Nuclear weapons countries do not talk about what they consider enough to deter an adversary – and new nuclear weapons possessors especially do not talk about how much is enough. Try asking an official associated with the Indian nuclear weapons programme, “How much is enough?” and the response is the customary “a credible minimum deterrent.” I am not entirely sure of how this goes in Pakistan, but I expect a similar sort of rhetoric.

India and Pakistan are still experimenting and consolidating their ideas about what it means to be a nuclear weapons power, what should deterrence stability in their region look like, and what kind of nuclear force structures would they require for stable deterrence? The Cold War offers a mix of lessons for the two countries – including the absurdity of raising enormous arsenals and how the India-Pakistan nuclear deterrence equation is different from the U.S.-USSR one. India and Pakistan have borrowed generously from the deterrence literature and vocabulary that emerged, particularly in the West, through the strategic debates during the Cold War.

A precursor to the policy of minimum deterrence was the doctrine of nuclear sufficiency, which appeared in Eisenhower’s New Look policy of 1956 and then in the Nixon administration’s doctrine of Strategic Sufficiency. Asked what sufficiency in fact meant, Nixon’s Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard is known to have responded with the quotable quote: “It means that it’s a good word to use in a speech. Beyond that, it doesn’t mean a God-damned thing.” In its military sense, strategic sufficiency was understood in the U.S. to be the maintenance of a level of nuclear capability enough to threaten unacceptable damage on the Soviet Union so as to deter it from attacking the U.S. homeland and allies. The requirements for sufficiency were rooted in the ideas of damage limitation, unacceptable damage, and an assured second strike capability; which meant that U.S. nuclear forces were closely pegged to Soviet force levels (Tellis 2013). Military, bureaucratic and technical pressures allowed exorbitant arsenals to be raised to address strategic sufficiency. Then, when the absurdity of those massive arsenals was realized the idea of strategic sufficiency was used to call for mutual arms control.

Truer to the notion of nuclear sufficiency were the British, French, and Chinese nuclear arsenals – which have been based on the logic that nuclear deterrence simply requires a survivable retaliatory capability for imposing unacceptable damage without having to match the adversary force-to-force or warhead-to-warhead; but it implicates a certain balance of forces for mutual deterrence to work. The French, British, and Chinese have characterized their deterrents as minimum. Minimum deterrence is then really a notion of nuclear sufficiency. Minimum deterrence rejects large and highly survivable forces and makes no attempt toward nuclear parity with adversary (Basrur 2007). Except, here we are talking about sufficiency at low levels and quantitatively much smaller nuclear forces as opposed to the high levels of sufficiency maintained by the superpowers.

However, neither sufficiency nor minimum deterrence help us talk about what is enough or sufficient. Contrarily, given how elastic the notions of minimum or sufficient are, they help to evade the question of how much is enough. While Britain and France refuse to spell out the ‘vital interests’ that are to be protected by their minimum or small deterrent, the Chinese minimum deterrence policy is not a clearly enunciated one. India and Pakistan not only refuse to provide any quantitative indications about sufficiency, but continue to engage in an arms race while committing to minimum nuclear deterrence. Much as it is made to be self-explanatory, the credible minimum deterrence concept is complicated. Add to it the characteristic conflict between the credible and the minimum – what is credible may not be minimum and vice versa. The ‘dynamic,’ ‘elastic,’ and ‘unspecific’ credible minimum deterrence appears to allow within its conceptualization an expansion of nuclear arsenals in South Asia. It is no wonder that India and Pakistan appear to be sailing in the questionable boat of minimum deterrence.

There are perhaps no good or bad answers to question of how much is enough – after all even one nuclear weapon may be enough. Although calculations are possible based on targeting policies, yields and ranges of the weapons systems, and the nature of damage to be imposed upon the adversary, the question of sufficiency goes beyond the physical attributes of deterrence. Concepts like minimum deterrence and nuclear sufficiency can make a case for a small-sized arsenal, but are not handy for determining how small can still be sufficient or credible for deterrence.

One of the ways in which states have come to talk effectively about qualitative and quantitative sufficiency is through arms control narratives. It is helpful to remember that the U.S. and USSR began talking about numbers when they began to seriously engage in arms control negotiations. Beyond the question of numbers, the arms control narrative would make states talk about the kind of the force structures necessary for deterrence and the systems that could be dispensed with. Until then, suffice it to say that we are really not going to talk about how much is enough!


Image: James L. Stanfield-National Geographic, Getty

Share this:  

Related articles