by Joy Mitra
«The advent of the nuclear era introduced two components in the security competition between states: one, it brought overwhelming destructive power and mutual vulnerability, and second, it eroded the security dilemma by guaranteeing survival. This rendered the concept of decisive victory outdated, defence was impossible, and deterrence took over as the preferred concept for viewing security between nuclear-armed states. Scholars categorized this nuclear era into three ages. The first nuclear age represented the Cold War–era bipolar competition between the United States and the Soviet Union characterized by arms races and destabilizing nuclear postures. The second nuclear age saw horizontal nuclear proliferation and the emergence of regional nuclear powers, who, unlike the Cold War participants, lacked the luxury of geography and the experience of arms control. Conventional conflict was not non-existent in these two ages: in the first it transpired on the territory of client states, and in the second, it transpired directly on the territory of nuclear-armed states. However, somewhere around the middle of the current decade the concept of a new third nuclear age began taking shape, marked by the potential emergence of several new nuclear powers, diffusion of destabilizing new technologies, and, most importantly, a new era of competition between great as well as new nuclear powers.
The principles of mutual vulnerability and survivability that had hitherto ensured no major flare-ups between nuclear-armed states did not retain the same effect, leading to increased risks of horizontal nuclear proliferation and risks of advertent or inadvertent escalation.
Many different military crises witnessed participation from nuclear-armed states like the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan, and India, in this period, in Syria, Ukraine, Kashmir, Doklam in the Ladakh region, Iran, South China Sea, and Taiwan. All of these military crises involved only conventional forces, yet the nuclear alarm bells were always ringing in the backdrop.
There are three key simultaneous developments in this phase of the third nuclear age that merit attention. These include the exercise of new kind of military strategies like “grey zone” or “hybrid warfare” which, though referred to as asymmetric strategies, are fundamentally dependent on being backed up by conventional forces; second, the, emergence of unmanned platforms along with other technologies, the sum of whom may impact the way forces are structured and battles fought; and, finally, the expansion of nuclear arsenals in both quantitative and qualitative terms to compensate for limitations in conventional forces, conventional deterrence or conventional strategies. This project essentially looks at the sum of these concurrent developments and how that might shape a new set of conditions for how conventional conflicts and military strategy might transpire especially in the future and the implications of that for the current set of nuclear armed states as well as the new ones.
In pursuit of that objective this project seeks answers to the following questions: first, if nuclear weapons are in play, mutual vulnerability is an established dictum, and deterrence is the framework, then why does the prospect of escalation appear in the first place? Second, what purpose and scope does the conventional military instrument have in a state’s overall military strategy versus other nuclear-armed states? Third, what are the trends – political, doctrinal, or technological – that augment or diminish conventional and nuclear interface? Fourth, what are the factors that govern the shape, composition, and conduct of conventional forces? And, fifth, the overall thread that this project seeks to unravel in the process of answering the previous four is, how does the conventional military strategy balance between managing escalation and being an effective military instrument? This endeavour is actualized in the following four chapters of this book.
Chapter 1 deals with the scope and role afforded to the conventional military strategy and how advertent escalation responses are tied into conventional military doctrines and postures and the conceptual differences between such strategies that “instrumentalize” conventional capabilities versus nuclear coercion. This chapter deduces that there has been a shift from deterrence-based conventional strategies to conventional strategies based on the logic of compellence, where the conventional strategy is lent a cross-level framework of operation. Overall, it looks at the political intent that conventional strategies seek to serve and how advertent escalation responses tie into the strategy.
Chapter 2 looks at the new basket of technologies in the realm of data-processing and in the space domain to expound on the changes introduced in the kill chain and the manner in which the chain is operationalized. This chapter explains the shift from kill chain to kill web and covers the aspects of sensors, precision, range, and stealth. In the process it captures the cross-domain character of conventional operations and the risks of inadvertent escalation.
Chapter 3 looks at unmanned vehicles or drones, including autonomous drones, a key feature of the third nuclear age, and deals with the system-wide effects of the development of unmanned vehicles in terms of force structure, impact across the conflict spectrum, and trade-offs involved in their use and strategy. It touches upon the effects of the integration of unmanned autonomous vehicles in enabling concepts like mission commands and joint all-domain command and control and its implications on the conventional-nuclear interface.
Chapter 4 is the final chapter that evaluates the extent of segregation between conventional and nuclear strategies and domains. It determines the offence-defence balance at the different levels of the conventional conflict. This flows from the first chapter where offence dominance is located at the tactical level, which is then followed by defence dominance at the operational level. Multiple technologies and weapon systems – current, evolving, and emerging – are shown to operationalize an integrated offence-defence balance across these conventional levels of the conflict spectrum. However, the overall nature of the conventional-nuclear interface or nuclear ambiguity has a role to play here, and this space is again instrumentalized or used to address gaps in conventional deterrence.»