A brave new nuclear deterrence world?


Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

This column first appeared in Mint, on August 18, 2014. Like all products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are solely those of the author.

Since the dawn of nuclear weapons in 1945 two axioms have dominated the discourse: one, only nuclear weapons could deter other nuclear weapons. Two, as conventional conflict would inevitably escalate to a nuclear level the primary objective of the military in nuclear-armed states was to avert wars. Thus, Cold War relations were premised on mutually assured destruction (MAD).

Nearly 25 years after the end of the Cold War these principles are being jettisoned by the very nation that established them—the US—even as nations such as China and India were coming around to embrace them. This dramatic shift is being justified on the following grounds.

First, MAD was ideally suited to the Cold War bipolar world. In the emerging multipolar world there are a number of unevenly matched adversaries and no clear nuclear dyad. Second, the growing conventional capabilities—particularly the effectiveness of missile defence systems and the pin-point accuracy of non-nuclear weapons—are on the one hand making it possible to protect homelands from nuclear attacks and on the other to destroy even hardened nuclear targets. Third, advancing offensive cyber and space capabilities, especially of the US, have rendered nuclear and other targets of adversary nations increasingly vulnerable to a variety of non-nuclear attacks. Fourth, the original nuclear states were also major or emerging powers, and there was a desire to maintain a no-war scenario among them. However, some of the new nuclear weapon states—notably North Korea and Pakistan—are neither great powers nor have the wherewithal to become one. Thus major powers have no desire to accommodate these fragile states, despite perceptions to the contrary; instead they plan to disarm their nuclear arms by force. Finally, armed non-state actors and terrorist groups also pose nuclear dangers through proliferation or terrorist attacks—such as the 26/11 Mumbai attacks—with the inherent prospect of conflict between nuclear-armed neighbours.

Consequently, today a quest for absolute security and a desire to take military action against nuclear-armed states are replacing MAD, mutual vulnerability and a need to preserve a no-war scenario amongst nuclear–armed states. New concepts such as mutually assured stability are again being evolved by Washington.

However, this is also an opportunity for India to work with the US to develop the new concepts (via their bilateral strategic stability dialogue). This desire is reflected in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto’s call to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine. A logical extension would be to contribute to the global deterrence discourse. India can contribute to new norms by addressing five sets of issues: First, is “credible minimum deterrent” still an appropriate way to view India’s nuclear posture? While “minimum” deterrent may have at one time served to demonstrate a reluctance to develop and employ nuclear arms, it now sends mixed signals to India’s adversaries. Second, can India demonstrate the survivability of its arsenal? To establish credibility, particularly of its “no first use” policy, India must make it clear that they can carry out a “second-strike”. Third, how would India respond to a nuclear attack carried out by terrorists? President Barack Obama has called nuclear terrorism today’s “most immediate and extreme danger”. Should Indian policymakers endorse this and also explore how to deploy deterrence vis-à-vis terrorist acts. Fourth, could India offer a clearer, more centralized message to both deter and reassure adversaries? Finally, does India accept the role of cyber and space elements in strengthening deterrence? If so, how can these elements be incorporated and deployed?

Through these New Delhi could contribute to the emerging concepts of deterrence at the global level. Otherwise, it will have to contend with rules being set by others.