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NUCLEAR WEAPONS AND SECURITY:
THE ISSUE OF DETERRENCE


The advent of nuclear weapons poses a terrible dilemma for humanity. Is security-real and enduring-possible in a nuclear age?

There is, on one hand, the view that nuclear weapons are here to stay. Therefore we have no choice but to”live with nuclear weapons” and tht it is possible to do so with confidence. After all, haven’t we always lived with weapons of one kind or another? And don’t we legitimately strive for security, especially national security, through the possession and use of non-nuclear or conventional weapons?

In contrast to this view in the claim by many others tht there can never be enduring or adequate security except by “living without nuclear weapons” and that therefore there is no choice but to bring about complete, universal and permanent nuclear disarmament. What has been done by humans can be undone, indeed in the case of nuclear weapons must be undone. Moreover, we must do this as rapidly as possible. The longer nuclear weapons exist, the greater the chances of their being use, and the greater the possibility of a nuclear holocaust.

To understand why security in a nuclear age is possible only in a world without such weapons, we must grasp the fundamental difference between conventional and nuclear weapons. In the case of coventional weapons, one can, even if peace breaks down, use them to protect oneself or one’s country. But you cannot use nuclear weapons to protect your country or to achieve security. You can only hope that your possession of nuclear weapons will frighten a national rival (which also possesses nuclear weapons) into not using them.

This hope is justified by deterrence thinking. At the very heart of all attempts to justify the possession, development and deployment of nuclear weapons by a country-usually in the name of national security-is the concept of deterrence. The strategic case of having nuclear weapons stands falls with the strengths or weaknesses of the arguments for or against nuclear deterrence.


WHAT IS DETERRENCE, PARTICULARLY NUCLEAR DETERRENCE? WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO REST YOUR HOPES FOR SECURITY ON NUCLEAR DETERRENCE?


A state of‘deterrence’ is simply a ‘state of mind’! That is all it is. To believe that deterrence will always hold or to believe it will hold for whenever or whomever you want, is to believe in myth.

It is to believe tht the people you want deterred, such as the ‘enemy’ nuclear elite-the people in and out of government who shape or make the decisions regarding nuclear weapons-related activity (including the pressing of the nuclear button) - will always behave as the deterrer (your own national nuclear elite) will want them to behave, although this opposing elite is subject to a whole host of military, economic, social, political, cultural factors and pressures as well as variety of external and internal tensions and confusions which are never under the control of the supposed deterrer.

Pinning your hopes on nuclear weapons to bring about security is to make nuclear deterrence into a security doctrine. In its essence this doctrine when adopted, implicitly or explicitly by a country, becomes a conceptualisation, a rationalistion, that it is sensible and necessary to rely on the deterring capacity of weapons (ie. nuclear weapons) for one’s national security.

However frightening nuclear weapons may be, they can never deter certainly, confidently or enduringly. Those who believe we must always live with nuclear weapons are even prepared to claim that nuclear weapons can deter permanently. Nuclear deterrence makes any or all of these claims and is an internally incoherent doctrine.


BUT WHY DOESN’T NUCLEAR DETERRENCE WORK?


To rely on deterrence of any sort is to seek peace or stability by threatening the opponent, i.e. generating fear and hostility in the opponent. This heightens tensions. It is not an attempt to bring about greater peace through cooperation or reduction of mutual threats or hostilities but through the very opposite route. That is why such efforts at deterring so often break down. The contradiction inherent in deterrence - of tying war avoidance to war preparation, of seeking security through promoting hostility - is not necessarily fatal in the case of conventional weapons and warfare. You can have some security in spite of the failure of non-nuclear deterrence and the outbreak of conventional war. But you can never have any security if nuclear deterrence breaks down and a nuclear exchange takes place.

Thus a burden of expectation and hope is placed on nuclear weapons and their possession which is never similarly placed on conventional weapons. It is believe that nuclear deterrence will always hold for as long as you want it to although you can never control fully the conditions in which this deterrence is supposed to successfully operate. That is why to subscribe to nuclear deterrence as a doctrine or belief system is nothing but an irrational act of faith.

It is important to understand that nuclear weapons did not create a reality of deterrence. It was deterrence that was created to cope with the reality of nuclear weapons!

The only time nuclear weapons have been used so far is on Japan in 1945.


IF JAPAN HAD NUCLEAR WEAPONS THEN, WOULDN’T THE USA HAVE BEEN DETERRED FROM USING THEM?


It would not have been enough for Japan to merely possess nuclear weapons. To even hope to deter the USA two conditions would have had to be met. The USA would a) have had to have known that Japan had them, and b) that Japan could deliver them on the USA. So Japan would have had to use nuclear weapons either by exploding them in a public (and not secret test), or as is more likely, on some other country.

Moreover, if Japan had weapons what would have prevented it from using it on the USA unless it knew tht the USA had them as well? So the USA too, would have had to carry out a public test to show its nuclear prowess and not just the secret test it did at Almagordo if it wanted to deter Japan from using such weapons against it. In any case, what would have prevented Japan from using nuclear weapons if it had them against some other country in, say, Asia as part of its war drive?

In short, once we allow for systematic speculation about the likely historical possibilities if Japan had nuclear weapons, then we would literally have to consider not just the specific issue of whether or not the USA would have used nuclear weapons against Japan (ie. been deterred) but t allow for a very different history emerging with no guarantee tht the Axis powers - the World War II alliance between the dictatorship of Germany, Italy and Japan - would have been defeated in the way they were, or even at all!

The simple point is tht when pro-deterrence thinkers try to use a hypothetical historical example to support their case-if Japan had nuclear bombs they would have deterred the USA from using the,m during World War II - they just end up in a complete mess because logical thinking demands that they then allow for all sorts of ‘reasonable’ though hypothetical possibilities.

Much of what is called ‘strategic thinking’ is unavoidably speculative. But when it involves thinking about what countries might do or not do if they have nuclear weapons, it is all too often speculative in a particularly superficial and undisciplined way. When we use actual historical evidence, then far from, supporting the case for the supposed efficacy of nuclear deterrence, such evidence enormously weakens the claims made on behalf of the power of nuclear deterrence.


HASN’T HISTORY SHOWN THT DETERRENCE WORKS? AFTER ALL, DIDN’T NUCLEAR WEAPONS (THE FACE-OFF BETWEEN EAST AND WEST) PREVENT WORLD WAR III?


In fact, history shows tht far from increasing nuclear security, the possession and deployment of nuclear weapons, whether in the name of deterrence or as instruments of foreign policy, only increases nuclear insecurity! otherwise you cannot understand the nuclear arms race between East and West when both sides accumulated enormous overkill capacities, each sides arsenal being enough to destroy the world twenty to thirty times over. Can any ‘sensible’ notion of deterrence explain such insanity? The explanation lies not in the peculiar mental deficiency of us and Soviet elites but in the inherently degenerative or unstable logic of deterrence thinking that promoted an ever spiralling arms race!

As for nuclear weapons preventing the outbreak of a Third World War in Europe - this is a speculative and hypothetical explanation which should be compared to other alternative - more intelligent and plausible - explanations. To believe nuclear weapons prevented World War III is to believe that in their absence, World War III would have happened. But why should it have? World wars neither ‘happen’, nor are they avoided, because of the presence or absence of a single factor such as nuclear weapons! World wars take place because of a whole complex of factors operating in an extremely turbulent context.

The processes that can lead to a world war depend on a combination of structural and contingent factors and causes. In the case of the East-West conflict, the freezing of the status quo in Europe came about because of numerous factor4s creating and sustaining the Cold War, not from the presence of nuclear weapons. This is precisely why, when the Cold War ended, bitter conventional warfare broke out in ex-USSR and ex-Yogoslavia although the overhang of nuclear weapons in Europe remains very much in place!


WHY SHOULD NUCLEAR DETERRENCE THINKING PROMOTE AN ARMS RACE? WHY CAN’T INDIA ESTABLISH A STABLE SITUATION (OR WHAT IS CALLED “STABLE MINIMUM DETERRENCE”) AGAINST ITS OPPONENTS AND STAY THERE?


Nuclear weapons are quintessentially offensive weapons; they cannot be used ‘defensively’ to bring about security. If your opponent uses them first to attack you, he has a great advantage. (This, of course, is assuming he doesn’t create a nuclear winter worlwide through destroying the atmosphere - the critical point of explosion after which this would happen is not yet properly known:) your use in retaliation to such an attack can only be an act of revenge, not of security, and it may only instigate a further attack by the initiator. because there is such an advantage to the country which strikes first, deterrence thinking requires that a co7country set up what is called a “credible second-strike capacity”. This means tht your opponent should have strong reasons to believe tht if he strikes first you will still have enough weapons, delivery vehicles (planes and missiles) and enough of a functioning command, control,communications and intelligence system to carry out a second-strike which will so seriously damage the attacking country tht their rulers will decide not to strike first, i.e.be deterred.

it is clear that it is not enough to simply have a nuclear stick to counter an opponent’s nuclear stick. You have to have quite a few nuclear clubs. Moreover, if your opponent’s nuclear clubs get more and more sophisticated t hen so must yours, even if not equally so. If their ability to devastate your deterring capacities increases you also have to continue to make or try to make more sophisticated nuclear clubs of different sizes, shapes, materials, purposes, etc.

Technology doesn’t stand still. Nor does politics. To deter an opponent systematically and regularly means that your ‘credibility’ as a nuclear opponent must always be maintained. That is to say, both your will and your capability to use nuclear weapons as a last resort or in retaliation must not be doubted by your ‘enemy’ or ‘enemies’. So this ‘will’ must be regularly upgraded. A pattern of instiutionalised belligerence i.e. a hostility-induced and hostility-generating arms race is established.

To cut a long story short, there is no such thing as a “stable minimum deterrence”. Minimum deterrence is not a fixed position but a moving and unstable one, depending on the nuclear preparations and improvements your presumed opponent is making or can make.

Indian pro-nuclearists can never agree even among themselves on what constitutes an “adequate deterrence” against, say, Pakistan and China. So those at the extreme end of the spectrum who make the highest demands for a `viable’ weapons system invariably get preferred because if you have satisfied them you have more than covered what the `moderate’ nuclearists are clamouring for.


BUT ISN’T IT TRUE THT THOUGH A NUMBER OF COUNTRIES HAVE HAD NUCLEAR WEAPONS AFTER 1945 THERE HAS BEEN NO OUTBREAK OF NUCLEAR WAR ANYWHERE?


We cannot be confident that nuclear war will never happen. Nor can we afford to be wrong or make a mistake even once. We can also say with greater confidence and accuracy than our pro-deterrence opponents who dismiss fears of a nuclear outbreak, that as long as nuclear weapons are around they are almost certain to be used at some time or the other even if we don’t know exactly when. Furthermore, if you look at the actual history of nuclear conflict, especially between the East and the West, then there were clearly occasions when, either by accident, miscalculation or design, nuclear weapons came close to being used or detonated.

Perhaps the closest we came to it as a matter’s of design, was in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when very senior defence officials and civilian bureaucrats advised John Kennedy to attack first. This has now been revealed in recently released U.S. government papers. A number of former top officials who used to be pro-bomb during the Cold War have now said that deterrence thinking should not be relied upon.

General Lee Butler, former head of the USA’s Strategic Air Command said the world “survived the Cuban missile crisis no thanks to deterrence, but only by the grace of the God”. He also said that during the Cold War the honest truth was that the USA never felt nuclearly secure but constantly insecure. They were never assured by the so called state of deterrence apparently established by the respective capacities/arsenals of the superpowers.

There have also been over 224 accidents of various types concerning nuclear weapons systems. These have been classified in four ways:

Group 1 is accidental, unauthorised or possible detonation of a weapon;
group 2 covers accidental detonation without war risk but radioctive contamination;
group 3 refers to accidents to vehicles carrying nuclear weapons;
group 4 refers to other significant accidents.

In group 1 there were a least 10 such accidents. This record does not include an accident we now know about - in 1954 in North Carolina, a nuclear bomb accidentally fell off from a plane and five of its six safety mechanisms against detonation failed!


BUT WHY SHOULD WE BELIEVE THAT INDIAN AND PAKISTAN WILL REPEAT THE FOLLY OF THE NUCLEAR ARMS RACE BETWEEN USA AND USSR?


India and Pakistan are more likely to have a nuclear conflict than any other pair of nuclearly equipped rivals because a nuclear dimension has now been added to an already hostile relationship between the two governments. South Asia is now the only part of the world where a continuous hot-cold war has existed between the same two combatants for over 50 years. In short, the conditions for a spiralling nuclear arms race and constant tension (repeating the East-West experience) are very much in place.

The circumstances in which nuclear weapons are most likely to be used are, of course, in the framework of a war like situation or atmosphere where their use is most likely to be perceived as ‘unavoidable’ or in pre-emptive ‘self-defence’. The hatreds and hostilities associated with the existence of such an atmosphere are not far from the surface in the case of India and Pakistan. One can easily envisage circumstances in which they could erupt.

The conflict between East and West, for all their strategic posture, was essentially an ideological one. The conflict between India and Pakistan is a concrete one centred on disputed territory, historical enmities since the birth of the two countries, and geographical proximity. Another ‘hot’ war is a very real possibility.

Missile flight time between USA and USSR was 25 minutes. Here it is less than three minutes. There is not even time to reverse any fateful decision to launch a conventional or nuclear exchange via missiles.


WHAT ABOUT THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR BLACKMAIL, SAY FROM CHINA? DON’T WE HAVE TO DETER THT BY NUCLEAR WEAPONS?


Here, there is a question of logic and a question of historical fact. The question of logic is that to have any hope of deterring (in nuclear terms) a nuclearly equipped rival you have to have a second-strike capacity against it. The country which has most often attempted nuclear blackmail in an explicit or implicit manner is the USA. Estimates vary from 26 to 37 American attempts.

But to nuclearly deter the USA you have a ‘credible minimum deterrent’against it and the only country that has had this and still has it is russia. Even China does not have this. India can never hope to have this in the next twenty years or more unless the USA rapidly reduces its current nuclear arsenal. The only country to have carried out an action that some Indians called attempted nuclear blackmail was when the USA in 1971, if it was attempted blackmail, fail but there is no plausible evidence tht any act of attempted nuclear blackmail by any nuclear weapons state has ever succeeded. it is also a matter of historical fact that in the 34 years that China has had the bomb, it has never attempted blackmail against any country including India. Nor has possession of such bombs prevented nuclear weapons states from being militarily and politically defeated by non-nuclear countries and forces - China being bloodied in a military conflict with non-nuclear Vietnam in 1979, France losing in Algeria, Britain in Suez, the USA in Vietnam and Russia in Afghanistan.

One of the most important reasons why every attempt at nuclear blackmail has failed is precisely because nuclear weapons are remarkably astrategic weapons. Apart from the most dire circumstances concerning the self-defense of one’s country it is extremely difficult to justify their use by a possessor country even to its home population. Precisely because the use of nuclear weapons or even the threat of their use is so utterly disproportionate to whatever political ends governments may desire, their potential for blackmail can be safely disregarded. it is effectively nil.

The regime which the USA today wants to destroy more than any other is Cuba’s. It is using every political, military, economic and other means to strangle the country. But nuclear weapons are utterly irrelevant to this effort.


WON’T A NUCLEAR INDIAN AND PAKISTAN PROMOTE GLOBAL NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT BECAUSE THE OTHER NUCLEAR WEAPONS STATES WILL NOW BECOME MORE SERIOUS ABOUT DISARMING? DIDN’T THE USA’S ACCELERATION OF ITS NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAMME UNDER PRESIDENT REAGAN IN THE EIGHTIES ULTIMATELY FORCE THE USSR TO PRESS FOR NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT?


This kind of thinking is typical of pro nuclearist but it is again an example of inverted logic as well as being contradicted by the historical evidence. Does anyone believe that the usa, for example, can be frightened, awed or worried into disarming because India has developed nuclear weapons? Well, that is what the claim amounts to saying! In reality, hawkish behaviour by one nuclear weapons states. Hawks in different countries fed off each other’s importance and power.

The Indian nuclear elite has talked a great deal about how it had to have the bomb because of the potential threat posed by China and the fact that it is a potential nuclear rival. The truth is that China has never seen India as a nuclear threat so far and has not behaved as if India was such a threat. There has been no reason for it to do so. For China, the border dispute is a distant and minor matter though for the Indian elite it is something of a running sore which it constantly reminds itself of. However, after the Indian justifications that the bomb was partly directed at China, the latter country must begin to consider India as just such a nuclear rival; and if not now, then certainly in the future. And China will have to make its nuclear preparations (including targeting) accordingly. In short, India by its actions has moved a long way to making sure that China is no longer simply a potential nuclear rival but becomes an actual one. This increases Indian and Chinese nuclear insecurities.

As for the idea that President Reagan’s nuclear belligerence so worried the Gorbachev leadership of the USSR that they wanted to reduce mutual nuclear tensions. It is absurd to think that you should increase nuclear tensions by nuclearly arming in order to reduce political tensions! for over fifteen years now the political relationship between India and China was improving slowly but steadily. Now this decisive set-back will ensure that things will not be as they once were.

After a gap of 34 years, India and Pakistan have become the first new additions to the group of countries openly possessing and justifying their possession of nuclear weapons. t his will encourage other countries which have the capability but have not yet decided to go openly nuclear to do the same. They will cite the same kind of national security considerations and the same kind of nuclear deterrence arguments to justify their actions.

The prospects for making the world permanently free of nuclear weapons will be worsened, not improved, by more and more countries going openly nucelar. In truth, the mindset of nuclear elites eveywhere, dominated as it is by the concept of nuclear deterrence and its illusory virtues or strengths, is exactly the same. Only the nationalities of such nuclear elites are different and therefore the ‘national interests’ they claim to represent and fight for.

It is this mind-set, which believes so strongly in the value of nuclear deterrence, that constitutes the greatest single barrier to bringing about universal nuclear disarmament.

The single most important reason why it has been easier to move towards universal elimination of other kinds of weapons of mass destruction like agents of biological and chemical warfare is because those weapons have not carried the same baggage of deterrence arguments which have justified their possession, deployment and use for ‘national security’ or other political purposes.


Prepared by Achin Vanaik for MIND.