Counter-Point: Counting Nukes? An Irrational Approach to Nuclear Deterrence

 Point, Counter-Point: 

Counting Nukes – numerical parity essential for nuclear deterrence?

Earlier in this series:

Point: Nuclear Parity a Necessity for Nuclear Deterrence – a case study of Pakistan and India

Counter-Point: numerical parity is not essential for nuclear deterrence

Point: Nuclear parity ensures strategic stability



States embroiled in mutual rivalry have limited strategic options. They can pursue an offensive posture aimed at expanding their influence, territory, and resources. Alternatively, when states feel threatened, they can strive to protect and defend their territory and sovereignty – compelling them to maximize their security under the perceived threat of vulnerability. Whichever approach a country chooses, it must contend with a ‘quantity vs. quality’ conundrum, which is where the question of the need for parity will arise.

The ‘offense-defense theory’ helps in examining the India-Pakistan quest for achieving strategic stability in the region. Since the Second World War, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has greatly impacted the Offense-Defense Balance (ODB). However, with the development of nuclear weapons, the ODB shifted in favor of relatively weaker states as the meaning of military victory changed. In this regard, even the pursuit of retaliatory or second-strike capabilities by powerful states did not necessarily ensure survivability or security.

Reiterating the dictum that ‘offense is the best defense,’ the state on the ‘offensive’ as per the ‘offense-defense theory’ develops a force posture, achieves military preparedness, and consumes and invests capital into arms build-up “because offensive strategies generate more security when offensive capabilities are less expansive than defensive ones.”

The case of Pakistan is not different in this regard. The offensive-defense strategy of riposte (that surfaced during the 1989 Zarb-e-Momin conventional military exercises) was designed to address the security concerns of a conventionally weaker state. This strategy, buttressed by the country’s nascent nuclear capability, was aimed at denying India space for exploiting conventional superiority. More recently however, Pakistan’s introduction of battlefield nuclear weapons is perceived as a means to address the possibility of diluting the limited war under the nuclear umbrella option in the shape of Proactive Military Operations being contemplated and believed to be partly driving India’s massive conventional military modernization and buildup. According to the ‘offense-defense theory,’ if the ODB tilts in favor of the offense, it would result in the creation of an environment that encourages situations conducive to war and crises in a regional setting such as South Asia.

The second argument assesses the validity of achieving ‘parity’ in the realm of the nuclear age. I argue that quantitative equivalence in nuclear weapons and capabilities is not mandatory for ensuring deterrence, as the mere possession of such weapons should serve to discourage nuclear aggression.

On the other hand, seeking numerical parity has traditionally been a dilemma confronting conventional deterrence. However, even in a nuclearized South Asia, Pakistan’s strategists did not find it feasible or necessary to match bullet for bullet vis-a-vis India (conventional capabilities). The primary reason why Pakistan placed greater reliance on consolidating its nuclear deterrent was an economic one – a smaller, struggling economy providing limited opportunities to enter into defense deals for purchasing conventional weapons. Pakistan’s quest for achieving a nuclear arsenal of a certain size – while maintaining a minimum deterrence posture – is the result of strategic anxieties resulting from conventional asymmetry between India and Pakistan, and that have multiplied after the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal agreement (by Pakistan’s calculations, the civil nuclear deal has placed India at a greater strategic advantage, giving it access to develop more fissile material for stocks by separating its military facilities).

I believe that the thinking on strategic issues still lags behind the thinking on conventional ones in South Asia, even after acquiring nuclear weapons (this concern was rightly pointed out by Hans Morganthau). Not only Pakistan, India has also overplayed its security obsession vis-a-vis China and further complicated the prospects for arms control by involving China in strategic triangle.

It is pertinent to reiterate that the acquisition of numerical parity is only relevant for a nuclear weapon state that has adopted a doctrine of nuclear war fighting. Given that the only rationally conceivable role for nuclear weapons can and should be in terms of deterrence, the question of achieving nuclear parity is inherently contradictory with the basic philosophy of deterrence. If we assume that ‘parity’ is not at all a prerequisite for nuclear deterrence, we see that states can indulge in massive build-up of strategic forces and triads not merely due to the demands of defense, but equally due to the dynamics of organizational interests, parochial mindset of the decision makers, and/or the measure of resolve to prove deterrent capabilities if a contingency should arise. Thus, in my view, the quantity vs. quality conundrum (i.e. the question of whether to pursue parity) is largely dependent on a country’s emerging and evolving force posture that is an instrument for its doctrinal and policy objectives.


Image: Btrenkel, Getty

Posted in , China, Deterrence, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Point Counter-Point

Sannia Abdullah

Dr. Sannia Abdullah is a political scientist and Research Affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Previously, she was a Stanton Nuclear Security Post-doctoral Fellow (2017-2018) at CISAC and has also worked with Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Labs (Albuquerque, NM). Previously, she had been teaching in the department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Pakistan. Since 2016, she presented her research in ISA 2018, Atlantic Council, ISAC-ISSS-Annual Conference, and University of Notre Dame. She was invited to deliver lectures at the USAFA on Pakistan’s deterrence stability and maturing force posture. She expressed her academic views at different forums including Pentagon, Lawrence Livermore National Labs, and Congressional Budget Office and in some Think Tanks in Washington D.C. She had been a Nonproliferation Fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), in Monterey and SWAMOS alumni of Columbia University (2011). Since 2010, Dr. Abdullah has been part of several Track-II dialogues and had an opportunity to learn decision-making trends through her regular participations in Table Top Exercises exploring escalation control and deterrence stability in South Asia. Her research recently published in The Washington Quarterly, Asia Europe Journal, War on the Rocks and South Asian Voices. She is working on her book manuscript focusing on the evolution of Pakistan's nuclear behavior and its deterrence logic. Her research interests include governance, Organizations and Institutions, Military and Nuclear Policy.

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2 thoughts on “Counter-Point: Counting Nukes? An Irrational Approach to Nuclear Deterrence

  1. Sannia:
    Excellent post.
    Why are we so focused on the numbers of a nuclear competition — especially when we don’t really know what the true numbers are?
    One answer is that it’s a competition, and competitions require a score.
    Another answer is that the nuclear deterrence business is about influencing behavior. If the numbers suggest that one competitor is lagging, the other might feel emboldened.
    A third answer relates to domestic, bureaucratic and institutional compulsions. Falling behind in the numbers game can be politically costly — especially when vested interests believe in the numbers game.

  2. Thank you Michael, for your valuable comments and insights. Interestingly, in terms of developing stockpiles and increasing arsenals, the second nuclear age is no less different from the first one, yet for different reasons.

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