Nuclear Deterrence: A mechanism to guarantee state security

By: Chandni Turakhiya, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law.

The Bomb has changed everything except our thinking, Albert Einstein.

After World War II an undeniable need for nuclear deterrence arose among all nations in the world.  Nuclear Deterrence is the military doctrine that an enemy will be deterred from using nuclear weapons as long as he can be destroyed as a consequence.

The formation of nuclear weapons did not immediately give rise to the nuclear deterrence. Initially nuclear weapons were viewed as a means to warfare which had destructive abilities. End of WWII resulted in an ideological warfare between capitalist US and communist Soviet Union and both sides started to stockpile nuclear weapons, Soviet Union firmly believing that they could win the nuclear war. The United States referred to the nuclear deterrence ideology to control and perhaps if they ever had any chance to attack and retaliate if the Soviet Union made the first move. The United States adopted a triad of systems on basis of strategic deterrence. These three systems became extremely powerful to ensure any safety, and deter from any sort of attack. Bombers, submarines and missiles formed an independent leg of the triad ensuring that it wasn’t possible to attack all three triads together and gave a second option for retaliation which could cause equal destruction to the attacking nation. This was adopted and extended deterrence to the allied NATO countries which were under constant threat of the Soviet Union.

The superpowers attempted to control the nuclear production and manage its developments through treaties such as Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. This led to a few changes such as the Ballistic missile defences were outlawed; “first strike” weapons were decommissioned; civil defence was discouraged[1].

The end of the cold war in the 1990s created a different strategic situation for USA. There is no one superpower having control of the nuclear power but a mix of hostile countries as well as non-state actors such as Al-Qaeda. We know that the United States extends its nuclear deterrence to its allies when threatened by former USSR and present day Russia. In principle it might sound logical. But however in practice these allies face hostile proliferators and extending nuclear deterrence would be questionable. The threat is not directly to one’s national security but there is a sudden surge in general danger and threat to the international stability. Our  strategic interests must now be seen as those involving the fundamental elements of our political cohesion, our economic well-being, and our ability to use our military power to defend them, wherever they are seriously challenged, rather than involving only an attack on our homeland.[2]

Another example of nuclear deterrence is followed by India and Pakistan who always had and have troubled neighbourly relations particularly because of the unresolved PoK issue.

The defeat of Pakistan by India in the 1971 war resulted in the division of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh from East Pakistan. After the defeat, Pakistan attempted to acquire nuclear weapons particular in response to nuclear test conducted by India in 1974. It is to be noted that the main objective of nuclear campaign was to neutralize India’s far larger conventional air land and sea forces.[3]

The Kargill War which was fought in 1999 many times is referred to as one caused by nuclear weapons. Although Pakistan lost that war it insisted that their nuclear weapons had deterred India from crossing the LOC. Pakistan affirmed that it would not follow the ‘no first policy’ when the Pakistani ambassador in the UN in Geneva said ‘You can die crossing the street or you could die in a nuclear war. You’ve got to die someday anyway.[4] 

Since 1998, there has been huge amount of spending in the Indian military on nuclear tests. The ‘Vision 2020’ papers show that the Indian Air Force has laid down requirements to increase the modern fighters. The Indian air force internal documents also advocate he creation of first strike capabilities which is opposite from its beliefs.

After the several attacks over the years – Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Uri and Pulwana it showed that these attacks were still short off to start a cold start like response. Where it was once analysed that there is less room for conventional escalation below the nuclear threshold the outcries after the Pulwana and Uri attack showed an unprecedented response from the public.

We know that Pakistan has always been displeased with the situation in Kashmir. But this displeasure cannot be directly reflected as an open conflict with India. Pakistan’s ‘first use’ policy could be extremely harmful to its already crippling economy. Therefore, the ‘no first use’ and ‘first use policy’ both these doctrines are taken seriously by both countries which deters the threat of future nuclear threat.  Even though India has the ‘no first use’ policy the fact that it regularly conducts military exercises under cold start-like conditions, give further credence to this notion. [5] Both India and Pakistan realize that the cost of war in the nuclear realm is extremely high. Even though there is a huge incentive to avoid such attacks at a nuclear level this incentive does not look promising at the conventional and sub conventional level.

Pakistan seems to be benefitting from aiding insurgency groups such as LeT and JeM, conducting proxy wars against India. India’s approach to deter and punish Pakistan supported insurgencies is by different counter efforts below the nuclear threshold. This is supportive of the stability-instability paradox which holds that “despite increased tensions and severe crises, nuclear-armed adversaries will avoid a major conflict or a nuclear exchange”[6] While nuclear weapons put a cap on the risk of escalation to large scale conflict that may escalate into the nuclear realm, interstate competition shifts and intensifies on the sub-nuclear levels allowing for more low-intensity conflicts.[7]

Another example of nuclear deterrence is People’s Republic of China, India’s neighbour whose is as famously said by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2015 an all-weather friend of Pakistan. In recent times after the tensions arising in Eastern Ladakh the question of nuclear escalation arose. China is worried about India’s membership in NSG –Nuclear Suppliers Group which would strengthen United States Asia strategy. China is part of the NPT which aim for disarmament with other nuclear weapons but in the UN General Assembly boycotted the 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty showing no intention to do the same.

India  and China having Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jingping as their leaders, who both portray political ‘strongmen’ and  project muscular security policies and seek to harness rising nationalist sentiments.[8] They both are practicing overt nuclear deterrence means to resolve the rising tensions.

Article 51 of the UN Charter states that nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council as a main enforcement body of the UN has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the UNSC and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.[9]

Therefore, if a threat prevails every nation has them inherit right to protect themselves and use any means necessary to achieve them. A number of treaties have been introduced and signed in the course to denuclearize or bringing control of the production of nuclear weapons.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons prohibits all those non-nuclear states from making nuclear weapons excluding the five permanent members. The United Nations in its conference on 7th July 2017 adopted the Treaty on the Nuclear Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first international treaty which prohibits nuclear weapons, banning development, test, acquisition, and threat of use or possession. Even though no nuclear state has signed this it’s a huge step forward.

The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty prohibits nuclear weapon states from transferring nuclear weapons to, or assisting NNWS in the development of nuclear weapons.[10] The success of NPT led up to the formation of New START which was signed by the Obama administration showing its commitment to make progress for a world which is free of nuclear weapons.

There are several bilateral efforts also made by USSR and US as they both met the limit for no more than 1500 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 launchers by 2018. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was a milestone towards nuclear disarmament which prohibits all nuclear testing but has still not moved forward. India and Pakistan who are both part of the Non Aligned Movement ironically vocally support the nuclear disarmament while increasing their stock piling. Even when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted in 2017 nuclear possessing states extending deterrence boycotted the negotiations and jointly passed a statement that they do not “intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it.” [11]

Therefore, it is made abundantly clear that even though many nations want to strive forward into making the world a nuclear free nation it’s very rare to see any nations put money where their mouth is. Nuclear deterrence is an important strategy that has been developed to ensure mutual protection and destruction in the event of Nation state being sovereign equals. Since no nation can completely ban the nuclear testing or possessing these weapons the next step possible is to curtail the amount and production each nation states can do. Self-preservation and protection is the most important aim for any nation state. The increasing possibility of Non-State Actors having the same ability which once was the only prerogative of nation states have resulted in changing the dynamic to control the nuclear production. A nuclear weapon free world appears to be a utopia, as the UN Charter recognizes the inherit right of a sovereign nation state for self-defence.

[1] Atomic archive, Nuclear Deterrence, pg. 15

[2] Post World War Conflict (1997)

[3] Deterrence in the 21st Century, 2020

[4] India and its Neighbours: Renewed threats and new directions

[5]Deterrence in the 21st Century, 2020

[6] Krepon, 2004

[7] Jacob 2017

[8] Carnegie Endowment for international peace

[9] United Nations, Article 51

[10] NTI Report on Disarmament

[11] UN news, Un Conference Adopts Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons

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