The Magazine

THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE . . . AGAIN

Jun 22, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 40 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



One of the least lamented casualties of the Soviet Union's demise was the arcane specialty of nuclear doctrine. Those who had wasted their youth studying the ins and outs of nuclear deterrence -- the peculiar logic of nuclear war and the kinds of policies and weapons that might make it more or less likely -- went the way of the blacksmith in the age of Henry Ford. Their skill was like conversational Latin: Its time had come and gone.


Or so it seemed. Now, thanks to India and Pakistan, deterrence theory is back. And it is needed. Every newspaper and commentator in the country is saying gravely that now that India and Pakistan have acquired nuclear weapons, the subcontinent is an area of great instability. What exactly does that mean?


After all, India and Pakistan have been at each other's throats for 50 years. They fought three wars. They routinely exchange rifle and artillery fire in Kashmir. Yes, the situation is more dangerous today. The stakes are obviously higher. Any war could be fought not just with conventional weapons but nuclear ones. But that does not necessarily mean that the subcontinent is more unstable.


Indeed, nuclear weapons can actually be stabilizing. The United States and the Soviet Union might well have gone to war at some point in the last 50 years had the specter of nuclear annihilation not hung over both countries. In the same way, India and Pakistan might be less likely to go to war if that means not just the loss of a few soldiers on the frontier, but the possible annihilation of one's major cities. This is true, however, only over the long run. In the short run, the nukes are destabilizing -- but not for the reasons being advanced in the papers.


The subcontinent in the near term will be an area of great instability not just because, obviously, Pakistan and India are new at the nuclear game and thus will be prone to miscalculation, but because each side has so few nuclear weapons. This sounds odd. It is odd. But it reflects the central paradox of deterrence theory: Generally speaking, the more nukes the better. There is safety in numbers.


Now, conventional wisdom holds that the way to nuclear safety is to reduce numbers. That was the fuel for the frenzied nuclear disarmament movements of the early '80s and for the American obsession with arms control today. But conventional wisdom is wrong. When the numbers get very low, the nuclear balance becomes unstable.


Consider India and Pakistan. At the moment, each has a very small number of nuclear weapons and an equally small number of missiles on which those weapons might be delivered. In a time of crisis -- say, fighting breaks out over Kashmir -- this presents each side with the opportunity to destroy the other's entire nuclear arsenal in one fell swoop at the beginning of the conflict. Small numbers make for a small target. And a small target is a tempting target. It places a premium on preemption. It rewards striking first.


Conversely, each side fears that if it does not strike first, its nuclear arsenal could be wiped out in a first strike, leaving it naked to nuclear blackmail or to further nuclear attack. Because the side that destroys the other side's arsenal will have some of its nukes left over to intimidate the other's population. That intimidation could be enough to tip the scales of any war or even to induce the aggressed-against to a quick surrender. Very low numbers thus encourage a "use it or lose it" mentality. They promote the single most important contributor to nuclear instability: the temptation to preemption.


Consider the U.S.-Soviet example. Apart from the few days of the Cuban missile crisis, the most unstable period was the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the United States and the Soviet Union were just developing their nuclear arsenals. There was even talk in Washington in the early '50s of destroying the Soviet arsenal before it could be developed. That kind of talk disappeared when the Soviets had built enough rockets, airplanes, and subs -- enough redundancy -- to make a first strike futile.


The essence of nuclear stability is the existence on both sides of a retaliatory or "second strike" capacity. If the other guy has such a capacity, it is crazy to launch a preemptive nuclear attack. No matter how massive or how accurate it is, it cannot succeed in wiping out all of his weapons. There would be enough left over for him to retaliate massively. A first strike would thus bring on the incineration of your own homeland. Result? You don't attack first. Nobody attacks first. And if nobody attacks first, there can be no nuclear war. QED.