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US' Nuclear Posture Review a walk back to Cold War era; places nukes at centre of American military strategy

The recently released United States' Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is a masterpiece in reconciling contradictions and making the unreasonable seem perfectly understandable. But to be fair, nuclear strategies of great powers have always been so, particularly during the Cold War, when both the Soviet Union and the United States had enough nuclear weapons between them to destroy the world twice over. More than 1,25,000 have been built since 1945, with 97 percent of them in the inventory of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia.

Barrack Obama fans should take heart. His nuclear policy seems to be the only aspect of the previous government that the Trump administration approves of. The NPR follows the modernisation drive started under Obama, but with some significant changes. The present NPR's objective is said to be to 'recapitalise' the Cold War legacy of nuclear weapons and modernise them to suit modern conditions.

 US Nuclear Posture Review a walk back to Cold War era; places nukes at centre of American military strategy

File image of US president Donald Trump. AFP

The underlying belief is that US nuclear weapons are far too destructive to be used in today's threat context. Shorn of pretty language, what it means is that potential adversaries will not be deterred by the threat of use of weapons that could potentially wipe off a large portion of their territory, for infractions that are of the 'less than war category'.

A smaller, 'more usable' warhead would, however, serve to deter, precisely due to the lower destruction they inflict. This, therefore, translates into a 'credible' threat, which is the very essence of deterrence. On the other side of the coin, however, is that the more usable a weapon is, the more unstable the situation.

The present program of modernisation is slated to cost $1.2 trillion, which constitutes a considerable amount at a time when the Congressional Budget Office is warning that nuclear forces would have to compete with other arms for funding. The areas of modernisation include a new Long Range Standoff Cruise missile which would be forward deployed on new aircraft for 'regional' protection as well as with other arms.

Since cruise missiles of this kind were withdrawn from the US Navy in 2011 on the assumption that they were no longer needed, this is definitely a walk back. Plans also include a new ground-based ICBM class missile and more forward deployment of nuclear-capable bombers. The NPR's backing of such a revitalised triad seems to point to a Cold War Redux.

Nuclear bureaucracies are known to create, reinvent or resurrect threats to suit their department's budget demands and sometimes their existence. This was truly a quandary at the end of the Cold War when there were simply not enough threats to be found. That contributed directly to the identification of a new threat – together with the usual tables and bar charts – from 'loose nukes' in the former Soviet space moving out elsewhere.

Today's NPR works around a threat perception arising from 'nuclear and non-nuclear threats'. The persistent reference to this phrase through the document means that the new arsenal has to be flexible enough to confront a number of old threats in presumably new ways.

Thus the 'recapitalised' inventory is presumably to produce weapons from the lowest range upwards that can be used to deter conventional attacks over a certain 'strategic' non-nuclear threshold. This seems to point to the re-development of what are sometimes called "tactical" nuclear weapons. That was also part of the Cold War checklist.

The shift to developing lower yield weapons begs the question as to whether the US would be the first to use nuclear weapons in a situation, and further, whether this would be used against a non-nuclear state. The reference to 'non-nuclear strategic attacks' is an interesting concept to include in a deterrence calculus.

Would nuclear weapons play a role in in the South China Sea dispute if Japanese 'strategic' lines are crossed? Probably not, since conventional weapons' early positioning can do the job as well, if not better. Will usable nuclear weapons deter Pakistan from supporting the Haqqanis? Again, probably not. A truism that India has learnt with difficulty is that nuclear weapons can only deter other nuclear weapons. That's why Kashmir is still burning, and our surgical strikes only just cross the border.

The NPR's primary list of antagonists comprises Russia, China and North Korea. Iran has only a distant mention. Unsurprisingly Russia has reacted with bitterness. Foreign Minister Lavrov termed the NPR as confrontational, while other Russian experts called it 'dangerous' in upsetting power balances. Faced with severe conventional weakness, Russia is modernising its nuclear weapons to the extent it can with shrinking resources.

The Russian economy grew at 1.7 percent in 2017, and dramatic growth is not expected in the immediate future. Russian may choose to further modernise it's own 'usable' arsenal and thus increase European discomfort, or shift heavily to other forms of warfare such as cyberwar and space.

China reacted similarly, with Defence Ministry spokesman calling it a document made up of "wild guesses" on Beijing's capability. To give China its due, it has more than learnt from the Soviet Union's distressing arms race and subsequent collapse by avoiding the path of seeking parity with the US. With an estimated 270 warheads to the US's 6,800, China will probably choose to build upon its existing asymmetric capabilities, dispersal programs, and increasing its sea-based deterrent capability.

The closing arguments for a 'flexible' nuclear armoury is that tailored deterrence that is sought to be put in place with each potential antagonist.

In regards to Russia, the tailored strategy clearly arises from the "Crimea complex", with the US stating without ambiguity that any attack on NATO countries – keeping in mind that NATO boundaries have moved far closer to Moscow – would be met with resolve.

The other tailored deterrence is against China, where the threat is clear that the US is prepared to respond strongly against both nuclear and non-nuclear threats, with the NPR supposed to give the president a wide range of capabilities to choose from. This is confusing, to say the least, and the Chinese are not one to refrain from probing the deterrence envelope, particularly with the South Koreans and Japanese watching.

The strategy for North Korea is, however, much clearer and therefore far more convincing. It states baldly that any attack by that country against the US allies or partners will result in the end of the Kim regime. There are few who will cavil against that. For the rest, the US offers extended deterrence by the return of a full-fledged triad but with a mix of high and low yield weapons, together with consultation with friends and allies to reinforce that deterrence.

In the final analysis, the NPR is a walk back to the 1980s when nuclear weapons formed the centre for US military strategy and policy. After the end of the Soviet Union, successive presidents have placed nuclear weapons at the periphery of military policymaking, acknowledging its worth as a deterrent, but underlining that it could only match 'sword for the sword'.

The present NPT fudges the line between the conventional and the nuclear to a degree where it is difficult to understand it clearly. A strategy that is not understood by the enemy is one that makes the situation even more complex and therefore dangerous. Though meant to make nuclear deterrence more credible than before, it risks turning it into one that will not even convince the credulous.

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Updated Date: Feb 05, 2018 17:39:58 IST

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