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Understanding deterrence - The Economic Times

K Subrahmanyam ()
July 9, 1998

Title: Understanding deterrence
Author: K Subrahmanyam
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: July 9, 1998

Deterrence is a much misunderstood term. In popular opinion,
deterrence and particularly nuclear deterrence is associated with
the way the US strategic establishment conducted its military
policy in the last fifty years. India has been critical of that
deterrent strategy and justifiably so.

Deterrence is defined as discouraging a potential adversary from
acting to the detriment of one's own security by inducing fear of
the consequences of such action. The adversary should be
persuaded that irrespective of the suffering he would cause to
the other side, the pain he is likely to suffer would not be
commensurate with the fulfilment of the objective he has in view.
It is in this respect, a lot of misperceptions were generated.
It was projected in the sixties that only if 60-70 per cent of
the Soviet industry was destroyed and some thirty per cent of
their population killed would it constitute unacceptable damage
and make them to terminate war. In the '70s it was argued that
tens of thousands of Soviet targets should be destroyed to bring
about successful end to war. Similarly, it was also maintained
that unless one's own massive capabilities for destruction are
flaunted and the will to use it was projected in an unmistakable
way the adversary would not be deterred. None of these
propositions was based on facts. They were all self-serving
assumptions which helped to fuel the arms race and resulted in
wasteful expenditure now estimated at $ 5.5 trillion.

That was not deterrence. It was an attempt at intimidating the
rest of the world to impose a hegemonic and unipolar order. The
Soviet Union which in the initial stages practised deterrence in
a meaningful way by raising adequate concerns in the minds of US
establishment that any aggressive move would result in costs
totally disproportionate to their objectives subsequently started
to follow the US model. The Soviet military establishment wanted
equality with US and equal security. This was interpreted to mean
having analogous categories of weapons in equivalent numbers.
That provided the opportunity for the US to engage USSR in an
extremely costly arms race which led to the Soviet collapse.

Deterrence need not involve these follies. The Americans
persuaded themselves to believe that the Soviet Union was out for
world con test of communism. They demonised them. Their mind set
was influenced by the second world war and envisaged a nuclear
world war which will be one order of magnitude more intense and
destructive than the second world war. Since the western mind
wanted to believe, contrary to facts that atom bombs over
Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II and were therefore
justified in their use they continued to argue that similar
genocidal destruction of civilian populations with the use of
nuclear weapons should be acceptable form of waging war. Hence
the bombing of Indo-Chinese countries which involved using more
explosives than ever manufactured up to that time in history and
resulted in two million casualties.

Principles of rational deterrence were adulterated by the
genocidal values of the military establishments of the most war
prone powers conditioned by two world wars in quick succession.
All this irrationality started to yield ground to increased
rationality from mid-1980s when US and Russian leaders jointly
declared that a nuclear war could not be won and should not be
initiated. Most of the irrational doctrinal formulations were
based on the premise that a nuclear war was fightable using
hundreds of warheads. Now it is accepted that one bomb on one
city is unacceptable damage.

The core principle in deterrence was often overlooked in the
earlier doctrinal debate. The punishment a country is prepared to
accept should be related to the stake it has in the outcome. If
the stake in the outcome is not very high even a very modest
punishment becomes unacceptable. In Somalia a couple of dozen
casualties made the US withdraw. Blowing up of the marine
barracks in Beirut inflicting 250 casualties led to US withdrawal
>from Lebanon because in the US view maintaining a particular
Lebanese regime in power was not worth 250 US lives. US could not
accept 50,000 casualties to keep Vietnam out of Communist
control. Suspicion that Saddam Hussein may have a nuclear bomb or
two made US hesitate for months. The US was prepared to make
enormous concessions to North Korea mainly because of the fear
they might have enough Plutonium for one or two warheads. The
possibility that a few Soviet warheads could hit US soil
compelled US to call off a planned disarming first strike on USSR
when it had 17 to one superiority in nuclear weapons. That is how
the principle of deterrence works in reality.

With India, Pakistan and China having nuclear weapons the chances
of both nuclear and conventional wars have come down drastically.
Most of the scare scenarios which are exported by the western
media and avidly consumed by sections of our media belong to the
era when the western theology asserted nuclear war fighting as
feasible. At that stage weapons were deployed close to the
borders and there were possibilities of unauthorised and
accidental use. That doctrine is no longer received wisdom. No
nuclear weapon power is likely to deploy its weapons close to the
border since their vulnerability will increase. No military
establishment today thinks of firing multiple nuclear weapon
salvos. The former director general of Pakistani Inter Services
Intelligence, General Assad Durrani has highlighted in a recent
article that there can be no more conventional and nuclear wars
between India and Pakistan. Even the most hawkish Pakistanis only
emphasise their achieving equal weapon status with India and of
nuclear weapons having provided that country with impregnable
defence. These are all non-controversial statements and can form
the basis for nuclear confidence building measures between the
two countries.

India and Pakistan have already demonstrated over the last eight
years that deterrence works and this has been accepted even by
the Americans who pointed out in their report issued by the
Council on Foreign Relations that a sense of implicit nuclear
deterrence had stabilised the Indo-Pakistan relations in spite of
the prolonged covert war in Kashmir. That war has exacted more
casualties than all wars independent India had fought. India and
Pakistan have demonstrated, unlike the western nations which are
used to fight wars without any restraint and which usually press
the advantages of asymmetry (bombs on Hiroshima, and genocidal
bombing of Indo-China) that military establishments here are used
to greater restraint in fighting wars.

In a recent non-official seminar between India and Pakistan in
the second half of April, after Ghauri tests and before 'Shakti'
tests, strategic analysts of both India and Pakistan agreed that
the chances of either nuclear exchange or high intensity
conventional wars between the two countries are next to
negligible and therefore there should be increased focus on
confidence building measures, including the widespread
dissemination of this joint perception about the organised war no
longer being a viable instrument of policy between India and
Pakistan. No doubt Pakistan still feels that it can involve
external powers into the Kashmir dispute by exaggerating the
possibilities of an Indo-Pak war on Kashmir. India has managed to
deal with the Pakistan supported insurgency in Kashmir at its
worst phase without escalation. The correct lesson that
deterrence already operating between India and Pakistan ensured
inter state peace over the last eight years should be publicised.

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