The outbreak of COVID-19 has demonstrated the destructive potential of virus as a weapon of mass destruction. It has added a new dimension to alter the global strategic balance and triggered another chain of events for global strategic dominance, besides unprecedented human sufferings. During First and Second World Wars era, use of military forces and declaration of war was considered as basic essentiality to call it a World War. War is defined to be a state in which a nation prosecutes its right by force. Similarly as per Collins English Dictionary; a world war is a war that involves countries all over the world. The meaning of ‘Force’ in the modern era has grown beyond hard power, with many instruments and dimensions of application. During earlier world wars, the strategic aims were capture of key territories or surrender of political leadership/will of adversaries. In the current era the strategic aim revolves around economic collapse of adversary, with economy and people becoming the centre of gravity of the enemy, which need to be targeted.
Were We already in Third World War prior to COVID-19?
Considering the destructive capability of major world power, due to mutually assured destruction (MAD) in a full scale war, the declared World War like First or Second World Wars between combat forces may not occur, as it will be devastating for all. The ‘Force’ for application potential will be measured in terms of Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of the world powers. It includes economy, military strength (including nuclear capability), strategic posturing, foreign policy/diplomacy, governance, Human Development Index (HDI), technological capability, knowledge information, geography, natural resources, national will and leadership. Out of all the components of CNP mentioned above, economic power is the over-riding component dictating the rest. The dimensions of war have grown globally from erstwhile conventional wars under nuclear hangover (barring nuclear strike on Japan) to aggressive trade war, military posturing, arms race (including Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear arsenal), with political bouts interspersed with few offensive actions involving conventional forces.
The application of economic power had resulted in intense Trade/Tariff War between the two largest economies (US and China) spiralling upwards at a rapid rate last year. In Indo-Pacific the conventional and nuclear armed combat forces of US and China are continuing strategic posturing, deterrence and messaging to all stakeholders. China used combat forces to occupy and develop features in South China Sea, also claimed by others in an attempt to convert international water into Chinese lake along shipping lanes that carry USD 5 trillion worth of global trade per year. The recent US-Iran confrontation after killing of Major General Sulemani, saw active use of conventional force and brought both countries close to war. If all cases of use of conventional forces are linked, then two opposing alliances covering worldwide conflicts appear on the scene, the first one being US-Israel-Saudi Arabia-South Korea-Japan and the other one being China-Russia-North Korea-Iran-Syria, with other countries seem to be doing strategic balancing.
The space warfare has taken a dangerous turn with each side taking preparatory actions to destroy each other’s space assets. The use of all elements of information war, to include misinformation campaign, election meddling, cyber war, hacking of economic and crucial military network, perception management and use of media including social media are already in progress. Diplomatic pressures, economic and technological threats, nuclear blackmailing, use of multinational forces (even without UN sanction), proxy wars by nations using irregulars, terrorism, amount to use of force/CNP to achieve strategic objectives, involving/impacting almost of the entire world. The number of casualties suffered in ongoing conflicts surpasses the total casualties and refugees of both the earlier World Wars put together. The global strategic situation has graduated to conflicts, capture of territory like South China Sea, innumerable deaths and economic destruction; hence calling it cold war will be understatement. The global situation even before COVID-19 had every element of a World War, except that the dimension, instruments and modalities had changed, and the war has not been ‘Formally Declared’; hence it may not be wrong to call it an ‘Undeclared Third World War’.
COVID-19 gives new Dimension and Trajectory to Ongoing Third world war
The outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), has put humanity to one of the biggest risks of this century. It exposed the vulnerability of strongest nations to unprecedented human tragedy triggered by a possible biological weapon (accidently or otherwise), while the global powers were busy strengthening other elements of CNP. It exposed the dangerousness of any possible biological weapon to the world adding a new dimension in ongoing undeclared third world war. Wuhan being the initial epicentre, the trends in early 2020 suggested a sheer drop in CNP of China with combined effect of US-China trade war, failing BRI and COVID-19. The last week of March 2020 onwards saw the epicenters of COVID-19 shifting westwards with US, Europe and UK emerging to be worst affected. China having declared victory over the pandemic, was quick to put back its manufacturing in place, trying to boost a ‘COVID-19 Economy’ by creating a ‘Health Silk Road’ and re-activating most needed supply chain of medical equipment and medicines, as an attempt to earn maximum profit out of the pandemic, besides attempting to repair its global image.
Strategically, taking advantage of pandemic, China launched aggressive offensive posturing by sending aircraft carrier near Taiwan, knocked off fishing boat of Vietnam and Malaysia to strengthen its claim in South China Sea up to Nine Dash Line. The reports of a nuclear test by Chinese in Lop Nor coupled with Chinese aggressiveness was responded by US has by Elephant Walk in show of strength to caution the adversaries. China also decided to use this opportunity to unilaterally set up administration in Paracel and Spratly Islands and features claimed by other countries by approving establishment of the Xisha and Nansha districts under Sansha city in islandof Hainan,to tighten its grip on South China Sea. This political offensive was immediately responded through strong military posturing by US and Australian Navies, sailing mighty aircraft carrier and combat ships of Seventh Fleet, as show of force in freedom of navigation operations in South China Sea.
Contours of Undeclared Third World War post COVID-19 Pandemic
COVID-19 has been a wild card entry in ongoing undeclared third world war.It has exposed some vulnerabilities of US and created huge trust deficit for China globally; hence the idea of everyone accepting one/two countries as superpowers or global leader may be outdated in future. The new paradigm will be that unlike earlier World Wars, all countries will not be at war, because all of them may not agree to common narratives of key players, hence some countries would be at hot war,some in military posturing stage, and some using other dimensions and instruments of war, simultaneously.A new global order will emerge post COVID-19, which need not be US/China centric.The world may see a shift in manufacturing hubs and tendencies to be self-reliant in critical manufacturing. The eastern hemisphere seems to be having an edge in war against COVID-19. Next few decades will see the pivot shifting towards East, which has fastest growing economies and population centres. It can, therefore be argued that the battleground for ‘Undeclared Third World War’ could be Indo-Pacific, and the world has already entered in preparatory phase of it, without recognising/declaring it to be so.
Nuclearization Of South Asia: Where Do We Stand Now?
Pakistan-India relations have continued to deteriorate since the nuclear test of May 1998. Both the states have faced numerous crisis during which the nuclear weapons have played a very important role. Nuclear weapons have been an effective deterrent force and kept the conflicts from blowing into all-out war. All the recent events suggests that there is a dire need to take transitional measures to reduce the nuclear risks. Nuclear weapons are confusing pieces of technology as their efficiency of destruction is best established when they are not deployed and yet in the same breath, they are to be used when required. This dilemma is further demented when one state is enemy with the other on almost everything. Escalation is both inevitable and perhaps one of the most devastating missteps in nuclear deterrence; one that requires an impressive level of trust. To achieve such a barrier, conventional rivalries need to be revisited, caution needs to be reinstituted and communication needs to be uninterrupted.
From Massive Retaliation of John Foster Dulles to McNamara’s Assured Destruction, nuclear bipolarity changed faces and paved ways for agreements and treaties to replace escalation and deployments. From direct engagements to proxies, from installation of hotlines to breaking ice and bilateralism, even when there was hope the world still endured in fear of an all-out devastation. Still, after all this, what lessons were learnt? How was ‘responsible nuclear weapons state’ defined? More importantly, what was the yardstick beyond which no state possessing such technology dare not tread? States possessing nuclear weapons technology decided not to escalate beyond a certain point and declared that no matter the trust deficit, they were supposed to always adhere to bilaterally settle their disputes. Even after two decades of nuclearization Pakistan and India, admirers of nuclear learning and experts of nuclear deterrence, perhaps were and might still are devoid of such bilateral convictions.
Looking at all the crisis situations in past most importantly the 1999 Kargil conflict, where the things escalated too quickly under nuclear overhang the question arises whether South Asia learnt anything on how close the Kargil was to a showdown of unimaginable proportion? Talking about more recent event ‘Pulwama’, Whatever happened after Pulwama in 2019 cannot be merely set aside as an emotional rhetoric, it was an actual sub-conventional engagement which had the potential to escalate. Like Kargil Pulwama was a chance to reexamine exactly what went wrong for things to go this far. Instead, India initiated overhauling of its force posture and Pakistan played along. South Asia went from Cold Start to Tactical Nuclear Weapons, from asymmetric confrontations to trans-border infiltrations and from hostilities at Line of Control to Abhinandan’s failed leap for glory. Instantly, everyone started crying war with no one to vouch for peace. What we see now is Indian prompted continued escalatory trajectories, distorted sense of stability, a desperate call for third-party mediation and a complete lack of bilateralism.
Nuclear deterrence, in its generic understanding, requires engaging parties to manifest caution while communicating their strategic posture. Confidence Building Mechanisms in that regard are important but as standalone systems are usually inefficient in dealing with their desired results. Soviet Union’s iron curtain is what caused Cuban Missile Crisis but even a man like Khrushchev realized what could have happened and resorted to engaging with Kennedy. For Narendra Modi and his cabinet, the idealized fog of war cast by an iron curtain of fear/ compellence is much more desirable than a chance at cooperation/dialogue. Bilateralism via Track-II might be fruitful but considering how much we distrust one another, it’s highly likely that all such actions would eventually be put to unnecessary speculation of possessing vested interest. Pakistan and India might not resort to an all-out confrontation but their trust deficit is enough to keep low-yield kinetic engagements alive. Pakistan fears for a false flag terrorist activity from India while India is wary of Pakistan trying to internationalize what it considers to be a bilateral issue.
In the past we have seen that issues between India-Pakistan are never resolved instead the hostility has increased so much that mitigation of the conflict looks like a farfetched idea. Both states need third party to get running the wheel of diplomatic engagement. Nuclear strategy is not a circular motion rather it is a spiraling affair with each turn graduating it to a new occasion whilst remaining hinged to a singular immovable point of connection. If nuclear deterrence keeps rotating without graduating, it tends to wear out its capacity to deter. What happens next is either another Kargil or something even worse. Pulwama, like Pathankot was a chance for both states to engage positively whilst maintaining their adversarial relationship and even now things are, in a way, plausible for this to occur. Threat, in this context, is how the current trajectory is moving from trust deficit to zero tolerance which can lead to incalculable repercussions.
If both India-Pakistan do not learn any lesson from the past then the future might not be very welcoming. . Nuclear deterrence is as important as it is frightening and Mutually Assured Destruction is almost certainly a final outcome if bilateralism is sacrificed at the altars of diplomatic inflexibility. An arms race without restraint is as dangerous as an uncontrolled escalation of sensitive flashpoints and both strategies are corrosive if taken without mutual consent.
22 Years of Nuclearization of South Asia: Current Doctrinal Postures
May 2020 marks the 22nd anniversary of the overt nuclearization of South Asia. The evolved nuclear doctrinal postures of both India and Pakistan have been a key component of their defence and security policies. During this period; India has undergone gradual shifts in its nuclear doctrinal posture. The Indian posture as set out in the 1999 ‘Draft Nuclear Doctrine‘ (DND) was based on an assertion that India would pursue the ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy. The first amendment to this posture, which came out in January 2003, was based on a review by the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) of the nuclear doctrine. It stated that if India’s armed forces or its people were attacked with chemical and biological weapons, India reserves the right to respond with nuclear weapons. This review could, therefore, be considered a contradiction to India’s declared NFU policy at the doctrinal level. On the basis of this notion, it could be assumed that India has had an aspiration to drift away from its NFU policy since 2003.
Subsequently, the notion of a preemptive ‘splendid first strike‘ has been a key part of the discourse surrounding the Indian and international strategic community since the years 2016-2017. According to this, if in India’s assessment, Pakistan was found to be deploying nuclear weapons, in a contingency, India would resort to such a splendid first strike. With such a doctrinal posture, India’s quest for preemption against Pakistan seems to be an attempt to neutralize the deterrent value of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. In this regard, India has been constantly advancing its nuclear weapons capabilities based on enhanced missile programs and the development of its land, sea, and air-based nuclear triad thus negating its own NFU policy. This vindicates Pakistan’s already expressed doubts over India’s long-debated NFU policy. Such Indian notion would likely serve as an overt drift towards a more offensive counterforce doctrinal posture aimed at undermining Pakistan’s deterrence posture. This would further affect the strategic stability and deterrence equilibrium in the South Asian region.
India’s rapid augmentation of its offensive doctrinal posture vis-à-vis Pakistan is based on enhancing its strategic nuclear capabilities. Under its massive military up-gradation program, India has developed the latest versions of ballistic and cruise missiles, indigenous ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems in addition to Russian made S-400, nuclear submarines, and enhanced capabilities for space weaponization. In the same vein, India’s aspiration for supersonic and hypersonic weapons is also evidence of its offensive doctrinal posture. Furthermore, India has been carrying out an extensive cruise missile development program having incredible supersonic speed along with its prospective enhanced air defence shield. Through considerable technological advancements India has shifted its approach from a counter-value to a counter-force doctrinal posture, as it demonstrates its ambitions of achieving escalation-dominance throughout the region. These technological advancements are clear indicators that India’s doctrinal posture is aimed at destabilizing the existing nuclear deterrence equilibrium in South Asia.
Pakistan, on the other hand has been threatened by India’s offensive postures and hegemonic aspirations. Consequently it has to maintain a certain balance of power to preserve its security. Pakistan’s doctrinal posture is defensive in nature and has over the years shifted from strategic deterrence to ‘full spectrum deterrence’ (FSD) by adding tactical nuclear weapons which, it claims, falls within the threshold of ‘minimum credible deterrence’. In this regard, Pakistan too has developed its missile technology based on; short, intermediate, and long-range ballistic missiles. Pakistan’s tactical range ‘Nasr’ missile is widely regarded as a ‘weapon of deterrence’ aimed at denying space for a limited war imposed by India. The induction of ‘multiple independent reentry vehicle’ (MIRV), the development of land, air and sea-launched cruise missiles and the provision of a naval-based second-strike capability have all played a significant role in the preservation of minimum credible deterrence and the assurance of full-spectrum deterrence at the strategic, operational and tactical levels.
Contrary to India’s declared NFU policy, Pakistan has never made such an assertion and has deliberately maintained a policy of ambiguity concerning a nuclear first strike against India. This has been carried out to assure its security and to preserve its sovereignty by deterring India with the employment of Full Spectrum Deterrence (FSD) within the ambit of Credible Minimum Deterrence. This posture asserts that since Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes in principle, they are aimed at deterring India from any and all kinds of aggression. This has been evident from recent crisis situations as well during which Pakistan’s deterrent posture has prevented further escalation. Therefore, even now Pakistan is likely to keep its options open and still leave room for the possibility of carrying out a ‘first strike’ as a viable potential deterrent against India if any of its stated red lines are crossed.
Hence, the security dynamics of the South Asian region have changed significantly since its nuclearization in 1998. The impact of this has been substantial and irreversible on regional and extra-regional politics, the security architecture of South Asia, and the international nuclear order. As has been long evident India has held long term inspiration to become a great power. There have been continuous insinuations about the transformations in India’s nuclear doctrinal posture from ‘No First Use’ to counterforce offensive posture. The current security architecture of South Asia revolves around this Indian behavior as a nuclear state. In contrast, Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine is based solely on assuring its security, preserving its sovereignty, and deterring India by maintaining a credible deterrence posture. Based on the undeniable threats from India to its existence, Pakistan needs to further expand its doctrinal posture vis-à-vis India. This would preserve the pre-existing nuclear deterrence equilibrium and the ‘balance of power’in the South Asian region.
Israel Shines in the Gulf Where Big Powers Falter, but That Could Prove Tricky
The Firefly, an Israeli-built loitering kamikaze drone, part of the Spike family of missiles that the Jewish state has sold to various European nations, may be one reason why Gulf states, and particularly Saudi Arabia, have cozied up to Israel in a seeming reversal of their past support of Palestinian rights.
If there is one lesson that Gulf states have learned from the United States’ reduced commitment to the region and the strains in US-Saudi relations, it is that putting one’s eggs in one basket is risky business.
That has not prevented the United States from continuing to secure its place as the region’s foremost arms supplier as this month’s arms and related commercial deals prove.
The US Defense Department announced a $2.6 billion USD Saudi deal to acquire 1,000 air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles from Boeing. Within days, Saudi Arabia’s Al Tadrea Manufacturing Company tweeted that it had reached agreement with Oshkosh Defense to establish a joint venture to manufacture armed vehicles in the kingdom.
The Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, disclosed separately that it had recently taken a $ 713.7 million USD stake in Boeing at a time when the company, already suffering major setbacks because of its 737-Max fiasco, took a significant hit as a result of a collapse of the civilian aviation industry.
The continued Saudi arms focus on the United States has not deprived China of opportunities. China has stepped in to help Saudi Arabia produce unmanned military vehicles after the United States refused to sell its MQ-9 Reaper killer drone to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia expects production to start next year.
Like China, Russia has been urging Saudi Arabia to purchase its acclaimed S-400 anti-missile defense system. So far, the kingdom, having watched the United States cancel NATO-member Turkey’s purchase of US F-35 fighter jets and its co-production agreement of some of the plane’s components after it acquired the Russian system, has been reticent to take the Russians up on their offer.
The limitations of Saudi-Russian cooperation have since become obvious with April’s price war between the two major oil producers that sent oil markets into a tailspin from which they are unlikely to recover any time soon.
Israel, like China and Russia and unlike the United States, puts no problematic restrictions such as adherence to human rights and use of weaponry in accordance with international law on its arms sales.
But Israel has one leg up on its Chinese and Russian competitors who maintain close ties to Iran. Israel shares with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a perception of Iran as an existential threat and a destabilizing force in the Middle East that at the very least needs to be contained.
To be sure, that is a perception that Saudi Arabia and the UAE see reflected in the United States’ maximum pressure policy towards Iran which aims to force the Islamic Republic to “change its behavior,” if not change its regime.
The problem is that maximum pressure two years into the imposition of harsh US economic sanctions has produced little result.
Add to that the fact that the United States has proven to be an unreliable ally when the chips are down, persuading the UAE and other smaller Gulf states to reach out to Iran to ensure that their critical national infrastructure does not become a target in any future major US-Iranian military conflagration.
The watershed moment for the Gulf states was when the United States failed to respond forcefully last spring and summer to alleged Iranian attacks on key Saudi oil facilities as well as oil tankers off the coast of the UAE.
The Trump administration, in a bid to reassure Gulf states, weeks later sent troops and Patriot anti-missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia to help it protect its oil installations, although the United States withdrew two of those systems earlier this month.
It took the killing of a US military contractor in December 2019 for the United States to respond to tens of Iranian-backed attacks on American targets in Iraq. And when it did, with the killing in January of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Gulf states privately celebrated the demise of their nemesis, but also feared that it was overkill, bringing the Middle East to the brink of an all-out war.
Gulf states are likely to find that cooperation with Israel has its limits too. Israel may be eager to sell weaponry and have the capability to push back at Iran in Syria. If need be, Israel can also severely damage, if not take out, Iranian nuclear and missile facilities in military strikes that Gulf states would be unable to carry out.
But ties to Israel remain a sensitive issue in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. And Israel has so far restricted sales to non-lethal equipment and technology. That could change with a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations.
Public opinion, however, may be one reason Gulf states have refused to turn unofficial relations into diplomatic recognition, suggesting that there may be greater public empathy for Palestinians than Gulf rulers wish to admit.
That could count for more with Gulf rulers finding it increasingly difficult to provide public goods and services, among which first and foremost jobs, as a result of the global economic crisis and the collapse of oil prices.
Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia
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