Managing the China, India and Pakistan Nuclear Trilemma: Ensuring Nuclear Stability in the New Nuclear Age

At one level, the existing nuclear order has been a success – the nuclear taboo has held for over 75 years; nuclear weapon stockpiles have come down from 70000 weapons in the early 1980s to 15000 today; and only four countries are outside the NPT. And yet, there is a chorus of concern that nuclear risks are rising. Why?

A paper published by the Journal for Peace and Disarmament that will appear later in 2023 as a chapter in a forthcoming title

Harmonising the NPT and Ban Treaty in Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures

Nuclear risk has always cast a shadow over the world since the beginning of the nuclear age. Since the 1960s, the NPT was seen as the only near universal treaty but today, many NPT member states are so disappointed with it that they have helped negotiate the Ban Treaty, as the decisive step to delegitimise nuclear weapons and reduce nuclear risks. Can this be a step in the right direction? Can it help redefine a new global nuclear order?

I have contributed a chapter in the book – The Nuclear Ban Treaty

Nuclear Asymmetry and Escalation Dynamics

In a paper for the Chao Track (a Track II initiative between India and Pakistan) I examine the nuclear dynamics between India and Pakistan by examining the various crises that have challenged the leadership in both countries since the 1980s. Conclusion-the two countries must have a strategic dialogue to ensure that miscalculations do not lead to inadvertent escalation.

The Old But Relevant Script of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Published in the Hindu on October 28, 2022

“Tell me how it ends”, is the common refrain of generals and leaders when in the middle of a war. The Ukraine war is no exception. Neither President Volodymir Zelensky or his Western partners, nor his Russian adversary, President Vladimir Putin, can predict how the war will end.

Earlier assumptions have been upended – Russia’s short ‘special military operation’ to ‘de-Nazify and de-militarise’ Ukraine is already a nine-month-war, and likely to extend into 2023; trans-Atlantic North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) unity under U.S. leadership despite visible internal differences hasn’t collapsed; President Zelensky’s emergence as a wartime leader is surprising; and, poor Russian military planning and performance, a shock. For the present, Russia is too strong to lose and Ukraine, despite NATO support, too weak to win; so, the war grinds on with no ceasefire in sight.

Yet, there is one outcome that must be prevented – a breakdown of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 and a global conscience has sustained the nuclear taboo for over 75 years. None of the three principals in Ukraine would want the taboo breached. However, escalation creates its own dynamic.

Lessons from Cuba

It is time to revisit the sobering lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis that brought the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon in October 1962, as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. On October 16, 1962, U.S. President John F Kennedy was informed that the U.S.S.R. was preparing to deploy medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. After deliberating with his core group of advisers, President Kennedy rejected the idea of an invasion or a nuclear strike against Moscow, and on October 22, declared a naval ‘quarantine’ of Cuba. Simultaneously, he authorised his brother Robert Kennedy to open a back-channel with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. 

The crisis defused on October 28; based on assurances conveyed through the back-channel, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev announced that Soviet nuclear missiles and aircraft would be withdrawn in view of U.S. assurances to respect Cuba’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. What was kept a secret by both leaders was the fact that reciprocally, the U.S. also agreed to withdraw the Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey.

Yet, there were plenty of unforeseen events. On October 27, a U.S. surveillance flight strayed over Cuban airspace and was targeted by Soviet air defence forces who were deployed. Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down, the only casualty. This happened despite Kennedy having counselled desisting from provocative surveillance and Khrushchev not having authorised the engagement. Both sides kept the news under wraps till the crisis defused when Major Anderson’s sacrifice was recognised and honoured.

A day earlier, a Soviet nuclear armed submarine B-59 found itself trapped by U.S. depth charges, off Cuban waters. The U.S. was unaware that the submarine was nuclear armed and Captain Valentin Savitsky did not know that a quarantine was in operation. He decided to go down fighting but his decision to launch a nuclear bomb was vetoed by Captain Vassily Arkhipov. The Soviets followed a two-person-authorisation-rule and unknown to Kennedy and Khrushchev, a potential Armageddon was averted.

The most shocking revelation emerged decades later when the U.S. learnt that unbeknownst to them, over 150 warheads for FKR-1 Meteor missile, short range FROG missile, and gravity bombs were already present in in Cuba. These were intended for defence in case U.S. launched a repeat of the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s opposition, Premier Khrushchev insisted on withdrawing these too, conscious that these could provide the spark for a future escalation.

The key lesson learnt was that the two nuclear superpowers should steer clear of any direct confrontation even as their rivalry played out in other regions, thereby keeping it below the nuclear threshold. Deterrence theorists called it ‘the stability-instability-paradox’. With their assured-second-strike-capability guaranteeing mutually-assured-destruction, both U.S. and U.S.S.R were obliged to limit the instability to proxy wars. Nuclear war games over decades remained unable to address the challenge of keeping a nuclear war limited once a nuclear weapon was introduced in battle.

Russia’s nuclear signalling

The Ukraine war is testing the old lessons of nuclear deterrence.  Russia sees itself at war, not with non-nuclear Ukraine, but with a nuclear armed NATO. President Putin has therefore engaged in repeated nuclear signalling – from being personally present in mid-February at large scale exercises involving ‘strategic forces’ to placing nuclear forces on ‘special combat alert’ on February 27.

He raised the stakes again on September 21 when he ordered a ‘partial mobilisation’, announced referendums in the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, accused the West of engaging in nuclear blackmail and warned that Russia has ‘more modern weapons’ and ‘will certainly make use of all weapon systems available; this is not a bluff’. He cited U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as a precedent.

In recent days, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has spoken to his counterparts in a number of countries including defence Minister Rajnath Singh that Ukraine may be preparing to use a ‘dirty bomb’. India’s response was that any use of such weapons would be against “the basic tenets of humanity”.

However, Russian nuclear use makes little operational sense. In 1945, Japan was on the verge of surrender and only the U.S. possessed nuclear weapons. Use of a tactical nuclear weapon will only strengthen Ukrainian national resolve; NATO response is unlikely to be nuclear but will be sharp. International political backlash would be significant and Mr. Putin may find himself increasingly isolated. Many countries in East and Central Asia may will reconsider nuclear weapons as a security necessity.

Role for global diplomacy

During the next few weeks, the fighting in Ukraine will intensify, before winter sets in and the weather freezes military operations till spring. This raises the risks for escalation and miscalculations. Right now, the goal of a ceasefire seems too distant, though eminently desirable. The United Nations appears paralysed given the involvement of permanent members of the Security Council. Therefore, it is for other global leaders who have access and influence, to convince President Putin that nuclear escalation would be a disastrous move.

Indonesia is the G-20 chair and President Joko Widodo will be hosting the summit meeting next month. India is the incoming chair; Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending the summit. Both Indonesia and India have refrained from condemning Russia, keeping communication channels open. In a bilateral meeting with President Putin in Samarkand last month, PM Modi emphasised that “now is not the era of war”. In the run-up to the G-20 summit, President Widodo and PM Modi are well placed to take a diplomatic initiative to persuade President Putin to step away from the nuclear rhetoric. This means emphasising the deterrent role of nuclear weapons and not expanding it; to reiterating Russia’s official declaratory position that restricts nuclear use for “an existential threat”.

Such a statement would help reduce growing fears of escalation and may also provide a channel for communication and open the door for a dialogue that can lead to a ceasefire. The lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis remain valid 60 years later.

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The NPT is Beginning to Look Shaky

Published in The Hindu on September 3, 2022

The Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concluded last week in New York. Marking 52 years of a treaty that every speaker described as the ‘cornerstone of the global nuclear order’ – it was originally planned for its 50th year for 2020, but the conference was delayed due to COVID-19 – it should have been a celebratory occasion, yet, the mood was sombre. And after four weeks of debate and discussion, the delegates failed to agree on a final document.

NPT’s success and weakness

To manage the disappointment, some staunch believers claimed that the success should not be defined in terms of a consensus outcome! It is true that since 1970, when the NPT entered into force, only four of the 10 review conferences (in 1975, 1985, 2000 and 2010) have concluded with a consensus document, the review years were 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2022. Ironically, even the critical 1995 Review Conference that decided to extend the NPT into perpetuity, broke down weeks later over the review process.

However, there was one key difference in 2022. In the past, the divergences were over Iran, Israel, the Middle East or between the nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots. The three depositary states (the United States, the United Kingdom and the U.S.S.R./Russia) were always on the same page. The difference in 2022 was that it pitched Russia against the West; it was the inability to find language to address the nuclear safety crisis at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, under Russian occupation since March, that ultimately led to the failure.

The NPT was negotiated during the 1960s to reconcile three competing objectives – controlling the further spread of nuclear weapons beyond the P-5 countries (the U.S., the U.S.S.R., the U.K, France and China) that had already tested; committing to negotiating reductions of nuclear arsenals leading to their elimination; and sharing benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. The first was strongly supported by the nuclear-haves; the latter two were demands made by the nuclear have-nots.

Over the years, the non-proliferation objective has been achieved in large measure. Despite apprehensions that by 1980s, there would be close to 25 nuclear powers, in the last 50 years, only four more countries have gone on to test and develop nuclear arsenals – India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan (South Africa developed nuclear weapons but the apartheid regime destroyed them and joined NPT in 1991 before relinquishing power to majority rule). After the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, non-proliferation remained a shared priority for the major powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency, set up originally to promote international co-operation became better known as the non-proliferation watchdog.

Progress on the other two aspects took a back seat; no meaningful discussions or negotiations on nuclear disarmament have ever taken place in the NPT framework. In fact, in the early 1980s, there was a growth in nuclear arsenals. Arms control talks between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R./Russia did take place and the two countries did succeed in bringing down their collective arsenals from a high of nearly 65000 in the early 1980s to less than 12000 warheads. But this process too has ground to a halt.

The first signal was the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 on the grounds that it unduly constrained its missile defence activities. Limits imposed by the ABM Treaty had been a critical element in creating mutual vulnerability as a means of underwriting deterrence stability. It was unipolar world with the U.S. as the dominant power. Russia gradually responded by embarking on its nuclear modernisation.

In 2019, the U.S. notified Russia of its decision to quit the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that had obliged both countries to get rid of all ground launched missiles with a range of 500-5500 kms. The U.S. blamed Russia for cheating on its obligations and pointed out that China’s missile developments created new security threats that needed to be addressed. U.S. was now facing two strategic rivals.

The only surviving arms control treaty between Russia and the U.S. is the New START Treaty that imposes a ceiling on operational strategic nuclear weapons of 700 launchers and 1550 warheads each. It expires in 2026 and there are no signs of any follow-on discussions.

Attempts by the Donald Trump administration to invite China to join in the arms control process were rejected. Given growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait, any prospects for such talks have only receded.

All that the five nuclear-weapon-states party to the NPT could manage at the Conference was a reiteration of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The statement remains valid but clearly sounded hollow in the face of growing strategic rivalry between China, Russia and the U.S, rising nuclear rhetoric and modernisation plans for nuclear arsenals being pursued.

Nuclear modernisation

While the Joe Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is awaited, the U.S.’s 30-year nuclear modernisation programme, intended to provide ‘credible deterrence against regional aggression’ is already underway. This has been used to justify developing and deploying more usable low-yield nuclear weapons.

Russia (and China too) is developing hypersonic delivery systems that evade missile defences as well as larger missiles that do not need to travel over the Arctic. Also on the cards are nuclear torpedoes and new cruise missiles. Last year, satellite imagery over China revealed at least three new missile storage sites being developed. Analysts suggest that China may be on track to expand its arsenal from current levels of approx. 350 warheads to over a thousand by 2030. Such a dramatic expansion raises questions about whether this marks a shift in Chinese nuclear doctrine that has relied on a credible minimum deterrent and a no-first-use policy for the last six decades.

 Developments in space and cyber domains are blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons lead to nuclear entanglement and render command and control systems vulnerable. This, in turn, compresses decision making time and creates incentives for early use, raising nuclear risk.

At the Conference, France, the U.K. and the U.S. wanted to draw a distinction between “irresponsible” nuclear threats of an offensive nature and “responsible” nuclear threats for defensive purposes but Russia (and China) stymied Western efforts. When the nuclear have-nots suggested a universal condemnation of all threats of nuclear use, all five nuclear-haves joined together to resist such moves. This reflects an emerging divide.

Other treaties, their state

Frustrated by the absence of progress on nuclear disarmament, the nuclear have-nots successfully negotiated a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, also called Ban Treaty) in 2017 that entered into force in January 2021. All 86 signatories are nuclear have-nots and parties to the NPT. The TPNW creates a new legal instrument and at their meeting in June in Vienna, the TPNW states committed to pushing for ‘stigmatising and de-legitimising’ nuclear weapons, condemning all nuclear threats and ‘building a robust global peremptory norm against them’. Expectedly, the nuclear-haves and their allies ignored the Vienna meeting but will find it increasingly difficult to overlook this political reality as more and more NPT colleagues call their bluff.  

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was concluded in 1996 but has yet to formally enter into force because two major powers, U.S. and China, have yet to ratify it. While it is true that they do observe a moratorium on nuclear testing, but the modernisation plans could soon run up against the CTBT.

Nobody wants a breakdown of the NPT but sustaining it requires facing up to today’s political realities. The rivalries in a multipolar nuclear world create new challenges, different from what the world faced in a bipolar era of the 1960s when the NPT was concluded. Without addressing the new challenges, the NPT will weaken and with it, the taboo against nuclear weapons that has held since 1945.

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