Deterrence and other myths

Print edition : May 08, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

The Vajpayee Government's fascination with the doctrine of deterrence ("minimum credible nuclear deterrence") marks a complete overturning of India's nuclear policy and its principled opposition to an obnoxious theory.

UNTIL Pokhran-II, official Indian policy had always ranged itself firmly and eloquently against the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. This opposition dates back to the early days of the Indian nuclear programme and policy. In recent times, a stinging indictment of the doctrine was presented in the Indian memorial to the International Court of Justice in 1995 on the question of the legality of nuclear weapons. Among the arguments for a ban on nuclear weapons, the memorial included the following: "Nuclear deterrence has been considered to be abhorrent to human sentiment since it implies that a state if required to defend its own existence will act with pitiless disregard for the consequences of its own and its adversary's people."

One of the features of the new nuclear policy, post-Pokhran and post-Chagai, has been the complete overturning of this principled position. Official propaganda today, when it recites the long list of Indian disarmament initiatives over the last fifty years, edits out of the picture the record of official Indian opposition to deterrence theory. A chorus of apologists in the strategic affairs community and in the media have also begun to intone the virtues of deterrence.

That this official fascination with deterrence theory has received political sanction is evident from the remarks made by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha on March 15, 1999. Replying to the debate on the motion of thanks to the President, Vajpayee claimed: "The nuclear weapon is not an offensive weapon. It is a weapon of self-defence. It is the kind of weapon that helps in preserving the peace. If in the days of the Cold War there was no use of force, it was because of the balance of terror."

Agni-II on the launch-pad. An arms race between India and Pakistan is clearly on, and India's claim that its "minimum credible nuclear deterrence" will not be offensive in nature is hardly likely to inspire confidence in Islamabad.-

WHAT is the theory of deterrence and how did it come to play the predominant role that it does in strategic affairs and international politics? One must begin with the observation that this Western ideological-political construction did not have the importance that it does today until several years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the United States retained overwhelming superiority in nuclear arms and the means to deliver them, there was no need to talk of deterrence. The stated goal of American nuclear forces was 'massive retaliation' in response to any attack from the Soviet Union. In later versions of the U.S. nuclear doctrine, it was 'assured destruction'. Deterrence theory came into its own only when it became clear that the Soviet Union, in any realistic assessment, had caught up with the U.S. and that 'assured destruction' had turned into 'mutual assured destruction'.

The central thesis of the theory of deterrence is that it is the possession of nuclear weapons that ensures that nuclear war will never take place. Both sides should possess a retaliatory strike capability that is invulnerable, that will not be annihilated under any circumstances by a first-strike. "Perceptions" and "psychology" play an important role in convincing the adversary that any aggression by him will only lead to his annihilation. The theory of deterrence is not concerned with the threat of nuclear annihilation; living in its shadow is the name of the game. In the perverse logic of deterrence, teetering on the brink of the nuclear abyss is the only way of ensuring peace and stability.

But there is more to deterrence than brinkmanship. The awful, essential, truth of deterrence theory is that the possessor stands committed to using, and threatening to use, nuclear weapons. If it is admitted in advance that nuclear weapons will not be used in a crisis, then the benefits of deterrence cannot be enjoyed prior to its breakdown.

Did deterrence ever really work? Did it, as its proponents claim and Vajpayee obligingly echoes, preserve the peace during the Cold War? In the first instance, the strategists of nuclear war themselves were the first to shift gradually away from deterrence. Once the Soviet Union gained parity with the U.S., fears began to be expressed that this would enable the Soviets to attack Europe without fear of retaliation. The result was that eventually the 'breakdown of deterrence' became the central concern of strategists and not the question of how to make deterrence work. In the heyday of Reaganism and Star Wars, the emphasis shifted for a while to 'winning' or 'prevailing' in a nuclear war.

But the most comprehensive debunking of the theory of deterrence comes from the testimony of those who held key leadership roles in its practice, particularly in the United States. Among the most important of these is the interview with Gen. Lee Butler, former commander of the U.S. Strategic Forces, or in plain language the U.S. nuclear arsenal, presented in Jonathan Schell's book, The Gift of Time: The Case For Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (Penguin India, New Delhi, 1999). Butler cites three major reasons why deterrence never really worked. First, deterrence never really led to stability. Perfect invulnerability, a prime requirement of deterrence, always meant perfect vulnerability for the opponent. As a consequence, any balance struck was unstable, and each side constantly built larger arsenals or searched for more sophisticated technologies. Secondly, the 'psychological' dimension of deterrence never really worked. Each side caricatured and demonised the other's intentions, motivations and beliefs, dialogue was virtually non-existent, and war plans based on the wildest assumptions were devised. In practice, the sophisticated dialogue required by deterrence never took place. Thirdly, in Butler's view, deterrence was in practice "turned on its head". Whatever one side did to enhance and make evident its capability of a retaliatory threat appeared to the other to be suspiciously like an increase in first-strike capability. Whenever deterrence was operationally realised in terms of actual warheads and delivery systems, it achieved exactly the opposite of the 'stable security' that was desired - because it always forced the opponent to respond in kind.

As for the contention that 'war' was prevented, Butler argues that it is not even evident that a war was intended in the first place by the Soviet Union. What kept the peace was the experience of the Cuban missile crisis, which convinced both sides that caution was absolutely necessary if there were not to find themselves at nuclear war.

Pakistan's Ghauri-2 missile at the launch site.-

Peace has been preserved because an overwhelming caution has surrounded nuclear weapons for obvious reasons. It is only the grave uncertainties that face the state that chooses to use nuclear weapons first that have held the world back from nuclear war.

Nor has the possession of nuclear weapons proved to be of much avail in conventional conflicts. The experience of the United States in Indochina and that of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan are among the notable examples. Nor could the menacing entry of a U.S. aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal during the Bangladesh conflict influence the course of events in any serious way. Despite this example being cited frequently in support of the Indian case for nuclear weaponisation, it is clear that the overwhelming support that the Indian policy had, both in India and abroad, proved more than a match for any implied nuclear threat.

It is this discredited theory of deterrence, an immoral and dangerous justification for the possession of weapons of mass annihilation and genocide, that the Vajpayee Government and assorted nuclear hawks have embraced in their pursuit of a "minimum credible nuclear deterrence" doctrine for India's nuclear weapons. The current official claim is that even if both India and Pakistan proceed with nuclear weaponisation, deterrence will preserve peace and stability in the subcontinent.

It is already evident that deterrence on the subcontinent will achieve precisely the opposite of peace and stability as it has done elsewhere in the world. India's declaration that it will not resort to first use of nuclear weapons carries little conviction with Pakistan, which sees its nuclear arms as a hedge against India's conventional superiority. The unilateral nature of the 'minimum' in India's minimum credible deterrent, which is to be determined by India as the situation warrants, is hardly likely to inspire confidence in Islamabad. The building of India's second-strike capability will constantly tend to trigger a response from Pakistan, as has happened after the Agni-II tests. An arms race is clearly on, notwithstanding pious statements to the contrary from both nations. The claim that India and Pakistan will achieve the necessary 'communication' in the perceptual and psychological dimension of deterrence is hardly a guarantee for peace, considering the record of misunderstanding and mutual demonisation that has characterised India-Pakistan relations.

AN important aspect of the maintenance of nuclear arsenals that deterrence theory has little or nothing to say about is the danger of accidental or unauthorised nuclear exchange. The problem is bad enough in the case of the arsenals of the United States and Russia. There is a long and frightening record of incidents that could have led to a nuclear exchange; such incidents occurred even during the Cuban missile crisis. A nuclear stand-off in the Indian subcontinent will be even more dangerous, given the geographical proximity of the two nations and the low level of command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) capabilities that they will be able to deploy.

The new-found official fascination with the doctrine of deterrence marks a low point in the history of India's nuclear policy. It opens the door in the subcontinent to the dangers of nuclear brinkmanship, and condemns the peoples of India and Pakistan to live under the shadow of the threat of nuclear annihilation. The democratic campaign against nuclear weaponisation in India must put up as a key demand on the Government of India the rejection of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and its Indian variant, the 'minimum credible nuclear deterrent'. It must demand a return to the path of an active advocacy of global nuclear disarmament.

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