Nuclear deterrence – Why count nukes?

States embroiled in mutual rivalry have limited strategic options. They can pursue an offensive posture aimed at expanding their influence, territory, and resources. Alternatively, when states feel threatened, they can strive to protect and defend their territory and sovereignty – compelling them to maximize their security under the perceived threat of vulnerability. Whichever approach a country chooses, it must contend with a ‘quantity vs. quality’ conundrum, which is where the question of the need for parity will arise.

The ‘offense-defense theory’ helps in examining the India-Pakistan quest for achieving strategic stability in the region. Since the Second World War, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has greatly impacted the Offense-Defense Balance (ODB). However, with the development of nuclear weapons, the ODB shifted in favor of relatively weaker states as the meaning of military victory changed. In this regard, even the pursuit of retaliatory or second-strike capabilities by powerful states did not necessarily ensure survivability or security.

Reiterating the dictum that ‘offense is the best defense,’ the state on the ‘offensive’ as per the ‘offense-defense theory’ develops a force posture, achieves military preparedness, and consumes and invests capital into arms build-up “because offensive strategies generate more security when offensive capabilities are less expansive than defensive ones.”

The case of Pakistan is not different in this regard. The offensive-defense strategy of riposte (that surfaced during the 1989 Zarb-e-Momin conventional military exercises) was designed to address the security concerns of a conventionally weaker state. This strategy, buttressed by the country’s nascent nuclear capability, was aimed at denying India space for exploiting conventional superiority. More recently however, Pakistan’s introduction of battlefield nuclear weapons is perceived as a means to address the possibility of diluting the limited war under the nuclear umbrella optionin the shape of Proactive Military Operations being contemplated and believed to be partly driving India’s massive conventional military modernization and buildup. According to the ‘offense-defense theory,’ if the ODB tilts in favor of the offense, it would result in the creation of an environment that encourages situations conducive to war and crises in a regional setting such as South Asia.

The second argument assesses the validity of achieving ‘parity’ in the realm of the nuclear age. I argue that quantitative equivalence in nuclear weapons and capabilities is not mandatory for ensuring deterrence, as the mere possession of such weapons should serve to discourage nuclear aggression.

On the other hand, seeking numerical parity has traditionally been a dilemma confronting conventional deterrence. However, even in a nuclearized South Asia, Pakistan’s strategists did not find it feasible or necessary to match bullet for bullet vis-a-vis India (conventional capabilities). The primary reason why Pakistan placed greater reliance on consolidating its nuclear deterrent was an economic one – a smaller, struggling economy providing limited opportunities to enter into defense deals for purchasing conventional weapons. Pakistan’s quest for achieving a nuclear arsenal of a certain size – while maintaining a minimum deterrence posture – is the result of strategic anxieties resulting from conventional asymmetry between India and Pakistan, and that have multiplied after the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal agreement (by Pakistan’s calculations, the civil nuclear deal has placed India at a greater strategic advantage, giving it access to develop more fissile material for stocks by separating its military facilities).

I believe that the thinking on strategic issues still lags behind the thinking on conventional ones in South Asia, even after acquiring nuclear weapons (this concern was rightly pointed out by Hans Morganthau). Not only Pakistan, India has also overplayed its security obsession vis-a-vis China and further complicated the prospects for arms control by involving China in strategic triangle.

It is pertinent to reiterate that the acquisition of numerical parity is only relevant for a nuclear weapon state that has adopted a doctrine of nuclear war fighting. Given that the only rationally conceivable role for nuclear weapons can and should be in terms of deterrence, the question of achieving nuclear parity is inherently contradictory with the basic philosophy of deterrence. If we assume that ‘parity’ is not at all a prerequisite for nuclear deterrence, we see that states can indulge in massive build-up of strategic forces and triads not merely due to the demands of defense, but equally due to the dynamics of organizational interests, parochial mindset of the decision makers, and/or the measure of resolve to prove deterrent capabilities if a contingency should arise. Thus, in my view, the quantity vs. quality conundrum (i.e. the question of whether to pursue parity) is largely dependent on a country’s emerging and evolving force posture that is an instrument for its doctrinal and policy objectives.

South Asian Voice

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  • Rajiv Sharma

    Indian scientists and authorities are lacking expertise in handling sensitive and dangerous material related to nukes and gases. World community should ask India to stop further expansion of their nuclear and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programme. They must also stop making nuclear deals around and focus on improving relations with developmental projects.

  • Zeenia

    The regional context and the historical rivalry between India and Pakistan is a factor which can better elaborate the strategic interests of both states. Other than that any analyst before analyzing the politics of quantity vs quality approach of nuclear weapons must keep in mind the very factor of “Security Dilemma” which is quite prevalent in the context of Pakistan and India. As long as India would continue with its developing military and nuclear forces, making the other to be in secured Pakistan would follow suit and think of alternatives in order to counter the long standing conventional gap between the two states, thus maintaining the very policy of minimum credible deterrence.

  • Shirley Robertson

    War or no war?The first Indian miscalculation is obviously that it can wage limited war, damage or punish Pakistan and get away with it. This view is likely to enhance in an atmosphere of ‘Global India’ hubris. It is further compounded by Delhi’s aim of bearing a mantle larger than British India. The advocates of the ‘Indian Century’ consider Pakistan as a stumbling block to India’s larger ambitions. It is this grandiose obsession which may steer India towards the war path. India is also irked by rising China with whom it hopes to compete. Before confronting China, it may opt to deal with what it terms as the ‘Arch Rival on the Indus’ called Pakistan (even as it prepares for a two front war).By contrast Pakistan can also miscalculate in the opposite sense. Many Pakistanis confident of its nuclear prowess believe there is no chance of war. In case of conflict, this could prove ominous – ‘a Nuclear Ardennes’. Historically, Pakistan being peace seeking has been miscalculating India.Whatever Pakistanis may have

    miscalculated in 1965, 1971 or kargil is no longer a luxury available to us.

    (From the book, ‘Geopolitik Pakistan’ by Nadir Mir)

  • Ravistichagan

    India has been world’s top arms buyer for the last three years according to a report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The unbridled spending in military sector has reached to the peaks during last three years. Unfortunately, this blind drive for the arms accumulation and military modernization unleashes an unending arms race in South Asia which resulted in deterioration of prevalent strategic stability between India and Pakistan.

    Western governmental and private arms manufacturing companies are rushing towards India with the hope of landing multi-billion dollars and New Delhi is aiming to leverage some of that buying power to get transfer of technology and end the overwhelming reliance on imports. For westerns, India has emerged as new lucrative market for arms export. This situation will certainly lead to the emergence of neo-military Industrial complex in India which will surely affect existing state of affairs between India and Pakistan.

  • Abelard French

    Indian nuclear test in 1974 “The Smiling Buddha” brought nuclear weapons arms race in South Asia and its continuous missile development is bringing war on the door steps of many states. Eventually, not only regional but also the global strategic stability is in grave danger.

  • Eshel Dapez

    Traditionally, we have numerical quantity
    for the weapons. Now we have largely two kinds of weapons conventional and
    nuclear. India and Pakistan historic rivalry is an open secret. There is a
    conventional asymmetry between the two regarding the conventional setup; when
    things come to nuclear, it’s more concerned by establishing a deterrence
    posture. Pakistan openly declares its credible minimum nuclear deterrence
    stance against a specific traditional rival. Interestingly, it is the lethal destructive
    quality of nukes which established an environment of deterrence to avoid full
    scale war.