Sunday April 21, 2024

Defence or deterrence?

By Raashid Wali Janjua
December 14, 2016

Defence and deterrence are the two notions in the pantheon of strategic ideas that confront a classic Euthyphro dilemma in the context of the Subcontinent. A question by Socrates best explains the above dilemma: Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?

Is deterrence good because it defends or is defence good because it deters? The above question is the riddle that has kept the peace in the Subcontinent hostage to the two countries’ quest for strategic one-upmanship. Glen Snyder, while reviewing Liddel Hart’s treatise, Deterrence or Defence, argues that if in response to the Soviet conventional attack in Western Europe, the US threatens the use of thermonuclear weapons, it would be a suicidal act. But the threat of that very suicidal act would ironically be the guarantor of restraint by the Soviet Union. 

How a nuclear war can be made fightable has been the main dilemma of nuclear strategists in the past. How a nuclear war can be kept non-suicidal against limited aggression by the enemy has been the main challenge confronting the nuclear scholars, such as Bernard Brodie, Lawrence Freedman, Herman Kahn, Thomas Shelling, and Albert Wohlstetter. Can we defend our territory against enemy offensive through a limited use of nuclear weapons? The question was first answered by Robert Christy in 1951 through his study, Project Vista, which envisaged the use of tactical nuclear weapons as a qualitative response against the quantitative superiority of the Soviet conventional forces. The Soviet Union, in turn, came up with its own version of the tactical weapon doctrine – escalate to deescalate – to deny nuclear escalation dominance to the US.

The concept of using tactical nuclear forces to act as tripwires for Nato defence in Western Europe in flexible response mode was a logical progression in the quest for fighting nuclear war following the deterrence-based notions of massive retaliation and mutually assured destruction.

Martin Van Creveld, however, was the first military thinker to debunk the concept of nuclear war fighting as mutually suicidal. According to him, “[a] nuclear strategy was no strategy as all notions of nuclear war-fighting had ultimately choked on their own absurdities”.

While the world learnt – to its chagrin – about the non-viability of nuclear defence, India and Pakistan, two newly nuclearised adversaries in South Asia, prepared to square off in a nuclear showdown. The space for limited nuclear war-fighting, that had been initially discovered and subsequently rejected in the West, was prised open by the nuclear rivalry of India and Pakistan.

It would be interesting to examine the relative nuclear stance in the strategic conflict equation of the two subcontinental rivals. India, as the conventionally superior adversary, preferred the use of nuclear weapons for defence if the need arose, while its offensive forces played their part to clinch the issue. Pakistan, on the other hand, relied on nuclear weapons as a form of insurance against Indian conventional aggression.

The space for conventional war shrunk significantly due to Pakistan’s credible minimum doctrine (CMD) that relied upon the selective use of its nuclear weapons against the countervalue targets of India, such as big population centres. The space for conventional war within this doctrine was reduced to a thin sliver between the international borders to the nuclear pain thresholds of Pakistan. The Kargil conflict enlivened the somnolent limited war theories into strategic salience. Indians started salivating at the prospects of rediscovering the lost space of conventional war in South Asia.

The near-war escalation of hostilities in 2001-02 underscored the dangers of a possible limited conflict, remaining short of Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds. Indians, in their quest to rediscover conventional war, invented the cold start doctrine (CSD). The strategy relied upon eight to 10 integrated battle groups comprising the infantry, artillery, long-range artillery and the tactical air force operating from close vicinity to international borders to nibble Pakistani territory and inflict attrition, remaining well short of Pakistan’s perceived nuclear thresholds.

Giving a bloody nose to a rookie upstart without invoking the ‘do or die’ response by India or its allies was the scarlet thread of the concept. This was an ingenious attempt to gain strategic advantage through the exploitation of conventional force asymmetry. Pakistan, in response, set about choking the very space the Indian war-fighting machine sought to achieve its strategic ends.

Pakistan’s strategic planners took a chapter out of the Christy’s 1951 study. It developed tactical nuclear weapons with ranges of between 60 and 80 kilometres, aimed at counterforce targets like Indian armour concentrations and infantry bridge heads, both across as well as inside own territory. Since Pakistan already had medium and long-range nuclear tipped missiles, the filling of the lowest tier through short-range Nasr missiles targeted at Indian conventional land forces’ offensive signified a full spectrum deterrence (FSD). As the CMD gave way to the FSD, there appeared an apparent madness to Pakistan’s tactical nuclear method. The use of short-range nukes in combat zones fraught with dangers of command and control and loss through enemy advance were balanced through deterrence by denial. This strategy involves the denial of the enemy use of the CSD because of fear of punishment by tactical nukes. Pakistan had apparently poured cold water over India’s cold start ambitions.

The Indians, meanwhile, continued with their own version of the FSD that could deter Pakistan’s nuclear advantage in the shape of a true second strike capability through submarine-based nuclear strike capability. Pakistan’s counterforce target approach was countered by a countervalue posturing, giving a clear message that any small attack against any force target even within Pakistani territory would be responded to by India’s available nuclear might.

The spectre of the renunciation of India’s no first strike policy loomed large in the absence of a true second strike capability of Pakistan. Second strike is the ability of a country to absorb the first strike by a nuclear adversary and then retaliate with its own submarine-based nukes.

Pakistan, therefore, stands on the cusp of a nuclear dilemma. It can either submit to global nuclear disarmament calls or remain hitched forever to the escalatory arms race in quest of the elusive holy grail of nuclear deterrence. Having crossed the nuclear Rubicon, a sea-based capability would be the last frontier to achieve lasting peace and resolve the dilemma surrounding defence and deterrence.


The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.