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Paper tiger or white elephant: Nuclear weapons still thrive

By Ingudam Yaipharemba Singh

The Second World War saw the use of nuclear weapons and its powerful implications. After that a race for acquiring nuclear weapon started with utmost priority to safeguard political objectives. International politics started to revolve around the nuclear dilemma that the United States and Soviet Union were madly involved in stockpiling the weapons of mass destruction. During the Cold War period, the strategic relationship between the US and Soviet Union was based on the doctrine of nuclear deterrence which had within itself the potential of arms race as both powers tried to acquire the first strike capability by superior or technologically advanced weapons and possessed the second-strike capability. However, after more than four decades of Cold War, small conflicts, occupations or invasions have not stopped. Coercion policies by powerful countries still continue in the 21st century. Many realists and neo-realists are consumed with the centralization of power as a key element of national security and interest. The concept of ‘Balance of Power’ and even ‘Balance of Terror’ played an imminent role in international politics. Détente, a cold war phrase, hasn’t died. Beside the five permanent countries/members of Security Council, other developing nations speed up to enter the nuclear club either by collaboration or by hook or crook approaches. India, Pakistan, Israel, and countries like North Korea have achieved nuclear status. Many Middle Eastern countries have obtained nuclear reactors that are capable of enriching weapon grade radioactive material; it is like a new era of nuclearization in another hemisphere.

Objective of the Study

The study is carried out by keeping in focus the scenarios of nuclear weapon deterrence and its fallouts considering the instability factors of near reach devastation. It also highlights the instigating elements of arms build-up and common theoretical approach to nuclear deterrence.

Deterrence overview

Nuclear deterrence has the most credible effect in respect to a possible nuclear attack. It is a policy of threatening the use of nuclear weapons in order to avoid an opponent’s aggression. Many theorists who believe in nuclear deterrence claim that the result is a ‘stable balance of terror’ or so called ‘Balance of Terror’. Nuclear countries or so-called rogue nuclear nations justify that the nuclear arsenal built is because of the risk of a nuclear conflict. After the Cold War, the risk of conflict has extremely reduced but as long as nuclear weapons still exist, some risk of nuclear conflict remains. Every nuclear nation, in spite of signing nuclear disarmament treaties, retains a small but highly effective nuclear force as a deterrent. Not only the weapons but the delivery platform of such weapons is constructed or technologically upgraded, be it surface, underwater or air launchers. The nuclear deterrence must be maintained because of the possibility of a new significant threat, an example being North Korea’s nuclear threat in the Far East.

But the nuclear deterrence or a nuclear attack has two immense threats; the risk of full escalation and the risk of a first strike. The first threat of escalation always exists from the conventional level to the nuclear level and from a limited nuclear war to a large scale nuclear war. Reports of Pakistani forces considering use of nuclear weapons against India in the 1999 Kargil conflict is a perfect example. The consequences of miscalculation with the nuclear forces are considerable. The strategy of nuclear warfare also keeps changing. Now the nuclear countries are testing tactical smaller nuclear weapon delivery platforms instead of bulky, heavy ones. The other threat is the risk of a first strike or a so-called pre-emptive strike. If one of the nations does not possess enough nuclear weapons or in early stage of production facility, the adversary might be tempted to make a surprise attack and eliminate the nuclear weapon capability of the former with a pre-emptive strike. Therefore, for the sake of stability, nuclear nations should provide for a credible second-strike capability, which is the capability of launching a nuclear counter attack with sufficient annihilation capacity. It was such a pre-emptive strike by the Israelis that significantly damaged the under construction Iraqi nuclear reactor built with the help of France in 1981. Israel viewed that the reactor had less than a month to go before it might become critical.

Deterrence was a central point in the Cold War period not only for the superpowers but for the security management at lower level. It remains important for dealing with regional and extra-regional threats between states. Thus, global security management contains two distinct components. The first is multilateralism for managing peace and security not only for conflict resolution or peace building but for deterrence threats and use of force. The range of potential actions is unchanged, from peacekeeping to large interventions and heavy fighting. The next component is unilateral security management. Powerful states have power-projection capabilities on a global scale. For example, the United States retains its allies like Japan and South Korea and keeps significant forces at sea or at offshore military bases that actively deter North Korea and see itself as the key to security in the Far East. Forward presence is deemed crucial for credibility because no state thinks it can defeat the US outright so it would not always fight. Forward presence and the alliances are also seen as repressing nuclear proliferation.

Nuclear deterrence can be approached in two general ways: by punishment and by denial. Deterrence by punishment is the classical approach in which one informs the adversary that the undesired action will be met with a severe response. The essential idea is that the adversary, weighing the potential cost of punishment against the potential benefit of the action, if undertaken, would rationally decide to forgo the action. Deterrence by punishment is obviously the primary underpinning of the ‘balance of terror’ that has become nearly synonymous with deterrence.  Each side held the population of its adversary ‘hostage’ to the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons. Deterrence by denial refers to one’s ability to deny the other actor the ability to influence one’s own value inventory. It includes constraining the adversary to exploit a state’s vulnerability or the ways to exploit it. The overall objective of deterrence is to avoid nuclear devastation through the mutual deterrence and to ensure the avoidance of an unconstrained arms race whose outcome would ultimately be catastrophic.

Instability factor

Nuclear Instability does not mainly arise from forced structures but from the perceptions of vulnerabilities and judgments on how a conflict might begin. Therefore, if any nuclear nation fears that it is not able to maintain a credible second-strike capability in the face of adversary missile defence or an unexpected nuclear attack is probable, the incentives for the first strike increase. Thus, the first strike objective remains the key doctrine of that particular nation’s military regime.

The possibility of nuclear employment at the actual conflict creates a completely different set of stability concerns, suggesting that other principles may also be in motion. Indeed, an actual conflict with possible nuclear use may render the strategic ‘stability’ of some weapon systems under suspicion as inventory levels are reduced. Finding a new basis for stability, as nuclear stockpiles are reduced raises new challenges. For example, the availability of a large number of nuclear weapons for prompt launch and the ability to target each missile unit with superior numbers produce a net advantage for the attacker. Therefore, such a scenario presents an undesirable situation in which the possible attraction of executing a nuclear attack with the aim of winning, combined with the possibility of error in adopting a launch on warning posture to negate the effectiveness, could actually increase the risk of full scale nuclear conflict.

A scenario of nuclear instability that somehow allowed nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of non-state actors would be a direct threat to any state’s national security. The use and showcasing of nuclear weapons or ready-to-use policy would have serious catastrophic humanitarian, economic, and strategic consequences to other states also. The nuclear face-off between the US and North Korea in the mid-2017 was a serious issue for other Far East nations’ periphery to the zone of conflict. Japan due to high concern of North Korean missile over flight at its airspace activated its self-defence air force fighters.

In order to strengthen strategic stability, some steps could be undertaken. There should be a combination of transparency, confidence-building measures, and restraint to mitigate the risk that emerging technologies endanger by triggering arms races, threatening the survivability of nuclear forces, or undermining the integrity of early warning and nuclear command and control systems. Bilateral and multilateral dialogues on strategic stability within the nuclear weapon states should deepen, along with a capacity to participate in dialogues. Finally, a forum for the nuclear weaponized states should be created to discuss further steps to strengthen strategic stability and reduce the risk of the deliberate, accidental, or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, it is very difficult to identify and pin point the dynamic instabilities since it is still a forming process. Proliferation of ‘soft’ nuclear material in the form of classified data, enrichment expertise or advanced technical help is carried on without much check under an arrangement. The evolving nuclear triad concepts add more concerns to the instability. As instability of the Cold War is over, the risk of nuclear escalation now lies in South Asia and Far East, North Korea being a major player.

Nuclear weapons play two different roles with regard to reducing the chance of nuclear war. First, it has a positive role in establishing a mutual deterrence regime, which lowers the chance of a deliberate nuclear war. Second, it has a negative role in leading to the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. An optimal level and structure of nuclear weapons would balance these two roles allowing for the continuation of a deterrence regime but restructuring forces and their control systems, so as to reduce the chance of an accidental nuclear war. Very large-scale reductions in stockpiles of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive in ending deterrence, and there is probably a greater risk involved in eliminating such weapons than in managing properly. Furthermore, the problem of accidents is related more to the configuration and control of nuclear weapons than to the sheer number of weapons. It is useful to think of the problem of the desired number of nuclear weapons as one in inventory theory, where an optimal policy first creates a balance and then takes into account both holding costs and stock-out costs.

In an unlikely event of total nuclear disarmament, nuclear weapons will still pose an existential threat. The danger of nuclear escalation can never be banished. It will always be easy for a nuclear technologically aware country to reconstruct the weapons.

Five point conclusion

If nuclear deterrence has to work, it needs to manage mutual deterrence through diplomatic tools such as confidence building measures, bilateral arms control agreements and no use of nuclear weapons agreement or devising a nuclear free zone like mutual understanding between Latin American and Southeast Asian regions. But control mechanism fails when states begin nuclear proliferation covertly. After the 1990s, many aspiring nations started to equip themselves with weapons of mass destruction and the delivery vehicles. Mutual nuclear deterrence established a state of belief in each state that the other has the will and the capacity to retaliate to a sufficient level.

Therefore, to take a wider view and to offer thoughts on the nature of deterrence, five basic conceptual questions have been highlighted. The first is the distinction between the existence of a deterrence capability and of a deterrence relationship. It relates to the second condition but also exists independently. The second is whether deterrence is confined to situations involving terror and unacceptable consequences. It also encompasses defence and denial of the ability to undertake unacceptable actions. Third, the continuing debate between universal rationality and particular strategic cultures in relation to the mechanisms and effectiveness of deterrence, and the implications for the mechanisms and effectiveness of deterrence, and the implications for this threat of mass destructive actions by non-state actors and rogue states. Fourth, the question of what is understood by the term ‘strategic stability’ in a world of only one nuclear power, and an increasing number of small nuclear forces. Finally, there is the role played by deterrence and defence in combating nuclear proliferations or other mass destruction weapons in comparison to that played by legal constraints. Though illustrated, the conceptual questions appear to have no simple answers.

In addition, the requirement for the avoidance of accidental nuclear war is the ability to balance the requirements for positive and negative control. The negative control is the prevention of any nuclear release or launch except by duly authorised command. Positive control means that forces are promptly and reliably responsive to authorized commands.

Even seen from a realistic point of view, fear of having nuclear weapons does not deter a non-nuclear country to attack a nuclearized nation. Israel’s nuclear weapons did not deter Egypt in attacking the country in 1973. Presently, nuclear weapons are seen as a tool of political coercion rather than a military device that could be met with resolve and eventually possession of similar capabilities. The level of deterrence will continue to exist in today’s geo-political environment where power plays an eminent role. The showcasing of nuclear arsenal by North Korea did make America think twice in initiating a conflict. The North Korean and American showdown was a perfect example of nuclear deterrence and its effectiveness. Due to North Korean nuclear arsenal and ready to use objective, it would not be wrong to say that United States considered the option of not attacking. The weapons did provide a safe umbrella for Korea from superior actions of America. Humorously, nuclear weapons did play the trick of avoiding a major military conflict.


Dr. Ingudam Yaipharemba Singh completed his Ph.D. from the Department of Defence & National Security Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh. His works have appeared in many local newspapers as well as research journals. Also, he has contributed to an edited book, Environmental Crises and Sustainability: A Response.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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