Nuclear weapons offer limited utility. They play a most credible role only when seeking to stop the other’s use of nuclear weapons.
May has just gone by and nuclear India is now 23 years old. The decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998 was taken to enhance the country’s security against the individual and collusive threats from nuclear armed neighbours.
Questions, however, continue to be asked whether the country is more secure after having acquired nuclear weapons. Given that Pakistan continues to use terrorism against India, and that China has not been deterred from undertaking transgressions across the Line of Actual Control, how have nuclear weapons enhanced India’s security? Despite possessing a nuclear arsenal, why does the country remain vulnerable to attacks? Why does India not threaten nuclear use against such provocations? Is nuclear India really more secure?
Answers to these questions require a correct understanding of the role, as well as the limitations of the role, of nuclear weapons. These are powerful weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Their destructive capability makes the possessor powerful in some dimensions and more vulnerable in others. The weapons are not usable for every threat. In fact, they outright rule themselves out for use in certain contingencies since their brute power imposes a constraint on their own use, as well as on the use of other conventional capabilities in their presence.
Keeping this in mind, India has sagaciously carved out the use of nuclear weapons for a narrow purpose of nuclear deterrence—to stop the adversary from using its nuclear weapons against oneself. This, in effect, is the only credible purpose for which these weapons can be deployed. So, while they have certainly secured India against the prospects of nuclear coercion or blackmail, they are not effective against other security concerns.
Use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism, for instance, cannot be useful or credible because it would make little sense to launch a nuclear strike in response to a terrorist attack. Unless India’s first strike is a disarming one, which is virtually impossible given the robustness of Pak nuclear arsenal, India would only end up inviting nuclear retaliation. How can this be a good trade-off? So, in order to address Pak use of terrorism, India has to find and use other appropriate diplomatic, information, military and economic (DIME) instruments that punish the country for its acts and gradually push it to change its calculus on using terrorism.
Similarly, China’s border skirmishes and transgressions, even attempts at territory slicing, have to be handled with a wide range of more practical conventional military instruments. Suggesting or undertaking the use of nuclear weapons could only lead one up the nuclear escalation and destruction ladder. Would military objectives at the border be worth such a cost? The focus, therefore, has to be on building appropriate capability in realms that are usable.
Another question arises on whether nuclear weapons can play a role in deterring chemical and biological weapon attacks. Well, the US with its large nuclear arsenal could not deter use of chemical weapons by a small, non-nuclear Syria. Neither have nuclear possessors found these weapons useful in the current pandemic, even though it has often been referred to as biowarfare. The limits to how and what kind of reprisal can be undertaken in such cases owing to the difficulty in attribution stand well illustrated. Serious thought is, therefore, required on the merits of exercising nuclear deterrence against other WMD. This applies to India’s nuclear doctrine which proclaims retaining the option of nuclear retaliation against large-scale chemical or biological attacks. This may never be doable and it would be prudent to omit this from the tasks that nuclear weapons can meaningfully perform.
On other fronts, India’s nuclear doctrine has wisely identified guidelines for capability build up. It suggests a minimum arsenal that can cause unacceptable damage and narrowly circumscribes the circumstances of use of the weapon to only retaliation. There are lessons to be learnt from this.
The bottom line is that nuclear weapons offer limited utility. They play a most credible role only when seeking to stop the other’s use of nuclear weapons. Employing them for anything less than that skews the cost-benefit analysis towards unacceptable costs. Nations may proclaim doctrines that signal nuclear first use to deter threats ranging from conventional, cyber, biological and chemical, to even space attacks. But such use can never make politico-military sense, and therefore, these strategies are less than credible. After all, it is not for nothing that nuclear weapon states have never found it worthwhile to use the weapons in the last 75 years.
The high salience being accorded to nuclear weapons in national arsenals today is regrettably premised on a chimerical utility. While there are limited scenarios in which deliberate, pre-meditated use of nuclear weapons could appear useful, chances of inadvertent nuclear use seem to be getting higher as nations maintain large arsenals on hair trigger alert and dabble in offence-defence spirals.
A correct comprehension of role of nuclear weapons is key to tempering inflated expectations from them—what a blade can do, a sword cannot. This understanding would enable making right choices that assure credible nuclear deterrence at an optimal level and cost. It is time for all nations to revisit the role of nuclear weapons, recall the basics of nuclear deterrence, and do a course correction for the sake of humanity.
Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.