By Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee
The March 2011 meltdown of Japanese civil nuclear reactors at Fukushima has again focused our minds on the potential catastrophic consequences of nuclear radiation. We are reminded that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons has actually been the mainstay of deterrence strategy since the latter half of the 20th century. This despite the severe odds that dependence on nuclear weapons only makes the likelihood of its use, through accident or intent, more probable. It is this thinking and attitude towards deterrence that has characterized the nuclear age.
Even as deterrence remains the most essential strategy to prevent the outbreak of war, nuclear deterrence has assumed high credibility as the principal means of achieving such a state. It is this dependence on nuclear weapons that needs to change, especially for two reasons.
First, the nature of threats has fundamentally changed and is both non-military as well as conventional force-related. From cyber attacks to possible climate wars, to terrorist strikes, there are several others. Nuclear weapons are inadequate means to deter these threats, yet their availability and presence makes their possible use likely.
Second, the character of adversaries and the nature of war too have changed. Instead of sovereign nation states opposing each other, accountable to international law and lending their arsenals capable of being under careful state control, one or more opposing forces today may be a terrorist group owning up to no nationality or shadowy groups owing indirect allegiance to several. The latter’s chosen method of conflict is sudden unprovoked attacks through clandestine means symbolized by the suicide bomber. The ultimate threat in today’s world is that such a group could acquire a nuclear capability.
The continued emphasis on nuclear deterrence is perhaps amongst the most important reasons for the proliferation of such weapons today. Yet, apart from the realities of the present state of geopolitics, what did nuclear weapons deter after all?
It may have deterred a major war in Europe during the Cold War. As the Soviet Union acquired the hydrogen bomb by 1954 and demonstrated its willingness to use the mammoth 60 MT Big Bertha soon afterwards, the thought of massive destruction and a possible nuclear winter was terrifying in the extreme. But it did not prevent Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 or the erection of the Berlin Wall.
Finally, nuclear weapons could not prevent the break-up of the mighty Soviet empire. In other theatres in the past, nuclear deterrence was just as ineffective. China and Russia engaged each other in an armed confrontation on the Usssuri River when both had nuclear weapons. Pakistan initiated in Kargil in 1999 what may actually be termed as the first war made possible because of the existence of nuclear deterrence.
Therefore, deterrence enabled through nuclear weapons is a poor tool and a rather frightening one in the present circumstances. Recent global attempts towards nuclear weapons elimination have been helpful but tentative. It is likely to be time consuming work, which may not see success in ‘our lifetime’. The New START succeeded in lowering the nuclear thresholds of two major arsenals. Yet it neither went far enough nor included other issues of concern, such as ballistic missile defense or tactical weapons in forward deployment.
We are presently undertaking in Asia a dialogue among experts and former senior officials to examine these very issues. This is a track II dialogue between senior experts, former senior officials and scholars from India, China and Pakistan, being undertaken by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). Four rounds have been held between December 2008 and January 2011.) Is nuclear deterrence the sole means of ensuring security or do other options exist? Can we ensure a more safe and secure Asia even as we move steadily away from our dependence on nuclear weapons?
India faces Pakistan and China over unsettled borders which sometimes lead to a state of high armed tension, all with nuclear weapons. This is a precarious situation. Today, it is imperative to look for alternatives.
Framing alternatives is a complex process, requiring confidence among negotiators, willingness to engage and lots of time. First, it will need to eliminate points of threat or dispute between nuclear adversaries. Resolving boundary disputes, eliminating territorial threats and addressing potential issues of conflict before they assume a serious dimension are the essential initial measures. Second will be adopting postures of ‘no first use’ under all circumstances and mutually developing and implementing measures that will make these steps credible. This will in turn call for transparency and confidence-building leading eventually to mutual inspections of arsenals and their readiness.
The third set of measures will be in developing alternative conventional capabilities. While in militarily advanced countries conventional weapons already have considerable destructive power, asymmetry again poses challenges and increases threat. This is where new ideas are sorely needed. Would greater interdependencies through economic cooperation help? Would conventional arms reduction be possible through cooperative measures, such as stopping short of sophistication or in reducing numbers or in matters of deployment of forces and weapons? Would collective arrangements through common regional organizations provide greater assurance? We do not quite know, yet these and several other options will need to be seriously considered.
Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee
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