Counter-Point: numerical parity is not essential for 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


The argument that numerical parity is essential for nuclear deterrence is flawed because it is based on a very narrow understanding of nuclear deterrence which prevailed mostly during the Cold War. The nuclear race between the United States and the USSR that led to unmatched levels of vertical proliferation was primarily due to the fact that both the United States (along with its NATO allies) and the Soviet Union saw the utility of nukes as battlefield weapons to deter conventional aggression. With numerous potential flash points between the two opposing alliances across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, identifying the number of nuclear weapons that would be sufficient for each side to deter conventional wars was extremely difficult.  Again, with the lack of sufficient and reliable knowledge about the strength of each other’s nuclear arsenal, the levels of suspicion increased and it contributed to the nuclear race.

With the end of the Cold War, however, the situation completely changed. The world has shifted from a bipolar to a multipolar order, wherein the nuclear weapon states have varying interests and conflicts that cannot be narrowed down to a mere two-sided confrontation any longer. With that, there has been a revolution in the information and technology sector that has led to greater availability of information about the nuclear arsenals of different states.

But another and a major shift has been in the concept of nuclear deterrence – the introduction of the concept of credible minimum deterrence (CMD). The concept is an application of deterrence wherein a state aims to identify and acquire a minimum number of nuclear weapons that would be sufficient for deterring a nuclear first-strike from an adversary. While there were phases during the Cold War when both the United States and the Soviet Union referred to limited deterrence, they still retained the right to use nuclear strikes, even if of limited scale, against a conventional attack. The concept of CMD, on the other hand, rules out the need for using nuclear weapons to deter conventional war, and focuses essentially on no-first-use of nuclear weapons and developing a robust second strike capability. This concept has gained ground, especially in states that do not see any utility of nuclear weapons as battlefield or tactical weapons for first-strike. This coupling is natural because when nuclear weapons are seen solely as political tools, developing a credible retaliatory nuclear force with minimum numbers capable of inflicting unacceptable damage to the strategic sites of the adversary is sufficient to deter a nuclear first strike. Two specific cases can be examined to substantiate this argument.

First is the case of China. The white paper on China’s National Defense, released in 2002, laid out the purpose of building nuclear weapons. Yao Yunzhu argues that the defense white paper identifies nuclear weapons as “political instruments,” “to be utilized mainly at the level of grand strategy” and “not as a winning tool in military operations.” China has consequentially laid emphasis on credible minimum deterrence rather than maximal or limited deterrence. Although China has not directly used the phrase “credible minimum deterrence” in its defense white papers, it has placed emphasis on restricting the numbers of nuclear weapons to “minimum” and on simultaneously making the deterrent “credible” separately. For instance, the Chinese delegation to the 2nd Preparatory Committee for 2005 NPT review conference, held in April 2003, had stated that China has “kept its nuclear arsenal at the minimum level only for self-defense.” Yunzhu further argues that the use of term minimum, while bringing the number down to the lowest possible, captures the need for the nuclear force to have assured capability of a retaliatory second strike. This is where the term credible becomes important, an argument also made by Arun Vishwanathan, further examined subsequently. With only political utility of nuclear weapons and being content with a strategy of credible minimal deterrence, China has not gone on to seek numerical parity, specifically in the number of warheads developed, with either Russia or the United States. The emphasis has remained on modernisation of a small nuclear arsenal that is credible enough to absorb a first strike and can be used to retaliate. The same has been argued by General Jing Zhiyuan, former commander of the Second Artillery Force (which controls the PLA’s strategic missiles). He stated that China’s limited development of nuclear weapons “will not compete in quantity” with the nuclear superpowers.

The second case to examine is that of India. Similar to the case of China, India has identified nuclear weapons as political tool useful only in grand strategy and not for battlefield purposes. Indian nuclear strategists like K. Subrahmanyam and General K. Sundarji emphasised the political utility of nuclear weapons rather than war-fighting. The same was also argued by the former Indian Minister for External Affairs, Jaswant Singh, in 1999, after India conducted the nuclear tests. This approach to nuclear weapons resulted in the formulation of India’s nuclear policy of credible minimum deterrence. The argument that India does not want to get involved in an arms race of any kind can be substantiated by examining the Indian nuclear doctrine as laid out in the PMO’s press release in 2003. It is clearly stated that India will retaliate massively against a nuclear first-strike. When examining the effectiveness of the doctrine against Pakistan’s decision to develop tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), former Foreign Secretary of India, Shyam Saran, stated that the retaliation would remain massive, irrespective of the scale of the first strike against India. This underlines the position that India will not engage in production of TNWs and will continue to deter TNWs’ use by any of its adversary by maintaining a credible second strike retaliatory capability. Some have used the modernisation of the delivery vehicles by India as an example to argue that India is moving away from its strategy of credible minimum deterrence. But as Arun Vishwanathan has already explained, the efforts to modernise the arsenal are essentially about making the minimum deterrent credible rather than about disowning the concept from India’s nuclear policy.

These two cases present a view on the utility of nuclear weapons and deterrence that is divergent from how they had been thought of during the Cold War. With emergence of the policy of credible minimal deterrence, some states have avoided the need to strive for numerical parity vis-a-vis their potential adversaries. The successful implementation of the nuclear policy of credible minimum deterrence in these states renders numerical parity no longer an essential for nuclear deterrence.


Image: H. Armstrong Roberts-ClassicStock, Getty

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

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas is an Associate Fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Physics Graduate and has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Bristol. His research interests include nuclear deterrence, coercion, and South Asian stability at the nuclear, conventional and subconventional levels of conflict. He was an SAV Visiting Fellow in 2015.

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3 thoughts on “Counter-Point: numerical parity is not essential for nuclear deterrence

  1. Very well argued mate!

    A more fundamental question here would be, regardless of the numbers, would it essentially have to go till the last nuke? So, for instance, once the major/strategic centers have been taken out, nuking insignificant areas wouldn’t amount to anything.

  2. Arka, a good counter-point. Could you elaborate a bit on the impact of competitors’ having differing views of the need for numerical parity? What impact does/could it have on an arms race? Were there periods during the Cold War where this dynamic applied?

  3. @Julia: To me, CMD is a convenient policy to adopt because, at least ideally speaking, it does not rely on the strengths and numbers of the opponents nuclear arsenal and rather depends on how one defines sufficiency for itself. Again the emphasis has to be given on the strategic use on nuclear weapons. If one can successfully use its strategic weapons to deter the use of tactical ones by its adversary, then I do not see how differing views of the adversary on the use of nuclear weapons and on the need for numerical parity can have any impact. From that angle, such an approach can really help avoid a nuclear arms race. I will have to examine further the development of nuclear weapons policy in the US and the USSR during the Cold War years to be able to assess if such a dynamic applied.

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