August 31, 2009Foreign Affairsgame theoryIndianuclear deterrencePakistanSecurity

MUD, not MAD

A metaphor the the India-Pakistan nuclear deterrence relationship

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

It is not unusual for commentators to use the term mutually assured destruction” or MAD while discussing nuclear weapons in the India-Pakistan context. This is a direct reuse of a Cold War-era metaphor to describe the nuclear game in the subcontinent. It is also an inaccurate and inappropriate description.

What’s MAD? According to Wikipedia:

MAD is a Poison Pill” strategy. The doctrine assumes that each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side and that either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, would retaliate with equal or greater force. The expected result is an immediate escalation resulting in both combatants’ total and assured destruction. It is now generally hypothesized that the nuclear fallout or nuclear winter resulting from a large scale nuclear war would bring about worldwide devastation, though this was not a critical assumption to the theory of MAD.

The doctrine further assumes that neither side will dare to launch a first strike because the other side will launch on warning (also called fail-deadly) or with secondary forces (second strike) resulting in the destruction of both parties. The payoff of this doctrine is expected to be a tense but stable peace. [Wikipedia]In other words, both the United States and the Soviet Union had enough warheads and delivery mechanisms to completely destroy each other. Just how big was the stockpile? In 1986, the global stockpile peaked at 65,056 warheads, with the United States having 23,254 and the Soviet Union 40,723. The total number of warheads has been over 10,000 since 1958. Yields, delivery mechanisms and targeting apart, the arsenal was enough to cause total annihilation—in Churchill’s words, to make rubble bounce.”

Despite Pakistan being the nuclear hare of the last two decades (and India the nuclear tortoise) the stockpile in the subcontinent—both actual warheads and those that can be assembled at short notice—is not greater than a hundred each. As INI co-blogger Dhruva Jaishankar notes, the actual numbers in India’s case at least might be much smaller. At such levels the impact of a nuclear exchange—even a total one—will no doubt cause widespread destruction and unprecedented misery. It is, however, highly unlikely to completely destroy India. It might not even completely destroy Pakistan.

Gregory S Jones, an analyst at RAND Corporation, estimates that Pakistan will need as many as twenty 10 kT warheads to destroy New Delhi alone, killing 1.5 million people and injuring another 3 million. (New Delhi has a population of around 12 million). You can read Mr Jones’s article for how the destruction would change under various conditions, but the general point is that Indian cities have huge populations and geographical spreads, and it is unlikely that Pakistan can completely annihilate India. Similarly, the Indian arsenal is likely to be sufficient to severely damage half-dozen Pakistani cities. If both countries empty their nuclear arsenal on each other, then the net result will be a badly damaged India, and an almost totally crippled Pakistan.

This is not to say that India should increase its stockpile to even the levels deployed by United States and Russia today. Far from it. Even these levels of destruction are unacceptable to India, and in all likelihood should be unacceptable to Pakistan too. In fact, as The Acorn has argued, even a single nuclear explosion is unacceptable destruction, and as such, rightly forms the bedrock of deterrence in the India-Pakistan context. While such a scenario is certainly not MAD, it is mutually unacceptable. It might, therefore, be more appropriate to characterise it as Mutually Unacceptable Destruction (MUD).

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