Testing the limits

A 'limited nuclear war' is not possible in the 21st century

Testing the limits
The concept of ‘limited nuclear war’ was first alluded to in the Cold War bipolar security environment as a potential alternative to a ‘full-scale nuclear conflict’ between two world superpowers, the United States and the USSR. In 1974, then Secretary of Defense James R Schlesinger, while briefing a Senate Committee, pushed for a nuclear weapons doctrine exploring the option of a limited nuclear war. His argument was that instead of only two military options, being either no war or total global annihilation, US forces must be able to launch a ‘limited strike’ on selected Soviet military troops and their bases. The basic idea was to limit damage to such an extent that nuclear skirmishes could not turn into a full-scale nuclear war. Both President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger supported the idea, characterizing it as being conducted for the purpose of achieving swift political resolution of the conflicts.

Military strategists define limited nuclear war as a “war in which each side exercises restraint in the use of nuclear weapons, employing only a limited number of (low-yield) nuclear weapons on selected targets.” The goals in such conflicts generally could include disrupting enemy command and control centers or particular sites of strategic importance. During the 1980s, the idea of limited nuclear assault was confronted with a great deal of opposition particularly from the American academia. In actuality, the idea of limited use of nuclear weapons in a war was based on high-flown, unrealistic notions that such a war could be winnable and controllable. Any limited use of a nuclear weapon, anywhere in the world, would have significant strategic implications for changing international security landscape. It seems almost inevitable that, with limited nuclear war, there will be large uncertainties about the scope of conflict. Any such conflict would quickly spiral out of control, escalating into a full-scale nuclear war.

[quote]A nuclear famine could kill more than a billion people[/quote]

Many nuclear experts are of the view that the possibility exists that the nuclear-armed countries could become engaged in a limited war entailing the use of nuclear weapons. It is important to remember that the concept of limited nuclear war originated during the Cold War period when there were only a small number of countries with nuclear arsenals. Today’s global security environment includes the nine declared nuclear-weapons states and there are deep concerns about South Asia and the Middle East as two flashpoints for nuclear wars. The increasing number of nuclear players is also leading to the greater probability that nuclear weapons will be used in anger at some time in the future. It is generally impossible to forecast the initiation and conditions that could prevail in any such kind of limited war. It could involve varying attack intensities and timing, and with different objectives, all of which would increase the danger of the outbreak of a large-scale nuclear conflagration. Nuclear tipped missiles may suffer mechanical failure or deflection in flight, allowing for the possibility of missiles falling within one’s own territory.

A number of ‘outside’ factors could serve as catalysts for future nuclear use.  After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, it is pretty much obvious that another large-scale terrorist attack in India would bring South Asia to the brink of nuclear confrontation. In case, Pakistan is overwhelmed by India in a conventional war, it will surely employ its nuclear weapons to avert defeat. Similar fears have been expressed from time to time about the Middle East where Israel, if on the verge losing a conventional war, might use nuclear weapons. North Korea which harbors feelings of isolation could get into a nuclear conflict with the US or if monarchial regime in North Korea perceives the actions of others as threatening and therefore could use nuclear weapons as a means to protect their interests.

The advocates of nuclear war forget that even a limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, involving the use of five to ten weapons from both sides, would kill millions of people on both sides. The release of radiation due to nuclear explosions would set off a global famine in many parts of the world, effectively bringing human civilization close to destruction on this planet. In April 2012, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility released a study that predicted a nuclear famine could kill more than a billion people.

As Daisaku Ikeda famously said, “So long as nuclear weapons continue to exist, so will be the temptation to threaten others with overwhelming military force.”

The writer is a research scholar and a former visiting fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, California. He can be reached at rizwanasghar7@hotmail.com