Nuclear deterrence and its nuances

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Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunder Block 2 - Photo by Bakhtiar Ahmed

By Dr Zia Ul Haque Shamsi

Deterrence as a concept or a strand of strategy has, perhaps outlived its utility over the years and needs to be studied for its practicality. In the contemporary times, no sovereign state takes the concept seriously. Be it for the conventional deterrence or the nuclear deterrence, it has failed to avert limited wars and conflicts between the nuclear states and all-out wars and conflicts between superpowers and non-nuclear weapon states. Looking back in the history of the concept and the strategy of nuclear deterrence, it is evident that the sole purpose of its pronouncement was to avoid a direct conflict and an all-out conventional war between Cold War rivals: US and USSR, which could lead to an Armageddon. On that account, it served the purpose. However, in the twenty first century we see that no one state has been able to deter the other.

India failed to deter Pakistan and Kargil happened. US failed to deter Saddam Hussain and Gulf war-II happened. US failed to deter Taliban and Afghan war started and continues to date. KSA-led GCC failed to deter Houthis in Yemen and Yemen is on the brink of the worst humanitarian crisis. US failed to deter Iran and it continues to develop its nuclear programme. Again, US failed to deter North Korea and it continues to march on its plans to become a nuclear weapon state.

In the early years of nuclear doctrinal development, theorists concentrated on dissuading the adversary for not doing something which is likely to attract an assured retaliation of irreparable loss. While dropping the atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US was not concerned with any such retaliation because of its nuclear monopoly, and therefore did the single most horrific act of the history of warfare. However, as more nations acquired the nuclear capability, US thinkers started talking about averting the future wars. The first in the sequence was Bernard Brodie whose writings on the nuclear strategies are considered as foundational and credible stated that, “the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.” Brodie’s precepts on nuclear deterrence were considered as prophecies in the initial years of theoretical developments and his works and writings formed part of Congressional proceedings and academic learnings. Brodie, often referred as American Clausewitz, was responsible for an initial formulation of the nuclear deterrence theory as part of the US military strategy.

The most important thing in deterrence regime is to make sure that enemy takes you, your capability, your capacity to inflict an unacceptable loss to his life and property, seriously. If you fail to create a doubt in his mind about the resolve you have to eliminate him from the face of the earth, then rest assured he will not be deterred. You must create doubt in his mind that if he does not listen to you then he is no more. This is for the situation where you are on the offensive. However, if you are on the defensive, even then you must be able to create doubt in his mind that you do not care about the life and property of your citizens and therefore leave no stone unturned should the situation so arise and erase you from the face of the earth after surviving a first strike or even attacking you pre-emptively. While you are striving to create a doubt in your enemy’s mind, make sure that there is no doubt in your own mind that you will act regardless of the consequences if your vital interests are threatened, no matter how strong the enemy is.

Without going too far back in the history, one can recall Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan’s warnings to India in the post-Pulwama environment that ‘Pakistan will not think but act in the same way to India’s misadventure.’ India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not take PM Khan’s warnings seriously and Balakot happened. However, once Pakistan lived up to its leadership’s resolve and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) shot down two Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jets the very next day, PM Modi must have realized the importance of opponent’s warnings.

The lack of clear understanding about the concept of deterrence is the sole reason for its failure as strategy of war and conflict avoidance. The 21st Century leaders across the globe are failing to understand the concept and therefore getting engaged in violent conflicts with equal opponents as well as unequal adversaries. It is necessary that academia takes the responsibility to drive home the concept of deterrence and its efficacy as a strategy of war and conflict avoidance as was initially envisaged.

– Dr Zia Ul Haque Shamsi is the author of the book ‘Nuclear Deterrence and Conflict Management Between India and Pakistan’ published by Peter Lang