Vol. XLIII No. 05 February 03, 2019

Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Threat to World Peace

B Arjun

A FRESH wave of nuclear arms race is underway. The discourse is fast veering towards giving legitimacy to the use of strategic nuclear weapons in a limited way in a battle field. As usual America is leading the demand for such legitimacy, followed by Russia, to make the war more brutal and the world more dangerous. The nuclear silos are being broken down to integrate the nuclear with the non-nuclear military options. The debate is being allowed to gain momentum by the Trump administration that is filled with nuclear hawks like, John Bolton, the national security advisor, who has already displayed his intentions to dismantle the INF treaty. Bolton’s deputy Charles Kupperman strongly believes that a nuclear war is winnable in the classical sense if one side emerged the stronger, even if there were tens of millions of casualties. Fear and uncertainty is being blatantly reintroduced into bilateral nuclear relations and possibilities of negotiations within the nuclear information space are reducing. The situation is grave, according to the former US former defence secretary William Perry, “he was less worried about the number of nuclear warheads left in the world than by the return of cold war talk about such weapons being “usable”.

Rather than talking about the annihilation of nuclear weapons, America is engaged in further modernising its nuclear infrastructure and delivery systems. Nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea are being used as scapegoats to advance the American nuclear agenda. In both the countries, the US approach to non-proliferation is juxtaposed with its penchant for regime change. Moreover, the US indifference towards nuclear ambitions of its allies clearly indicates that it is not at all serious about non-proliferation. The US nuclear policy makers are also using the rhetoric of “dangerous posturing,” by Russia to get funding for more lethal nuclear weapons.

The US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released in early 2018, marked the re-entry of the low-yield nuclear weapons into the nuclear debate. It stated that the US was not averse to resorting to the use of nuclear arms in response to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” against it. The NPR approved the production of low-yield nuclear warhead, W76, increasing the chances of nuclear conflict manifold. It is reported that the first batch of warheads are likely to roll out of the production line by September this year. According to experts, the amount of tritium, a hydrogen isotope, in the weapon will be adjusted to “reduce its explosive power from 100 kilotons of TNT, to about five – approximately a third of the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”

The worrying sign is that many national security Republicans support an aggressive nuclear policy as well as arms controls mechanisms. The Cold War architecture of arms control, that placed quantitative limits on strategic systems between the two super powers is under severe strain. It is felt that all old treaties that reduced nuclear risks are on the verge of collapse. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (STRAT) is no longer consider sufficient to provide strategic stability.

Many experts in the US who believe that arms control is still relevant, hope to however advocate “an updated approach to arms control that accounts for today’s emerging technologies and threats”. They insist on taking stock of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) aided emerging technologies that can deliver nuclear weapons without human interventions and have “the potential to undermine decades of nuclear orthodoxy” based on mutually assured destruction (MAD).

There is no denying the fact that since the nuclear realm is now extending into the cyber and outer space, the need for fresh arms control treaty is needed. However, to use emerging technologies as a pretext to enhance the lethality of nuclear arsenal is something that is only increasing the probability of a nuclear war. For a while after the Cold War, the US experts thought that they could manage the global nuclear order by mastering the anti-missile defence systems. A few years later, when the US became the world leader in internet and cyber technologies, it thought that it could manage the nuclear weapons of its adversary by attacking the command and control centres to render their nuclear weapons unusable. However, with both Russians and Chinese making stupendous strides in both cyber and weapons technologies, the US dominance of the nuclear space has slipped.

The crux of the matter is that the US nuclear posturing is resulting from growing insecurities related to the dwindling power of its empire. There is also a thinking within the US strategic community that the kind of nuclear space that was granted to the Soviet Union during the Cold War cannot be given to China. The US does not want to consider China as a nuclear peer and get into a MAD agreement with it. The US is also encouraging its allies, like India to change their nuclear doctrines and tune it in accordance with the changed global geopolitics. A debate in India has also started on the need to review its nuclear doctrine.


In November 2016, the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar expressed his 'personal opinion' regarding India’s 'no first use policy’ (NFU) on nuclear weapons. According to Parrikar, the NFU was devoid of the unpredictability and ambiguity, the two essential ingredients for enhancing the flexibility of deterrence in the national strategy. Ever since then, voices demanding the review of NFU, have been growing. It is argued that the NFU, which forms the bedrock of India’s nuclear doctrine released in January 2003, is inadequate to meet the new challenges posed by the rise of China, instability in Pakistan and global trends in development of tactical nuclear weapons.

The problem is that many in India are in the habit of treating the nuclear issue frivolously, and deluding themselves to believe the non-existence of Pakistani nukes. What they completely forget is that the world considers the Indian subcontinent as the most dangerous place on earth where the probability of a nuclear war is the highest. The West is convinced that India and Pakistan that have fought three wars can plunge into a nuclear conflict. According to a US general, the 1,800-mile India-Pakistan “border is the only place in the world where two hostile, nuclear-armed states face off every day. And the risk of nuclear conflict has only continued to rise in the past few years, to the point that it is now a very real possibility.”  The US experts are already discussing scenarios where India launches a massive military strike in response to a terrorist strike aided by Pakistan. And Pakistan responds by using a “nuclear weapon against Indian conventional armed forces to stave off imminent military defeat.”

Both Indian and Pakistani elite cannot afford to endanger the lives of millions in the region nor can they afford to give any opportunity to the West to use the pretext of nuclear instability in South Asia as a pretext to shape the global nuclear order in accordance with their strategic needs. It is imperative for the nuclear policy in both the countries to disengage from the larger global nuclear debate and reduce the nuclear risks through rigorous bilateral negotiations aimed at protecting people rather than preserving power.