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Book Review: Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era

As seen in Perspectives Journal (Issue 2, 2014). Note that this is a web-optimized version; formatting and citations have been omitted.

Although the geography of power has changed greatly since the end of the Cold War, the study of nuclear deterrence has seemingly stayed frozen in time. With this in mind, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era seeks to fill the gap between the existing Cold War era research concerning the superpowers and the present day reality of a world inhabited by a handful of regional nuclear powers. Vipin Narang, currently an assistant professor of political science at MIT, began writing his book while working on his Ph.D. at Harvard University. By looking at the history of six nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, China, France, Israel, and South Africa), Narang reaches the conclusion that posture — a combination of nuclear capability, organizational control, and usage doctrine — is the major factor in a country's ability to deter conventional attacks. In supporting his argument Narang provides a theory for predicting the various postures of nuclear states, as well as the likely outcomes of adopting such postures.

In total three different nuclear postures are identified by Narang. The least costly of these in terms of resources is the catalytic posture, as a regional power adopting this posture threatens to weaponize its small arsenal in order to encourage a third-party patron to operate on its behalf, thereby exploiting an otherwise limited or non-credible nuclear arsenal. Narang argues that this posture can be identified in the histories of both Israel and Pakistan, as well as being the strategic goal of South Africa's nuclear program. The second posture, labeled as assured retaliation, is one in which a country establishes a line of aggression that must not be crossed lest the aggressor be prepared for a nuclear response. This posture requires a credible second-strike capability, as it is usually oriented towards deterring nuclear attacks. This policy is best exemplified by China and India. The final posture identified by the author is one of asymmetric escalation. This posture threatens nuclear retaliation at any level of aggression (political subversion, economic destabilization, physical invasion, etc.). Although it is costly to maintain, both France and Pakistan have adopted this posture. Narang's argument, which he calls Posture Optimization Theory, is that states select their nuclear postures according to a rational analysis of proximate threats and available resources. In examining the various nuclear postures, the author finds his theory to be more accurate in its predictions than the theories of structural realism, technological determinism, and strategic culture.

Narang concludes that nuclear postures are not created equally. Specifically, the mere acquisition of nuclear weapons is not sufficient for deterring conventional attacks. The only posture that results in an identifiable and measurable reduction in conventional attacks is one of asymmetric escalation. A posture of assured retaliation is found to have no effect on deterring conventional conflict, and a catalytic posture appears to actually increase the likelihood of high-intensity conflict. This increased level of hostility can be seen in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, where Israel's nuclear facilities were high priority targets, as well as in India's preparations for counter-proliferation strikes during Brasstacks and the Compound Crisis. Not only does this conclusion validate the importance of the aforementioned Posture Optimization Theory, but it provides policymakers and academics with an invaluable guide for understanding conflicts involving regional nuclear powers. It also raises the uncomfortable idea that asymmetric escalation may be the optimal posture for deterring aggression, if not the only posture capable of doing so. Based off the results of Narang's large-n analysis, the old paradigmatic concept of existential deterrence must be put to rest; simply being in possession of a nuclear weapon is not a deterrent to conventional attack.

Indeed, the book provides a new framework through which nuclear policy can be analyzed and described. It can also serve as a tool for predicting the postures of future nuclear states, as well as the ramifications of such postures. But beyond its theoretical significance, Narang's book shines in its ability to explain previous conflicts between nuclear states, particularly in the case of India and Pakistan. It is through these two countries' relations that the benefits of identifying nuclear postures can be most clearly seen. In analyzing five different crises between India and Pakistan, Narang identifies a switch in Pakistan's posture (from a catalytic to an asymmetric posture) that corresponds with a reduction in India's use of conventional force. While Pakistan can encourage and incite domestic unrest and terrorism within India's borders, India has thus far been deterred from making a conventional military response. The book's treatment of these conflicts is further supplemented by the many quotes compiled from Indian and Pakistani sources, both on and off the record, that provide readers with a peek into the minds of policymakers who are directly affected by nuclear postures.

Yet the book does not provide a comprehensive overview of all of the world's nuclear powers. While the author argues that he ignores the UK because it does not have an independent nuclear arsenal, its omission is questionable in a book concerned with posture — something which the UK most certainly has. Furthermore, although there is no doubt that the US and Russia (USSR) are in their own separate class, Narang makes many references to the large amount of stagnant Cold War era research on these two countries without providing an alternative. Readers are left in the dark here, and are forced to question the adequacy of the existing body of research on the nuclear superpowers themselves. Lastly, in comparing postures according to their ability to deter conventional attacks, a posture's true purpose may be obscured. There is no certainty that conventional deterrence is considered in all cases, as Narang himself provides the argument that Mao Zedong sought nuclear weapons to avoid nuclear blackmail by the US. Assessing postures through their ability to deter conventional attacks is certainly an important and practical task, but this hierarchy may not be of primary importance to policymakers. For this reason it would also be worth studying a posture's effectiveness at reducing nuclear threats or blackmail.

Indeed, Narang's Posture Optimization Theory provides a paradigmatic shift in an otherwise stagnant area of research, and offers many opportunities for further exploration. Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era provides readers with a new understanding of old conflicts and a greater understanding of new challenges related to nuclear weapons and conventional deterrence. Although Narang concludes that his findings confront policymakers with an unfortunate reality (i.e. that a posture of asymmetric retaliation is the ideal posture for conventional deterrence) he argues that this knowledge can be used by the international community to relieve a country of the pressures that might force it to adopt such a costly and risky posture. Should more countries choose to join the ranks of the world's nuclear powers, this book may be a timely guide for the challenges ahead.

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