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Report on Roundtable Discussion on Dangers of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

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  • November 16, 2022
    Round Table

    Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the Indian Pugwash Society (IPS) jointly organised an in-person roundtable discussion on "Dangers of Tactical Nuclear Weapons" as part of the Nuclear Roundtable Series on 16 November 2022 at 1500 hrs in Room Number 005. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA and Convener, IPS chaired the session. Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar, PVSM, AVSM, VM, ADC, (Retd.), Former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command; Dr. G. Balachandran, Independent Scholar; and Dr. Rajiv Nayan, Senior Research Associate and Centre Coordinator, Nuclear and Arms Control Centre, MP-IDSA participated in the discussion as panellists.

    Executive Summary

    Brainstorming was done at the roundtable discussion on the implications of the use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW)s in the Russia-Ukraine war as well as in the various theatres of the world. The speakers brought out various factors related to TNWs right from its definition, the issue of command and control, nuclear doctrines, the demonstrative role of TNWs, and factors related to radiation among others. Also, that there was the least possibility of Russia using TNWs against Ukraine. In the India-Pakistan context, Pakistan’s threat to use TNWs was bluff and bluster and India needs to enforce deterrence through actions such as the Balakot strikes.

    Detailed Report

    Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy set the ball rolling by providing a brief background to the topic. He reminded the audience about the P-5 Joint Statement at the beginning of 2022, that abjured the use of nuclear weapons. But just a few weeks later, Russia put its nuclear forces on alert amidst the Ukraine crisis. However, the United States (US) did not react with a similar counter-action. Broadening the scope of the topic, Ambassador Chinoy spoke about the risks of escalation, retaliation and miscalculation with the TNWs being in the action. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) Treaty was drawing to an end and new negotiations were yet to begin. China is loathe to get involved in any nuclear arms control treaty. Russia, even today, contains a large number of TNWs. However, the lack of consensus on the definition of TNWs adds to the problem of putting TNWs in meaningful arms control negotiations. With these initial remarks, the Chair invited Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar to speak on the topic.

    Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar began by stating that the TNWs are weapons meant to be used on the battlefield. Their yield varies from 1 – 50 Kilotons. Tactical weapons should be judged based on size, range and doctrine. There were so many TNWs before the advent of the START treaty but over a period of time, their numbers have been reduced. However, there is no treaty limiting TNWs. The US has drawn down tactical nuclear weapons because of the advent of precision weapons. However, the Russian Doctrine requires TNWs to have escalation control in the event of war as Russia doesn’t match up to the combined might of the NATO forces. For Russia, TNWs can be used to return the aggression, prevent conflict from expanding, pre-empt damaging strikes that pose an existential threat to Russia and terminate hostility. They have a strategy of escalating to deescalate.  The US had a similar strategy when the Warsaw Pact was alive. Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar mentioned the Kalibr and Iskander missiles of Russia and the B61 air-delivered gravity bomb of the US. The US has not developed TNWs because their doctrine says that the use of TNWs will escalate the war in the nuclear ladder and there will be Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). In the case of MAD, the US doctrine mandates to respond with strategic weapons. Russian assertion on 2 November 2022 that the nuclear war should not be fought has come out of a realisation that the nuclear war cannot be stopped after firing a single tactical nuclear weapon. The war would inevitably escalate.

    According to Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar, TNWs had limited utility when it came to achieving specific objectives such as stopping the war or stopping the enemy's advances. A study suggested that Pakistan would require 35 TNWs of 1-2 Kilotons each to stop the advancing Indian Armoured Division in its tracts by destroying at least fifty per cent of the tanks in a hypothetical situation. Targeting is a big problem with TNWs which is not the case with precision weapons. With the use of precision weapons, the objectives of TNWs can be achieved with conventional weapons. Later, the speaker highlighted the issue of command and control vis-à-vis TNWs. In the case of TNWs, command and control is delegated to the person on the ground unlike the case of strategic weapons where Command and Control is in safe hands. Therefore, there is a big risk of miscalculation in the case of TNWs. After dwelling on the theoretical issues related to tactical weapons, the speaker put forth his thoughts on the Russia-Ukraine war. Moscow’s action of putting nuclear forces on alert was a warning to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to not get involved. Surfacing of the Ohio-class Sub-surface Ballistic Nuclear Submarine (SSBN) in the Arabian Sea and the port visit of another Ohio-class SSBN to Gibraltar was a signal from the US to Russia. The US signalled that they would respond to TNWs with strategic nuclear weapons. The speaker, further, contended that the supporters of disarmament as well as those of deterrence were making strong arguments according to their respective positions with TNWs in the news.

    Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar dwelled on TNWs in various theatres across the world. He called out Pakistan’s threat to use TNWs and asserted that it was just bluff and bluster. Pakistan knows that if they use TNWs, the war will certainly be escalated to a full-fledged nuclear war. Additionally, they have inadequate fissile material for the consequential use of TNWs to meet their objectives. Therefore, India should make its doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation credible. According to the speaker, TNWs will be ineffective in the case of the Korean Peninsula. In the India-China context, both are No-First-Use states, so the question of TNWs does not arise. In conclusion, Air Marshal Kumar said that TNWs do not work. There is an issue of command and control. Any use of TNWs will lead to a full-fledged nuclear war. Therefore, any talk of normalisation of the use of nuclear weapons should be discouraged.

    Dr. G. Balachandran endorsed the arguments of Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar. He said that a dispersed delegation of command and control in the case of TNWs involves multiple actors. The more actors involved, the more the anarchy. He contended that distance became an important factor in distinguishing between strategic and TNWs because of the US-Russia dynamic. He defined strategic weapons as weapons that take out an opponent’s retaliatory weapons. If there is a first strike then strategic weapons take out the opponent’s strategic weapons. Whereas TNWs are used for tactical purposes. Thus, on average, strategic nuclear weapons have a higher yield than TNWs.

    Further, the speaker stated that if a nuclear weapon state uses TNWs against a non-nuclear weapon state, then a non-nuclear weapon state has to depend upon a nuclear-weapon state for retaliation. In the case of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, if Russia uses TNWs, the command and control would be vested only with the president rather than delegated to the local commander. TNWs can either be used against a large enemy formation or to create a radioactive barrier to slow down the advances of the enemy. Referring to JASON advisory group’s report regarding the use of TNWs in the Vietnam War, Dr. Balachandran asserted that the study concluded that the use of TNWs would not have been effective as conventional weapons could have achieved the same objectives. Additionally, the use of TNWs would have turned international and domestic opinion against the state that was using it. The same logic could be applied in the case of Russia today which is a rational state, therefore it would not use TNWs. However, if TNWs are used, it will be to send a strategic message to the opponent. Coming back to the use of TNWs, the speaker asserted that TNWs used in massive quantities could be effective. Moreover, they are effective in erecting radioactive barriers for advancing opponent forces. But even then, TNWs of a specified yield have to be continuously used as the radiation level drops after some time.

    Dr. Rajiv Nayan in his opening remarks stated that there was no universally accepted definition of TNWs. Broadly, missiles below a range of 550 km are considered tactical weapons. However, there was no limit to the yield of the weapon. Therefore, even weapons with a yield of 200 Kilotons could be termed as TNWs. In 2010, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) tried to reach a consensus regarding the definition of TNWs but failed.

    Talking about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Dr. Nayan asserted that western media, western think tanks, research institutes, and western leadership had created hype about Russian TNWs. One-third of Russian nuclear weapons are always on alert. So, there is nothing unusual. Rather Russian actions vis-à-vis nuclear weapons are according to their doctrine. In the Ukraine crisis, TNWs are not in the picture except maybe for signalling. Russia has always denied the use of TNWs but the western strategic community has projected the Russian threat of TNWs against Ukrainian infrastructure and NATO forces.

    Dr. Nayan, further, spoke about the implications of the use of TNWs after the Ukraine conflict. He foresaw a demand for the deployment of TNWs in Europe. Although some European countries were not in favour of the same, the changed equations may lead to the redeployment of the weapons. Then there is a possibility that nations will try to modernise their respective TNWs. The Russian threat projection can be used for securing modernisation funding by the US. Further, the concept of graduated deterrence might come into vogue. The speaker predicted that there could be a verification problem in coming times. The world will have to grapple with how to deal with stored nuclear weapons as they are likely to come into play. Unless there is overall disarmament, TNWs are unlikely to fade away. Nations are likely to take a fresh look at the doctrines to make necessary changes.

    In the ensuing discussion including the question and answer session, Ambassador Chinoy argued compellingly that tactical and strategic nuclear weapons were conjoined. The use of one would involve the other. There was no doctrine for TNWs. Taking over from him, Dr. Balachandran argued that if Russia were to use TNWs, it won’t face any counter-action from NATO. However, the use of nuclear weapons would certainly lead to the collapse of the international non-proliferation regime. Responding to questions and comments, Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar opined that India’s nuclear doctrine is very well crafted. However, it is not studied well by practitioners and academicians. There is an air of secrecy about our strategic weapons. Sometimes political and military leadership work in silos, as a result, they speak differently as there is a difference in understanding of strategy and doctrine by the two. Our programme does not appear to be credible because many stakeholders speak at cross-purposes. We should set our narrative right so that the world interprets it as we want. Further, the cold-start doctrine is no longer required. Rather Generals are worried about so many soldiers being deployed on the border as there is a possibility of tiredness at the beginning of the war. Bringing back the debate on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Dr. Nayan drew the attention of the audience to the fact that Uranium can be accessed by countries in indirect ways and Russians were not pondering using TNWs. In the India-Pakistan context, Dr. Nayan contended that India needs to take action like at Balakot to achieve deterrence. If actions is not taken, Pakistan will get emboldened. In the end, Ambassador Chinoy complimented the panel and the audience for intense brainstorming.

    The report was prepared by Mr. Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak, Research Analyst, MP-IDSA.