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  Opinion   Columnists  06 Apr 2022  Mohan Guruswamy | Nuclear bombast: Is there a method in the madness?

Mohan Guruswamy | Nuclear bombast: Is there a method in the madness?

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Apr 7, 2022, 12:39 am IST
Updated : Apr 7, 2022, 12:39 am IST

Since nuclear weapons cannot really be used, their only utility lies in the mere threat of their use

The threat of an implicit nuclear escalation is not all that uncommon. (Representational Image/ AP)
 The threat of an implicit nuclear escalation is not all that uncommon. (Representational Image/ AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently sent the Western alliance (both Nato and the European Union) into a tizzy by announcing that Russia had put its nuclear forces on alert. What he was ambiguously stating was that the entire panoply of Russian air and space defences will be on a heightened alert status.

These defences are meant to largely neutralise an incoming nuclear assault, leaving enough Russian “first strike” nuclear forces of land-based and highly accurate nuclear missiles standing to be able launch a devastating counter-strike. But what he was doing was to introduce a nuclear calculus into the security equation. He was telling the West that any attempt to impose a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine would entail an actual war with Russia. Then again, his closest adviser, Dmitry Peskov, reiterated that if Russia faced an “existentialist crisis”, it might resort to nuclear weapons.

The threat of an implicit nuclear escalation is not all that uncommon.

Many declared and undeclared nuclear nations constantly resort to it. Several times in the past senior Pakistani officials have warned that the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir could escalate into a nuclear war on the sub-continent.

These statements by themselves do not constitute acts that will push the South Asian nuclear clock any closer to Armageddon. Yet, this nuclear sabre rattling is not without reason and purpose. Even though there is little risk of a nuclear world war any more, because of their awesome power and potential to inflict sudden and massive violence on large populations, nuclear weapons inspire tremendous and often irrational fear, however infinitesimal the probabilities of their use.

Since nuclear weapons cannot really be used, their only utility lies in the mere threat of their use. In nuclear theology, this has come to be known as “the utility in non-use”. From time to time, declared and undeclared nuclear powers have tried to use nuclear weapons in this manner. The Pakistanis are only travelling down a well-trodden path. Each time the Pakistanis threaten us with nuclear war, what they are in fact doing is semaphoring to the rest of the world, particularly the Western powers that have taken upon themselves to supervise the international regime, to intervene.

In the early days of the Yom Kippur war of 1973 an incident occurred which tells a great deal about how the game of nuclear diplomacy is played. In just the first three days of the conflict, the highly regarded Israeli Air Force lost over 40 fighter aircraft and a huge number of tanks to the new generation of Soviet anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. The panicked Israelis turned to the United States for assistance but found them reluctant. Both President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger till then were of the opinion that a degree of battlefield reversal was needed to get an increasingly intransigent Israel to the conference table. Caught, in a manner of speaking, between the devil and the deep sea, the Israelis then played their nuclear card. The American surveillance satellites and high-flying reconnaissance aircraft suddenly began to pick up unusually heightened activity around Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona, near the Negev desert. An alarmed US sent a SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft fitted with special sensors to detect nuclear material over Dimona. Even as Israeli aircraft tried vainly to shoot it down, the SR-71 made its run over Dimona airfield and its sensors picked up the signature of nuclear material on a bomb conveyor apparently loading an Israeli fighter-bomber. To the advantage of the Israelis, the Americans read this as preparations for an imminent nuclear attack.

Would the Soviets sit quietly when their allies were subject to a nuclear attack? This would have been the immediate thought. Was this going to be the beginning of World War III?

Within minutes President Nixon was on the line to Golda Meir, telling her that a massive US airlift bearing much needed weapons and military advisers was ordered and that supply would begin within hours. When the tide began turning, a Soviet threat to the Americans that their troops would physically join the battle with all “available” weapons compelled the Americans to force the Israelis to accept a cease-fire. Thus, twice in two weeks, the threat of nuclear escalation had the desired outcomes for the parties involved.

In early 1952, as the Chinese poured troops into Korea to grind to a halt the advance of the US-led UN forces, a highly placed US diplomat in Geneva conveyed through Indian diplomat K.M. Panikkar a warning to China that the US would use nuclear weapons on it unless it agreed to talks immediately. China soon afterwards agreed to the talks, which resulted in the armistice that holds till today.

The 1962 crisis between the US and the Soviet Union, better known as the Cuban missile crisis, was again an exercise in nuclear diplomacy. The Russians had installed nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba because the Americans had embarked on a major effort to destabilise the Fidel Castro regime. When the missiles were detected, the US began a naval blockade of Cuba. A Soviet flotilla was halted on the high seas, bringing the Russians and the Americans eyeball to eyeball, making a nuclear conflict imminent unless someone blinked.

Clearly the threat of first use of nuclear weapons if provoked beyond a point could be often as effective as nuclear deterrence. In recent times, to give credence to their irrationality, Pakistan has deployed or claims to have deployed tactical nuclear weapons in some of its formations. Since a tactical nuclear weapon has a much smaller destructive power, its use is seen as somewhat more likely and hence more credible than a strategic nuclear weapon. A strategic weapon is a city or area buster, while a tactical weapon is said to have only a battlefield application.

Here the Pakistanis are using the Western abhorrence of nuclear war to influence Indian policy. They are not threatening India, because that is not credible, particularly since India has a much bigger nuclear arsenal and capability. They are in fact threatening the world that the balance of terror may be breached and wants it to intervene. Whatever the nature of this intervention, it is deemed to be in its favour. We saw this happen when within minutes after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008, Presidents and Prime Ministers from all over began calling our Prime Minister calling for restraint.

Tags: nuclear power, nuclear weapons