With the end of the Obama administration fast approaching, American adversaries are looking to provoke confrontations and stir up trouble. Domestic power transitions are an ideal time to test opponents: The incumbent is largely a lame duck, and the incoming leader will require time to adapt and adjust. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Putin is looking to test the United States. With an upcoming election that is particularly acrimonious, the Kremlin is doing everything it can to destabilize the U.S. both domestically and internationally. The provocative tactics being used by Moscow cannot be ignored, as doing so would only encourage further aggression and undermine America’s position in the world. Thus, a measured but firm response is necessary to remind Putin that Russia is still just a second-rate power that cannot afford to take on the West.
Russian revanchism is not a new phenomenon. Over the past few years, Putin has ordered troops to seize Crimea and destabilize Eastern Ukraine, escalated the conflict in Syria, and constantly harassed NATO countries, especially those in the Baltics (1). However, recent months have witnessed an escalation in hostility from the Kremlin. The most obvious and concerning part of Putin’s strategy has been the targeted release of damaging information against U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (2). Whether one agrees with Clinton or not, it is clear that foreign hacking and meddling in American domestic politics is entirely unacceptable. The rancor and vitriol in this year’s presidential election is reaching unprecedented levels, and this worrying trend is only being exacerbated by Russian-backed conspiracy theories. Beyond the clear and measurable damage that the Kremlin is causing in U.S. presidential politics, there is also a philosophical reason for opposing Putin’s meddling. Namely, the President of the United States should be determined by the American people, not Russian plutocrats. Allowing an adversary to launch a targeted and clear misinformation campaign risks domestic instability and is anathema to American democratic values.
Unfortunately, Russia is not just testing the United States domestically. It is also engaging in deliberately provocative actions in the realm of arms control. Indeed, just last week, Putin announced that Russia is suspending a plutonium disposition agreement with the United States (3). Negotiated at the end of the Cold War, this agreement was designed to safely dispose of weapons grade plutonium in a transparent and verifiable way. Agreements like this are important because they offer an effective way to decrease the number of nuclear weapons in the United States and the Russian Federation, thus leading to verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles and easing nuclear tensions. As Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, argues, “Putin’s decree states that Russia isn’t planning on turning the plutonium back into weapons just yet. But there is no reason it couldn’t” (4). In other words, while there is no immediate threat in Russia’s withdrawal from the agreement, it presents potential problems in the future and severely undermines cooperation over nuclear security.
And Russian withdrawal from the plutonium disposition agreement is not the only nuclear-related provocation Putin has conducted. Russia has also deployed Iskander-M short-range missiles to the Kaliningrad Oblast. Kaliningrad, formerly East Prussia, is a small Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania. From this position, Russian missiles could potentially hit all three Baltic republics as well as Eastern and Central Poland. Beyond its immediate threat to NATO countries, this deployment also has symbolic significance because the Iskander-M is likely in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the U.S. and Russia. Thus, the deployment is not just a destabilizing and provocative move, but it also represents another attempt by Russia to ostentatiously violate and ignore arms control agreements designed to limit nuclear brinksmanship (5).
Of course, none of these actions alone are likely to start a conflict or justify a serious response from the U.S. and NATO. However, when they are viewed together, it becomes clear that they are not simply accidental and meaningless encroachments against international norms. They are components of a deliberate strategy designed to undermine Western stability and increase Russian influence through eroding the American-led liberal order.
It’s important to note that some analysts believe Russian actions are not intended to be provocative but instead are a consequence of Western incitement (6). However, this view ignores significant historical facts that suggest that Putin, not system-level dynamics, is to blame for the recent chill in relations. NATO expansion occurred largely in the 90s and early 2000s. Thus, the idea that NATO's move east is the cause of Putin’s paranoia is ahistorical and deeply misleading. If Russia was actually concerned about NATO, it would have reacted far sooner. Moreover, it is hard to see how NATO poses any significant threat to the Russian Federation. NATO defense spending has plummeted, NATO has no military units permanently stationed near the Russian border, and American and European leadership have deliberately tried to engage with Russia and support its integration into the broader European security and economic system. Efforts at trust-building and cooperation were quite fruitful for many years, especially during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Putin’s election, however, changed everything and can be directly linked to the collapse in NATO-Russian relations. The problem is clear. It isn’t NATO or Russia, it is Putin (7).
The U.S. response to Putin’s aggressive and provocative action must be clear and costly, though limited enough to prevent a damaging escalation that spirals out of control. First, the U.S. should engage in a proportional response to Russian cyber-attacks. As recently outlined by James Stavridis, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, the U.S. could easily hack into the private networks of Putin and his cronies, releasing sensitive information to the Russian public. Other responses could be to weaken Russian internet censorship capabilities or even to attack Russia hackers directly, destroying their hardware through America cyber-attacks (8). Putin has been able to largely control Russia due to his clientelistic networks and massive public support. Were the U.S. to damage the image of Putin and his elite, oligarchic friends, this support would likely suffer, forcing Putin to focus on shoring up the domestic front. It would also remind Putin that American power still greatly exceeds that of the Russian Federation. Putin has been able to get away with a number of provocative actions due to tepid Western response, not because Russia is particularly capable. A tit for tat response would remind Putin that a war of small but constant escalations will always favor the U.S.
However, the U.S. should be careful to limit its military buildup in Europe. As Michael Kofman of the CNA Corporation has pointed out, Russia will always be able to achieve a tactical victory over NATO forces in Eastern Europe (9). Thus, marginal increases in troop levels only risk provoking Putin and furthering his narrative of NATO provocations. Nevertheless, the U.S. should continue to leverage European fears to catalyze European defense spending, shifting the balance of power ever further toward NATO. Although this wouldn’t directly deter a Russian fait accompli, it would significantly raise the costs of a drawn-out conflict between NATO and Russia, thus deterring at the strategic level.
Finally, the U.S. should look to continue mutually-beneficial cooperation in anti-terrorism and nuclear security. Success in these fields would be positive sum, as both countries have much to gain from degrading terror networks and limiting the risks of “loose nukes” and proliferation. Furthermore, it would contribute to confidence building and undercut the perception that the U.S. is attempting to exclude Russia from the international system, thus weakening some of the more aggressive conspiracy theories peddled by the Kremlin. In short, a successful response to Russia requires carefully calibrated and proportioned responses to Russian violations of international norms as well as a renewed commitment to cooperation and trust-building in mutually beneficial areas. The U.S. cannot afford to ignore Russia’s egregious violations of international sovereignty, but it also cannot afford to overreact and precipitate a second Cold War.
(1) Russian behavior has become so egregious that even the traditionally cautious Germany is calling for even greater sanctions. See, for example, Wehner, Markus. “Merkel will für weitere Sanktionen gegen Russland werben.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. October 15, 2016. Web. October 16, 2016.
(2) Sanger, David E. “U.S. Says Russia Directed Hacks to Influence Elections.” New York Times. October 7, 2016. Web. October 15, 2016.
(3) “Going Nuclear.” The Economist. October 8, 2016. Web. October 15, 2016.
(4) Lewis, Jeffrey. “The U.S. and Russia are Prepping for Doomsday.” Foreign Policy. October 7, 2016. Web. October 15, 2016.
(5) Marcus, Jonathan. Russia's missile deployment in Kaliningrad ups the stakes for Nato.” BBC. October 9, 2016. Web. October 16, 2016.
(6) Mearsheimer, John J. “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.” Foreign Affairs. September 2014. Web. October 15, 2016.
(7) Stoner, Kathryn and Michael McFaul. “Who Lost Russia (This Time)? Vladimir Putin.” The Washington Quarterly 38(2) (Summer 2015): pp. 167–187.
(8) Stavridis, James. “How to Win the Cyberwar Against Russia.” Foreign Policy. October 12, 2016. Web. October 14, 2016.
(9) Kofman, Michael. “FIXING NATO DETERRENCE IN THE EAST OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE NATO’S CRUSHING DEFEAT BY RUSSIA.” War on the Rocks. May 12, 2016. Web.
Image: © Alexandr Anastasin | Dreamstime.com - Grand Kremlin Palace.
Many analysts and scholars see the Asia-Pacific as the central region shaping the early 21st century. With the rise of China as both an economic and military power, the increased tension on the Korean Peninsula, and the expansion of trade flows through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, it is simply impossible to develop an effective grand strategy without accounting for developments in East Asia and the Western Pacific (1). The debate over how best to address growing challenges in Asia is complex and multifaceted (2). It requires deep knowledge of U.S. military capabilities, regional economic trends, and sociological forces shaping inter-state relations. Therefore, it is frustrating to see such a dearth of novel theorizing on how best to engage with the region (3). Of course, think tanks and academics have developed “new” theories, but in reality, these novel approaches are usually nothing more than old concepts with a new name. This lacuna is troubling because it allows deeply misguided strategies to gain support simply on account of them being radical or new. Unfortunately, we are already witnessing this dynamic in the debate over offshore balancing.
Offshore balancing has been advocated by a number of prominent realist scholars for decades, but it has never received much support from policymakers. Advocates of offshore balancing like Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Christopher Layne contend that the U.S. can safely retrench, minimizing its global military presence and intervening only when a regional power threatens to rise to the status of regional hegemon (4). To use Walt and Mearsheimer’s words, “Instead of policing the world, the United States would encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary” (5). At first glance, this strategy certainly seems persuasive. With Trump supporters questioning the role of NATO and Sanders supporters arguing that the U.S. should end its frequent and often-unproductive interventions in the Middle East, there does appear to be somewhat of a domestic consensus that the U.S. should reduce its global commitments.
However, a strategy of offshore balancing comes with a number of severe risks that are often under-appreciated by academics and voters alike. It is very clear that the United States military – despite all of its aging equipment and readiness gaps – is significantly more powerful than even its closest rivals (6). However, this does not mean that the U.S. can win any and all wars it faces, and this is the biggest weakness in offshore balancing as a theory. International relations scholars in academia measure power in very abstract terms. For example, they use measurements like GDP, population size, steel production, etc. (7). While this does a fairly good job of describing the global military balance in general terms, it is insufficient for analyzing specific contingencies and scenarios. However, because neither academics nor voters are, as a general rule, experts in military strategy, they often commit the error of assuming that abstract military power means guaranteed military success.
The problem with this view is that it ignores the role that geography and individual weapons systems play in determining the outcome of a battle. Although it would be nice if the U.S. were able to station all of its soldiers at home, surging them overseas only when a regional challenge emerged, this ignores the logistical and tactical problems of deployments. Were the U.S. to withdraw its forward deployed units, it would no longer possess prepared bases in potential hotspots, thus complicating logistics. Furthermore, the U.S. would have to deploy while contending with harassment from enemy aircraft, naval units, and A2AD (anti-access area denial) weapons systems like the Chinese DF-21D (8). In other words, the U.S. would face a much more challenging deployment to hostile regions of the world were it to abandon its global presence.
It is also unclear that the U.S. would be able to maintain its fruitful security relationships with ideologically aligned states. For example, NATO forces and command networks are deeply integrated, using common designations, command structures, and aircraft control hand gestures. This may seem superficial, but it is not. The commonality found in NATO is what makes the alliance so effective: Italian helicopters can land on American destroyers in a fleet commanded by a French admiral all because NATO forces use the same organizational principles. To maintain this high level of cooperation, however, the U.S. drills constantly with NATO allies. A U.S. withdrawal from Europe would weaken inter-military ties and thus make future cooperation exceedingly difficult. Moreover, as Frank Hoffman points out in a piece for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “[offshore balancing] assumes that regional powers share our interests and have the will and capacity to stabilize the region,” but this may not be the case (9). It is not at all clear that a U.S. withdrawal from Asia would catalyze a renaissance in Japanese and South Korean defense capabilities. It is also not clear that their interests would entirely align with those of the United States. South Korea, for example, is far more sanguine about China’s rise than the U.S. and Japan are, and it would therefore be unlikely to adopt the kind of counterbalancing posture vis-à-vis China favored by the United States.
Furthermore, a withdrawal from East Asia would likely encourage nuclear weapons proliferation. U.S. security commitments to Japan, for example, have been crucial in containing Japanese leaders’ nuclear aspirations (10). Korea, too, has relied on credible U.S. security guarantees to undergird its defense posture against the North (11). With North Korea’s nuclear weapons program rapidly advancing, South Korea would be faced with tough choices were the U.S. to end its security guarantee (12). Proliferation is not guaranteed, of course. Japanese and Korean policymakers might view the repercussions of nuclear acquisition, such as sanctions or diplomatic isolation, as too severe. However, the empirical record suggests that absent external security guarantees, strong states facing acute security challenges will take extreme actions to guarantee their safety (13). Were rapid proliferation to occur, it would massively increase regional instability and raise the odds of a major conflict breaking out that pulls the United States back into the region, thus undermining the entire justification for pursuing offshore balancing. This is because new nuclear states lack the experience necessary to safely manage and organize their arsenals. Early command and control networks are often underdeveloped, and rival states are more likely to misread the intentions of new nuclear states because they lack established norms for dealing with nuclear neighbors (14).
Clearly, offshore balancing contains severe risks that vastly increase the risk of conflict breaking out in the Asia-Pacific. Why, then, does offshore balancing receive such support? The primary argument for retrenchment is that it reduces U.S. defense spending, thus yielding significant gains. With allies forced to defend themselves, the logic goes, the U.S. will be able to reduce the amount it spends. Or, as Donald Trump would put it, our allies are ripping us off and they need to pay their fair share. However, this kind of reasoning is simplistic and inaccurate because it only considers the costs of a global presence and fails to account for the economic gains. Of course maintaining a global military presence is incredibly expensive (15). However, the cost of forward deploying soldiers, ships and planes to allied territory pales in comparison to the cost of fighting a major war caused by U.S. retrenchment. In other words, U.S. forward basing is an insurance policy. It comes with a pricey premium, but that premium is more than justified given the grave consequences of a major war in East Asia. It’s also unclear whether troops stationed abroad are a net cost for the U.S. After all, allies like Japan and Korea pay for a significant amount of the costs associated with forward deployed soldiers and materiel, and a recent report by the nonpartisan RAND Corp. suggests that “The direct budgetary savings [of retrenchment] may be substantial, but the indirect trade costs are likely to be far larger” (16). The report goes on to say that “Policymakers who reduce [alliance] commitments would face… the future problems of a poorer United States” (17).
Offshore balancing is a sucker’s bet. It might lead to short-term savings, but when one extends the time horizons out from years to decades, it becomes clear that a policy of offshoring balancing would increase the likelihood of a great power war, while also shrinking the U.S. economy by reducing bilateral trade flows. Like a lot of radical and novel approaches to public policy being thrown around this year, offshore balancing seems intuitively smart: It allows the U.S. to focus on the home front and stop bankrolling lazy European and Asian partners. However, this view is faulty and misguided, and it belies a fundamental lack of knowledge about America’s role in the world. The common perception of the United States as being aloof and sheltered from world events has never been accurate. Even before its rise to superpower status, the U.S. played a major role on the world stage (18). To abandon the system that has served U.S. interests so well and helped undergird one of the most stable and peaceful periods in human history is foolish and naïve (19). We certainly need new and innovative strategies for dealing with friends and foes alike, but rejecting America’s position as the global liberal hegemon would only make the U.S. weaker and the world less safe.
(1) Maliniak, Daniel, Susan Peterson, Ryan Powers, and Michael J. Tierney. “Notes From the Ivory Tower.” Foreign Policy. February 3, 2015. Web. October 7, 2015.
(2) For example, see Friedberg, Aaron L. Beyond Air-Sea Battle: The Debate Over US Military Strategy in Asia. London: Routledge, 2014. Print.
(3) Mazarr, Michael J. “The World Has Passed The Old Grand Strategies By.” War on the Rocks. October 5, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(4) Mearsheimer, John J. and Stephen Walt. “The Case for Offshore Balancing.” Foreign Affairs. July/August 2016. Web. October 7, 2016; Layne, Christopher. “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy.” International Security 22(1) (1997): 86–124.
(5) Walt and Mearsheimer, 71.
(6) O’Hanlon, Michael E. and David Petraeus. “America’s Awesome Military.” Brookings Institution. September 30, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(7) Braumoeller, Bear F. “Has The American Military Fallen Behind?” The Monkey Cage. May 4, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(8) Jackson, Van. Interview with Deny Roy. Pacific Pundit. August 8, 2016. Podcast Audio.
(9) Hoffman, Frank G. “Retreating Ashore: The Flaws of Offshore Balancing.” Geopoliticus. July 5, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(10) Hoey, Fintan. “Japan and Extended Nuclear Deterrence: Security and Non-proliferation.” Journal of Strategic Studies 39(4) (2016): 484-501.
(11) Jang, Se Young. “The Evolution of US Extended Deterrence and South Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions.” Journal of Strategic Studies 39(4) (2016): 502-520.
(12) Lewis, Jeffrey. “North Korea’s Nuke Program Is Way More Sophisticated Than You Think.” Foreign Policy. September 9, 2016. Web. October 7, 2016.
(13) Monteiro, Nuno P. and Alexandre Debs. “The Strategic Logic of Nuclear Proliferation.” International Security 39(2) (Fall 2014): 7–51.
(14) Sagan, Scott D. The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Print.
(15) All data is from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). “Military Expenditure Database.” Stockholm: SIPRI, 2015. http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex.
(16) Egel, Daniel, Adam R. Grissom, John P. Godges, Jennifer Kavanagh and Howard J. Shatz. Estimating the Value of Overseas Security Commitments. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. Web.
(18) Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
(19) Ikenberry, G J. Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2011. Print.
Image: © 1000words | Dreamstime.com - US President Barack Obama
This past summer, Turkey experienced a large-scale, though poorly organized, military coup. The causes and consequences of this are of immense importance not just because they impact a NATO member who controls the vitally important Bosporus Strait, but also because the subsequent repression that has followed is extremely alarming, and it threatens Turkish democracy. However, there is one other issue that has been both overlooked and overly exaggerated by a vast number of commentators and pundits: American nuclear weapons housed at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.
Fortunately, the American nuclear weapons at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base were never at risk. This is because all facilities that store nuclear weapons are highly secured, and it is virtually impossible for nefarious forces to access them. Weapons are housed in a separate, fenced-off area, guarded by well-trained and highly qualified personnel. Inside the fencing, there are vaults sitting under aircraft shelters, and inside these vaults are the nuclear weapons. Thus, it would be exceedingly difficult for outside forces to gain control of American nuclear systems. This is particularly true given the $160 million that the U.S. and its NATO allies recently invested in modernizing and upgrading nuclear security systems (1). Yet all of this security might not have even been necessary during the coup, as history demonstrates that coup plotters rarely seem to target nuclear weapons (2). Instead, they tend to focus on eliminating the sitting government’s senior leadership, closing down transportation networks, and seizing communications networks because these are key to disrupting the government and controlling the narrative (3). Wasting precious resources and personnel on seizing nuclear sites is, therefore, a sub-optimal strategy.
Despite the plethora of evidence suggesting American nuclear assets in Turkey were secure, strange rumors began to emerge that the U.S. government – spooked by the coup – rebased its nuclear weapons in Romania. Originally reported by an obscure website, these uncorroborated speculations were quickly spread by fringe media outlets. However, they have been denied by Romanian officials, and American officials have called the claims preposterous. It also makes no sense from a technical standpoint, as Romania lacks the facilities necessary to house U.S. nuclear weapons (4). In short, there is absolutely no evidence that U.S. nuclear weapons have been moved to Romania.
These concerns and bizarre conspiracy theories about nukes in Romania do raise an important point, though. Why does the United States house nuclear weapons in foreign countries? The policy of storing nuclear weapons in foreign countries dates back to the Cold War. During the first few years of the decades long struggle between East and West, the United States lacked the ability to launch weapons capable of striking the Soviet Union from the U.S. homeland. Missile technology was still maturing, and thus the U.S. was forced to base nuclear weapons in Europe to hold Soviet facilities at risk. Eventually, the U.S. was able to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking the U.S.S.R. from the U.S. However, the U.S. continued to deploy nuclear weapons to Western Europe in order to deter a large-scale Soviet invasion. Faced with overwhelming Soviet superiority in conventional forces, NATO was forced to rely on forward deployed tactical nuclear weapons as their asymmetric response. This strategy was officially formalized during the Kennedy administration as the “flexible response” doctrine (5).
Decades later, the U.S. continues to maintain a small number of nuclear weapons in Europe through NATO’s “nuclear sharing” policy. Officially, this is done to maintain deterrence in Europe. However, the relevance of U.S. nuclear forces in Europe is highly questionable. Despite their official mission statement, American nuclear weapons in Europe are objectively little more than vestiges of the Cold War supported only by self-serving bureaucracies looking to justify a greater share of the budget. Their mission of deterring Russian aggression is largely superfluous, as the likelihood of a large-scale Soviet-style invasion is exceedingly small, and the kind of irregular warfare currently used by Russia is far too limited to justify a nuclear response (6). There is also no reason that nukes couldn’t be redeployed to Europe were a major crisis to break out. Of course, there is a risk that the elimination of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe might spook allies, encouraging them to potentially acquire nuclear weapons of their own. However, this seems like an unlikely scenario for two reasons. First, conventional forces play a far greater role than nuclear forces in signaling America’s commitment to allies’ defense (7). Second, the U.S. withdrew its nuclear weapons forward deployed to Asia years ago, and neither Japan nor South Korea responded by seeking to acquire nuclear weapons themselves (8). The presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe is likely not a threat to peace – there are too few to frighten Russia, and they are too well guarded to be stolen by terrorists or rogue military elements. However, there is also no real strategic reason for the U.S. to continue to base nuclear weapons in Europe, as they are nothing more than an expensive anachronism.
The coup in Turkey generated all kinds of discussion about a range of issues. It also led to the promulgation of some seriously comical conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, beneath all of this paranoia and confusion lies an important and serious issue: the basing of U.S. nuclear weapons abroad. Sure, there are probably no meaningful risks generated by the stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey, but there are also no meaningful strategic advantages to be gained. The United States must seriously evaluate its current nuclear strategy because continuing to do things simply because it’s the way they have been done is not strategy, it’s intellectual laziness.
(1) Lewis, Jeffrey. “America’s Nukes Aren’t Safe in Turkey Anymore.” Foreign Policy. July 18, 2016. Web. September 27, 2016.
(2) Tertrais, Bruno. “A “Nuclear Coup”? France, the Algerian War and the April 1961 Nuclear Test.” Working Paper: Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique. October 2, 2011. Web. September 27, 2016.
(3) Luttwak, Edward N. Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook, Revised Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Print.
(4) De Luce, Dan. “No, the U.S. Is Not Moving Its Nukes From Turkey to Romania.” Foreign Policy. August 19, 2016. Web. September 27, 2016.
(5) Sagan, Scott Douglas. Moving Targets: Nuclear Strategy and National Security. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Print. pp. 37.
(6) Kofman, Michael. “FIXING NATO DETERRENCE IN THE EAST OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE NATO’S CRUSHING DEFEAT BY RUSSIA.” War on the Rocks. May 12, 2016. Web. September 27, 2016.
(7) Lanoszka, Alexander. “Better to dismay allies now than to infuriate them later.” The Washington Post. April 6, 2014. Web. September 28, 2016.
(8) Krepon, Michael. “Alliances and No First Use.” Arms Control Wonk. July 5, 2016. Web.
Image: © Petitfrere | Dreamstime.com - Nuclear Protest Photo
With proliferating asymmetric threats in the cyber realm, lackluster global economic growth, and the constant specter of terrorism, it’s easy to overlook the threat of war between nation-states. Although it is certainly true that inter-state war is on the decline and thus far less likely to occur than terrorism or non-kinetic attacks on U.S. information technology systems, it still represents the most dangerous threat to world peace (1). This is due to the simple fact that wars between well-armed states can lead to far higher casualties and much greater destruction than small-scale terror attacks. In other words, while the probability of an inter-state dispute escalating to open conflict is fairly low, the magnitude of the consequences demands that the risk be taken seriously. The region that is perhaps the most likely to experience high-intensity conflict between major powers is South Asia. With nuclear-armed India and Pakistan existing in an enduring rivalry, constantly taking provocative actions against the other, the risk of inadvertent conflict is relatively high. The nuclear status of both India and Pakistan – and, in particular, Pakistan’s highly aggressive nuclear posture – makes a conflict very risky indeed, as escalation dynamics might lead to the use of nuclear weapons.
Since 1998, when both India and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons in quick succession, the subcontinent has come perilously close to witnessing a major war on a number of occasions. This was particularly true during the late 90s and early 2000s, when both countries were learning how to organize their arsenals and were developing their nuclear postures (2). Fortunately, with the possible exception of the Kargil Crisis, we have yet to witness a major military escalation in South Asia. While there have been a number of Pakistani provocations, such as the Mumbai terror attacks and insurgent violence in Kashmir, neither side has been willing to escalate tensions to the point of full-scale war. This lack of conflict is not a reason for optimism, however, as there are at least two dynamics of the Indo-Pak relationship that increase the likelihood of conflict: The stability-instability paradox and India’s adoption of an aggressive conventional military doctrine (3).
The stability-instability paradox describes the increase of small-scale conflict associated with the acquisition of nuclear weapons. States that possess nuclear weapons are effectively invulnerable, as their ability to launch a nuclear retaliatory attack makes the stakes too high for rivals to consider war. However, this invulnerability allows nuclear weapons states to risk low-level conflict because they know that no country is going to risk war with a nuclear-armed state over a minor transgression. In other words, nuclear states’ protection from major wars allows them to take greater risks lower down on the escalation ladder. This is certainly the case with Pakistan, which has exploited its nuclear arsenal to execute a number of asymmetrical attacks against its eastern neighbor, India. For example, Pakistan felt comfortable seizing territory in Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1999 in part because “[Pakistan] believed that their incipient nuclear capabilities had effectively neutralized whatever conventional military advantages India possessed” (4). There is also compelling evidence that suggests that Pakistan exploited the security offered by its nuclear arsenal to support the 2001 attack against the Indian Parliament by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. This attack quickly precipitated a major military crisis, as India responded by initiating Operation Parakram, mobilizing 500,000 troops along the border and threatening to strike Pakistani terror camps and invade parts of Pakistani Kashmir unless Pakistan turned over individuals connected with the attack and renounced terrorism. In response, Pakistan quickly deployed its own forces along the border, and soon over 1,000,000 troops were squaring off along the India-Pakistan border (5). Tensions were lowered due, in part, to Pakistani concessions and U.S. intervention. However, in 2002, Pakistani militants again crossed into India and killed 32 Indian military personnel. The U.S. was forced to intervene a second time to halt India’s planned invasion of Pakistan (6). These types of provocative and vicious attacks have become less frequent over time, but they have certainly not ceased. Indeed, just this past week, 18 Indian soldiers were killed in Kashmir, and evidence suggests that Pakistan was in some way involved (7).
In response to these Pakistani provocations, India adopted a highly aggressive conventional military doctrine in 2004 in an attempt to raise the costs for Pakistani action. Known as Cold Start, this new doctrine is designed to allow for the swift mobilization of Indian military personnel in order to execute rapid strikes against Pakistani positions in the event of a conflict (8). However, it is not at all clear that Cold Start will serve to decrease tensions on the subcontinent. Instead of deterring war, it might actually lead to conflict escalation due to its embrace of limited war. Cold Start was initially developed in response to the 2001 Parliament attack: Indian politicians and strategists were deeply frustrated with the relatively slow mobilization of Indian forces and sought to design a doctrine capable of rapidly responding to Pakistani provocations (9). Instead of organizing the Indian military into three Strike Corps designed to defeat Pakistani forces head on – the pre-2004 organization of the Indian military – Cold Start argued for a reorganization of the offensive component of the Indian Army into eight integrated battle groups designed to launch quick, shallow strikes into Pakistan. The central idea of Cold Start is to strike sufficiently deep into Pakistani territory to extract significant concession but not so deep as to spook Islamabad into deploying nuclear weapons (10).
Cold Start is advantageous for a number of reasons. It allows for relatively rapid mobilization and thus faster retaliation against Pakistan in the event of an attack. Furthermore, the smaller, more dispersed organization allows for greater Indian flexibility, making it harder for Pakistan to predict and defend against Indian attack vectors. Thus, India should be better able to hold Pakistani forces at risk. However, the smaller size of integrated battle groups makes it less likely that Pakistan would view Indian incursions into Pakistani territory as an existential threat, reducing the risk of nuclear conflict. At least that is the theory. In reality, there is good evidence to suggest that Cold Start might actually increase the risk of large-scale conventional war, even as it meaningfully decreases the risk of Pakistani-backed terror attacks. This is because Cold Start decreases the time in which external actors like the United States can intervene and deescalate the situation. As Ladwig writes, “the international community may find integrated battle groups on the road to Lahore before anyone in Washington, Brussels, or Beijing has the chance to act” (11).
Cold Start is also dangerous in that it increases the risk of deliberate or inadvertent escalation on the part of Pakistan. Cold Start is premised on the idea that limited war is possible. In other words, it relies on the belief that India is capable of launching targeted strikes on Pakistan without triggering a nuclear response. This is certainly plausible, but it is important not to underestimate the level of confusion and fear that exists during high-intensity military conflict. Pakistan might misread Indian intentions and view limited Indian strikes as an existential threat, thus prompting them to order the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Indian forces. Miscalculation is particularly likely in the case of an Indo-Pak conflict, as most major Pakistani population centers are located near the border. Thus, even limited Indian incursions into Pakistani territory might appear extremely threatening to Pakistani leadership (12). This could lead to an escalation up the nuclear ladder, as India might very well consider a nuclear response to a Pakistani tactical nuclear strike. It’s also important to remember that during a war, Pakistan will not sit idly by and allow Indian forces to strike with impunity. Thus, a conflict would be fast and highly unpredictable, increasing the risk of strategic miscalculations and limiting external mediator’s ability to deescalate the crisis. The aforementioned problems would only be compounded by India’s poor national security organization. During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, for example, there was no sign of any Indian integrated battle groups. Thus, it is far from clear that the clunky and cumbersome Indian military hierarchy is even capable of effectively executing Cold Start.
Finally, it is crucial to examine the nuclear capabilities and strategies of the two countries. As Vipin Narang convincingly argues, Pakistani doctrine is designed to permit maximum flexibility (13). This is due to India’s superior conventional military capabilities: Pakistan simply can’t afford to fight India on India’s terms. However, India is limited in its responses to a Pakistani nuclear strike because “its own arsenal is physically configured for a countervalue strike on Pakistani population centres” (14). In other words, Pakistan has a wider range of nuclear capabilities and is therefore able to control escalation dynamics. Because India lacks the ability to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, Pakistan is able to operate at the tactical nuclear level with virtual impunity because it is exceedingly unlikely that India would be willing to retaliate against a small-scale Pakistani nuclear strike with a full-scale strategic retaliatory strike against Pakistani cities. This further undermines the Cold Start doctrine, as it means that Pakistan might consider utilizing tactical nuclear weapons against Indian formations, destroying them before they can secure any strategic objectives. India’s hands are tied because its nuclear arsenal is only effective at the strategic level: It could either choose to withdraw or strike Pakistani population centers, but those are the only two options. Neither option is ideal, and thus India would be forced to make a number of difficult decisions while under severe pressure. In a situation like this, it is conceivable that an inadvertent escalation occurs, throwing the entire subcontinent into full-on nuclear conflict.
In conclusion, Indo-Pak deterrence is incredibly complex and, in many ways, is an ineffective system for limiting conflict escalation. Both countries have developed risky strategies in an effort to deter and coerce the other, so understanding the dynamics of Indo-Pak deterrent relationship at both the conventional and nuclear level is absolutely crucial to lowering the probability of a major conflict. Luckily, we have yet to witness a significant war between India and Pakistan since they have acquired nuclear arsenals. However, this is not a justification for complacency, as the costs of a war in one of the most populous areas of the globe would be unimaginably high.
(1) Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of our Nature. New York: Viking Press, 2011. Print.
(2) Kapur, S. Paul. “Ten Years of Instability in Nuclear South Asia.” International Security, 33(2) (Fall 2008): pp. 71.
(3) Ibid, 72.
(4) Ganguly, Sumit. Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions since 1947. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Print. pp. 92.
(5) Kapur, 80.
(6) Ibid, 81.
(7) Ed. Board. “Rising Tensions in Kashmir.” New York Times. 23 Sept. 2016. Web. Accessed 24 Sept. 2016.
(8) Ladwig III, Walter C. “A Cold Start for Hot War?” International Security, 32(3) (Winter 2007/08): pp. 158.
(9) Ibid, 161.
(10) Ibid, 163-166.
(11) Ibid, 167.
(12) Joshi, Shashank. “India's Military Instrument: A Doctrine Stillborn.” Journal of Strategic Studies, 36(4) (2013): pp. 517.
(13) Narang, Vipin. Nuclear Strategy In The Modern Era. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.
(14) Joshi, 522.
Image: © Smandy | Dreamstime.com - India Pakistan Waga Border
Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.