If threatened, nations with a smaller arsenal may be the most apt to use nuclear weapons.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas

At a United Nations event in Geneva earlier this month, I sparked controversy when I said that although most discussions on disarmament naturally focus on the states with the largest arsenals, it is the states with the smallest nuclear arsenals that are most apt to use them today. It was at a symposium on nuclear weapons risks hosted by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. 

I meant it not as a statement of causality, nor as an enduring principle. Neither did I suggest that attention directed toward Russian and American nuclear weapons is misplaced. The superpowers’ arsenals can destroy much of civilization, and there is ample reason to worry about their stewardship of both the weapons and the arms-control architecture. I stood by my claim about smallest arsenals being the most worrisome, however, as a factual observation on the current world situation. 

North Korean nuclear use 

Firstly, consider North Korea. Estimated to possess enough fissile material for 10-20 nuclear weapons, Pyongyang insists that it is ready to employ them if threatened. Its rhetoric and accelerated pace of missile testing suggests that North Korea would be the first to use nuclear weapons if it believed itself to be under attack. Its nuclear posture incorporates the ‘use them or lose them’ principle. 

Although the military signalling coming from Washington might suggest otherwise, it is highly doubtful that the US would attack North Korea unless war was imminent. Yes, the Tomahawk strikes against the Syrian air base and the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb employed against the Taliban demonstrate President Donald Trump’s willingness to use force, as Vice President Mike Pence recently warned. But US officials know that any similar use of force in North Korea would most likely spark quick retaliation against US bases and other targets in South Korea and Japan. There is a strong element of bluff in the US position. Witness Trump’s deceptive claim of ‘sending an armada’ toward North Korea, when in fact the Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group was sailing in the opposite direction. 

Bluff can serve a useful deterrence purpose. So far, North Korea has not conducted a sixth nuclear test, which was widely predicted to take place near 15 April, the 105th anniversary of founding father Kim Il-sung’s birth. Yet deterrence rhetoric is a double-edged sword if it increases Pyongyang’s sense of paranoia. Kim Jong-un is not crazy or irrational, but a heightened state of fear could make him more prone to misperception and miscalculation. If the US shot down a North Korean missile launched for testing purposes, for example, Kim might think it was a prelude to a regime-changing invasion and act accordingly. 

South Asian nuclear use 

Secondly, consider discussions about first use of nuclear weapons that recently arose with respect to India and Pakistan. The fact that they have the second and third smallest nuclear arsenals - about 120 and 130 warheads respectively – does not make them more prone to use the weapons. But evolving nuclear doctrines and mistaken signals might. 

At the beginning of the decade, Pakistan lowered the threshold for nuclear use by introducing short-range missile systems and declaring a willingness to arm them with nuclear weapons and use them in the event of an Indian cross-border military incursion with integrated battle groups. The Indian Army had signalled that such an incursion, labelled ‘Cold Start’, was their plan to respond to another case of cross-border terrorism on the order of the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. Cold Start was never adopted by policymakers, however, and is an unlikely response to another terrorist outrage. India is more likely to employ targeted strikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan, as it did on 29 September in retaliation for an attack on the Uri training camp in Kashmir. Meanwhile, false signalling about Cold Start prompted an unnecessary nuclear build-up. 

Several serving and former Indian officials have been sending other signals of late that may spark further nuclear escalation. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, former Strategic Forces Command commander-in-chief Lt. Gen. B.S. Nagal and former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon hinted in various ways that India may reconsider its nuclear policies of no first use and counter-value deterrence (threatening massive retaliation against Pakistani cities). 

Political scientist Vipin Narang caused a stir at the Carnegie Endowment Nuclear Policy Conference last month, when he warned that musings by that trio suggest that India is moving toward a ‘first strike’ counterforce policy of pre-emptively knocking out Pakistani nuclear forces in the event of imminent Pakistani first use. Although several other Western scholars and journalists reached similar conclusions, Indian strategists strongly denied any policy change was in the offing. They noted, for example, that India showed no sign of increasing its nuclear arsenal to the level that would be needed for counterforce. 

Whatever the reality, the signals reinforced Pakistan’s belief that India would, in fact, strike first and that countermeasures are needed. Pakistan itself ratcheted up the nuclear rhetoric in the contest of the Uri attack when Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif threatened use of tactical nuclear weapons against India. Nuclear sword rattling intended to enhance deterrence can instead heighten deterrence instability.

The situation calls for dialogue between India and Pakistan, not least to address misperceptions that are further spurring a nuclear-arms race and the dialling up of alert status. Such dialogue is sadly absent. India demands as a precondition that Pakistan takes meaningful action against anti-India terrorists, and Pakistan insists that talks include discussion of the Kashmir dispute. 

Neither is there any dialogue involving North Korea. Pyongyang refuses to accept the denuclearisation goal that Washington and its partners have set as a precondition for returning to the Six Party Talks that a decade ago briefly held promise. Communications are instead being carried out through rhetoric and military signalling. To quote irony’s favourite catchphrase, what could go wrong?

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