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Report on State of Nuclear Disarmament in the World Jointly organised by MP-IDSA and Indian Pugwash Society

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  • September 01, 2023
    Round Table

    On 1 September 2023, Manohar Parrikar-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) in collaboration with the Indian Pugwash Society (IPS) organised a Roundtable on the “State of Nuclear Disarmament in the World.” The roundtable was Chaired by Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, DG, MP-IDSA and consisted of eminent experts Prof. Amitabh Mattoo (Professor, CIPOD, SIS, JNU), Lt. Gen. Amit Sharma (Retd.) (former Commander-in-Chief of India’s Strategic Forces Command), and Dr. Rajiv Nayan (Senior Research Associate, MP-IDSA). Scholars from the MP-IDSA were in attendance, as were distinguished guests from the IPS.

    Executive Summary

    The topic of nuclear disarmament remains very relevant in today’s climate. Nuclear rhetoric by Russia against Ukraine and the West has rekindled the global discussion on nuclear weapons, and raised questions on efforts to achieve disarmament. 78 years after the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, a nuclear weapons-free world remains a pipe dream, most poignantly marked by the modernisation of arsenals being undertaken by countries such as Pakistan and China. Deterrence is considered indispensable for most nuclear weapons states, while countries such as North Korea also see them as a means to ensure regime survival. At the same time, the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) by non-state actors is a growing risk. Emergent risks, such as the emergence of AI and the Internet of Things (IoT), further make it imperative to promulgate joint initiatives, yet consensus on disarmament remains elusive due to core political, economic and strategic divergences among the key actors.

    Detailed Report

    Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy delivered the Welcome Remarks where he introduced the Speakers, and laid the context for the Roundtable. He then made some introductory remarks, wherein he noted that the topic of nuclear disarmament remains very relevant in today’s climate. The Joint Statement issued by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council last year emphasised that nuclear weapons are relevant only to deter aggression and prevent war. He also noted that 78 years after the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, a nuclear weapons-free world remains a pipe dream, most poignantly marked by the modernisation of arsenals being undertaken by Pakistan and China.

    Amb. Chinoy went on to enumerate the key disarmament efforts made by countries so far, and introduced the audience to some of the risk factors that surround the issue, such as non-state actors obtaining nuclear weapons, states seeking nuclear weapons as a means to ensure regime survival, and the emergence of critical new technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data that significantly complicate nuclear strategy planning. In light of all these events, the Chair pointed out, India has continued to maintain its position of No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. India continues to have an unblemished record on non-proliferation, and has floated a host of UN initiatives that are still discussed by various bodies in that organisation. Above all, India is clear that “now is not the age of war”; peaceful dialogue is necessary to solve any and all conflicts.

    After setting the stage, he then turned over the floor to Prof. Amitabh Mattoo to provide his perspective. Prof. Mattoo commenced by demarcating the three areas on which he would reflect. These were:

    1. What is the Pugwash Society, and what is its role?
    2. What is the current state of nuclear disarmament?
    3. What is the relevance of these thoughts on India?

    The Speaker then took the audience on a brief tour of the history of the Pugwash Conference, commencing in 1955, when British philosopher Bertrand Russell and physicist Albert Einstein wrote a manifesto-cum-letter to the US President outlining the nightmare of nuclear war. This manifesto essentially became the raison d’etre of Pugwash, when twelve scientists got together at the eponymous town in Canada, and adopted the manifesto as their mission statement, setting up the Pugwash Conference as a result. The aim of the organisation was to “rediscover our humanity at the cusp of the apocalypse”. In India, the Atomic Energy Commission of India was key in supporting the aims of Pugwash, while Shri K. Subramanyam brought it to MP-IDSA during his tenure as Director of this organisation.

    Turning to the state of nuclear disarmament in the world, the Speaker informed the audience that the “Doomsday clock” maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is the closest it has ever been in history to midnight (which signifies global extinction after nuclear war) after the Russian threat to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Looking at history, however, the Speaker noted that the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought the clock to two minutes before midnight, but despite the threats, the world survived. This was characterised by the Speaker as heartening news.

    The Speaker highlighted the point that the number of warheads in the world is at an all-time low: whereas the Cold War period saw approximately 60,000 warheads held by the nuclear weapons states (NWS), now there are approximately 13,000. Of these, the bulk are held by the US and Russia, whereas the other nuclear powers combined form not even a fraction of this tally. Also, before the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed, it was commonly assumed that 25-30 nuclear weapons states would exist, but because of the NPT, very few countries possess the capabilities necessary to produce nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, several countries have given up their nuclear weapons programmes, and the NPT has been extended indefinitely.

    However, the Speaker noted, the world is still not a safer place. He cited leading nuclear strategy researcher Scott Sagan’s contention that complex organisational structures create redundancies, which can interfere in nuclear decision-making, by generating delegation issues. On the other hand, having a single key person is also dangerous, as it can create unaccountable power structures within the state structure. Another concern is the threat of use of nukes, such as the one issued by Russia in 2022, marking the first time such a threat has been issued since US General Douglas MacArthur’s threat to use nuclear weapons on North Korea during the Korean War. A third issue revolves around the modernisation of Pakistan and China’s nuclear arsenals. Though India has hitherto maintained a consistent posture of NFU, with an emphasis on developing a nuclear triad (with ground-, air- and sea-launched nuclear weapons) to ensure minimum vulnerability, is there enough reason to revise this nuclear doctrine given the moves by China and Pakistan?

    Finally, before wrapping up, the Speaker noted that in an age of realism, India is at risk of forgetting its wisdom from the past. In particular, he pointed to Lord Krishna’s advice to Arjuna on the eve of the latter’s use of the Brahmastra (the ultimate weapon) to destroy his enemies, which the Speaker argued could be especially valuable in determining a truly Indian way forward.

    The Chair thanked Prof. Mattoo for his perspective, and invited Lt. Gen. Amit Sharma (retd) to offer his perspective. Lt. Gen. Sharma began by outlining the three issues listed below which would be key to the rest of his discussion.

    1. The logic of non-use of nuclear weapons,
    2. Why disarmament is not moving forward, and
    3. What is the way forward.

    The Speaker cited historian Michael Jordan on the logic of the Allies while they were planning their attacks. The Speaker also cited Thomas Schelling as propounding that the logic of nuclear restraint is a realisation of the enormity of what the decision to bomb Hiroshima entailed. He gave the example of the Cuban missile crisis, where despite significant pressure on both leaders from their respective staffs, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev ultimately backed down from pressing the nuclear button. Even in Vietnam, the US ultimately did not use nukes, accepting a “strategic” defeat instead, because of the effect of the decision made in 1945 to use the bomb. Thus, the nuclear decision is not a “gung-ho” decision, and checks and balances must exist.

    However, over time, these checks and balances are fading, as younger generations emerge without having personally experienced nuclear war. The Speaker offered the outcomes of some surveys of youth in the United States, where youth in both Japan and the United States were unable to answer basic questions about the events of 1945. Therefore, the Speaker argued that it is high time to create an awareness of nuclear holocaust among young people so that the memory and knowledge of the effects of the atomic bomb do not fade away.

    In terms of disarmament the Speaker noted that that there have been many treaties over the years, but there is doubt as to their effectiveness. In 1986, there were 66,000 nukes in the world, while today there are 12,700 nukes. Yet, each of these 12,700 weapons can destroy the world many times over, as they are more lethal, more accurate and more destructive. These days there are 16 warheads in each missile, each on a megaton scale of destructive yield (whereas the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons only had kiloton yields). Thus, the world faces a grave danger if somebody decides to use a nuclear weapon in today’s day and age.

    Disarmament is thus a good idea, but an idealistic one. The Speaker noted that since only nine countries possess nuclear weapons today, the nuclear taboo seems to be intact. He also gave the example of South Africa, which gave up its weapons of its own accord. On the other hand, the Ukraine War’s impact on countries like South Korea and Japan’s nuclear posture remains an open question. The intent of these countries to nuclearize is debatable, but public support is there in both countries.

    Will anyone get rid of their nuclear weapons? The Speaker noted that as nuclear weapons bring power and prestige, no country is likely to let go of its trump card. Even if any were to do so, there is still the problem of trust to deal with: some nuclear weapons might be kept hidden away, while the technological knowledge would still exist. Thus, while all countries support denuclearisation in their doctrine, but the chances of it actually happening are slim.

    Thus, the way forward might lie with risk reduction and restraint. The Speaker offered some suggestions in this field, especially noting the effect of public awareness using visual media as a powerful tool, with short clips on effects of nukes as a possible way to reach younger audiences. The aim should be to affect young people, so that glib talk of tactical nuclear weapons and limited bombing are exposed for the fallacies they are. Another good move would be to have a declared nuke policy. The Speaker noted that when it comes to nuclear weapons, surprise is not a good thing. Thus it is always wise to declare a country’s intentions in advance.

    In the ideal case, the Speaker noted that a universal NFU should be the next step in building trust, as it is not too difficult a step for countries to take. The majority of NWSs are proponents of restraint. If these six powers can be brought together to agree on universal NFU, the ensuing mutual vulnerability would create detente. Then, it would be a matter of trying to build up trust and restraint. With these words, Gen. Sharma ended his remarks.

    The Chair thanked the Speaker for his remarks, and invited Dr. Rajiv Nayan to share his perspective. Dr. Nayan started by discussing the new film on Robert Oppenheimer, and argued that Oppenheimer stands today as a symbol of the dilemma of nuclear weapons.

    The end of the Cold War raised some ideas that nuclear weapons were now going to be a thing of the past. However, the current situation has raised other questions, principal among which is whether nuclear disarmament is feasible or desirable. The Speaker argued that nuclear disarmament is desirable, as all powers adhere to that norm with some exceptions. However, the accomplishment of the goal remains a far-fetched idea. He offered a critique of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), signed in 2019, and also outlined India’s objections to the treaty.

    Why is there no disarmament in the world today? Despite there being no fear of reprisal, no state has used nuclear weapons in its conflicts. This, the Speaker argued, has created an environment of complacency. The NPT crisis also played a part in this, as it has become difficult to getting an outcome document approved in recent years. The Tenth Review Conference faced the disappointment of issuing no outcome document due to Russia’s opposition. However, since no non-nuclear weapons state has left the NPT, it can be said that the regime is in crisis but not collapsing. Thirdly, nuclear weapons, as of now, pose no personal threat to the great powers. The Speaker offered here the examples of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention. The Chemical Weapons Convention was negotiated and finalised only when the United States was afraid of the countries of West Asia acquiring such weapons. On the other hand, the Biological Weapons Convention was concluded when the leading powers realised the redundancy of biological weapons in the national stockpile. Fourthly, the US in its recent Nuclear Posture Review raised its concern that several states may decide to go nuclear in response to threats from one or other of the great powers, a sea change in attitudes from a nation that was previously ruthless in the suppression of nuclear weapons. Fifth, disarmament as currently conceived is a project championed mainly by civil society in new countries. Western civil society fails to push the disarmament agenda among Western nuclear weapons countries. They are thus widely perceived to have used their rhetoric to disarm other countries, not the key Western countries.

    On the topic of China’s NFU, the Speaker argued that there is a gap between precept and practice. Informally, China is revisiting its NFU policy. Since 2004, apparently, an informal doctrine is in circulation, which looks like a replica of the Russian doctrine as for the conditions to use nuclear weapons. However, the Chinese currently deny the very existence of such a document. It is thus an open question whether China would go for launch on warning if the situation is right, a hypothesis the Speaker noted was possible. There would also be the complex issue of whether a joint force of Chinese and Pakistani soldiers fighting a war with India in future would be willing to countenance the use of nuclear weapons, given that Pakistan does not have NFU as its doctrine, whereas China does. While concluding, the Speaker cautioned that India needs to send a tough message at this juncture if it is to ensure that such a development does not come to pass.

    Amb. Chinoy thanked Dr. Nayan for his remarks, and then opened the floor for questions and comments. Amb. Saurabh Kumar asked whether there was anything in the offing regarding the integration of AI and nuclear weapons systems. He also wished to know the essence of the US’ statements given in its NPR, as cited by Dr. Nayan.

    Dr. Rajiv Nayan answered Amb. Kumar’s question on the NPR and US position by informing the audience that one paragraph in the document mentions events in Ukraine causing a rethink on denuclearisation among countries. This can be interpreted as saying that countries today have a powerful rationale for nuclearisation. He also answered Amb. Kumar’s question on AI and nuclear weapons by noting that the issue was currently being considered, and nothing practical had emerged yet.

    Gp. Cpt. Rajiv K. Narang, Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA, asked whether it was true that China has NFU only against countries with which it does not have a border.

    Lt. Gen. Sharma answered Gp. Cpt. Narang’s question by informing the audience that China’s NFU holds to everyone without exception. He added that though China is not believed on this point, there is a logic to it, as the Chinese are following Mao’s line on credible minimum deterrence (CMD). The modernisation and expansion of their arsenal comes out of a need to develop enough weapons to achieve CMD.

    With that, the Chair ended the discussion with a Vote of Thanks.

    The report was prepared by Dr. Arnab Dasgupta, Research Analyst, MP-IDSA.