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The Insanity Of Nuclear War Thinking

By Alan Johnstone

30 April, 2014

“If the adversary feels that you are unpredictable, even rash, he will be deterred from pressing you too far. The odds that he will fold increase greatly, and the unpredictable president will win another hand.” - Richard Nixon

The UK-based military think-tank has produced a report (1) that uses many declassified documents, testimonies and interviews suggests that the world has, indeed, been lucky avoiding nuclear catastrophe, given the number of instances in which nuclear weapons were nearly used inadvertently as a result of miscalculation or error. Historical cases of war resulting from misunderstanding demonstrate the importance of the ‘human judgment factor' in decision-making. The report describes the history of the Indian-Pakistan nuclear stand-offs, the latest being the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks which risked nuclear escalation through a possible rapid conventional response by India and a potential nuclear response by Pakistan.

India maintains civilian control over its nuclear weapons, routinely separates its warheads and missiles, and has an official policy of no first use. Its strategic posture evolved significantly as a result of the 1999 and 2002 incidents. After the 2001–02 crisis, it developed a rapid response conventional posture (dubbed the ‘Cold Start' doctrine). India's military doctrine centres on the use of conventional military force in order to gain territory as quickly as possible, which might be used later as potential leverage in demanding concessions from the Pakistani government. A cable from US Ambassador to India Tim Roemer, entitled ‘A Mixture of Myth and Reality', expressed doubts that India's conventional force posture would ever be used beyond the purpose of deterrence owing to operational and logistical complications, and referred to this type of military planning as rolling “the nuclear dice”.

India particularly relies on a significant degree of unpredictability in the deployment of eight specialized divisions known as Integrated Battle Groups (IBG)– including infantry and artillery units – in Pakistan's territory to strike at its military's cohesion. In response, Pakistan has fielded the nuclear-tipped short-range Nasr missile, thus introducing tactical nuclear weapons into an already charged atmosphere.

Pakistan's nuclear command-and-control structure is officially divided between three authorities. The first is the National Command Authority, which is chaired by the prime minister. The second is the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), a body comprising government and military representatives set up as the result of command-and-control reforms between 1999 and 2001. The third is Strategic Forces Command, comprised of the military. The storage status of Pakistan's nuclear weapons during peacetime has not been explicitly clarified, but it is widely believed that the SPD exercises heightened vigilance against the possibility that they could go missing. Reports indicate that Pakistan does separate its warheads from its delivery systems, and that the warheads themselves are separated by ‘isolating the fissile “core” or trigger from the weapon and storing it elsewhere'. While Pakistan's nuclear weapons are therefore not susceptible to being used while on a hair-trigger alert, the warhead's components are nevertheless stored at military bases and can be put together at short notice. The disputed nature of command and control over Pakistan's military raises questions regarding the stability of its nuclear forces in a context where conventional confrontations can potentially escalate without authorization from the civilian leadership. The Chatham House authors describe the near use of nuclear weapons in the confrontations between India and Pakistan.


Brasstacks, was an Indian military exercise that took place in 1986–87 and involved and involved 400,000 Indian troops within 100 miles of the Rajasthan border with Pakistan, which responded with its own exercises, Flying Horse and Sledgehammer. The Indian military leadership spent two weeks debating how to respond before passing on news of the escalation to newly elected Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. On 18 January 1987, the US ambassador intervened by meeting with the Indian minister of state for defence and securing an agreement to resolve the crisis, a message he subsequently passed to Pakistani officials. Only then did India and Pakistan activate the crisis hotline. Brasstacks demonstrated miscommunication and misperception on both sides. India, for example, did not fully notify Pakistan of the exercise beforehand. In addition, Pakistan claims that Gandhi earlier agreed that Brasstacks should be reviewed and provided vague assurances. However, the exercise continued as planned and the situation escalated further, possibly because Gandhi knew so little about it.

Leading the Operation Brasstacks was Indian Chief of Army Staff General K. Sundarji, and there is reason to believe he intentionally escalated the crisis in the hope of provoking Pakistan into a military confrontation that would allow India to take out Pakistan's burgeoning nuclear weapons programme. The Pakistani intelligence service, which, rightly or wrongly, interpreted Brasstacks as a test of will with the potential for confrontation and chose to reciprocate with its own military exercises. Shortly afterwards the nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan acknowledged the existence of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Kargil Crisis

The 1999 Kargil crisis arose out of a conventional military conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. In May 1999, Pakistani troops and pro-Pakistani militants were spotted by Indian intelligence in the Kargil region of Kashmir on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC). The Indian Air Force bombed Pakistani bases along the LoC in Kargil.

The incident soon escalated into a military confrontation involving the threat to use nuclear weapons. In the midst of the crisis, Pakistan moved its nuclear weapons from storage. At the end of May, Shamshad Ahmad, Pakistan's foreign secretary, declared that Pakistan would “not hesitate to use any weapon in its arsenal to protect its territorial integrity”.

The conflict ended thanks to the successful mediation of US President Bill Clinton, who was able to persuade Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to withdraw his forces from the Indian side of the LoC in Kargil. It then emerged how little Sharif knew of the Kargil incursion relative to the head of the military, General Musharraf. A government minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, later commented that Pakistan's army “very consciously only provided [Sharif] an outline of the exercise in which the focus was totally different … [It] did not involve the armed forces or crossing the [Line of Control].”

Clinton explicitly asked Sharif if he was aware of how “advanced the threat of nuclear war really was” and whether he knew that Pakistan's military had begun preparing its nuclear arsenal. Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif explained “I was taken aback by this revelation because I knew nothing about it. The American President further told me during the meeting that the nuclear warheads have been moved so that these could be used against India.”

Bruce Riedel, an adviser to Clinton at the time of the Kargil incident, implied that Sharif was under considerable pressure to reach a solution which would allow Pakistan to save face.

Sharif feared that otherwise “fundamentalists would move against him and this meeting would be his last with Clinton”. Furthermore, Sharif's denial that he gave the order to prepare Pakistan's missile forces raised concerns about the nature of military and civilian control at the time of the Kargil conflict.

The Kashmir Again

In 2001 and 2002, India and Pakistan went into a renewed cycle of hostility as a result of the unresolved Kashmir conflict and additional provocations. For 10 months, between December 2001 and October 2002, India and Pakistan kept one million soldiers in a state of high readiness. India had rejected the first use of nuclear weapons, but President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan refused to do the same and stated that the “possession of nuclear weapons by any state obviously implies they will be used under some circumstances”.

The Chatham House report describes:

“The crisis was a combination of logical decision-making and seemingly irrational behaviour by decision-makers on both sides, most likely owing to misperceptions.”

India assumed that Pakistan would not resort to nuclear use if it was involved in a limited conventional war, as the United States would intervene early before the crisis escalated to that level. India's defence minister maintained that Pakistan would eventually refrain from a nuclear strike because a nuclear exchange would ‘destroy' Pakistan while India would ‘win' and lose ‘only a part of its population'.

The conflict was resolved when US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made public a pledge by Musharraf to move against specific terrorist groups (such as Lashkar-e-Taiba) and seek negotiations with India. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was also involved in the talks with the Pakistani side to defuse the nuclear dimension of the crisis. “All this chatter about nuclear weapons is very interesting, but let's talk general-to-general,' Powell on one occasion maintained in a conversation with the Pakistani military leadership. “You know and I know that you can't possibly use nuclear weapons […] It's really an existential weapon that has not been used since 1945. So stop scaring everyone.”

One socialist journal at the time wrote “What a barbaric age we live in. Still, borders are to be fought over. Still, gods to be avenged and, still, that age-old cursed prize – profit – to be sought in every stinking orifice. And were the mushroom clouds to start rising over Islamabad and New Delhi, western capitalists would still ponder how they could cash in on this hell, this hell of their system's making.” (2)


India and Pakistan rely heavily on the diplomatic mediation of third-party states, particularly the US, to resolve their stand-offs and its presence in the region as “insurance against escalation to war". Yet the 2001–02 crisis highlighted that “what-if"... is it possible in the next crisis, US diplomacy may fail to prevent nuclear first use by Pakistan and/or nuclear retaliation by India.

Decisions about nuclear use in many of these cases came down to only a handful of people. Nuclear weapons require constant vigilance and caution. For as long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of an inadvertent, accidental or deliberate detonation remains.

Alan Johnstone is a member of The Socialist Party Of Great Britain

(1) “Too Close for Comfort”


(2) Socialist Standard, July 2002.







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