Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era – Vipin Narang

Do regional nuclear powers have nuclear strategies that are similar to the superpowers? Vipin Narang’s new book on nuclear strategy explores this question by surveying the postures, doctrines and command and control procedures of six regional nuclear powers – India, China, Pakistan, Israel, France and South Africa. Part I of this book covers the nuclear experiences and strategies of these nuclear states that is prefaced by a theoretical section detailing nuclear strategies and their constitutive elements. Part II explores the implications of these postures and strategies on international conflict. By doing so, Narang argues that these regional powers possess different nuclear strategies than than of cold war superpowers and they are determined by a combination of international and domestic factors. The three nuclear postures that Narang claims regional powers institute are: catalytic posture that aims to elicit superpower support as a crisis unfolds; assured retaliation posture characterised by a certain nuclear retaliatory attack provided a first strike takes place; and finally, asymmetric escalation posture where nations institute first use strike postures to deter a conventionally superior threat.

How do these postures come to be or why do states institute these postures over other ones? Narang theorises on these strategies using posture optimisation theory or optimisation theory for short. Drawing inspiration from neoclassical realism, the theory posits that a confluence of external security, internal institutional and financial constraints, in effect, drive the process towards a distinct nuclear strategy. Through a decision tree, Narang delineates the range of factors that propel nations to adopt one particular nuclear strategy over another. When an external security threat exists, states will be more predisposed to adopt nuclear postures (asymmetric or assured retaliatory postures) that are more confrontational or escalatory in nature. After considering security constraints, what clinches this strategy then are domestic factors – nature of civil/military arrangements, whether assertive or delegative, or financial and organisational constraints. Thus, states do have the option of shifting a posture even if structural constraints do not markedly change provided the organisational and financial costs shift . And states that have more permissive security environments have more leeway in picking an amenable nuclear posture, one that is consonant with domestic and international interests.

Narang’s work effectively resurrects a stagnating nuclear security literature that has been imprisoned by the vestiges of the cold war. Major gaps had cropped up especially vis-a-vis deterrence. For long, the existing literature had effectively assumed that acquiring nuclear weapons, in itself, was sufficient to deter existing security threats; following acquisition, thus, the strategies and procedures instituted were largely deemed irrelevant. As a result, scant attention was given to understand the logics and dynamics of variant nuclear programs since they were considered to be generally unhelpful to understand or predict the onset of conflict. But this is not the case as Narang’s second section of the book demonstrates. The possession of nuclear weapons alone does not uniformly deter conflict. We have seen many cases where nations have either directly or indirectly chosen to initiate conflict against nuclear adversaries. India and Pakistan are prime examples here. Whereas Pakistan has been able to deter India from using nuclear weapons following Kargil and Mumbai, India has not been able to do the same. Postures do matter. The presence of an asymmetric escalatory posture has deterred India successfully whereas an assured retaliation posture (second strike) has limited deterrence potentials. Policywise, Narang’s conclusions are of immense interest, adding to the consternation surrounding the safety and integrity of some regional nuclear programs. Take Pakistan for instance, it is clear that the institution of an asymmetric escalation posture has made it more secure vis-a-vis India but it has also opened up numerous problems surrounding the use and potential misuse of weapons should they fall into wrong hands.

Despite the richness of Narang’s work and the analytical utility of his framework, a few charges can be levied against the work. In counterposing his work against the the cold war literature and experiences, Narang does excise the whole era from the institution of contemporary nuclear postures. Through decades, a layered and rather ambitious international fabric has been built to limit and mitigate the use of nuclear weapons through an array of treaties, frameworks and agreements. Have these had no effect on nuclear postures whatsoever? The international environment as presented in Narang’s work has potential to be complicated further. Second, it is unclear whether the catalytic posture is a viable posture/strategy in and off itself or if it is a transitory posture as nations first acquire capability and then work to institute the necessary doctrines and procedures to govern the use of these weapons. Waiting for superpower support is hardly a strategy one can effectively count on when nuclear and security matters are concerned. That said, Narang’s work adds considerable nuance and value to not just literatures on nuclear weapons and postures but to the larger post cold war security environment that is now being restructured across Asia and the Middle East and most importantly, the future of conflict across these areas where, troublingly, nuclear weapons could also feature.


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