The Strategist

The Chanciness of Squirming Back from the Brink of Nuclear War

31 Jan, 2020    ·   5647

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar assesses the India-Pakistan nuclear equation through the hazards of hair-trigger alerts, and the vulnerabilities of weapons systems and command and control

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Distinguished Fellow

Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov, Colonel Second Rank of the Soviet Strategic Air Defence Forces, stood as watch-in-charge at the Oko nuclear early warning surveillance system at the top secret Serpukhov-15 complex in a South Moscow suburb. His duty was to monitor remote sensing data coming in from the Molinya satellite for an early warning of ballistic missile launches from the North Dakota plains, the location of Minuteman III inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) of the US' 455 Strategic Missile Wing. If a launch targeting the USSR was detected, he was to alert the Kremlin for release of a retaliatory strike. The process was rigid and beyond recall. At civil twilight (US Central Time) on 25 September 1983, the system reported the launch of multiple Minuteman missiles. Allowing for a flight of 25 minutes and decision-making-cum-retaliation time of 20 minutes, Petrov had less than five minutes to sound the alarm and set in motion the chain of a possible nuclear holocaust.

There was neither time for a re-check nor the luxury of second source validation. Given the gravity and tensions intrinsic to the situation, it must have taken enormous fortitude to make the judgement that he did. Petrov classified the six sequential 'missile attack warnings' as false alarms even though he had no authority to do so. This decision prevented a possible retaliatory nuclear attack and escalation to full-scale nuclear war. Investigation of the Molniya system later determined that it had malfunctioned.

The Stanislav episode occurred amidst three seemingly unrelated geopolitical events that sent the USSR and the US hurtling to the brink of a nuclear war. The deployment of US Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Europe in the autumn of 1983 heightened fears in the Kremlin of an accelerated (six minutes) decapitation nuclear strike, thus fanning the hysteria of imminent war. It was briskly followed by 'Able Archer 83' – NATO war manoeuvres intended to validate concepts for transition from conventional to strategic nuclear war. Sandwiched between these two events was the shooting down of Korean Airlines 007 on 1 September 1983 in Soviet air space, the run-up to which was marred by tensions caused by three US Carrier Battle Groups aggressively patrolling the North West Pacific. The background noise of Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative stoked a distressing strategic restlessness. Stanislav was an exceptional symptom of what went fortuitously right despite the paranoia that pervaded super-power relations.

The sub-continental nuclear context hardly echoes the scenario of 1983. However, when enquiring into relations between nuclear-armed states, there are three points that bear notice. First, a high operational state of military alert in a strategic fog of mistrust tends to generate a combative stimulus that places weaponry on a hair-trigger. While this may be unavoidable in the case of conventional ordnance, it must be sworn-off when it comes to the nuclear arsenal. The fact that it took one 'sane' man, ironically not in the chain-of-command, to avert a nuclear holocaust, is a chilling reminder of the hazards of a hair-trigger.

Second, states possessing nuclear weapons are faced with an awkward paradox: that of the vulnerability of both weapon systems and their command and control, and therefore, the continuous infusion of technology. With tactical nuclear weapons, there is strong motivation to counter vulnerability by sub-delegation of release authority; enhancing the likelihood of an unintended nuclear exchange. Third, the probability of a successful decapitating nuclear first strike is not only low on account of redundancies in the target state, but also ill-founded in the premise that it can annihilate leadership all together. These considerations are a vexing part of the sub-continental milieu.

Contemporary nuclear politics is also under stress for the want of stability in Pakistan’s body polity, clarity in command and control of the nuclear arsenal, and ambiguity in doctrinal underpinnings. These must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies of any nature will result in unpredictability and increase the temptation to take pre-emptive action. Even in a crisis, conventional or sub-conventional, the propensity to reach for the nuclear trigger must be abhorred. At the same time, recognition of having arrived at a threshold must be conceded. Against this backdrop, no attempt has been made to reconcile the predicament caused by intrusion of technology into the nuclear calculus and its impact on the arsenal as it compresses readiness and enhances lethality. From this standpoint, or from any, the significance of a policy of no first use (NFU) remains irrefutable.

No meaningful scrutiny of the sub-continental nuclear situation can avoid looking at either the tri-polar nature of the playing field or Pakistan's internal dynamics. China has provided intellectual, material, and technological motivation for the Pakistan nuclear programme. Its purpose is singular: to keep India-Pakistan nuclear relations on the boil while using terror organisations as instruments of misshapen military policies towards Kashmir and Afghanistan. The fear that elements of their arsenal could fall into extremist hands is real. State involvement in terror activities such as their damnable hand in the 26/11 Mumbai assault, sanctuary provided to Osama bin Laden, and Dr AQ Khan’s proliferation networks remain alive, and inspires little confidence of Pakistan’s intent.

The iconic Doomsday Clock has ticked its way to 100 seconds to midnight – the closest to disaster it has ever been in its 73-year history. It signals that the world faces an unprecedentedly high risk of nuclear catastrophe caused not only by the dismal state of global nuclear relations and uncontrolled proliferation but also by the menacing presence of terrorists. Military collaboration with a potential adversary is not a concept that comes naturally. Nonetheless, it is nobody’s case to argue that political objectives can be subsumed to military destruction, and when nuclear-armed, destruction would be of the very purpose of polity.

The world stands today on the cusp of an extremely dodgy situation; in part caused by reluctance to control the manner in which technology and political events are driving nuclear arsenals. Knee-jerk politicking of the moment shapes the arsenal of the future, while barriers to a nuclear exchange are lowered and political will to prohibit nuclear war erodes. This is the predicament that is faced by nuclear planners. There does not appear to be any other answer than to readjust postures and re-tool doctrines with the aim of holding back on nuclear weapons as primary instruments of military strategy – and a Stanislav Petrov can hardly be expected to make his appearance on-call.


Vice Adm (Retd) Vijay Shankar is former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command of India, and Distinguished Fellow, IPCS