Nuclear Deterrence and Escalation Control/Management

 By Ambassador Zamir Akram

The debate on Escalation Control and Management between India and Pakistan can bedivided into two parts – the academic part and the operational aspect. We can define Escalation Management and Control as a process by which a conflict can be prevented (managed and controlled) from intensifying and becoming more dangerous. I researched this and came across two quotes where  Henry Kissinger stated that escalation is “the addition  of increments of power until limited war insensibly merges into all out war”. So for him escalation management requires that this end state of all out / total war must be prevented.

I rather prefer the second definition given by Bernard Brodie,in whose viewescalation management is “curtailing objectives of outright victory and lowering military costs and penalties from going beyond the levels of the tolerable”.  If you apply this, then this is exactly what is happening in reality in the current situation as to what India is trying to do now. In the context of crisis /conflict between nuclear weapon states, escalation management and control becomes exceedingly important and it requires that both sidesensure that deterrence doesn’t fail and mutually assured destruction is prevented. India and Pakistan as we know are nuclear weapon states andany Crisis between them would be extremely damaging and dangerous not for only these two countries but for the world at large. So deterrence especially nuclear deterrence becomes extremely important for both sides. But deterrence, as an abstract notion,essentially exists in the mind of the opponents. If the opponent is not convinced thatthe other side will use its nuclear weapons then deterrence can break down. In reality the purpose of credibility of deterrence is to make it clear tothe opponent that you are willing to use nuclear weapon for defending yourself in a crisis.In real world nuclear deterrence has never been tested, therefore, its discussion can only be theoretical. Again I would like to quote Brodie who says that “nuclear weapons are not for fighting wars but preventing them”. So the moment you start using nuclear weapons deterrence is broken down.

It needs to be emphasized that you may go up the escalation ladder, but it becomes virtually impossible to climb down. That is truer for the nuclear escalation ladder.I also want to quote my favorite lines byMike Tyson and he says“everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. We here in Pakistan, India, US or Russia have very elaborate plans and schemes about deterrence, about escalation ladder, escalation control, very nice theoretically set out plans, but in case deterrence fails then we don’t know how it will end. PM Imran Khan has said in his own way that we can start war, but only God Knows where it will end.So in this situation the purpose of escalation management and control is very important, because it is aimed at ensuring that deterrence does not fail.

How can Escalation Management and Control can be exercised? A lot of people who have looked at this issue use Cuban Missile Crisis as a model on which all this literature and research is based. Most famous person to do this kind of research is the Harvard Professor Graham Allison, who based his entire rational actor action model theory on the Cuban Missile Crisis. But, he himself says that the assumption that decision makers will act rationally in a crisis is a very big assumption because a rational actor model requires every one to act in a rational way, not just the rivals.Therefore, making that kind of assumption is very difficult. Nevertheless there are certain requirements that are needed to be pursued in order to ensure escalation management and control.

The first is that there has to be reliable means of communications and signaling between the two sides. Then there has to be transparency. By transparency I also mean credibility. Most importantly there has to be shared interest in escalation management and control.You have to have a partner to share your objective of de-escalation .De-escalation cannot be one sided.Another requirement is that deterrence has to be credible. If other side believes that your deterrence is not credible especially in nuclear environment; if the other side does not believe that you have willingness to use your nuclear weapons in defense;then your deterrence will not be credible. If it is not credible then it will be very difficult to de-escalate.Another complicating factor is the role of public opinion, which we have seen particularly in this crisis from the Indian side where social media, TV channels, and journalists have all engaged in virtual war games.This adds to what is already a complicated issue between India and Pakistan. Another factor is the differential in cost of conflict/crisis.If the two parties are not evenly matched, either one of them is more powerful than the other oralternatively if one of them has less to lose because it is lower on scale of developmentfor instancethe US war against Taliban in Afghanistan, then there are lesser prospects of a mutual desire for de-escalation. US, for instance, used missiles, bombs, lost billions of dollars and paid a huge cost, whereas the financial costof the warfor Taliban is virtually insignificant. US spent $3 trillion dollars whereas Taliban spent very little in comparison. Therefore, US because of spending more feels greater urge to deescalate.Then there is the issue of end state. Will the end state (after de-escalation) be better than the situation before the start of crisis? If it is not better then what it was before than willingness to deescalate may not necessarily be there?

The dilemma that Indian Prime Minister NarendraModi is facing is that the end state today may not be as attractive as he would like it to be if he de-escalates especially in view of theelections in India. In current scenario Pakistan seemingly has the upper hand in the crisis.

Finally, there is the role of international players/ actors /crisis managers inmanaging or deescalating crisis. But the crisis manager’s role requires that they have credibility and acceptability on both sides as well as the influence and clout on both sides. In today’s environment, there is a question mark on the role of the crisis manager such as US.This is another complicating issue.

Now the final point is that Pakistan and India have been to war or near war many times.  Let’s look at the experience from the time when both India and Pakistan were believed to have at least a bomb in the basement or a virtual nuclear weapons capability.The first crisis was Brasstacks in 1987, then there were number of other crises such as Kashmir uprising in1990,nuclear tests in 1998,and Kargil.In all these crises, US played the role of crisis manager and the international community also chipped in. The main lead was, however, US in terms of having greater acceptability on both sides.It was also a situation where by and large India and Pakistan were able to communicate. We had open lines of communication.There was a level of transparency.

Nuclear Tests,from my own experience in 1998 as I was in Washington was a big crisis of course. This was fourth time they were conducting tests and our tests had not taken place. There was a concern that India was working with Israelis to attack our nuclear facilities. And that time we had no lines of communication and US played that role very well.What has happened is that,in all these instances I have mentioned, Indian Military felt that they needed to have an option to respond in order to maintain the credibility of its deterrenceespecially after the conventional deterrence was neutralized by the nuclear tests. Basically Indian’s numerical superiority in conventional forces became obsolete in sense of deterrence.That’s the reason why we saw emergence of the Indian Cold start/proactive doctrine. Pakistan, meanwhile, in order to show that our deterrence still remains credible came out with the doctrine ofFull Spectrum Deterrence.

So to conclude many of requirements of escalation control and management do not exist in case of Pulwama incident. But,still both sides,Pakistan surely andIndia too, have demonstrated a deliberate and self-imposed sense of restraint. I mean, if we assume that India’s incursion into our air space and dropping of bomb in an area where no damage was caused was meant to convey a political message that Pulwamahad been avenged, we should at the same time see that the episode did not cause level of damage in Pakistan that would be unacceptable for us and would have taken the crisis to unmanageable proportion.It was inbuilt escalation management. Again Pakistani Response was, as the ISPR said, an attack, which demonstrated we can penetrate but deliberately did not destroy military targets in India. The fact that two Indian aircraft were shot down was because they intruded for the second time and it was compelling for us to respond.

I will conclude now with the question thatwhere do we go from here? I think the speech by Prime Minister Imran Khan, in which he announced the release of captured Indian pilot, was a major step towards de-escalation. I think international community played a role in this.

The final point is that unfortunately the root cause of the problem is not Pulwama, but it is the Indian aggression in Occupied Kashmir.  Actions like Pulwama can happen again as Kashmiri youth are desperate now after being pushed into the corner by Indian government/military.They, the Kashmiri youth, will RETALIATE to abuses by Indian for and WILL NOT ask us when to, where and how to avenge their sufferings?

The existing dangers to peace need to be highlighted by our leadership, diplomats and military. Sustainable solution of the conflict lies in addressing the issue of Kashmir, otherwise such incidents will keep happening.



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