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Swords Into Ploughshares

Two recent developments in the international arena are connected by a pair of cufflinks: the US withdrawal from the INF treaty and India’s first deterrence patrol with a nuclear submarine.

Blast from the past

When John Bolton announced in late October that the US was withdrawing from the INF treaty, it triggered concerns that a key pillar of arms control was coming undone. The INF treaty signed in 1987 was meant to secure Europe from the positioning of intermediate range (500-5500kms) missiles by Russia. While the treaty was a bilateral agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States, its significance was amplified by the stark bipolarity of the world at the time.

The number of nuclear weapons in the world had neared nearly 70,000 in 1986. A declassified 1956 document showing the targeting logic of these weapons demonstrates grossly disproportionate plans, bordering on madness. (Over 1200 cities that were part of the Soviet bloc, from East Germany to China, were targeted for “systematic destruction” as urban-industrial centres. These targets were exclusively population centres.)  The flash point was the placement of RSD-10 (also known as the SS—20 Saber) missiles by Russia, which caused a ripple of anxiety among European states, entirely dependent on a US nuclear umbrella. The US nuclear umbrella itself extended to Europe through NATO, was a choice based on perceived asymmetry with Soviet conventional forces. The INF treaty was seen as a way of constraining the development and deployment of nuclear delivery systems and arresting an arms race that had reached absurd levels.

The Times are Changing

The reasoning behind the US move to withdraw from the treaty has been attributed to direct attempts to call out Russian non-compliance of the treaty. Russian development of the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile has been seen as Russian duplicity and a treaty violation. The US withdrawal from the INF has also been seen as an indirect attempt to address growing Chinese military capability. China was not a signatory to the INF treaty and has progressively deployed missiles in areas that could make US vessels in the Western Pacific vulnerable. The hardening of Chinese defences in the East and South China Sea, and the bolstering of amphibious capabilities in Japan and South East Asian countries seems to suggest emerging and worrisome security dilemmas.

Chinese maritime presence in the IOR has increased and Chinese sea-denial, sometimes referred to as A2AD (Anti-access/area denial), suggests a steady future push of bases and missile sites making their way outwards from island chains and westward, in support of vulnerable Chinese sea-lines of communications (SLOCS). Technological advances in delivery systems have made hypersonic missiles (those that exceed Mach 5) a crucial future factor in escalation management to the nuclear level. Hypersonic missiles present the offensive ability to penetrate current missile defences and interception, and defensively ward off carrier groups. They could also be used to deliver a nuclear payload in the future. The US, Russia and China have hypersonic missile programmes, as do India, France, Israel and Pakistan.

Towards the Triad

It is in this strategic context that India’s nuclear submarine INS Arihant recently completed its first deterrence patrol, marking an important step in the maturation of India’s nuclear triad. This achievement has been touted as a solution to “nuclear blackmail” to score a few political points to domestic audiences. It has also been seen in Pakistan as an attempt by India to seek out space for a conventional conflict under the nuclear threshold. However, the larger issue remains the regional security architecture.

India’s interests in the future will not lie in a lumpen construct like South-Asia, but integration into the IOR and West Asia, and into South-East Asia by land and sea. Nascent initiatives to foster “comprehensive security” arrangements through BIMSTEC and halting steps at IORA augur modest successes. But how can tiny steps in multilateral fora count as gains for India, when the frame of strategic uncertainty and unbridled great power politics seems so well established in the region?

It’s About Those Cufflinks…

In a quirk of history, Ronald Reagan is said to have sent Mikhail Gorbachev a set of cufflinks with ploughshares in 1987 at the signing of the INF treaty. The symbolism of this gesture during the Cold War was clear – the Soviet Union and the United States had to work together to mitigate the worst effects of their geostrategic rivalry. The imagery drew on an old biblical metaphor: the beating of swords into ploughshares, signifying instruments of violence meant for war, repurposed into implements for productivity and progress. An iconic sculpture by Yevgeny Vuchetich made in 1959 stands testament to this ideal in the garden of the UN HQ in New York.

New START, due to expire in 2021, may meet the same fate as the INF treaty, but the opportunity to signal an alternative to regressive Cold War logic is there for the taking. Mitigating the worst effects of security dilemmas requires moderating conventional arms racing, while finding solutions to capping nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. Interventions can be made at several levels, “name and shame” campaigns in multilateral fora to bolster the nuclear taboo, restraint through regional organisations, and scrutiny of nuclear doctrines at the national levels. World leaders have their work cut out.

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About the author

Ram Ganesh Kamatham

Ram Ganesh Kamatham is an Associate Research Fellow at Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru. His research occurs at the intersection of culture and strategy. He contributes to the course on Ethical Reasoning in public policy and the Graduate Certificate in Strategic Studies.