Strategic Space

Limited Use of Nuclear Weapons: Political and Military Implications

26 Dec, 2018    ·   5537

Dr Manpreet Sethi on the implications of a limited nuclear exchange as an old debate emerges once again



Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Senior Fellow at CAPS

Among the many things nuclear that 2018 will be remembered for, the rather cavalier statements made by leaders in the US, Russia and North Korea on the utility of nuclear weapons certainly stand out. Indeed, the US Nuclear Posture Review released early in the year, brought low-yield nuclear weapons and their limited use back into the nuclear discourse, even if others like Russia and Pakistan had already been touting a nuclear strategy of  ‘escalate to de-escalate’ for many years.

To go back a little in time though, it may be recalled that the idea of limited nuclear war had actually gained currency in the US in the late 1950s mostly as a counter to the doctrine of massive retaliation. It was propagated as an idea that could bring about an effective use of nuclear weapons as a rational instrument of policy by suggesting that means of deterrence be proportionate to the objectives at stake. Proponents of the concept of limited nuclear war argued that such an attack could limit the total amount of damage threatened, planned for and caused by choosing military targets such as missile sites, bomber bases or command and control centres instead of cities. Such an attack was meant to showcase only a sample of the destruction potential of the weapon in order to enable bargaining for an agreed termination of hostilities. In order to make such an attack possible, the focus accordingly shifted towards pursuit of counterforce capabilities of high precision and accuracy for more flexible strategic options for a ‘discriminate’ nuclear war.

However, the question that soon raised its head was whether it was at all possible to direct nuclear forces to execute a controlled nuclear response in a crisis. Many scholars pointed out that this would not only call for hugely sophisticated nuclear forces in numbers, types of weapons, and planning and command and control capability, but also the adversary's willingness to play the game of limited nuclear war. On both counts, the situation was uncertain. There was never any guarantee that the USSR would play along with only limited strikes of its own. In his book, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Lawrence Freedman rightly described these as “battles of great confusion; the casualties would be high; troops would be left isolated and leaderless; and morale would be hard to maintain. It would be difficult to ensure uncontaminated supplies of food and water or even of spare parts. The Army found it extremely difficult to work out how to prepare soldiers for this sort of battle and to fight it with confidence.” As this realisation emerged, the idea of limited nuclear war receded. By the 1980s, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev had reached the understanding that nuclear wars could not be won, and must not be fought.  

In contemporary times, as the idea of deterrence through a limited nuclear exchange resurfaces, the political and military implications once again need to be well understood. The belief that one could successfully conduct a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange, keep it limited, and somehow come back to business as usual is not only bizarre, but also has serious implications for military buildup. It will lead to a renewed focus on building more accurate counterforce weapons for precision targeting. Showcasing the feasibility of limited nuclear use will lead to a greater focus on the war-fighting aspects of nuclear weapons, and drive up tendencies for building arsenals with low-yield weapons and necessary counterforce delivery systems. Vertical nuclear proliferation may, therefore, increase, leading further to greater chances of deterrence breakdown due to miscalculation and misunderstanding.

Even more importantly, the taboo against use of nuclear weapons will be seriously damaged. The conduct of a nuclear exchange and the successful ability of the parties involved to keep nuclear war limited could set a precedent that others could be tempted to follow. The idea that two countries can survive a limited nuclear exchange and resume 'near normal' relations could tempt others to acquire small arsenals to settle scores with adversaries. Nuclear proliferation could then be on the rise. Another major impact could be a heightened possibility of nuclear terrorism by non-state actors, who might feel liberated from the pressure of the nuclear use taboo. In fact, a limited nuclear exchange is likely to bring about a sense of complacency in nuclear use that will be most harmful for international security.

In the final analysis, it may be said that a limited nuclear exchange would be a human disaster of significant proportions. Even if the countries are big, and resilient enough to weather such a disaster, a general sense of acceptability of using nuclear weapons will not only make all nuclear weapon possessors reassess their nuclear force structures and postures towards greater offence, but also seriously vitiate the global security environment by setting into motion a cycle of negatives. So, while countries may survive a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange in the short to medium-term, the world may not be able to do so in the real long-term, especially if others develop a tendency to follow this precedent.

Understanding these dangerous implications, India has developed its nuclear strategy based on deterrence by punishment. It does not believe in war-fighting with nuclear weapons and considers limited nuclear war an oxymoron. Its nuclear doctrine categorically establishes that retaliation in case of any use of nuclear weapons would be designed to cause unacceptable damage. The same thought was reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he announced the first deterrent patrol of INS Arihant. As other nuclear-armed states once again explore old ideas of limited nuclear war, India must stay the course on its stated nuclear doctrine and try to send this message across through the platforms it is able to use. May 2019 bring greater nuclear sense across the world.


Dr Manpreet Sethi is Senior Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.

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