Nuclear deterrence is overrated

The Indian Navy has figured in three recent, global news items. The launch of the indigenously developed aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant , expected to be operational by 2018, makes India only the fifth country after the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France to have such capability. The diesel-electric submarine INS Sindhurakshak caught fire and exploded, causing the tragic death of 18 crew. In the early hours of August 10, the reactor on the nuclear powered submarine INS Arihant (“slayer of enemies”), with underwater ballistic launch capability, went critical.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, launched the 6,000-tonne Arihant in Visakhapatnam on July 26, 2009. In time, it was said, with a fleet of five nuclear-powered submarines and three to four aircraft carrier battle groups, a 35-squadron air force and land-based weapons systems, India would emerge as a major force in the Indian Ocean, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

The strategic rationale is to acquire and consolidate the three legs of land, air and sea-based nuclear weapons to underpin the policy of nuclear deterrence. Unfortunately, however, the whole concept of nuclear deterrence is deeply flawed.


Nuclear weapons are uniquely destructive and hence uniquely threatening to our common security. There is a compelling need to challenge and overcome the reigning complacency on the nuclear risks and dangers, to sensitise policy communities to the urgency and gravity of nuclear threats and the availability of non-nuclear alternatives as anchors of national and international security.

A nuclear catastrophe could destroy us any time. Because we have learnt to live with nuclear weapons for 68 years, we have become desensitised to the gravity and immediacy of the threat. The tyranny of complacency could yet exact a fearful price if we sleepwalk our way into a nuclear Armageddon. It really is long past time to lift the shroud of the mushroom cloud from the international body politic.

The normative taboo against this most indiscriminately inhumane weapon ever invented is so comprehensive and powerful that under no conceivable circumstances will its use against a non-nuclear state compensate for the political costs. This explains why nuclear powers have accepted defeat at the hands of non-nuclear states rather than escalate armed conflict to the nuclear level.

Nor can they be used for defence against nuclear-armed rivals. The mutual vulnerability of such rivals to second-strike retaliatory capability is so robust for the foreseeable future that any escalation through the nuclear threshold would be mutual national suicide.

Their only purpose and role, therefore, is mutual deterrence. In order to deter an attack by a more powerful nuclear adversary, a nuclear armed state must convince its stronger opponent of the ability and will to use nuclear weapons if attacked. But if the attack does occur, escalating to nuclear weapons will worsen the scale of military devastation even for the side initiating nuclear strikes. Because the stronger party believes this, the existence of nuclear weapons may add an extra element of caution, but does not guarantee immunity for the weaker party. If Mumbai or Delhi was hit by another major terrorist attack which India believed had Pakistan connections, the pressure for some form of retaliation could overwhelm any caution about Pakistan having nuclear weapons.

Limited India-Pakistan war

The putative security benefits of nuclear deterrence have to be assessed against the real risks, costs and constraints, including human and system errors. Modelling by atmospheric scientists shows that a limited, regional India-Pakistan nuclear war using 50 Hiroshima-size bombs each would, in addition to direct blast, heat and radiation deaths, severely disrupt global food production and markets and cause a nuclear war-induced famine that kills up to a billion people around the world.

The extra caution induced by the bomb means that the subcontinent’s nuclearisation raised the threshold of tolerance of Pakistan’s hostile mischief, like provocations on the Line of Control and cover for cross-border terrorism. Yet, India did not need to buy deterrence against China. The best available evidence shows that China’s nuclear weapons, doctrine, posture and deployment patterns are designed neither to coerce others nor to fight a nuclear war with the expectation of winning, but solely to counter any attempt at nuclear blackmail.

The role of nuclear weapons in having preserved the long peace of the Cold War is debatable. How do we assess the relative weight and potency of nuclear weapons, west European integration, and west European democratisation as explanatory variables in that long peace? There is no evidence that either side had the intention to attack but was deterred from doing so by the other side’s nuclear weapons. Moscow’s dramatic territorial expansion across eastern Europe behind Soviet Red Army lines took place in the years of U.S. atomic monopoly, 1945–49. Conversely, the Soviet Union imploded after, although not because of, gaining strategic parity.

Historical evidence

To those who nonetheless profess faith in the essential logic of nuclear deterrence, a simple question: are you prepared to prove your faith by supporting the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran in order to contribute to the peace and stability of the Middle East, which presently has only one nuclear-armed state?

It is equally contestable that nuclear weapons buy immunity for small states against attack by the powerful. The biggest elements of caution in attacking North Korea — if anyone has such intention — lies in uncertainty about how China would respond, followed by worries about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s conventional capability to hit populated parts of South Korea. Pyongyang’s puny arsenal of useable nuclear weapons is a distant third factor in the deterrence calculus.

Against the contestable claims of utility, there is considerable historical evidence that we averted a nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War as much owing to good luck as wise management. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is the most graphic example of this. Australia’s most respected strategic analyst, former Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Dibb, argues that Moscow and Washington also came close to a nuclear war in 1983. Frighteningly, Washington was not even aware of this scare at the time and any nuclear war then would have used much more destructive firepower than in 1962.

Compared to the sophistication and reliability of the command and control systems of the two Cold War rivals, those of some of the contemporary nuclear-armed states are dangerously frail and brittle.

Nor do nuclear weapons buy defence on the cheap: the Arihant cannot substitute for the loss of the Sindhurakshak . They can lead to the creation of a national security state with a premium on governmental secretiveness and reduced public accountability. In terms of opportunity costs, heavy military expenditure amounts to stealing from the poor. Nuclear weapons do not help to combat India’s real threats of Maoist insurgency, terrorism, poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and corruption. Across the border especially, there is the added risk of proliferation to extremist elements through leakage, theft, state collapse and state capture.


The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) has kept the nuclear nightmare at bay for 45 years. The number of countries with nuclear weapons is still, just, in single digit. There has been substantial progress in reducing the numbers of nuclear warheads. But the threat is still acute with a combined stockpile of 17,000 nuclear weapons, 2,000 of them on high alert. The NPT’s three-way bargain between non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful uses is under strain. The Conference on Disarmament cannot agree on a work plan. The Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty has not entered into force. Negotiations on a fissile materials cut-off treaty are no nearer to starting. The export control regime was damaged by the India–U.S. civil nuclear agreement.

The net result? The world is perched precariously on the edge of the nuclear precipice. As long as anyone has nuclear weapons, others will want them; as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will be used again some day by design, accident, miscalculation or rogue launch; any nuclear exchange anywhere would have catastrophic consequences for the whole world. We need authoritative road maps to walk us back from the nuclear cliff to the relative safety of a progressively, less-heavily nuclearised, and eventually, a denuclearised world.

Our goal should be to make the transition from a world in which nuclear weapons are seen by some countries as central to maintaining security, to one where they become increasingly marginal, and eventually entirely unnecessary. Like chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons too cannot be disinvented. But like them, nuclear weapons too can be controlled, regulated, restricted and outlawed under an international regime that ensures strict compliance through effective and credible inspection, verification and enforcement.

(Ramesh Thakur is director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University. The article is based on a paper presented at the “Arms Control and Strategic Stability” conference in Beijing, August 8–9.)

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 11:40:19 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead//article59785000.ece