The main arguments in Paul Bracken’s new op-ed in the Diplomat largely restate points he made in his recent (and excellent) book, The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger and the New Power Politics. But while the entire book is certainly worth a read (see our review in the Wall Street Journal), this bite-sized nugget is a good way for readers to get a quick overview of the developments taking place in South Asia and a basic understanding of the complexities of the new nuclear age. In particular, it explains how the nuclear arms race in South Asia is becoming intertwined with other conflicts, making for a more dangerous and volatile situation than the nuclear standoffs and “mutually assured destruction” of the Cold War:
Cold Start shows something else, too. The dynamics in the region go beyond nuclear weapons in the narrow sense. There is no rigid arms race with each side matching the other in atomic bombs. If this were the case it would actually be easier to control. But the arms race is more complicated because it involves parallel changes in other key subsystems, and these have their own momentum.
If the arms race in South Asia was limited merely to nuclear weapons, which is the way many observers look at it, it would be one thing. But the competition is broadening, with India tightening linkages among intelligence, command and control, cyberwar, and strategy innovations like Cold Start. For example, the “front end” of Cold Start is better intelligence to determine exactly what Pakistan has done and the readiness of its conventional and nuclear forces. India has invested heavily in satellites, advanced radars, signals intelligence, and reconnaissance to give its commanders an accurate picture of what Pakistan is up to. The “tight coupling” of these elements, in turn, is linked to a rapid mobilization of India’s army and air force. Any delay in mobilization would undermine the entire strategy of counter-escalation against Pakistan.
Cold Start is controversial for good reason. The United States, in particular, has tried to discourage India away from it because it looks like a fast way to produce a nuclear war in South Asia. This is especially true if Pakistan, as many suspect it is in the process of doing, deploys tactical nuclear weapons on its border with India in response to Cold Start.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, too many American strategic thinkers have thought about nuclear weapons in isolation from other strategic issues. But there is no bright line between nuclear and non-nuclear strategy, and as Bracken shows the presence of nuclear weapons in a strategic relationship has ripple effects across many dimensions of defense strategy and military planning. This should be discomfiting to thinkers on both the left and the right. On the left the disarmament and anti-nuclear lobby needs to come to terms with the utter inanity of its beloved dream of a non-nuclear world, and the right needs to understand that the emerging multipolar nuclear system places sharp limits on American power. Beyond that, Americans are going to have to think much more carefully about our nuclear arsenal; we are spending a lot of money on a strategic asset that we do not understand very well.