Nuclear Weapons and No First Use: Need for Strategic Restraint

C. Uday Bhaskar, Deputy Director, IDSA


The new government in Germany let the proverbial cat among the nuclear pigeons (oxymoron?) when Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a member of the environmentalist Green Party in the coalition suggested in a magazine interview late November 1998 that Germany would press the US led NATO military alliance to renounce its current strategic doctrine of the possible first use of nuclear weapons.1 This was blasphemous to say the least given the centrality of nuclear weapons in US (and hence NATO) military doctrine and coming from a staunch European ally which enjoyed the status of a virtual nuclear weapon power under the US umbrella, it sent shock waves through Washington's Beltway.

The Clinton administration moved to battle-stations and Bonn was brought to heel swiftly—perhaps ruthlessly. Rebuffing the German suggestion US Defence Secretary William Cohen asserted November 23, 1998 that there would be no change in the first use policy and added; "It is an integral part of our strategic concept and we think it should remain exactly as it is."2 Within two days German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, from the Social Democrat faction in the coalition met with his US counterpart, William Cohen in the Pentagon and assured his host that "there is no intention in my government to question any core element of NATO strategy, including the fact that nuclear forces play a fundamental political role."3

While it may appear that damage control has been effective and that Germany will not rock the NATO boat, this incident serves to focus attention on two of the most critical questions facing the US led nuclear world that is groping to come to terms with the changed strategic context of the post-Cold War world and the reality of the nuclear tests in the Indian sub-continent in May this year. First, do nuclear weapons serve any purpose barring a political role in the aftermath of the Cold War with bi-polarity interred? Or, is it necessary to brandish them for possible first-use, as is the current declaratory policy of the US and hence NATO—and therefore maintain them at high levels of operational readiness? The answer to this contentious question defines the second—namely, if the US as the militarily most powerful nation in the post-Cold War world with no comparable peer in the next 20 places hierarchically, needs nuclear weapons for ensuring its security and that of its allies, then can one deny the same rationale to other states comprising Russia, China and India at one end of the spectrum and going on to Iraq, Iran, North Korea at the other?

It is interesting that soon after carrying out its nuclear tests in May and announcing that it had acquired a minimum nuclear deterrent, India committed itself to a no-first-use policy, thereby joining China which is the only other nuclear weapon power to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons. This suggestion has been anathema to US policy makers since Hiroshima in 1945 and the threat to use nuclear weapons is at the heart of US defence doctrine right from having to deter a superior Soviet military presence in Europe to the later phases of the Cold War which through techno-strategic impetus arrived at the plateau of stability through a MAD doctrine—mutually assured destruction!

The need for a doctrinal reevaluation as far as nuclear weapons are concerned has received attention in the aftermath of the Cold War from many quarters but in the Indian context it may be pertinent to recall that before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, India in 1988 had proposed an Action Plan for Ushering in a Nuclear-Weapon-Free and Non-Violent World Order under the stewardship of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Tabled at the Third Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly, (UNGA) devoted to disarmament, the preamble noted that humanity stood poised at the crossroads of history (even before the end of the Cold War) with the sword of a nuclear holocaust dangling above it and while commending the just concluded Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the USA and (then) Soviet Union as a first major step, it urged that "The time has also come to consider seriously the changes in doctrines, in policies, in attitudes, and in institutions required to usher in and manage a nuclear-weapon-free and non-violent world."4

This plan was deemed unrealistic and impractical at the time and was met with amusement or worse, derision by the major powers who unanimously rejected any kind of doctrinal or policy shift as far as nuclear weapons were concerned, with some of the more acerbic remarking that India as always was living in "moral cuckoo land."5 But the plea for a doctrinal review has remained alive in India and more recently almost ten years to the date, in 1998 this was raised again in the UNGA. Indian Prime Minister Mr. Vajpayee recalled the Indian commitment to global disarmament and recalled that the 1998 Non-Aligned Summit in Durban had agreed to an Indian proposal that an international conference be held, preferably in 1999, "with the objective of arriving at an agreement, before the end of the millennium on a phased programme for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons.....let us pledge that when we assemble here in the new millennium, it shall be to welcome the commitment that mankind shall never again be subjected to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons."6 (emphasis added)

The role of nuclear weapons has received critical attention in recent years and what has often been glossed over is the fact that the scope of the nuclear weapon has been enlarged to deal with non-nuclear contingencies in the post-Cold War world. Whereas the US led NATO alliance had long justified its first-use policy during the Cold War to ostensibly neutralise the perceived overwhelming superiority of the Warsaw Pact forces, the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev summit effectively demonstrated that a nuclear war was not a feasible proposition either in terms of actual fighting or winning and hence the unstated consensus that nuclear weapons were not meant for actual use but as instruments of politico-diplomatic suasion.

However, this tenet was redefined towards the end of the Cold War and in the 1991 War for Kuwait, the US indicated its intent to widen the scope of use of nuclear weapons in non-nuclear exigencies and it is averred that President Saddam Hussain of Iraq was deterred from using chemical weapons due to a veiled threat of a nuclear response. In short, nuclear weapons were equated with other forms of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and other nuclear powers also outlined corresponding ambiguous doctrines whereby they reserved the right to use nuclear weapons with any form of WMD threat among other "uncertainties" that lurked in the uneasy post-Cold War era.

Dismayed at this development some US arms control experts cautioned that "as long as nuclear weapons exist, deterrence of their actual use remains the core mission of those states possessing them... possession of nuclear weapons by a smaller state exposes it to total annihilation if it were to use them against one of the nuclear weapon states or against states that have been given guarantees by one of the nuclear weapon states. The basic deterrent concept is therefore even more valid in a world of several small nuclear powers than it was in the now erased bi-lateral confrontation."7 (emphasis original). This opinion was a reflection of a US National Academy of Sciences study of 1991 that concluded that there is "emerging political consensus that nuclear weapons should serve no purpose beyond the deterrence of, and possible response to, nuclear attacks by others."8

Regrettably, current US doctrine is premised on the freedom to first use of nuclear weapons to cover a range of exigencies that inter alia include: "core mission; as weapons of last resort; to discourage potential new nuclear weapon states; to deter use of non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction; and specialized, non-unique regional missions."9 This bandwidth of missions is also subscribed to in varying fashion by all the other declared nuclear weapon states or NWS in NPT parlance viz.: Russia, France and UK and states with nuclear weapons or SNW viz. Pakistan and Israel. Barring China (NWS) and India (SNW), none of the other states with nuclear weapon capability have formally committed themselves to the defensive no-first-use policy which, needless to add carries with it the enormously grave political import of being willing to sustain a first strike by a nuclear weapon—were such a catastrophic contingency to arise. Thus, the need for all states with nuclear weapon capabilities to commit themselves first to a return to the core mission of nuclear weapons and later, to a no-first-use policy would signal a shift in current doctrinal thinking that equates state security with the nuclear weapon.

Today it is debatable whether the nuclear weapon provides greater or lesser security to a nation. The dominant consensus is that the dreaded weapon is necessary and a positive adjunct for the major states and their allies but a detriment and disastrous for other states—such as India and Pakistan. However, no one disputes the reality that the nuclear weapon induces considerable insecurity across the board and hence there is a need to dwell on the assuaging of the WMD insecurity index among states in the post-Cold War era. Does China really "deter" the USA and Russia with its limited arsenal of 400 nuclear weapons or does it assuage its own insecurity even while attempting to improve relations with these states? Thus there may be a need to alter the whole conceptual plane of reference and move from the well-known and hence comfortable perch of 'deterrence' among states to a new concept and semantic—the assuaging of an insecurity index (ASINEX)--the equivalent of a minimum WMD insurance, however it is defined.10 To a large extent, the US is also assuaging this inchoate insecurity induced by the "uncertainties" of the post-Cold War world by retaining a significant nuclear arsenal which even after START II would level off to 3,500 strategic nuclear warheads and the firm rejection of a no-first-use policy.

The squaring of this insecurity circle may call for a new approach that would prioritise strategic restraint—i.e. a conceptually new doctrine that would highlight the defensive deterrent nature of the nuclear weapon and related delivery vehicles. This formulation would address the WMD insecurity paradigm in an evolutionary manner and will derive from the earlier commitments, namely a return to the core mission and a commitment to the no-first-use policy. This could be further pursued through a movement towards de-alerting of nuclear weapons as they now exist in their respective states of operational readiness. De-alerting is a generic term for de-activating nuclear weapons and one way of addressing the urgent need to reduce nuclear dangers in the immediate and short term. While the need for a de-alert status was mooted as far back as 1990, this issue has received a fair amount of attention in recent years and very specific proposals have been outlined in a persuasive manner.11

That these dangers are very real was frighteningly illustrated in the incident of January 25, 1995, "when Russian nuclear forces were put on alert and President Yeltsin was brought his black nuclear command suitcase. The proximate cause of the false alert was a US-Norwegian research rocket fired from an island off Norway's northwestern coast, which adjoins Russia's northern Arctic coastline. According to a former CIA official, Peter Pry, the four-stage rocket resembled a US submarine launched, multiple-stage strategic ballistic missile."12 A major catastrophe was luckily averted, for Russia did not succumb to the temptation to launch a counter-strike and this incident will be added to the many other near misses that punctuate the predictably shrouded narrative of nuclear accidents since 1945.

The need to move towards a de-alert pattern has been mooted in various fora for a number of years but perhaps ineffectually. These include the Canberra Commission Report of August 1996 and signatories to this report included many retired senior US military officials who had commanded strategic nuclear forces during the Cold War. The Report made the following points about the continuing practice of maintaining nuclear-tipped missiles on alert:

It is a highly regrettable perpetuation of Cold War attitudes and assumptions.

It needlessly sustains the risk of hair-trigger postures.

It retards the critical process of normalising US-Russian relations.

It sends the unmistakable and, from an arms control perspective, severely damaging message that nuclear weapons serve a vital security role.

It is entirely inappropriate to the extraordinary transformation in the international security environment.

The report added: "Taking these missiles off alert is a natural counterpart to the stand-down of bombers from nuclear alert which was implemented in late 1991." Terminating nuclear alert would:

Reduce dramatically the chance of an accidental or unauthorised nuclear weapons launch.

Have a most positive influence on the political climate among the nuclear weapon states.

Help set the stage for intensified cooperation.13

Further non governmental organisation (NGO) endorsement was also evidenced in the recent Pugwash Conference which in a special statement noted: "To reduce the risk of unauthorized use and war by misunderstanding or accident, all nuclear weapons should be taken off alert status. Another important step would be to take all warheads off the delivery vehicles and store them separately. If the five nuclear weapon powers would adopt safer postures of this kind, the argument that India and Pakistan should refrain from putting warheads on their delivery vehicles would become a strong and consistent one."14

This initiative for a nuclear weapon free world received political impetus earlier this year when in a joint declaration the foreign ministers of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa and Sweden urged the nuclear weapons powers to take the first steps towards ultimate disarmament. While the latter status may be the elusive Holy Grail for the 21st century, the declaration made specific reference to the no-first use-policy and de-alerting. It noted:

"Legally binding instruments should be developed with respect to a joint no-first-use undertaking between the nuclear-weapon States and as regards non-use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon States, so called negative security assurances.

We call on them to abandon present hair-trigger postures by proceeding to the de-alerting and deactivating of their weapons. They should also remove non-strategic nuclear weapons from deployed sites. Such measures will create beneficial conditions for continued disarmament efforts and help prevent inadvertent, accidental or unauthorized launches."15

There is a ray of hope at the end of a very grim and dark tunnel and, however grudgingly, some correspondence to dealerting is being considered tentatively. For instance, in the recent UK Strategic Defence Review, the government announced that it had taken the Trident force off high alert, but had rejected separating warheads from missiles and placing them in verifiable storage.16

Within US non-governmental groups, even the more skeptical who are cynical about disarmament and nuclear abolition are responding positively to the no-first-use de-alert formulation—albeit cautiously and with many caveats. For instance, a recent survey by a former State Department adviser on nuclear policy avers: "But the new dynamics of nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile proliferation suggest that it might be wise for the United States and other weapons states to consider the idea of No First Use of weapons of mass destruction. This formulation covers the contingency of chemical or biological warfare, leaving open the option of nuclear retaliation. This would change the debate and reflect the new spectrum of proliferation that military planners would have to take into account."17 The automatic widening of the core mission merits notice.

It further adds regarding de-alerting: "President Clinton has hyped US Russian detargeting and now seeks to accomplish the same with China. This is at best symbolic and at worst a cruel hoax: Russia can retarget in, at most, a matter of minutes. China can do it in no more than two hours. De-alerting—separating warheads from missiles in a credible manner—would move nuclear forces off hair-trigger, launch on warning status, and thus make an 'accidental launch' scenario highly unlikely. There are a variety of plans under consideration for how to monitor and verify the removal of warheads from missiles. How this is done (storing missiles and warheads in different locations, dismantling warheads, etc) determines the time frame—hours, days, weeks—in which fully operational nuclear weapons could be reconstituted. This has led some to reconsider the definition of what it means to shrink a nuclear arsenal down to zero, and to think in terms of 'virtual arsenals'. Over roughly the next quarter century, de-alerting is more important than reaching lower absolute numbers of operational weapons."18

While the whole process of de-alerting and the commitment to no-first-use may call for considerable introspection and doctrinal shift among those nuclear weapon powers wedded to the Cold War theology, there is yet another niche that warrants scrutiny. The role of the nuclear weapon as being co-terminus with security needs to be progressively de-valued and ultimately de-legitimized in much the same manner that the chemical weapon has been ostracized, if the world is to move towards a more prudent management of this apocalyptic capability. Towards this end it may be possible for those states that currently ensure their WMD security—or alternatively who assuage their WMD insecurity through the extended US nuclear umbrella to consider de-linking themselves from such an arrangement. This initiative would begin the process of devaluing the centrality of the nuclear weapon and for sure, each state would have to view such a proposal within its own strategic and geo-political specificity.

Given the nomenclature of the major states that enjoy such umbrella protection, it may be premature to suggest such a radical step to Japan or for that matter Germany. However the need for Australia and Canada to remain within the US nuclear umbrella is not as palpable and one may consider such diplomatic initiatives in whatever manner that these nations deem appropriate. What for instance would be the degradation of Canberra's security framework were it to voluntarily leave the US nuclear umbrella—even for a temporary period of one year? Since Australia is playing such a visible role in the late 20th century disarmament movement as evidenced in the Canberra Commission Report and other fora, this would be a persuasive case of practicing what one preaches. Such a diplomatic initiative would have a potentially far reaching ripple effect in catalysing the movement towards de-valuing the nuclear weapon and nudging an uncertain world towards greater strategic restraint.

In a recent visit to the US that took one to various American universities including Harvard, Columbia, Chicago and Georgia, amongst others, one had occasion to discuss India's nuclear tests and locate India's Pokhran II in the insecurity engendered in the post-Cold War years due to the proliferation of WMD. By and large there was consensus among a largely American academic audience that nuclear weapons played a significant role in the Cold War and its demise but there was a need to review their utility and operational deployment now that the Soviet Union had become a "former" entity. This general trend was also reflected in the public opinion within the US and UK—two states that have the ability to shape the dominant nuclear narrative and hence policy as regards nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War world. "In March 1997, a US survey showed that 87 per cent of those polled wanted their government to negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention. When the same question was asked by Gallup in the UK in September 1997, again 87 per cent agreed. What is more, large majorities ( 83 per cent in the US and 59 per cent in the UK) felt that it would be best for their respective nations' security if they did not have nuclear weapons. There was even a clear majority (54 per cent) for placing UK nuclear warheads in storage."19 The latter idea as noted earlier has been rejected by the UK in its latest Strategic Review.

The political establishment in the US has not been impervious to these shifts and influential legislators have raised their voice in support. Democratic Party Senator, Mr Bob Kerrey, wants the US President, Mr Bill Clinton, to order immediate unilateral reductions in the US strategic nuclear forces and to remove the hair trigger from many of those that remain. In an interview to the Washington Post, Mr Kerrey a potential candidate for the US Presidential race in 2000, added "Our maintenance of a nuclear arsenal larger than we need provokes Russia to maintain one larger than she can control."20 The complex and non-linear nature of the many challenges and possible dangers that lurk in the post-Cold War world as far as the nuclear weapon is concerned cannot be discounted.

That there is the beginning of a tectonic shift in the Beltway augurs well, even if it is at a glacial pace and it is now reported that the Pentagon driven by budgetary constraints is quietly recommending that the administration of President Bill Clinton consider unilateral reductions in the American nuclear arsenal.21 Contemporary international relations is fraught with many anxieties enveloped in a complex and often unpredictable politico-techno-strategic ambience and states would continue to take recourse to nuclear weapons to assuage their 'WMD insecurity'. However as the earlier survey attempts to establish, this capability can be deployed with strategic restraint. If ethics is qualified here as enlightened self-interest, then it may become imperative for WMD capability in the next millenium to be deployed in a non-provocative manner signifying defensive strategic restraint. This would conceptually correspond with the manner in which India and Pakistan are being exhorted by the global community to manage their nascent deterrent and this prescription could cautiously move towards realisation if the US were to agree to such a policy of nuclear restraint.

It would be premature to suggest that there will be immediate converts to this way of thinking but perhaps seeds may be scattered and there are many nuclear abolitionists within the US who have been applying their minds to such a course of action to manage the nuclear animal in the post-Cold War years. If the world is to aspire towards a nuclear weapon free world—as all the signatories to the NPT led by the USA are committed to—then states perched on the precarious nuclear deterrence ladder must be helped to come down—a rung at a time. On an exponential scale of considerable complexity, the US and Russia may be perceived to be on level 9 with their combined strategic nuclear warheads of about 17,000 numbers. The other six states (three declared NWS or nuclear weapon states as per the NPT viz.: China, France and UK and three SNW or states with nuclear weapons viz.: India, Pakistan and Israel) are ranged in a descending order and it may be prudent to evolve a consensual code of strategic restraint for all of them.

For India the nuclear issue presents a complex challenge. Having championed the cause of global nuclear disarmament since the Hiroshima holocaust in 1945, it cannot jettison this commitment and embrace the realism of deterrence and this dialectic is reflected in every Indian statement. Neither can it become a hectoring hegemon like China and argue that regional stability can be ensured only if India has a nuclear deterrent and deny the same rationale to Pakistan, which todate New Delhi never has—unlike Beijing which argues, often shrilly, that only Chinese monopoly over the nuclear weapon is desirable for Asian stability. Ultimately within Asia there must be a movement towards a mutuality in matters nuclear where capabilities and interests are accommodated consensually between China, India and Pakistan. The nuclear genie will not be bottled in a hurry and in the interregnum, the harmonisation that India is seeking can spur a global response. India will have to emulate Ulysses in the Greek myth whereby it must remain lashed to the mast and be able to listen to the seductive strains of deterrence but not steer the ship of state towards an undesirable and unsustainable nuclear Circe.

In the ultimate analysis, at the global level the nuclear weapon must first go back to its "core" mission as sanctified in the early years, namely that of deterring only another nuclear weapon which would subsume with the no-first-use policy. The expansion of the core mission to include chemical and biological weapons must be unambiguously reversed. De-alerting warrants acknowledgement by major nuclear powers and while there will be complex techno-strategic problems to be resolved, such as in the case of the invulnerable SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile), these are not insurmountable. The centrality of the weapon itself must be de-emphasised as being co-terminus with WMD 'security' and states such as Australia may be urged to lead the process by temporarily renouncing the US nuclear umbrella and later the weapon must be gradually de-valued in state security and finally de-legitimised like the chemical weapon. The latter exercise took 71 years beginning with the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Hence patience and perseverance are required to deal with the far more complex nuclear issue. In the interim, the public mood in the US is also evolving and the Washington Post has fired the first shot in its editorial where it notes: "The Pentagon has been slow to adjust to post-Soviet strategic conditions by taking nuclear weapons off a Cold War hair-trigger.........strategists remain cool to taking a fresh look at their longtime refusal to pledge not to use nuclear weapons first."22 Mr. Fischer and the Greens may not be alone in espousing no-first-use use.



1. "Urging Shift by NATO, Germany Angers US," Washington Post Service in International Herald Tribune, (IHT), November 23, 1998, p. 1.

2. "US Rejects any NATO Shift," Reuters in IHT, November 24, 1998, p. 4.

3. "Bonn Drops Call for NATO to Shift Over Nuclear Use," New York Times, Service in IHT, November 26, 1998, p.4.

4. UN Documents AS-15/12 of 24 May 1988 reproduced in Strategic Digest, August 1988, p. 1040-41.

5. Personal conversation with senior US officials at the India-US Strategic Dialogue in Kharakvasla, Pune in December 1990.

6. Address of the Prime Minister of India at the 53rd UNGA; reproduced in Strategic Digest, vol. XXVIII, no. 11, November 1998, p. 1799.

7. "The Doctrine of the Nuclear Weapon States and the Future of Non-proliferation," by Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky and George Bunn, Arms Control Today (ACT), vol. 24 no. 6, July/Aug 1994, p. 7.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. For a more detailed discussion see "Need for New Thinking and Semantics," by C Uday Bhaskar, World Focus, June-July 1998, p. 8-10.

11. For a comprehensive survey see "De-Alerting: A First Step," by Arjun Makhijani, Science for Democratic Action (SDA), vol. 6, no. 4 and vol. 7, no. 1, October 1998, p. 10.

12. "The Nature of Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers," by Arjun Makhijani, SDA, Ibid., p. 3.

13. Fast track to Zero Nuclear Weapons: The Middle Powers Initiative, A Briefing Book by Robert D Green, Middle Powers Initiative, Cambridge, USA, (hereafter FTZNW), 1998, p. 52.

14. "The Impasse in Nuclear Disarmament," A special statement by the Council of Pugwash, October 4, 1998, reproduced in Strategic Digest, vol. XXVIII no. 11 November 1998, p. 1807.

15. "Towards a Nuclear Weapon Free World: The Need for a New Agenda," reproduced in Strategic Digest, ibid., p. 1805.

16. FTZNW, n. 13, p. 54.

17. "The Nuclear Age: The Next Chapter," by Robert A Manning, Foreign Policy, Winter 1997-98, p. 82.

18. Ibid., p. 83.

19. FTZNW, n. 13, p. 45.

20. "Clinton Urged to Order cut in N-Forces," UNI report in Statesman, November 18, 1998, p. 5.

21. "Cost-Conscious Pentagon Supports Unilateral Cuts in US Nuclear Arsenals," NY Times Service in IHT, November 24, 1998, p. 4.

22. "Too Many Nukes," Washington Post editorial reproduced in IHT, November 26, 1998, p. 8.