Voices this Week – Nuclear Strategy

Voices this Week draws together published material on an important strategic issue in South Asia.  This week: the theory and development of and changes to states’ nuclear strategies.

A forthcoming book by Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict, offers case studies on the nuclear strategies and postures of: Pakistan, India, China, France, Israel, and South Africa. Narang addresses two questions: 1. which nuclear strategies do regional powers adopt, why do they adopt them, and under what conditions might they shift strategies, and 2. what effect do these choices have on their ability to deter conflict? He identifies three possible regional power nuclear postures: a catalytic posture (to compel third-party intervention), an assured retaliation posture, and an asymmetric posture (involves the development of “capabilities and procedures that credibly enable the rapid and first use of nuclear weapons in the case of a conventional attack”).

He finds, “contrary to a bedrock article of faith in the canon of nuclear deterrence, the acquisition of nuclear weapons does not produce a uniform deterrent effect against opponents. Rather, some postures deter conflict more successfully than others:”

“only those states that adopt an asymmetric escalation posture enjoy significant deterrent success against conventional attacks. The catalytic and assured retaliation postures fair to do so because the risk of nuclear use even in intense conventional conflicts in so low that it does not deter opponents from attacking these nuclear powers.”

In “Using Nuclear Weapons First: a Hell of an Alternative” (in the October-December edition of the Air Power Journal, PDF available here), Dr. Manpreet Sethi explores the value of no-first-use as a meaningful and credible deterrence strategy. It also proposes two additional benefits of an NFU pledge: 1. it relieves one’s adversary of “use or lose” pressure, thereby enhancing strategic security, and 2. it helps promote non-proliferation and disarmament by “de facto making the nuclear weapon unusable.”

“In fact, by projecting assured retaliation, a nation displays greater confidence, and hence greater deterrence credibility. By placing the onus of escalation on the adversary, while retaining the initiative of punitive nuclear retaliation, a country with a no-first-use strategy steers away from nuclear brinkmanship. And, by establishing the nuclear weapon as an instrument of punishment through retaliation, the country lessens the possibility of deterrence from breaking down, and thus aims to minimise, if not prevent, the very use of the nuclear weapon. NFU actually encourages the possibility of ‘no use’ instead of ‘sure use.’”

Shyam Saran weighed in on NFU and massive retaliation this Tuesday, arguing “India has been well served by a doctrine that acknowledges that nuclear weapons are not weapons of war but can only serve as a deterrent.” He references the Cold War era theory of Flexible Response, noting that while neat and seemingly credible in theory, it was never implemented in operational terms precisely because of the contradictions involved.” He contends that India should “constantly review and update [its] nuclear posture, but the objective of this exercise should be to strengthen the credibility [of] existing doctrine rather than to seek its abandonment.”  

Posted in , Defence, Deterrence, Doctrine, History, No First Use, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Voices this Week

Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson

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