A New Nuclear Stalemate

Deterrence has evolved over the years. Advances in technology are now more critical than the size of arsenals.

The history of the Cold War demonstrated that there could be no possible defence against nuclear weapons. In fact, the only time there was a discussion on the viability of defence was during the late 1940s in the aftermath of World War 2. Then, the bomb was still scarce, and the only means of delivery was by bomber aircraft. Although the lone bomber was considered vulnerable, even during this time, it was generally accepted that the offense had a distinct advantage over the defence. The arrival of the missile age in the late 1950s and early 1960s made any discussion on viable defences seem anachronistic. However, since the end of the Cold War, extraordinary leaps in technology have made defences a viable option, and given rise to deterrence by denial postures for countries facing nuclear threats.

Deterrence by Denial in the Nuclear Era

Deterrence by denial usually refers to a defensive posture maintained such that any adversary looking to make gains through military adventurism is frustrated due to the capacity of the country to withstand such adventurism. The advent of the nuclear weapon made such a form of deterrence close to irrelevant. However, recent technological advances have allowed for great leaps in denial capabilities, specifically through counterforce strategies and ballistic missile defences. Although these capabilities are not sufficient to offer a credible deterrence against larger nuclear-armed states such as Russia or China, they are increasingly finding a place where the confrontation is between asymmetric nuclear powers such as the US-North Korea dyad and India-Pakistan dyad.

The US has been deploying ballistic missile defences to protect both their homeland as well as theatre air defences close to borders with Russia and China. Although these are meant to be deployed against regional threats such as North Korea and Iran, China and Russia continue to protest their existence. It is not so much their current capabilities that China and Russia are worried about, but the further capabilities that they may develop in the future. In the last few years, the United States has increasing the number of interceptor missiles to their missile defence platform in line with a general trend to boost missile defence for the US homeland and allies.

India has also embarked upon its own two-layered ballistic missile defence shield to protect command-and-control nodes in cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai. Although the Defence Research and Development Organisation has a questionable track record it has been conducting several tests over for its BMD capability, including a recent test which involved simulated decoy missiles to confuse the BMD system. The organisation has also invested significant effort into developing missile-tracking capabilities, which included the recent launch of a missile tracking ship to bolster defences.

The second technique used to bolster a denial posture, counterforce capabilities, has also improved significantly with advancements in missile accuracy, remote sensing and anti-submarine warfare capabilities, especially with regard to the United States. While their applicability is questionable against Russia and China, it is proving to be quite effective against countries such as North Korea, which has nascent nuclear capabilities. A recent study has found that these improvements tend to make counterforce a very attractive option for the United States in both deterring and defending against nuclear attack by North Korea. In India, counterforce capabilities still need considerable effort to become credible, although some analysts suggest that India is moving toward such a posture. Most recent tests have focussed on increasing the accuracy of missiles. Furthermore, India has also been investing considerable capability in anti-submarine warfare (although this mainly due to the Chinese threat, it will likely be reoriented to Pakistan given its desire to develop the naval leg of the nuclear triad).

Interaction between Denial and Punishment Strategies

The investment in denial capabilities in these two specific dyads has led to reciprocal actions on the part of their adversaries, both within and outside the dyad. In the US-North Korea dyad, the growth of US counterforce capabilities is likely driving the sea leg of North Korea’s nuclear triad. The ballistic missile submarine is considered the most secure of the three legs of the triad, and the most credible component of a nuclear second strike capability.

China, on the other hand, is moving to induct more advanced missile capabilities to specifically defeat a ballistic missile defence shield such as the induction of MIRV (multiple independent re-entry vehicles) capability on ballistic missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles. It has also developed road mobile intercontinental ballistic missile in fear of a disarming nuclear first strike by the United States.

Pakistan is also going down a similar path in response to developments in Indian missile capabilities. The country’s strategic plans division has recently been testing the naval variant — Babur III — of the Babur II land attack cruise missiles. This comes off the back of the Pakistani military’s recent decision in 2012 to set up the naval leg of the triad to ensure credible second strike capability. It has also been diversifying its missile portfolio to include cruise missiles and MIRV capabilities to overcome India’s BMD developments.

Recent trends demonstrate that deterrence is not only being determined by the size of arsenals, but also the technical capability to deliver warheads to their destinations. While this was of great consideration during the Cold War, capability was increased predominantly through increasing the size of arsenals rather than vast leaps in technology. The post Cold War era has, however, seen a shift, with countries focusing on technology rather than size of arsenals to ensure credibility of deterrence. This technological race has been intensifying while stockpiles have seen only modest increases world over. This shift must be realised and countries must prevent the proliferation of such technologies to rogue nations, which will likely be inclined to use their weapons before losing them. Indeed, the world maybe headed toward a new form of nuclear stalemate in the decades to come.

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About the author

Nishant Rajeev

Nishant Rajeev is a graduate of Takshashila's Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course, and writes on geopolitical and security issues. He can be contacted at [email protected]