New Delhi: Big nuclear weapons with their capacity to produce catastrophic destruction are virtually unusable. All nuclear powers nevertheless keep them in their inventory because deterrence is best served by them. When deterrence theory was in formative stage in the early part of the Nuclear Age, several options were drawn from it which were permitted a subterranean life without becoming mainstream. Among those options were nuclear war-fighting with theatre weapons and ballistic missile defences.

To the simpleminded, ballistic missile defences seemed the moral and ethical counter to the cynicism of deterrence. Deterrence was founded on the concept of balance of terror or mutually assured destruction. Ronald Reagan, the most prominent champion of missile defences, refused to accept the constraints placed by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and his administration sought to exploit the gaps in its interpretation to power ahead the Strategic Defence Initiative. Eventually, SDI proved beyond the technological capability of the United States, and smaller versions of theatre defences were spun off with the clear understanding that they were not 100 percent reliable against massed ballistic missile attacks. Deterrence held its ground more or less.

Deterrence came under assault during this same period from another source. These were proponents of nuclear war-fighting whose ranks were considerably dignified and strengthened by the joining of stalwarts like Henry Kissinger. Based on a comparison and contrast of US and Soviet fighting doctrines in World War II, they concluded that the United States had an edge over communist Russia in nuclear war-fighting. Battlefield scenarios were sketched, the concept of rapidly shifting fronts was postulated, and field armies were advised to become compact and highly mobile.

Yet, nuclear war-fighting as a standalone concept failed to convince. It tried to diminish the importance of territory and territorial gains and losses. In the contest between nations, territories are key. When land and the surrounding seas are finite, war-fighting doctrines that negate them cannot gain traction. Nuclear war-fighting with low-yield weapons remained a part of the posture but it was not central to rival nuclear powers like the United States and Russia which did not share active and contested land frontiers. When this was the case, as with India and Pakistan, the trajectory has been slightly different. Pakistan is prepared for nuclear war-fighting in case its national substance is threatened by an Indian conventional military strike. Such nuclear war-fighting will, unless international breaks are promptly and aggressively applied, escalate to all-out nuclear war.

Even in the controlled case of India and Pakistan, nuclear war-fighting is a way-station to full-scale nuclear war with no victors. When nuclear war-fighting is introduced in Major Power rivalry (there being no Great Powers now), as the most recent US nuclear posture review seeks to do, the result can be no different, and in all cases, infinitely worse. Imagine that nuclear war-fighting among the United States, Russia and China escalates to total thermonuclear war. The world would be destroyed many times over. Still, the updated nuclear posture review propagates low-yield weapons to deter Russia, China and even North Korea and Iran. This brings the world closer to Armageddon.

During the Cold War, the nuclear contest was essentially staged between the United States, Soviet Russia and its allies, and a small portion of their nuclear weapons factored for nuclear China. In time, China has become a Major Power and possesses the full spectrum of nuclear weapons. Add to this the offensive nuclear capability of North Korea and the alleged one of Iran and you have a twenty-first century world brimming with weapons of mass destruction. It needs abundant caution and new strategies to blunt threats and not the United States knee-jerk reaction. Nuclear war-fighting must be shunned by the United States and not encouraged. Major Powers must cooperate to reduce the threat of all-out nuclear war and desist from dangerous competition.