OPED By Gp Cpt TP Srivastava
On April 26, 2023, the US announced that it had agreed to give South Korea a central role in the strategic planning for using nuclear weapons in any conflict with North Korea. In return, South Korea agreed not to pursue its own nuclear arsenal.
The deal was announced during President Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to Washington. South Korea has been assured that the US will use its nuclear arsenal against North Korea if South Korea is threatened with a nuke strike. The US has called this concept ‘Extended Deterrence.’
What an outstanding accomplishment by the US toward maintaining and promoting world peace!
July 16, 1945, changed the world. The first nuclear device produced by Project Manhattan, ‘The Gadget,’ was mounted atop a 100 feet tower and exploded in a remote New Mexico desert.
World has never been and never will be the same again. The devastating power of the atom promises to wipe out life on Earth. No meteorite strikes are needed. We can do it ourselves.
The invention of ‘The Gadget’ not only ushered in the era of nuclear blackmail but also created a wide and unbridgeable chasm amongst the world nations. An irreversible process of producing the weapon of mass destruction had begun.
‘The Gadget Class’ nations divided the world into Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) on January 1, 1967.
China, France, the UK, the US, and then USSR declared ‘themselves’ as the only legal members of the NWS club. The rest of the world automatically became involuntary members of the NNWS club.
In hindsight, if this categorization were not done, perhaps fewer nations than the dozen-odd (India included) would have gone nuclear.
The US unleashed the hitherto unknown and unseen power of nuclear weapons by dropping two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9).
On August 12, 1945, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, while agreeing to surrender to Allied forces, said:
“The enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”
After witnessing the devastation caused by nuclear weapons exploding over Japan, a new term took birth. Nukes were/are called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
The catastrophic potency of nukes made them an ‘impotent’ weapon because nations were scared to use them. During the Cold War era, nukes acted as a deterrence.
Damocles’ sword hanging perpetually over the heads of NNWS inspired many nations to acquire nukes to avoid nuclear blackmail by an NWS.
Thus WMDs might ensure a continuous state of uneasy peace among hostile nations/neighbors possessing nukes, irrespective of their conventional military power and economy. What an irony!
Post 2nd World War Nuclear Proliferation
At the end of the Second World War, the US was the only NWS (although this term was not coined then). USSR followed suit to maintain parity. US intervention in the Korean War and the direct threat to the PRC (China) of a nuke strike (ironically, the US threat was conveyed through the Indian Embassy) forced China to go nuclear in 1964.
France and UK had also joined the club. The NWS status gave these five nations the authority to sit at the ‘head’ of the table. They are permanent members of the UNSC at the United Nations.
For two reasons, the devastating power of even a low-yield nuclear weapon (used against Japan) resulted in smaller nations aspiring to develop a nuke, the currency of ultimate power. Firstly, the potency of the nukes rendered the weapon ‘impotent’ because even the mightiest nation would not dare to resort to a nuke strike on a tiny country possessing nukes.
Secondly, no nation, irrespective of their might, could destroy all the nukes of a tiny adversary a few thousand kilometers away in the first strike. A retaliatory strike by the affected nation was a logical conclusion. The drama, in real-time, is being played out by the US and North Korea as of date.
Evolution Of Nukes Delivery Systems
It took nearly 20 years for the strategists to realize that the non-proliferation of delivery system technology was possibly more important than controlling/containing/denying the enrichment technology. A weapon without a delivery system is useless, for it cannot be unleashed on the enemy.
The wise people of the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) P5 and many other nations even now discuss the capability of producing a nuclear weapon. Surprisingly and rarely do intellectuals delve into the issue of developing a reliable delivery system.
TRIAD: The Ultimate Deterrence
The most common means of nuke delivery is a surface-to-surface missile (SSM). Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) failed to contain the nations from developing indigenous missile capability.
A classic case is North Korea. Since 1995 the focus has been to control and contain the uranium enrichment capability of North Korea. Hardly any attention was paid to deny the missile development technology.
Without going into technicalities, a missile essentially requires a guidance system and fuel. Both these require highly advanced knowledge or supply from a ‘friendly’ country. North Korea could never have developed both components viz the warhead and delivery system on its own.
As of now, only the P5 nations have a genuine nuclear triad. Notwithstanding what many in India claim, we do not have an operational triad as of date. I could be wrong. We have a nuclear submarine on loan from Russia, but I have severe doubts about whether we have an operational SLBM capable of carrying a nuke.
All the treaties/sanctions, starting with NPT, SALT, START I and II, MTCR, etc., have been eminently unsuitable for containing the proliferation. Therefore, to talk about NWS and NNWS in the prevailing international scenario is irrational and irrelevant.
Threat To Nuclear Reactors
In the age of the IT revolution, military strategists and intellectuals need to shift focus elsewhere. All nuclear reactors in the world are computer controlled. Any computer-controlled system can be hacked. Consequences of such hacking of nuclear reactors wherein the hacker merely interferes with the cooling system and the world will witness another ‘Chernobyl.’
That issue needs focus and not waste time deliberating differences in the status of NWS and NNWS. Every state with competent and dedicated hackers are/can be termed as a potential threat to all nations operating nuclear reactors for producing power.
Ironically, a non-nuclear country can, and possibly would, blackmail a nuclear nation by threatening to hack its nuclear reactors.
Would Russia have exercised the military option against Ukraine if Kyiv had retained nuclear weapons after USSR’s break up? Perhaps not!
India’s Nuclear Weapon Capability
India is a formidable nuclear power with proven weapons and reliable delivery systems. India’s multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) delivery capabilities and a range exceeding 5000 kilometers place India in the same category as P5.
However, India is still to become a genuine triad-capable nation.
However, India’s idealistic and utterly flawed precept of ‘no first use’ in the prevailing geo-strategic scenario must change to ‘need-based first use’ or ‘pre-emptive strike.’ The deterrence value of any platform/weapon/system is only useful if the intent to use is clearly defined in a proactive rather than reactive manner.
India must review the nuclear weapons use policy and alter it to ‘need-based first use.’
Discussion of NWS and NNWS status has lost its meaning and relevance. Possession of nukes, therefore, is the currency of power only and only if the adversaries know that nukes will be used if and when the situation demands.
If not, it just might become an unwanted burden if an idealistic approach viz policy of ‘no first use’ is adhered to. In doing so, the most powerful component of deterrence is sacrificed on the altar of idealism.
- Gp Cpt TP Srivastava (Retd) is an ex-NDA who flew MiG-21 and 29. He is a qualified flying instructor. He commanded the MiG-21 squadron. He is a directing staff at DSSC Wellington and chief instructor at the College of Air Warfare. VIEWS PERSONAL OF THE AUTHOR
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