Political strategies

Counterforce Strategies Are a Threat to the Stability of Nuclear Deterrence – Analysis – Eurasia Review

By Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (retired)*

The first atomic bombs were crude city destroyers. Their ability to bring enormous and horrific civilian destruction was demonstrated by the United States in 1945. The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused 2 14,000 primary deaths to a combined population of 613,000 and countless secondary and tertiary casualties.

Targeting concepts

The use of nuclear weapons is governed by two basic targeting concepts: counterforce and countervalue. The first focuses on strikes against military forces, both nuclear and conventional, as well as their infrastructure and logistics. The latter focuses on economic targets and population centers. A countervalue doctrine is of limited complexity and requires relatively simpler abilities. During the Cold War, this led to a rather macabre belief that “assurance of mass destruction” would bring about a balance of terror which, in turn, would ensure stability. He contributed to an accumulation of arsenals, the aggregate yield of which could destroy the world many times over. The counterforce doctrine, on the other hand, suggests that nuclear war could be limited and that nuclear forces could be used to disarm the adversary of his nuclear weapons; almost as if the party adopting a counterforce doctrine controlled the options of retaliation available to the victim.

Both targeting concepts lose sight of a cardinal principle of international relations: that war has a political purpose. The destruction of purpose debases the application of force to a savage and obliterating confrontation. Ironically, we now see nuclear-weapon States adopt postures that increase the prospects of the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict.

Bernard Brodie provided an intellectual framework for avoiding nuclear war in 1946. In his seminal work, The absolute weapon, he suggested, “Up to now, the main purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, his main objective must be to avoid them. It can have almost no other useful purpose. Brodie acknowledged that the possibility of “total destruction” inherent in the use of nuclear weapons made victory impossible. At the same time, its political value lay in the threat it posed by manipulating the mind of an adversary.

Evolution of nuclear weapons and political objective

In examining the evolution of nuclear deterrence theory, we note that there is an allegorical tendency to correlate the nature of warfare with the changing characteristics of nuclear weaponry. War, as Clausewitz pointed out, has an enduring nature which is defined by four continuities: a political dimension, a human dimension characterized by military genius, the omnipresence of uncertainty and the contest of opposing resolution. All of these elements exist in a historical, social and political context. While the dynamics governing the characteristics of nuclear weapons are, for the most part, influenced by the human capacity to exploit the technology, it is clear that if the political objective were lost or the human dimension removed, the war itself would be meaningless.

Given the ease with which humans exploit technology, nuclear weapons have evolved in three distinct phases. First, from an everyday weapon to an instrument providing balance of terror. Second, the threat of mutually guaranteed destruction has turned into a ploy of bargaining and compromise. Third, the circle has come full circle in a bizarre situation that today attempts to justify nuclear war. This progression has lost sight of the political and human impact of use.

Counterforce Strategic Narrative

For a state, a strategic narrative is a cornerstone to avoid returning to the trauma of the past, around which such a narrative has been built and accepted. Its essence is often reflected in simple but pithy mantras such as ‘war on terror’, ‘mutually assured destruction’ or ‘counterforce doctrine’. The narrative that governs the policies of nuclear-weapon states was largely stimulated by that which emerged in the United States and was systematized following the first nuclear attacks, through the Cold War and its consequences of a world multipolar.

In today’s strategic environment, the boundaries between nuclear arsenals and conventional weapons have become dangerously intertwined with new offensive technologies such as hypersonic precision vehicles, which pose a powerful threat to nuclear weapons security and stability of a dissuasive relationship. The narrative advocates a “nuclear counterforce” strategy that determines policy and shapes a strategic first-strike posture. And so we note with some concern that a nuclear-weapon state, when confronted by another, may decide to use a precision nuclear or conventional counterforce on a first strike, to negate the possibility of being the victim of a nuclear attack. In this context, reports The Russian policy of “escalation for de-escalation”‘ and the US deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons are both confounding as they assume complete dominance of the climbing ladder.

The blur between conventional and nuclear deterrence is evident in the growing integration of conventional and nuclear warfare doctrines. The 2018 United States Nuclear Posture Review, which emphasizes the possibility of using nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks, is a good example. The long-held view that nuclear weapons are exceptional has been cast aside. Instead, a dramatic escalation to nuclear war is advocated. That such use could elicit an unpredictable set of nuclear responses has been strangely obscured. Concepts that promote the “first use” of nuclear weapons are not new – tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) were deployed with decentralized release authority during the Cold War. Recognizing the catastrophic hazards of pre-delegation, presidential nuclear initiatives attempted to remove all TNWs from the battlefield.


Counterforce strategies inherently result in increased nuclear risks when they initiate a “first strike”. The premise that responses to nuclear escalation can be predictable or controlled is flawed. On the contrary, prohibiting the option to use nuclear weapons first would not only enhance the stability of deterrence and reduce the role played by nuclear weapons in security policy, but would also confer greater political legitimacy. A nuclear policy of non-first use (NFU) therefore gives a troubled world sagacity, in its deference to greater security and, indeed, to survival.

*Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Retired) is an Emeritus Member of IPCS and former Commander-in-Chief of India Strategic Forces Command.