Deterrence or danger?

The indigenous nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, is a great achievement for India. The Indian Navy, its engineers and scientists have done us immensely proud. But it might not be inappropriate to ask: Will Arihant make us more secure, and if so, in what way?

It has been universally recognised that the sole justification for having nuclear weapons is their deterrence value. If ever a nuclear bomb has to be used, it has destroyed its raison d’être. The initiation of a nuclear attack would mean utter destruction, not just for the two parties involved but also for regions far beyond. The Americans got away with their bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however controversial it was, because they had a monopoly of nukes at the time. Today, the situation is vastly different and far more dangerous. If nuclear weapons fail to deter the outbreak of war involving use of such weapons, they have disastrously failed in their deterrence mission.

A nuclear triad

The major nuclear weapon powers, principally the U.S., have developed the myth of a nuclear triad, that consists of land-based, air-based and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. The theory is that if country A initiates a nuclear attack on country B in a first strike, country B must be in a position, even after absorbing the nuclear strike, to retaliate with a massive nuclear attack on the enemy country. This is called second strike capability. In the event that country A manages to destroy the land and air-based nukes of country B, country B will still have its third leg in the shape of sea-based nuclear-tipped missiles, called SLBMs or submarine-launched ballistic missiles, for use against country A because the sea-based missiles, launched from nuclear-powered submarines, would have remained undetected and hence safe from enemy attack. Thus, the rationale for the naval leg of the triad is its survivability. Essentially, the argument in favour of the naval leg is not that it makes the deterrent more credible, but that, as mentioned above, it will survive for retaliation.

In the event that an enemy initiates a nuclear strike, it will never be able to destroy all the land and air-based nuclear weapons of the target country. Again, the enemy might attack population centres and not nuclear weapon sites; in that case, all the nukes of the target country would be available for retaliation. In either case, the deterrence capability of the target country would remain intact. If the possession of the naval leg were to deter the enemy, ab initio, from initiating a nuclear launch, it would add to the deterrence value. Survivability by itself does not appear to make deterrence more credible.

If the hostilities reach the threshold where a country may consider using nuclear weapons, it would be preceded by a period of conventional warfare. The enemy would also have to reach the conclusion that unless he uses his nuclear weapons, he would suffer a defeat that he simply cannot afford to let happen. A conventional conflict itself will not start before several days of negotiations, including possible mediation by external powers and the UN Security Council. Even a small incident involving India and Pakistan would immediately invite big powers to rush in and mediate pull-back of forces, etc. Whether the external interventions succeed or not in preventing a major war, the target country would have ample time to disperse its land and air-based nuclear assets. The naval leg does not seem indispensable.

The case of Pakistan

Let us take Pakistan. One does not know if it has a nuclear doctrine, but even if it does not have one, that by itself does not make it an irresponsible nuclear power. Pakistan has rejected the no-first-use policy and has in fact said that it would not rule out using nukes if it felt compelled to do so in a war. It claims to have so-called tactical nuclear weapons which can presumably be used in a battle field. Pakistan, in other words, keeps the option of using nuclear weapons first as a deterrent against a conventional attack by India. India’s stand is clear. Any use of nuclear weapon, tactical or otherwise, will invite massive retaliation by India which would have disastrous consequences for Pakistan. (Will India remain unaffected by radiation, etc? Can we guarantee that the winds will not blow in our direction? The radiation, debris, heat, blast, etc will be carried well beyond the belligerents’ borders.) So, even assuming that we will have the political and moral will to unleash the full force of our nukes, how does acquiring SSBNs or a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine make our deterrent more credible?

Since Pakistan is still a long way away from having the naval leg of the triad, would not our land and air-based nukes be enough of a deterrent? Is it conceivable that after destroying each other’s land and air-based nuclear platforms, either country will have even the need to bring into play its naval leg? And, if and when Pakistan does acquire the third leg, which it is bound to sooner or later, even if it has to ‘eat grass’, will it then make the nuclear equation more stable and make each country’s deterrent more credible? We may not admit it, but we are engaged in a nuclear, and conventional, arms race, exactly the same way the superpowers were during the Cold War era.

China is far ahead of India in many respects. It has more warheads and more nuclear-powered submarines. Both India and China have repeatedly declared adherence to the no-first-use doctrine. So where is the justification for acquiring the naval leg of the triad? We have a territorial dispute with China, but both countries have acquired enough experience to manage and contain the conflict. It is reasonably safe to say that there will not be an all-out war involving the use of nuclear weapons between India and China.

One of the arguments in the 1960s and 1970s in favour of atom bombs was that they would be cheaper in the long run. That has not happened. The acquisition of expensive conventional platforms as well as the ever expanding nuclear programme has destroyed that argument. India has been in the forefront in campaign for nuclear disarmament. Let us not at least escalate a nuclear arms race in our region.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, a former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was Special Envoy for West Asia in the Manmohan Singh government

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 1:53:46 AM |

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