By Dr. Manpreet Sethi*
This August marks 75 years of the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were the first two nuclear bombs built by the US in the secret Manhattan Project; run at a frenzied pace to beat the possibility of Germany getting to the weapon before the Allied powers. Within minutes of the nuclear attack, a bustling city turned into a wasteland, as nearly 60,000-80,000 people vaporised immediately. None had seen such death and destruction being caused by just one bomb.
At 75 years of age now, nuclear weapons and the era of nuclear deterrence they heralded are going strong, immune to all efforts at dislodging them. Just as we have been asked to learn to live with COVID-19, we have long learned to live in a balance of terror with these weapons. But it has always been a delicate balance, and has become more so in the past few years.
Today, there are nine nuclear-armed states, each engaged in a process of strategic modernisation to hone a capability to which they attach great value. Consequently, the state of the global nuclear order is far more complex and full of risks. What kinds of risks are these? What are the factors exacerbating them? What can be done to address them?
Kinds of Nuclear Risks
Two kinds of risks have preoccupied the imagination ever since nuclear weapons entered inter-state equations: proliferation and use. Interestingly, the possibility of uncontrolled horizontal nuclear proliferation was perceived to be at its lowest just about a decade ago. It was widely believed that owing to a well-crafted non-proliferation regime comprising multilateral treaties, export control arrangements, norms of behaviour, etc, the world had overcome the nth country problem. With NPT membership being nearly universal except for four nuclear-armed states outside of it, the norm of nuclear non-proliferation was believed to be robust.
20 years on, however, fears of more countries harbouring the desire for nuclear weapons has surfaced. In Northeast Asia, incipient debates in favour of acquiring nuclear weapons are being heard. In South Korea and Japan, they have emerged in response to DPRK’s nuclear programme and difficult relations with China. The US nuclear umbrella, supposed to keep its allies non-nuclear, has been affected by President Trump’s approach towards alliances.
In West Asia, with the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran is back in the reckoning as a proliferation possibility. Saudi Arabia has indicated its intention to go nuclear in case Iran moves in that direction. Recent reports about Chinese enrichment help to Saudi Arabia are worrisome. The UAE, Egypt, and Turkey could also display a similar interest in nuclear weapons. The issue of nuclear proliferation is once again a live challenge to the global nuclear order.
The second palpable nuclear risk is that of the use of the weapon. This could happen in three ways, though the chances of each possibility vary. First, it could happen through a pre-meditated or deliberate decision to use. The possibility of such an eventuality is low, however, because every adversarial nuclear relationship confronts a secure second-strike capability in the other. So the prospect of assured retaliation is likely to keep deterrence in place.
Second, nuclear use could take place through an accident caused by malfunctioning command and control (C2) systems. But, this eventuality too is relatively low given that states take great care in building positive and negative controls in their C2. The highest probability is in the third scenario, that of inadvertent escalation as a result of miscalculation or misperception. The risk of stumbling into a nuclear war that no one wanted or anticipated is the highest.
Factors Exacerbating Nuclear Risks
A slew of current political, technological, and doctrinal factors heighten the chances of nuclear use. High trust deficits between major nuclear-armed states create nuclear dyads that assume the worst of the other, and believe in the utility of hedging. These dyads entangle states in capability build-ups to meet their concepts of credible deterrence.
The collapse of US-Russia arms control arrangements has led to an offence-defence spiral and mutual arms racing, whose implications are being felt in other states as well. China, for instance, responds to these developments in the US and sets into motion a new set of threat perceptions in India. Indian responses, or even a sense of what these will be, leads to actions in Pakistan. A chain conundrum thus complicates the nuclear landscape.
Meanwhile, new technologies like cyber offensives, artificial intelligence (AI), and hypersonics are certain to make states unsure about the credibility of their nuclear deterrence. The fear of a loss of nuclear assets to an adversary’s first strike could move states into accepting more hair trigger postures. The attendant risks can well be imagined.
At the doctrinal level, the US and Russia are reviving the concept of fighting ‘limited wars’ with low-yield nuclear weapons. Such a belief system makes the use of the weapon more likely. ‘Limited’ use of the weapon is peddled for greater credibility, and to signal the ability to control and manage escalation. This, however, is an extremely risky venture with no guarantee of how it would end.
Acknowledging the existence of risks is the first step towards finding ways to deal with them. However, none of the nuclear-armed states appear to be in the mood to do so. They could be jolted into this reality in three ways.
One, through the emergence of a situation akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the US and the USSR to the brink of a nuclear precipice, and to their senses about its existential dangers. Two, the emergence of a wise, statesman-like leader who is able to mobilise political opinion on the issue, much like how former US President Obama managed through the Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) that provided a platform for dialogue on the risk of nuclear terrorism. A similar forum is needed to engage nuclear-armed states on doctrines, force postures, and structures to address misperception, foster habits of engagement, and help create a shared understanding of risks.
The third way is by bringing nuclear risks into public imagination through creative media such as movies, art, and music, etc. This would infuse the knowledge of risks more generally and create momentum for public demands to make such issues a part of inter-state dialogue.
Marking the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings must involve an understanding of where the world stands today, to ensure that such a disaster never happens again.
*Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.