt a ‘first strike’. The premise that responses to nuclear escalation can either be predictable or controlled is flawed. To the contrary, foreclosing the option to use nuclear weapons first would not only enhance deterrence stability and reduce the role played by nuclear weapons in security policy, but also provide greater political legitimacy. A no first use (NFU) nuclear policy therefore provides sagacity to a troubled world, in its deference for greater security and, indeed, for survival.


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