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January 16, 2015



Dangerous provocations

The concept of ‘limited nuclear war’ was first alluded to in the cold-war bipolar security environment as a potential alternative to a ‘full-scale nuclear conflict’ between two world superpowers, the United States and the USSR. In 1974, then Secretary of Defence James R Schlesinger, while briefing a Senate committee, pushed for a nuclear weapons doctrine, exploring the option of a limited nuclear war against the USSR in case of an armed confrontation.
His argument was that instead of only two military options, being either no war or total global annihilation, US forces must be able to launch a ‘limited strike’ on selected Soviet military troops and their bases. The basic idea was to limit damage to such an extent that nuclear skirmishes could not turn into a full-scale nuclear war. Both President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, supported the idea, characterising it as being conducted for the purpose of achieving swift political resolution of the conflicts.
Military strategists define limited nuclear war as a “war in which each side exercises restraint in the use of nuclear weapons, employing only a limited number of (low-yield) nuclear weapons on selected targets.” The goals in such conflicts could include disrupting enemy command and control centres or particular sites of strategic importance.
During the 1980s, the idea of limited nuclear assault was confronted with a great deal of opposition particularly from American academia. In actuality, the idea of limited use of nuclear weapons in a war was based on unrealistic notions that such a war could be winnable and controllable. Any limited use of a nuclear weapon, anywhere in the world, would have significant strategic implications for the changing international security landscape. It seems almost inevitable that, with limited nuclear war, there will be large uncertainties about the scope of conflict.
Any such conflict would quickly spiral out of control,

escalating into a full-scale nuclear war. With the cold war now in the past, appalling notions like limited nuclear assault are still very much a part of our public discourse. Though the likelihood of use of one or more nuclear weapons during a crisis or conflict is not very high, it remains a possible scenario.
Many nuclear experts are of the view that the nuclear-armed countries could become engaged in a limited war, entailing the use of nuclear weapons. It is important to remember that the concept of limited nuclear war originated during the cold -wr period when there were only a small number of countries with nuclear arsenals. At that point, the nuclear conflict scenarios involved only threats of confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union.
Today’s global security environment includes the nine declared nuclear-weapons states and there are deep concerns about South Asia and the Middle East as two flashpoints for nuclear wars. The increasing number of nuclear players is also leading to the greater probability that nuclear weapons can be used in the future.
It is generally impossible to forecast the initiation and conditions that could prevail in any such kind of limited war. It could involve varying attack intensities and timing, and with different objectives, all of which would increase the danger of the outbreak of a large-scale nuclear conflagration. Nuclear tipped missiles may suffer mechanical failure or deflection in flight, allowing for the possibility of missiles falling within one’s own territory.
A number of ‘outside’ factors could serve as catalysts for future nuclear use. After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, it is pretty obvious that another large-scale terrorist attack in India would bring South Asia to the brink of nuclear confrontation. In case Pakistan is overwhelmed by India in a conventional war, it will surely employ its nuclear weapons to avert defeat.
Similar fears have been expressed from time to time about the Middle East where Israel, if on the verge losing a conventional war, might use nuclear weapons. North Korea could get into a nuclear conflict with the US.
The advocates of nuclear war forget that even a limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, involving the use of five to ten weapons from both sides, would kill millions of people on both sides. The release of radiation due to nuclear explosions would set off a global famine in many parts of the world, effectively bringing human civilisation close to destruction.
In April 2012, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility released a study that predicted that a nuclear famine could kill more than a billion people. A billion people dead in the developing world is obviously a catastrophe unparalleled in human history. The planet would face similar apocalyptic impact from a limited nuclear war in the Middle East or anywhere in the world. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, few countries may survive somewhere on the planet but the chaos that would result from this apocalypse will turn this planet into a frozen nuclear wasteland.
We are no longer living in the early years of the post-World War II era when only the US was in possession of nuclear weapons. Due to the unprecedented nature of nuclear conflict, there are well-placed fears that any use of nuclear weapons could escalate into global nuclear warfare.
In 1983, Soviet Chief of the General Staff, Sergei F Akhromeev, said that a limited nuclear war between any of two countries was impossible. If nuclear war is touched off, it will inevitably become general, with all the resulting consequences. Countries like Pakistan and India need to learn lessons from the mistaken notions developed during the cold war.
Indian officials have made it clear that nuclear war cannot be limited and India would use at least a substantial proportion of its nuclear arsenal to inflict ‘massive punitive damage’ in case of a nuclear attack. Nuclear weapons must be eliminated before they eliminate us.
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