A cut-off point for nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons were important and will remain so for some time to come. But is there a cut-off point for that?

Ejaz Haider May 07, 2013
The writer is Editor, National Security Affairs at Capital TV and a visiting fellow at SDPI

Some days ago, at the Islamabad Literary Festival — yes, literature has finally reached the Margallas — I chanced to sit through a session dubbed “Nuclear Pakistan: An Overview of the Strategic Dimensions”. It was a monumental disappointment.

There was nothing “strategic” about the session. It wasn’t even a poor rehash of an introductory class on nuclear strategy and the trajectory older nuclear powers took, and which was found wanting in almost all its facets.

The first problem always is the old and stale debate between deterrence optimists and pessimists. Nuclear weapons are good. They secure states. They are a cheaper option. No, they are bad. They can be stolen. They don’t secure anything. The United States and the Soviet Union lost wars despite nuclear weapons. In the case of Pakistan, there’s greater danger of their falling in the hands of the terrorists, blah, blah.

These are not strategic assertions. These are polemical positions. Like most polemical positions, they select their own facts and ignore the rest.

The fact is that nuclear weapons are bad, as are all weapons or anything that can be turned into a weapon. But nuclear weapons can cause mass destruction, unlike most other weapons, regardless of the fact that conventional gravity bombing killed more civilians in World War II than the two atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And those bombs were nothing compared to what the nuclear-weapon states possess now.

So, we have a problem and that problem is not just Pakistan-specific. It relates to all the states that have nuclear arsenals.

So, why do we have nuclear weapons? Do they help in winning wars? No. You do not take a knife to a gunfight and you don’t take a nuclear weapon to an irregular war. A pistol can’t perform the function of a sniper rifle and vice versa. The function of nuclear weapons has then to be placed properly.

If a war does happen, despite nuclear weapons, then the weapons have already failed. Their only use is to prevent wars. They are not war-fighting weapons. This is why the concept of tactical nuclear weapons is bollocks. The United States, during the Bush era, had begun talking about ‘forward deterrence’, which meant using tiny yields in areas of actual fighting. It was and remains a stupid theory not only because it strikes a blow to the normative standard that a nuclear-weapon state will never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear one, but because such use is useless even operationally. Laying an area waste can be good revenge but it doesn’t translate into a strategic victory.

Deterrence is the primary and only function of nuclear weapons. And in that, the best mode is counter-value targeting. Adversaries know that both or all can kill millions in a city and, therefore, none will come to blows. One speaker at the session advised Pakistan to have offensive deterrence and talked about counter-force targeting and TNWs. It surprises me that some of us are still flaunting ideas that have been debated and buried in the West. Counter-force targeting relied on the argument that nuclear weapons could actually be used against enemy forces selectively, which would pressure the enemy into showing the same restraint. Developed by Robert McNamara as a supplement to the broader, three-phased Flexible Response doctrine, this came to be called the No-Cities doctrine.

Today, no one takes this seriously. Even McNamara offered a mea culpa, much before his death. In any case, this kind of targeting strategy would demand a developed and deployed second strike capability. That has immense cost. Also, counter-force targeting relies on offence rather than defence.

Speakers in Pakistan are also fond of citing the stability-instability paradox, another concept that has no physical and psychological space in the context of South Asia. The paradox relied on the fact that the Centre will hold (Germany, which was to be the main battle ground) while the periphery can remain unstable. In other words, while the rest of the world fights the proxy, ideological wars between the United States and the Soviet Union, central Europe will remain stable.

How does this work in South Asia? The only argument that proponents can come up with is that Pakistan and India can fight sub-conventional wars. Kargil is cited as an example. (It’s a bad example but that’s another topic.)

After the Kargil conflict, India began its own studies of how to punish Pakistan without escalating a conflict. Later, after the 2001-02 stand-off fiasco in which India lost over 700 soldiers without fighting a war with Pakistan and realised it couldn’t gain any advantage, it started developing the Cold Start Doctrine (CSD): combining the twin features of fast surgical strikes with forward deployment of self-sustained Independent Battle Groups (IBGs).

While we make much of CSD, it’s more a wish than reality. There’s no space for the “famed” stability-instability paradox in South Asia except to keep conferences alive. Neither sub-conventional war nor surgical strikes is a strategic option. Neither can, if at all, go beyond tactical gains that can only accumulate strategic losses.

Quite apart from our inability to develop a doctrine for the placement of nuclear capability as one component of state policy, which essentially means we don’t know what the hell to do with them apart from arguing for them in and through dead theories, we have also shown an utter lack of thought apropos of the changing nature of war itself.

Cyber-war is a reality. It means the keyboard and the internet. It means the issue of safety and security of nuclear weapons is not just about someone stealing a weapon or nuclear materials or even attacking a facility. Those possibilities are largely passé. The new threat is someone getting into the command and control systems. That’s the new game. I am not sure we — or any of the nuclear-weapon states — are prepared for that. Nothing can be foolproof. As someone said, for every proof there’s always a fool. There’s also the issue of technologies that can neutralise the adversary from the air, even from space.

Finally, as Charles Perrow noted in his seminal work, accidents and incidents are inevitable in high risk technologies. And disasters are not just man-made. They can also be natural. Fukushima is a good example.

The idea should be to debate these issues objectively and without acting as polemicists. Nuclear weapons were important and will remain so for some time to come. But is there a cut-off point for that?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2013.


Gp65 | 8 years ago | Reply

@jaimi: India already has a no first use policy. Pakistan doesn't and continues to flex its nuclear might.

jaimi | 8 years ago | Reply

in 1964 mmediately after testing its first nuclear weapon, China promised to “never at any time or under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.” This “no-first-use pledge” was explicitly and unconditionally included in China’s defense white papers. All N. countries must must follow chinese way.,

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