Strategic Space

Stabilising Deterrence: Doctrines Score Over Numbers

22 Aug, 2017    ·   5342

Dr Manpreet Sethi asks whether low numbers automatically help generate strategic stability


Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Senior Fellow at CAPS

In answer to the criticism from non-nuclear weapon states on lack of movement towards nuclear disarmament by the nuclear weapon states, the latter often highlight the reductions in their stockpiles as one step showcasing their commitment to this objective. Indeed, nuclear weapon numbers have reduced significantly in the case of the US and Russia. However, fewer numbers do not signify disarmament and eve more importantly do not automatically translate into strategic stability between nuclear-armed states.

The three nuclear-armed countries of relevance to South Asia have declared 'minimum deterrence' as an attribute of their doctrines. This means that none is likely to build the kind of runaway stockpiles that the superpowers had. The arsenals would remain relatively low, though each is maintaining the number as a closely guarded secret based on its own determination of the threats. Do low numbers automatically help generate strategic stability? Or could they actually foster instability since with small nuclear forces, the temptation to launch a disarming first strike would be high because of ‘use them or lose them’ compulsions?

Interestingly, as important as nuclear arsenals are for deterrence, numbers of nuclear weapons alone do not have a significant impact on strategic stability. This is, in fact, more a function of four other criteria:

• Role ascribed to nuclear weapons in national security strategy: Does a state perceive the utility of its nuclear weapons to undertake offensive revisionist actions, or in a defensive deterrent role narrowly defined against an adversary’s nuclear weapons?

• Modus of imposing deterrence: Does a state seek to achieve deterrence through projection of high or low nuclear thresholds? This, then, reflects in the desire - or lack thereof - for instruments to establish deterrence stability. For instance, since Pakistan derives its deterrence from projecting a low threshold and instability in use of nuclear weapons, it has little interest in strong instruments that promote deterrence stability.

• Nature of doctrine: Does a state prefer a doctrine that seeks enhancement of deterrence through ambiguity or clarity? Further, is it interested in projecting an offensive/first use or defensive/no first use doctrine as a means of deterrence?

• Nature of command and control: Does a state have a centralised or delegative system of command and control? Projection of battlefield use of nuclear weapons presupposes a delegative command and control in order to establish the credibility of first use a means of deterrence.

The primary objective that a state seeks from its nuclear weapons determines the kind of doctrine it articulates and the kind of command and control it establishes for credible deterrence. These manifestations allow for, or inhibit strategic stability in a nuclear dyad. For instance, a state that hopes to alter the status quo with a nuclear-armed adversary is prone to use its nuclear weapons to guard against a response by indicating a quick propensity to use nuclear weapons. It, therefore, can afford only a first use doctrine. If the other side, too, has a similar approach and doctrine, then crisis instability is inevitable. In South Asia, Pakistan is the only one of the three countries to profess such a doctrine. India and China share a greater sense of nuclear stability owing to the doctrinal consonance of their no first use (NFU) doctrines. In fact, the India-Pakistan dyad, too, is granted a certain level of stability because of India's commitment to NFU. 

Doctrines, therefore, have a huge impact on strategic stability and this is best exemplified by the NFU - a concept that is inadequately understood or accepted in the West and inadequately explained by the two countries that do profess it. In modern times, every nuclear-armed state has a secure second strike capability that rules out the possibility of a decapitating or a disarming first strike. In such a situation, then, the first user cannot hope to escape nuclear retaliation, and it certainly cannot hope to come out looking better after its first use of nuclear weapons. Indeed, first use may actually turn out to be suicidal. NFU, on the contrary, has the potential to lessen inter-state tensions, increase mutual confidence, and thus reinforce a cycle of positives. In fact, NFU allows even the first user to have a relatively relaxed posture since it is not under pressure to use nuclear weapons early lest it was to lose them to preemption. At low nuclear numbers, in fact, an NFU is even more relevant to avoid any temptations for oneself and for the adversary.

Stability at low numbers, therefore, also requires that are suited to stability. An NFU doctrine is one such candidate. If all nuclear-armed states were to accept this, it would over time lead to a fall in the value of nuclear weapons. Who would want to retain or obtain a weapon that was under a universal NFU norm/treaty? This decrease in salience of the weapon could then enable its elimination. In fact, a focus on numbers alone would mean little unless the overall salience of nuclear weapons is addressed, too. 

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