Concepts of nuclear deterrence were developed in an era of an essentially binary East-West nuclear confrontation. The major players were the US and the then Soviet Union. The situation is radically different today when there are nine nuclear weapon states with complex political and strategic equations among them. The binary construct is no longer relevant. The US and Russia still have the largest arsenals, over 90% of the global total but China is catching up fast. Neither Moscow nor Washington believe that bilateral arms deals will enhance their security unless China joins the negotiations. In the subcontinent, India is reluctant to engage in nuclear arms control with Pakistan because China is its main adversary. China, on the other hand, has structured its nuclear deterrent with the US in mind. It is only in a multilateral format that these differing threat perceptions can be addressed and reconciled.
Nuclear deterrence is irrelevant in dealing with threats of nuclear terrorism. The miniaturisation of nuclear warheads to the point where they could be launched with a shoulder-fired missile makes such terrorism a realistic threat. If such an attack could be launched from the territory of a friendly country or even from within one’s own borders, how would deterrence work? Nuclear deterrence tacitly assumes that the entities involved are state actors. But what if there are non-state actors? Dealing with this new class of nuclear threats would require an unprecedented level of international trust and collaboration which is unlikely in the current turbulent geopolitical context.
The ongoing Ukraine war has shaken the atmosphere of relative complacency regarding the nuclear threat. Russia has threatened the possible use of nuclear weapons if any outside power tries to intervene. This has brought international attention back to the danger of nuclear war and the questioning of various assurances extended to non-nuclear weapon states in return for their commitment to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons. This will not play well at the forthcoming 10th Review Conference of the Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty being convened in New York in August. Russia may have dealt a mortal blow to the global non-proliferation regime.
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There is another long-standing dilemma that the Ukraine war has highlighted and this relates to the distinction between theatre or tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) and strategic nuclear weapons. Faced with potential military defeat of its forces in Ukraine, Russia may well employ a TNW to inflict devastating losses on Ukraine forces. Whatever the Russian intent, there is now a fresh debate over the possible use of TNWs without triggering an all-out nuclear war. What are TNWs? No clear definitions exist. Could they be classified in terms of yields? TNWs in the US may have yields ranging from 0.1 to 170 kilotons and Russian TNWs from 0.3 to 100 kilotons. Considering that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were each about 15 kilotons, devastating entire cities, could a larger yield TNW really be classified as a battlefield weapon? Other definitions point to their range, which may be 300-500 km. But in the India-Pakistan context, a strategic exchange may involve much shorter distances. In the India-Pakistan context, it makes no sense to posit such a distinction. More important is the command and control aspect i.e. that when the use of a nuclear weapon is devolved on a battlefield commander without reference to a central command and control, it may be classified as a TNW, irrespective of yield or range. The distinction is semantic. Once a nuclear weapon of any yield or range has been unleashed by a battlefield commander or a central command, the end result is a catastrophic strategic exchange. As John Mattis, a former US Secretary of Defence, observed, ‘I don’t think there is any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used at any time is a strategic game-changer.’
In the film, War Games (1983), the supercomputer simulating nuclear war games concluded, ‘The only winning move is not to play.’
The author is Former Foreign Secretary and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.