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Avinash asked: What is the difference between ‘credible minimum deterrence’, ‘strategic deterrence’ and ‘full spectrum deterrence’?

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  • A. Vinod Kumar replies: Strategic Deterrence has traditionally (especially during the Cold War) been associated with nuclear weapons - possession of capability to undertake unacceptable destruction and deterring the adversary by posturing the ability and intent to do so. The strategic environment of post-Cold War period, however, witnessed the advent of newer threats beyond the realm of nuclear deterrence. They include emergence of non-state actors, greater diffusion of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technologies, as well as newer technological dimensions like cyber and missile defence. This is beside the attempts made by some nuclear aspirants to progress towards nuclear latency that could enable faster break-out to a weapon capability.

    As a concept, strategic deterrence denotes a politico-military posturing of capabilities (military power and technology) and doctrinal principles that represents the grand strategy of the nation. Unlike in the Cold War years when strategic deterrence centred on offensive nuclear forces proclaiming postures of aggression and conquest, the current scenario indicates a shift towards defensive strategies (and deterrence) that underlines a state’s eagerness to use a multitude of capabilities (including nuclear and non-nuclear platforms) to defend against a wide spectrum of threats. The consequent shift to defensive deterrence is marked by the increasing presence of defensive platforms like missile defence, as well as the centrality attained by cyber and diminishing primacy of nuclear weapons in strategic planning.

    Credible Minimum Deterrence is a composite posturing adopted by some nuclear-armed states (especially India and Pakistan) to convey a non-aggressive and defensive nuclear posture by projecting a nuclear arsenal that fulfils the bare needs of defence and security. Accordingly, it implies that the nuclear arsenals will be minimal enough to provide credible deterrence against adversaries.While ‘minimum’ (the number of warheads and delivery systems at a given point of time) can be dynamically driven by the strategic environment (perceived strength or build-up of rival arsenals), the question of ‘credibility’ is based on perceptions – whether the adversary has been ‘effectively deterred’ or whether the capability to impart ‘unacceptable damage’ has been convincingly conveyed to the adversary. India and Pakistan have both seen their deterrence goalposts being constantly shifted as a result of their mutual security dilemmas, as also the strategic modernisation pursued by China.

    Full Spectrum Deterrence is a concept that has been a subject of different interpretations depending on what the actor seeks to posture. In recent years, Pakistan has declared its reliance on a full-spectrum deterrence posture, which entails development of capabilities (nuclear weapons and delivery systems) of various descriptions to cover a ‘full spectrum’ - tactical nuclear weapons at the lowest level, a second-strike capability by equipping conventional submarines with nuclear-tipped missiles, and cruise missiles to beat the Indian missile defences. This could be seen as a refinement of Pakistan’s earlier postural conception of full-spectrum of theatres, namely sub-conventional, conventional and nuclear. While the latest objective is to enhance the credibility of the deterrent through systems for each of the threat scenarios, the overall consequence is the expansion of capabilities to cater to all the conceived theatres. Similarly, the North Korean posturing also talks about placing nuclear weapons as the pivot force to deal with the full spectrum of threats, described as ‘rounding off the combat posture’ in their documents.

    Posted on November 30, 2018