Accidental nuclear war was a hot topic during cold war era. Recent inadvertent launch of a SSM from India, which landed inside Pakistan resulted in avoidable commotion.
While Govt of India and Pakistan were busy resolving the issue, large number of military strategists with little knowledge of ballistic missile launch and tracking capability of India and Pakistan advocated the frightening scenario of instantaneous retaliation by nuke capable missiles.
USA and then USSR were able to resolve the issue by establishing a HOT LINE. In the context of India-Pakistan-China chances of accidental nuclear war are minimal because neither country maintains instantaneous nuclear weapon launch capability. Also India, China and Pakistan do not have 24 hour missile surveillance capability. Pakistan claims of tracking Indian missile for its entire flight duration of 6'46" are nothing but a hoax.
The NPT, possibly the most asymmetric treaty drafted by recognized nuclear
weapon powers, imposes stringent restriction on non nuclear weapon states. India is not a signatory to NPT. According to laid down norms five yearly review conference is held to examine/ascertain proliferation of nuclear weapons. Due to COVID-19 pandemic 2020 review conference had to be postponed. Ongoing review conference has concluded its discussions on 23rd August,2022. Yet again 191 countries have failed to arrive at a consensus. Most prominent aspect is Russian refusal to sign the nuclear non proliferation draft. The last review conference in 2015 ended without an agreement because of serious differences over establishing a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.
Under the NPT‟s provisions, the five original nuclear powers — the United States,
China, Russia (then the Soviet Union), Britain and France — agreed to negotiate
toward eliminating their arsenals someday and nations without nuclear weapons
promised not to acquire them in exchange for a guarantee to be able to develop
nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
The draft final document would have expressed deep concern “that the threat of
nuclear weapons use today is higher than at any time since the heights of the Cold
War and at the deteriorated international security environment.” It would also have committed parties to the treaty “to making every effort to ensure that nuclear
weapons are never used again.”
Russia, a P-5 member has declined to sign the latest draft. This in itself reveals the
fragile nature of NPT, which has failed to contain/control proliferation of nuclear
weapons. Nuclear weapons have in fact become currency of power and most potent
deterrent for a full scale war between two nuclear capable nations. Finest example is prevailing uneasy peace between India and its two hostile neighbours, China and
Pakistan. Point to ponder - Would Russia have attacked Ukraine, if Ukraine had not willingly „donated‟ its nukes to Russia?
Accidental nuclear war has occupied centre stage in recent years. Inadvertent
launch of a SSM from India, which landed inside Pakistan has added fuel to fire.
Ignoramus nuclear weapon specialists opined that a retaliatory nuclear strike can be launched by all nuclear weapon states in a matter of seconds. The truth is otherwise as it will emerge when readiness state of nuclear weapons and launch vehicles is examined.
Needless to emphasise that for India only two nuclear weapon states matter;
Pakistan and China and in that order.
After 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, the hostile neighbor adopted an
aggressive FIRST USE NUCLEAR POSTURE. It was further cemented in 2001,
when Indian military was deployed after terrorist attack on parliament. Former COAS of Pakistan has gone on record stating that Pakistan reserves the right of FIRST USE even in the event of massive Indian military onslaught with conventional weapons. Thus a significant conventional action by India, which is perceived by Pakistan as having crossed the threshold, use of Tactical Nuclear Weapon on advancing ground forces is not ruled out.
In case of Pakistan there is another dimension to nuclear weapon threat. That is
from extremists organizations, who have been extremely vocal on the issue.
Although chances of an extremist (read terrorist) organization getting hold of nuclear weapon and a launch vehicle are extremely remote. But considering extreme religious and fundamentalist views of Pak Military, it cannot be ruled out. A Pak military person himself can control/launch a nuclear strike.
In spite of all the concerns it is necessary to look into actual state of readiness to
launch a nuclear strike either by a SSM or manned aircraft. Submarine launched
nuclear weapon capability is still doubtful.
Launch Vehicle Readiness. No launch vehicle, be it an aircraft or a SSM is ever
kept in perpetual readiness. Hence there will be preparation time for launch vehicle viz fuelling a SSM and/or preparing a nuclear weapon capable fighter. Incidentally only PAF F-16s (few of them) can carry nukes. JF-17s cannot.
Weapon Readiness. With reasonable degree of certainty it can be stated that
storage of nukes is in „DEMATED STATE‟, which implies that nuclear weapon core and triggering mechanism has to be mated once the decision to launch has been given. The process takes time.
Thus „instant retaliatory launch‟ scenario does not exist. A mated launch platform will be kept in readiness only after hostilities have commenced or are about to
commence. This is applicable to most nations except USA. However FIRST USE of
nukes by Pakistan has a very high degree of probability.
Chinese defence white paper published in 2011 clearly states that the mission of
China's nuclear forces is to “project itself as a credible deterrence to other countries from using nuclear weapons against China”. However the paper was categorical in stating that in the event of any nuclear strike by any country on China, swift and exemplary retaliation will follow. In fact virtually all Chinese leaders have scrupulously avoided mention of nuclear weapons as part of overall Chinese strategy.
China's stated policy on nuclear deterrence further clarifies that for purpose of
nuclear deterrence Chinese nukes do not have to be kept on high alert. Nearly
confirmed Pentagon reports believe that in peace time China separates nuclear
warheads from its SSMs/Aircraft. Thus Chinese policy of deliberate delayed
retaliation gives Chinese leaders to decide on appropriate response, both in terms of „WHEN‟ and „HOW MUCH‟.
In view of growing USA-China hostility, China has strengthened its SSBN fleet.
According to Pentagon reports China has six operational Type-094 class SSBNs,
each equipped with TWELVE JL-2 SLBMs. Two Type-096 class SSBN, which will/is likely to be equipped with MIRVed capability JL-3 SLBM might have also become operational.
In order to have unrestricted access to Indian and Pacific Ocean China has evolved
Anti-Access and Area denial (A2AD) capabilities. Such capability will enhance
survivability of limited nuclear forces vis-à-vis USA.
Russia and USA
Russia and USA adopt an entirely different nuclear posture. Both nations practice
keeping some/few strategic nuclear forces at high alert all the time. But while doing so both countries maintain extremely efficient and nearly fool proof early warning systems, which consist of a combination of satellites and sea/land based radars for early detection of an incoming ballistic missile.
Their posturing is defined by two terms; Launch on Warning (LoW) and Launch
Under Attack (LUA). Hot Line communication, which came into existence during the peak of Cold War are still operational and have proved to be extremely effective in ascertaining actual incoming ballistic missile or otherwise.
Putin's doctrine enunciated in 2020 clearly stipulates that Russia reserves the right of first use against a potent and formidable conventional weapon attack. USA still follows NFU policy. But keeping in view readiness state of strategic nuclear weapons, USA retaliation time might be in minutes.
Tracking Ballistic/Cruise Missiles
Except for USA no other nation, China and Russia included, is capable of real time
tracking of a ballistic/cruise missile. It implies that ascertaining the origin of ballistic missile launch will either be a conjecture or pre supposed assumption. As
international norm, planned ballistic missile tests are placed in public domain due to safety concerns. But it is possible that due to malfunction the missile may alter
course or may not travel the planned distance and crash in an unintended place.
How would that nation know about the origin of missile and initiate instantaneous
retaliation against whom? In the recent case of an Indian missile landing in Pakistan could not have been tracked by Pakistan as claimed. Even if the missile is picked up while in flight, it is nearly impossible to immediately conclude and identify the point of launch. With missile ranges varying from few hundred km to few thousand km and flight altitude varying from ultra low level to few lakh feet, it is well nigh impossible to ascertain the point of launch.
In spite of technological advances during past seven decades, there is no way of ascertaining that incoming ballistic missile is unarmed, conventional weapon carrier or a nuke carrier. Prevailing nuclear ambivalence will remain until a technology is developed to confirm the type of warhead carried by incoming missile. Chances of such technology developing in near future are less than bleak. Therefore, type of warhead will only be known after impact. Hence all countries, China in particular, practice the precept of DELAYED RETALIATION. Since Russia and USA still adopt LoW and LUA posture, chances of an error of judgment are high. Because incoming Hypersonic missile might be carrying a conventional warhead. Also only Russia and USA can retaliate instantaneously. Other nations cannot due to reasons mentioned above. Hence chances of an accidental nuclear war in Indo-Pak-China scenario are nothing but hype and figment of imagination of less than informed military strategists. In foreseeable future nuclear weapons stockpile is unlikely to reduce, specially after Russia-Ukraine war. Will Iran, Taiwan and Japan go nuclear to ensure their survival as a nation state?
Group Captain TP Srivastava (Retd) is a DSSC alumnus, Gp Capt Srivastava is a military luminary who has written extensively on international relations, strategic affairs & Defence Procurement Procedures for leading strategic journals
(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)