Forty-four years after the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force, the world still finds itself perilously close to the edge of the nuclear cliff. The cliff is perhaps not quite as steep as it was in the 1980s, when there were more than 70,000 nuclear weapons compared to today‚Äôs 17,000, but going over it would be fatal for planet Earth. For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time. For nuclear Armageddon, deterrence or fail safe mechanisms need to break down only once. This is not a comforting equation.
Deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being always in office on all sides: a dubious and not very reassuring precondition. It depends equally critically on there being no rogue launch, human error or system malfunction: an impossibly high bar. According to one US study reported last year by Eric Schlosser, more than 1,200 nuclear weapons were involved in significant incidents from 1950‚Äď68 because of security breaches, lost weapons, failed safety mechanisms, or accidents resulting from weapons being dropped or crushed in lifts.
Paradoxically, the very fact that nuclear weapons have not been used again since 1945 is powerful evidence that their sheer destructiveness makes them virtually unusable. A second paradox is that while the progress in the dramatic fall in their numbers since the 1980s has occurred through bilateral agreements and measures between Moscow and Washington, their irreversible elimination will have to rest on a legally binding international convention. The prospects for such a treaty would be significantly greater if it were to be championed by a credible country from among the nine nuclear powers (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, UK, and USA).
India as nuclear disarmament champion
Nuclear leadership by India would be in keeping with the legacy of Indian initiatives on nuclear arms control and disarmament, including the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988; with the fact that India was the most reluctant nuclear weapons possessor of all the nine nuclear-armed states; and the somewhat incongruent reality that its official nuclear doctrine lists global nuclear disarmament as a national security objective. Inaugurating a conference on ‚ÄėA Nuclear-Weapon-Free World‚Äô at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, on April 2‚Äď3, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh affirmed: ‚ÄúAs a responsible‚ÄĚ nuclear-armed state, ‚ÄúIndia supports the idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world because we believe that it enhances not just India‚Äôs security, but also global security.‚ÄĚ
On 9 March, senior BJP leader and former Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha wrote a strongly worded letter to the PM demanding that his address to the conference be cancelled and the conference itself be postponed to after the elections. Sinha accused Singh of being the head of ‚Äúa lame-duck government‚ÄĚ and the conference of being ‚Äúill-designed and ill-timed‚ÄĚ because of the general elections. For good measure, he added that his perusal of the agenda showed the speakers to be mainly ‚Äúknown anti-India‚Ä¶ non-proliferationists.‚ÄĚ
He should sack the aide who provided him with this information. There were indeed some among the speakers who are strong advocates of non-proliferation and were never reconciled to India‚Äôs nuclear weaponisation. No seminar on the challenge of nuclear weapons can be balanced and credible if it excludes this important point of view. But most speakers were strong and passionate nuclear abolitionists, directing their arguments at all who possess and seek security through nuclear weapons that add hugely to the security dilemmas and dangers of the whole world.
Mercifully, Singh ignored the letter as part of the silly season of campaign politics. In his address Singh called for practical measures to ‚Äúreduce nuclear dangers by reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in security doctrines.‚ÄĚ He zeroed in on one particular nuclear doctrine: Because an increasing number of voices are demanding that the sole function of nuclear weapons, as long as they exist, should be to deter a nuclear attack, all the nuclear-armed states, he said, should join together to establish a global no-first-use norm.
No-first-use of nuclear weapons
Of the five nuclear weapon states (NWS), only China is publicly committed to no first use of nuclear weapons. Its April 1995 declaration opened with an undertaking ‚Äúnot to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.‚ÄĚ China urged all NWS to follow its lead in providing no-first-use declarations and concluded by calling for ‚Äúthe early conclusion of an international convention on no-first-use of nuclear weapons.‚ÄĚ China‚Äôs unequivocal no-first-use was reaffirmed in its 2010 National Defence White Paper: China holds that all NWS ‚Äúshould abandon any nuclear deterrence policy based on first use of nuclear weapons‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúconclude a treaty on no-first-use of nuclear weapons against each other,‚ÄĚ pending the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.
With little security justification, France remains strongly attached to its nuclear deterrent. While France will use nuclear weapons only ‚Äúin extreme circumstances,‚ÄĚ their role is not simply to protect France against nuclear attack but from ‚Äúany aggression against [its] vital interests‚ÄĚ by another country.
Russia‚Äôs 2010 military doctrine reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to any attack by biological, chemical or nuclear weapons on it or its allies, or if the country was under conventional attack and its very existence was under theat.
The UK states that it will only consider using nuclear weapons ‚Äúin extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of [its] NATO Allies‚ÄĚ but remains ‚Äúdeliberately ambiguous about precisely when, how and at what scale [it] would contemplate their use.‚ÄĚ
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) affirmed that the primary function of US nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the US, its allies and partners. The 2010 Non Proliferation Review was the first comprehensive reassessment of US nuclear weapons policy in a decade. Although nuclear weapons will continue to have a role in deterring non-nuclear attacks (conventional, biological and chemical), this role had diminished and would continue to do so. The NPR made no reference to no-first-use but did take a small step in the direction of ‚Äúsole purpose‚ÄĚ (where their only role is to deter a nuclear attack). The US is ‚Äúnot prepared at the present time to adopt a universal policy that deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of nuclear weapons.‚ÄĚ But it ‚Äúwill work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted.‚ÄĚ President Barack Obama subsequently asked the Pentagon to lead an interagency review to develop alternative constructs of deterrence and stability with accompanying force sizes and postures. Decisions on any new nuclear policy guidance and force levels have not yet been announced.
Of the non-NPT nuclear-armed states, only India has made a no-first-use commitment. India‚Äôs National Security Advisory Board published its draft report on nuclear doctrine in 1999, and this was officially adopted by the cabinet in January 2003. India, the doctrine says, will not be the first to use nuclear weapons but would ‚Äúrespond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.‚ÄĚ Confusingly and inconsistently, the 2003 policy qualified the 1999 absolute no-first-use formulation by opening up the possibility of using nuclear weapons in response to a biological or chemical weapon attack.
Pakistan‚Äôs nuclear doctrine is based, like India‚Äôs, on the principle of ‚Äúcredible minimum deterrence,‚ÄĚ with resort to nuclear weapons envisaged only in response to an existential threat which need not be the result of an attack by any category of WMD (biological, chemical or nuclear weapons). That is, Pakistan explicitly rejects no-first-use and envisages its nuclear weapons as having a role to offset India‚Äôs conventional superiority. The development of tactical nuclear weapons as a counter to India‚Äôs superiority in conventional arms, and to compensate for its lack of strategic depth, would seem to leave open the possibility of first use of nuclear weapons against India.
Israel does not admit that it possesses nuclear weapons and therefore can neither endorse nor reject a no-first-use policy. It has maintained a policy of ‚Äúnuclear ambiguity‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúnuclear opacity‚ÄĚ since the 1960s when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol declared that Israel would ‚Äúnot be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East‚ÄĚ ‚Äď nor the second, add some wags.
The utility of no-first-use doctrine and posture
Since the prime minister’s speech, reports have emerged that should the BJP form the government, it would look to abandon the no-first-use policy. When this provoked an uproar in the national and global media, party spokesmen quickly back-pedalled, saying that doctrinal issues were for the cabinet committee on security to decide on, not matters for a party manifesto.
It is simplistic to dismiss ‚Äúno-first-use‚ÄĚ as merely declaratory, and easily ignored in war time. In reality, a universal no-first-use policy by all nine nuclear-armed states will have a considerable impact upon the actual deployment and state of preparedness of the nuclear weapon states. For example it will make it possible to ‚Äėde-alert‚Äô nuclear weapons, i.e. take warheads off hair-trigger alert (at present Russia and the US maintain some 2,000 warheads on high operational alert). This will allow them to ‚Äúde-mate‚ÄĚ warheads from delivery systems, and ‚Äúde-target‚ÄĚ their missiles.
These crucial first steps, will reduce the trust deficit between nuclear weapon states and between them and the non-weaponised states. The new equilibrium this creates will then lay the groundwork for further gradual reductions in the number of nuclear warheads held by the various nuclear-armed states, followed by their eventual elimination through a nuclear weapons convention.
Ramesh Thakur is Director, Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University and co-editor of the recently published four-volume reference set Nuclear Politics (2014)