[Sansad TV] Diplomatic Dispatch | Nuclear Deterrence in Contemporary World

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  • Humanity has luckily survived 75 years without experiencing nuclear war, can one expect luck to last indefinitely?
  • In this article, we shall discuss about what raising the nuclear stakes meant for the war in Ukraine and for the world at large.

Nuclear Deterrence: A brief backgrounder

  • The principle of nuclear deterrence was born out of the symbiosis of the principle of military deterrence and the emergence of nuclear weapons.
  • It is a military doctrine according to which the possibility that a country will use the nuclear weapons it possesses in retaliation will deter an enemy from attacking.
  • The idea came to the forefront of US military policy.
  • It helps avoid a nuclear war as each side tries to secure their interests by avoiding a nuclear confrontation.

Understanding the logic behind

The basic principle of this logic is:

  1. One actor prevents another from taking some action by raising the latter’s fear of the consequences that will ensue.
  2. Hypothetically, if Country A launches a nuclear war against Country B, Country B will be able to inflict enough damage on Country A that it would lead to what theorists call “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).”

Logic: Nobody will survive to claim oneself a winner!

  • Thus, in a nuclear war, both sides will be so badly harmed that it will be impossible to declare one side or the other as the winner.
  • Even if one of them tries to attack and disable the nuclear weapons of its rival, the other would still be left with enough nuclear weapons to inflict unacceptable destruction.

Advantages offered by Nuclear Deterrence

  • Averting escalation of a world war: The threat of MAD is enough to prevent the world’s nuclear powers from escalating a conflict to the point that a military confrontation becomes inevitable.
  • Promote stability: Analysts claim that nuclear weapons do not just protect countries against use of nuclear weapons by others, but even prevent war and promote stability. Ex. Weapons for peace.
  • Increases stake and credibility of a nation: Security apparatus of a nation earns its global credibility. Having nuke inherently gives a geo-strategic advantage to countries.
  • Prohibiting coercion: The role of the weapon is narrowly framed for safeguarding against nuclear blackmail and coercion.

Limitations of Nuclear Deterrence

  • Increase in proxy wars: Nukes have not been shown to prevent proxy wars and acts of terrorism by various non-state actors.  
  • Unequal advantage: With the unequal distribution of nuclear capabilities in today’s world, certain nations are at an immediate advantage over other countries. Ex. Russian annexation of de-nuclearized Ukraine.
  • Complete deterrence is a myth: Several nations have armed themselves with highly maneuverable nuclear missiles that have much more destructive power to burst earth into dust.
  • Alternative warfare: There is no assurance of peace even both conflicting countries may possess nuclear weapons. Biological wars have replaced nukes that are silent killers in disguise. Ex. Wuhan virus pandemic.
  • Rise in cold and economic warfare: The world has entered into the phase of a new Cold War e.g. the one between US and China, economic sanctions against Russia, embargo on Visa.
  • Nonstate actors acquiring nukes: In worst nightmares, there is a likelihood that of inadvertent escalation due to acquisition of the nukes by Talibans or any other terror outfits.
  • Emergence of rogue states: Rogue nation or state regarded as breaking international law and posing a threat to the security of other nations. Ex. North Korea.
  • Limited nuclear war: In this each side exercises restraint in the use of nuclear weapons, employing small tactical weapons on selected targets. Ex. Pak Minister claiming ‘Pav-Pav kilo ke nuclear bombs’
  • Cyberattacks on nuclear command and control: China has been highly successful in manipulating power grids in Pakistan. This can also happen anywhere in the world triggering uncontrolled reactions in nuclear grids.

Problems with the logic of nuclear deterrence

(1) Limited American theory

  • There are many scholars who have expressed their scepticism about the logic of deterrence by arguing that just because it avoided a nuclear confrontation between then Soviet Union and the US.
  • The world and of coursem the global security exists beyond US and Russia.
  • It was the US who ushered nuclear era by bombing Japan and now sermons other to practice restrain.

(2) Still a unverified hypothesis

  • The logic of nuclear deterrence is not an established norm but a “hypothesis” and, thus, basing a nation’s security strategy on it is a gamble.
  • Nuclear deterrence is based on the assumption that a country will avoid starting a nuclear war in order to protect its own security.

(3) Who shall punish the rogues?

  • Another major flaw with this logic is the presence of many uncontrollable variables.
  • Ex. the control falls into the hands of the wrong leaders or a soldier deliberately starting a nuclear war to create mischief.

Why is nuclear deterrence still necessary?

  • Cost-benefit analysis of a nuclear war: It is a given that nuclear weapons can bring so much destruction that the costs of war will outweigh the benefits and this would “deter” leaders from engaging in nuclear warfare.
  • Impact of second strike is dreadful: There is a renewed threat of “second-strike capability” that keeps countries from engaging in nuclear warfare.
  • Acknowledged fact (even by the nerds): Leaders who are driven by personal interests are aware of the fact that no winner would emerge from a nuclear war.
  • Success of the theory: Despite China, India, and Pakistan having nuclear weapons, the region has been able to avoid a nuclear confrontation and peaceful resolution of conflicts.

During Kargil War, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Pakistan at the time, Shamshad Ahmed, told a Pakistani newspaper that Pakistan is willing to use “any weapon in our arsenal to defend our territorial integrity.” To this, George Fernandez, India’s then Defence Minister, responded that in doing so they would “liquidate” their own country in the process.

Nuclear Deterrence: Indian perspective

  • Nuclear deterrence can serve as a pillar of international security only in conjunction with negotiations and agreements on the limitation, reduction, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
  • Without them, deterrence fuels an endless arms race, while any serious crisis between the great powers will bring them to the brink of nuclear war.
  • India believes that nuclear weapons are political weapons, not weapons of war fighting.
  • Their sole purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine

  • This was first articulated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on May 27, 1998, days after India had undertaken a series of nuclear tests in Pokhran.
  • It outlined various principles:
  1. Building and maintaining a Credible Minimum Deterrence
  2. Posture of ‘No First Use’– nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian Territory or on Indian forces anywhere
  3. Massive Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be designed to inflict unacceptable damage
  4. Non-use against non-nuclear states
  5. In response to biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons

How India performs well on these lines?

  • On analyzing Sino-Indian relations, particularly the Ladakh stand-off of 2020, it is evident that both countries are careful to not use nuclear weapons even as a threat.
  • Both these countries have stated that both have declared No First Use (NFU) positions.

India’s commitment for de-nuclearization

India has always batted for a universal commitment and an agreed global and non-discriminatory multilateral framework.

  • It has outlined a working paper on Nuclear Disarmament submitted to the UN General Assembly in 2006.
  • India participated in the Nuclear Security Summit process and has regularly participated in the International Conferences on Nuclear Security organised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
  • India is also a member of the Nuclear Security Contact Group (but has signed off the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)).
  • India has expressed its readiness to support the commencement of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).
  • India couldn’t join the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) due to several concerns raised by India.
  • India has piloted an annual UNGA Resolution on “Measures to Prevent Terrorists from Acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction” since 2002, which is adopted by consensus.


  • Nuclear deterrence is not just a Cold War term but is extremely valid in a post-Cold War scenario.
  • Countries have understood the importance of nuclear deterrence and it plays an important role in designing their security strategies.
  • It is used by countries as a bargaining chip to deter nuclear retaliation by other countries.
  • However, it should be noted that nuclear deterrence is not the only answer to security problems and its application can be enhanced by using other strategies such as peace talks and confidence-building measures.

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