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Victory in Strategic Studies: The Problematic Neglect of a Central Concept

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Within the academic sphere of strategic studies there seems to be no doubt that the concept of victory remains to be understudied.[i] Many scholars argue that the notion of victory is trapped in underdevelopment and thus lacks analytical merit due to the inherent fuzziness and contentiousness of the term.[ii] Nevertheless, considering that the very telos of war is winning and that the notion of victory occupies a central position in strategic thinking, it is all the more surprising that the concept of victory is most often not sufficiently considered.[iii] When taking into account that strategy as such has been described as a “theory of victory”, it seems indispensable to investigate why victory has not received as much attention as its importance in strategic thought suggests.[iv]

One might counter this statement arguing that the concept of victory has been a subject of strategic considerations throughout millennia. This notwithstanding, Martel concludes that “ideas about victory historically emerged haphazardly and erratically rather than as a coherent theory” – despite the plethora of literature on war.[v] Many theorists also tend to focus on the question of how to win war, while neglecting why one wins (the causal links between means and ends) and what it means to be victorious.[vi]

Victory is a highly contested term. This is because victory as a desired end state is often used ambiguously to accommodate strategic flexibility and adjust political objectives to the dynamics of war.[vii] The notion of an end state shall, however, not obscure that victory and defeat are not binary terms. As Bartholomees highlights, victory is predominantly a subjective assessment, not a fact or objective condition.[viii] This assessment, in addition, does not necessarily have to be permanent but can be reevaluated and challenged as e.g. the aftermath of World War I demonstrated.[ix] Victory further unfolds along different levels. Hence, military (tactical, operational) victory must not be equated with political (strategic or grand-strategic) victory, which is particularly hard to measure with quantifiable criteria.

However, that victory is a difficult concept which seems to elude final fixation must not be considered as sufficient explanation for the neglect of the study of victory in strategic studies. For that reason, in the following it shall be investigated whether victory has simply lost its relevance in the face of wars that – allegedly – cannot be won. In addition, the question shall be raised as to what extent liberal democratic values and the predominance of the just war paradigm can be considered as an explanation for the disregard of the concept of victory. For, as Hao puts it, “[a] military is not divorced from the society” – and neither is strategic thought.[x]

Further, this essay builds on the conviction that a more thorough study of victory is not only necessary but the continuing (relative) lack of attention to victory is also deeply problematic. Thus, this essay follows Martel’s assessment that “if policy-makers are unclear about what victory means, they are less likely to achieve it”.[xi] Among other aspects, this essay particularly aims to emphasize the necessity to establish a clear understanding of the meaning of victory for military interventions. This essay concludes that the notion of victory has endured the passing of time and will certainly continue to do so. Therefore, paying attention to the advancement of the concept of victory, especially regarding its adaptation to contemporary characteristics of warfare, and the establishment of a sound theoretical framework of victory will be inevitable.

Out of Sight, out of Mind – Is Victory Still Relevant?

The invention of nuclear weaponry led to a shift from winning wars to avoiding them (at least between nuclear powers).[xii] Consequently, during the Cold War, the perception arose that the concept of victory had become meaningless either due to the notion that nuclear wars could not be won or that hereby “no victory […] would be worth the price”.[xiii]

However, others claim that limited nuclear war could occur (with its corresponding victory and defeat). According to this strand of thinking, the concept of victory should not be rejected as practically unachievable and meaningless. In that sense, Gray outlines that the lack of a theory of victory within the overarching frame of nuclear strategy on NATO’s part was dangerous.[xiv] Firstly, because the focus on nuclear threat in contrast to nuclear execution (that is, the actual resort to nuclear weaponry) reduced the credibility of the fundamental goal of effective deterrence.[xv] Gray further argues that the concept of MAD functioned in terms of self-deterrence, which denied “freedom of strategic nuclear action” and hence hindered the development of a theory of victory here.[xvi] Thus, even if the advent of nuclear weaponry impeded strategic thinking about victory, the study of victory in the nuclear age might continue to be relevant – particularly in times of possible proliferation.

It seems to be commonly accepted that while the nature of war remains unchanged throughout history, the character of war (in terms of methodological, technological and ideological factors) is subject to fundamental change.[xvii] These new ways of waging war have been described as “unwinnable”, which would render it pointless to reflect about victory.[xviii]Firstly, the (not so new) concept of hybrid warfare must be considered, which is, for instance, applied by Russia in the Ukraine conflict using information warfare to obscure its goals.[xix] Thus, winning a hybrid war is difficult: If it is unclear what victory constitutes for the adversary, it is hard to prevent the opposing side from winning and in turn make oneself the winner.

Further, William Lind declared the emergence of “fourth generation warfare” and Mary Kaldor introduced the term “new wars” to capture the inclusion of non-state actors in warfare, the emphasis on identity politics and the return to the Hobbesian use of violence.[xx] Obviously, it is almost impossible to terminate such wars with “decisive victory”. The notion of wars that cannot be won particularly manifests itself in terms such as “perpetual” or “endless war”. These have been predominantly used to describe US involvement, most prominently regarding the so-called “War on Terror”.[xxi] While many argue that the “War on Terror” can simply not be won or reject the term altogether, Gordon emphasizes that “[a]l most entirely missing from this debate is a concept of what ‘victory’ in the war on terror would actually look like”.[xxii] This obscurity is best captured in former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s reply to the question of what victory constitutes within the “War on Terror”.[xxiii] To Rumsfeld, “victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that is going to be over in a month or a year or even five years”.[xxiv]

Again, it is self-evident that such a conflict configuration cannot be resolved by decisive, military victory. However, as Howard highlights, wars ending with decisive victories do not constitute the norm but a historical anomaly.[xxv]Therefore, Gordon pleads for an understanding of victory that adapts to this “new and different kind of war” in order to “avert considerable pain, expense and trouble” – thus to put an end to this war’s endlessness.[xxvi]Consequently, the argument that the concept of victory has become irrelevant as wars are now “unwinnable” or “endless” does not hold. The question of victory is closely connected to the debate about the future of wars. Instead of declaring the notion of victory inapplicable in such contexts, the incentive should rather be to make victory finally keep pace with the times – especially regarding realistic outcomes and how to achieve them.

According to Blum, three developments have altered contemporary wars and notions of victory: “in the goals of war, the rules of war, and the targets of war”.[xxvii] In that sense, especially the rules of war have become increasingly restrictive after World War II. Human Rights Law is assumed to apply in war and the notion of human security has ever more permeated the conduct of war.[xxviii] Thus, Blum concludes that especially for those being committed to international law and morality (e.g. liberal democracies) it has become more difficult to aspire to go to war but also more costly to win.[xxix]For that reason, Blum argues that in order to reconcile the values, which especially liberal democracies are trying to uphold, with the necessary “evils of war”, victory is articulated in ever broader, blurrier terms.[xxx]

The difficulty of precisely articulating victory can further be connected to the framework of just war theory, which has become the predominant lens through which war and peace are being perceived in the West.[xxxi] However, victory is not problematized among contemporary just war theorists, which is highly problematic since “just war is just war”.[xxxii]This means that the central concept of victory cannot be euphemized but needs to be studied even if this uncovers dissatisfying aspects, namely that even a just war will produce unfavorable outcomes when victory is reached.[xxxiii]Thus, it seems as if the attempt to uphold particular values, which are enshrined in contemporary just war theory, have formed a mindset that hindered the formulation of a more pronounced concept of victory – in the practitioner’s and scholarly realm alike.

Victory as the Great Unknown – Consequences and Dangers

As has become clear, without a theory of victory that can answer questions such as “what does victory mean?”, “what are the benefits, costs, and risks of victory?” and“are we willing to pay the price of victory?”, wars cannot be won and set goals will not be achieved.[xxxiv] Roberts makes the case for the United States and argues that a continuous lack of a theory of victory regarding potential regional conflicts but also the changing character of war might result in US defeat in the next big war.[xxxv] Regarding the employment of nuclear weaponry, Gray emphasizes that if a theory of political victory is absent to reasoning about nuclear war, “there can be little justification for nuclear planning at all”.[xxxvi]

A theoretical framework of victory is indispensable for policymakers to be able to decide when it is necessary to use force.[xxxvii] This is particularly significant in the context of military interventions. If decisions about military interventions are based on a sound conception of victory, policymakers will be enabled to better achieve their goals, minimize costs, foresee the consequences of their decisions, and boost the prospect of success.[xxxviii]If military interventions are pursued without a concrete understanding of victory, as was arguably the case in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, military strategies are designed under great uncertainty, using inapt tools and might consequently be doomed to fail.[xxxix] This can have catastrophic consequences for both the intervening country and the country being intervened in. Similarly, peace operations operate on increasingly vague mandates. Thus, a coherent theory of victory is often absent – with all the negative consequences this entails.[xl]

Further, a clear definition of victory is crucial to enhance public support as transparency and public scrutiny can be ensured.[xli]More importantly, a theoretical framework of victory will provide the tools to meaningfully debate the (lacking) necessity of the use of military force and will thereby improve legitimacy.[xlii]

Hence, if victory continues to be theoretically and conceptually underdeveloped, the greatest danger will be the repetition of past mistakes – be it regarding miscalculations of necessary resources to achieve victory or the decision if it is worth to go to war.

Conclusion

De Landmeter concludes that “victory as a concept appears to be very problematic and might be devoid of meaning altogether” – especially regarding modern war.[xliii]The opposite is the case. It is true that the term victory has been (mis-) used as a shapeshifting, convenient catch-all term. Yet, as was demonstrated, above all the emergence of new ways of warfare presupposes not an abandonment of victory but a thorough theory of victory to enable policymakers and scholars to assess which aims can be realistically achieved, at what cost and under which risk. In sum, the concept of victory must be further theorized and adjusted to current contexts to unfold its full potential as a guidance for future strategic decisions and to prevent any rhetorical or strategic misuse.

War will not cease to exist, thus the strife for victory won’t either. While especially the Obama administration tried to ban victory from its “strategic lexicon”, President Trump had already returned to the rhetoric of victory.[xliv] Hence, victory is a sticky concept that is not to be defeated easily – even if attempts were made to avoid the term and replace it with the even vaguer notion of success.


[i] See, for instance, Armstrong, Jan and J. J. Widen, Contemporary Military Theory. The Dynamics of War (New York: Routledge, 2015), 44.

[ii] Mandel, Robert, Reassessing Victory in Warfare. Armed Forces & Society 37 no. 4 (2007), 13.

[iii] Angstrom and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 43.

[iv] King, Iain, Beyond Ends, Ways, and Means: We Need a Better Strategic Framework to Win in an Era of Great Power Competition. Accessible via: https://mwi.usma.edu/beyond-ends-ways-and-means-we-need-a-better-strategic-framework-to-win-in-an-era-of-great-power-competition/?fbclid=IwAR2M07YxxJ0FafODMGB9A80msbjbH4eOMI1qCbRB1ti0B3r7TPEY6GwOf9w [last access: December 19th 2020].

[v] Martel, William C., Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 371.

[vi] Hoffman, Frank G., The Missing Element in Crafting National Strategy. A Theory of Success. JFQ 97 no. 2 (2020), 61 and Bartholomees, J. Boone, Theory of Victory. Parameters 38 (2008), 25.

[vii]Landmeter, Eric A. de, What constitutes victory in modern war? Militaire Spectator 187 no. 3 (2018), 141.

[viii]Bartholomees, Theory of Victory, 26.

[ix] Ibid., 30.

[x] Hao, Chong Shi, A Swift and Decisive Victory: The Strategic Implications of What Victory Means. PRISM 4 no. 4 (2014), 108.

[xi] Martel, William C., Victory in Scholarship on Strategy and War, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 24 no. 3 (2011), 518.

[xii]Ibid., 514.

[xiii]Brodie, Bernard, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946), 75.

[xiv]Gray, Colin, Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Theory of Victory. International Security 4 no. 1 (1979), 62.

[xv]Ibid., 63.

[xvi]Ibid., 70.

[xvii]Landmeter, What constitutes victory in modern war?, 144.

[xviii] O’Driscoll, Cian, No substitute for victory? Why just war theorists can’t win. European Journal of International Relations 26 no. 1 (2020), 198.

[xix]Snegovaya, Maria, Putin’s Information Warfare In Ukraine. Soviet Origins of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare. Russia Report I (2015), 15, accessible via: http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Russian%20Report%201%20Putin’s%20Information%20Warfare%20in%20Ukraine-%20Soviet%20Origins%20of%20Russias%20Hybrid%20Warfare.pdf [last access: December 19th 2020].

[xx] Lind, William S., Understanding Fourth Generation War. Military Review (2004) and Kaldor, Mary, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999).

[xxi] In the context of the specific role of the US in “endless wars”, Stephen Wertheim argues in an interview on his new book “Tomorrow, the World” (Cambridge et al: Harvard University Press, 2020), that “US military dominance became an end unto itself. Endless dominance produced endless war” (For the interview in full length see https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674248663, last access: January 25th 2021).

[xxii] Gordon, Philip H., Can the War on Terror Be Won? Foreign Affairs 86 no. 6 (2007), 53.

[xxiii] Keen, David, Endless War? Hidden Functions of ‘The War on Terror’ (London: Pluto Press, 2006), 82.

[xxiv] https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/rumsfeld_092001.html [last access: January 25th 2021].

[xxv] Howard, Michael, When are wars decisive? Survival 41 no. 1 (1999), 129.

[xxvi] Gordon, Can the War on Terror Be Won?, 54.

[xxvii] Blum, Gabriella, The Fog of Victory. The European Journal of International Law 24 no. 1 (2013), 392.

[xxviii] Ibid., 393.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid. 420f.

[xxxi] O’Driscoll, No Substitute for Victory?, 189.

[xxxii] Ibid., 201.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Martel, Victory in War, 32.

[xxxv] Roberts, Brad, On the Need for a Blue Theory of Victory. War on the Rocks, September 17th 2020, accessible via: https://warontherocks.com/2020/09/on-the-need-for-a-blue-theory-of-victory/ [last access: December 20th 2020].

[xxxvi] Gray, Nuclear Strategy, 82.

[xxxvii] Martel, Victory in War, 371.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 38.

[xxxix] Blum, The Fog of Victory, 421.

[xl] Cf. Garcia, Antonio, South Africa and United Nations Peacekeeping Offensive Operations: Conceptual Models (Chitungwiza: Mwanaka Media and Publishing, 2018).

[xli] Martel, Victory in War, 382.

[xlii] Ibid., 376.

[xliii]Landmeter, What constitutes victory in modern war?, 146.

[xliv] O’Driscoll, No Substitute for Victory?, 190.

Sandra J. Bandemer graduated in History and Political Science at LMU Munich and is a second year Master student in Peace Research and International Politics at the University of Tübingen. Currently she is based in Paris and studies at Sciences Po. Her main focus lies on international security studies as well as the history and politics of the Middle East.

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US-led ‘Psychological Wars’ Against Russia, China Lead to All Lose Situation

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Andrei Ilnitsky, an advisor to Russian defense minister, said in an interview at the end of March that the US and the West are waging a “mental war” against Russia. Why does the West resort to the psychological war? How will Russia cope with the psychological war? Global Times (GT) reporters Wang Wenwen and Lu Yuanzhi interviewed Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, on these issues by email.

What are the features of such a psychological war?

There is nothing new about psychological wars – they have always been a part of standard military operations. The goal has been to demoralize both your enemy’s army and its population at large in order to break down the will of your opponent to fight and to resist. Ancient kings, emperors and warlords broadly used over-exaggeration, deception, disinformation, mythology, and so on. However, today states commonly use these instruments of psychological wars not only during military conflicts, but in the peacetime as well. Moreover, new information technology offers plenty of innovative ways to get your message to select target audiences in a foreign country; you can customize and focus this message as never before. Each of us is a target in this warfare, even if we do not feel it.

The US-led West used to wage color revolutions on countries they deem as adversaries. What are the differences between the color revolution and the psychological war? Why does the West resort to the psychological war?

A color revolution is an unconstitutional regime change caused by sizeable and sometimes violent street activities of the radical opposition. Western leaders usually welcome such changes and arguably render them diverse political, organizational and financial assistance. Nevertheless, a regime change cannot come from nowhere. There should be significant political, social, economic or ethnic problems that, if remain unresolved for a long time, gradually lead to a color revolution. Psychological wars help to articulate unresolved problems, deprive the leadership of a target country of legitimacy in the eyes of its own population and, ultimately, prepare a color revolution.

What are the likely outcomes for the West’s psychological war on Russia? How will Russia cope with the psychological war?

Russian authorities are trying to limit opportunities for the West to wage the psychological war by exposing Western disinformation and imposing restrictions on select Western media, NGOs and foundations that are perceived as instruments of waging the war.

Is the West capable of launching a military offensive on Russia?

Russia remains a nuclear superpower with very significant military capabilities. A nuclear war with Moscow could lead to the annihilation of the humankind and therefore cannot be considered a feasible option. Even a full-fledged conventional conflict between Russia and the West in Europe would turn into a catastrophe of an epic scale for both sides. It does not necessarily mean that we can rule out such a scenario, but I think that if there were a war, it would erupt because of an inadvertent escalation rather than because of a rational decision to launch a military offensive.

The West has never dropped the illusion of changing China’s and Russia’s systems to that similar of the West by adopting the tactic of “peaceful evolution.” How could Russia and China join hands in face of such Western attempts?

Indeed, many in the West still believe that their system has a universal value and that eventually both Russia and China should move to Western-type liberal political systems. These views are less popular now than they were twenty or thirty years ago, but we cannot ignore them. Moscow and Beijing have the right to defend themselves against the Western ideological and psychological offensive. Still, I see the solution to the problem of psychological wars in a “psychological peace” should be based on a common understanding on what is allowed in the international information exchange and what is not. Russia and China could work together in defining a new code of conduct regulating the trans-border information flows. In the immediate future, the West will be reluctant to accept this code, but we should keep trying. In my view, this is the only way to proceed; if psychological wars continue, there will be no winners and losers – everybody will lose.

From our partner RIAC

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Boko Haram: Religious Based Violence and Portrayal of Radical Islam

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Modern-day global and domestic politics have set forth the trend that has legitimized and rationalized the use of religion as a tool to attain political gravity and interests. Similarly, many religion-oriented groups use religion to shape their political agenda and objectives, often using religion as a justification for their violent activities. Most of these mobilized groups are aligned with Islam. These groups have promoted religion-based violence and have also introduced new waves and patterns in global terrorism. Some prominent organized groups that attain world attention include Boko Haram, ISIS, Al- Qaeda, and the Taliban. These groups have potentially disrupted the political establishment of their regions. Although, a comparative insight delivers that these various organizations have antithetical political objectives but these groups use Islam to justify their violent actions and strategies based on violence and unrest.

The manifesto of Boko Haram rests on Islamic principles i.e. establishing Shariah or Islamic law in the region. A system that operates to preserve the rights of poor factions of the society and tends to promote or implement Islamic values. Hence, in this context, it negates westernization and its prospects. However, the rise of Boko Haram was based on anti-western agenda which portrayed that the existing government is un-Islamic and that western education is forbidden. Hence, the name Boko Haram itself delivered the notion that western culture or civilization is forbidden. Boko Haram has a unique political and religiously secular manifesto. Boko Haram was formed by Mohammad Yusuf, who preached his agenda of setting up a theocratic political system through his teachings derived from Islam. And countered the existing governmental setup of the Christians. The violent dynamics surged in 2009 when an uprising against the Nigerian government took the momentum that killed almost 800 people. Following the uprising, Mohammad Yusuf was killed and one of his lieutenants Abu Bakar Shekau took the lead.

Boko Haram used another violent strategy to gain world attention by bombing the UN Compound in Abuja that killed twenty-three people. The incident led to the declaration of Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organizationby the United States Department. Thus, the group continued the process of violence and also started to seize several territories like Bama, Dam boa, and Abadan. They also extended their regional sphere in terms of occupation using violent strategies. The violence intensified when in the year 2014, 276 girls were abducted from Girl’s school in Chibok. This immediately triggered global outrage and developed an image of religious extremism and violence. This process continued over the years; one reported case articulated that a Christian girl ‘Lean Shairbu’ was kept in captivity for a prolonged period upon refusal to give up her religion. Ever since, the violence has attained an upward trajectory, as traced in the case of mass Chibok abduction and widespread attack in Cameroon in the years 2020 and 2021.

After establishing a regional foothold Boko Haram improvised new alliances especially in 2015 after the government recaptured some of its territories that pushed the militant group near Lake Chad and to the hilly areas. Consequently, Abu Bakar Shekau turned towards international alliance and pledged its allegiance to IS. This created two branches of Boko Haram called Jamat u Ahlis Liddawatiwal Jihad (JAS) headed by Abu Bakar Shekau and Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) lead by Musab Al Barnarwai. The ISWAP developed strong social, political, and strategic roots in the region. It has embedded itself socially in the hearts and minds of people by establishing their caliphate and judicial system.

The pattern of religion-based conflicts has transformed the global religious conflicts. That is often referred to as extremist terrorism based on religion. Hence the rise of Boko Haram also involved demographics that complimented their political objectives. As the state of Nigeria is an amalgamation of Christians and Muslims; and has been constructed as a distinct ethno-lingual society, historically. The Christians resided in the South of Nigeria while the Muslims were located in Northern Nigeria. The northern side suffered from poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and public health issues under the government of Goodluck Jonathan. His government was centrally weak and marginalized the Northern side. This also contributed as one of the major factors that granted an edge for the influence and legitimacy of Boko Haram. Therefore, the main reason that triggered the organization and its move was based on Islamic principles of Jihad and Tajdid. This presents new notions of religion to recruit and incorporate more people into their community. The concept of Jihad has been historically driven which reflects and justifies acts against the unjust state and its authority. It also expands the capacity for social hostilities against the non-religious entities promoting hatred and non-acceptance. This also breeds religious extremism and rigidity that further validates the use of violence on their behalf.  Hence Jihad acts as a driving force to strive against the un-Islamic state structure for Islamic religious social fabric. Moreover, this religiously derived conception of violent confrontation has always been legitimized in terms of the historic concept of war and terms of self-defense. 

As a radical and contemporary religious belief; Jihad is regarded as the manifestation of religious violence and extremist terrorism. The establishment of the caliphate and state-like institutions represents a radical Salafist view regarding the establishment of the Islamic state structure. The ISWAP acts as a pseudo-state or state with in state that has established its authority and control. The reflection of another religious proclamation ofTajdid refers to the renewal of religious norms that aims at reconstruction or reset of social structure in accordance with Islamic values. Jihad and Tajdid collaboratively serve to generate notions about the reset of the political framework as an Islamic state system. The socio-religious reconstruction is particularly divergent from the western one. As western societies are often pluralistic, while Boko Haram’s vision aims as establishing Islamic social composition. Moreover, the western setup provided constitutional provisions to women in terms of rights, freedom, education, and liberty. This completely contradicted their conceptualization of women. Hence, this also generated gender-based violence as means to protect Islamic values. This was closely witnessed during the abduction of girls from their school. Furthermore, Islamic radicalization has been pursued through different channels that have extensively contributed to narrative building amongst the population, propaganda, and the development of a religious mindset in the African region. One of the most prominent tactics used for the purpose has been achieved through the propagation of literature. The scholars started to preach about Jihad and its implications since the 15th Century. The channel continues to date where the teachers preach about these scholarly findings that further encourages the youth to turn towards radical Islamization. The degree of radicalization elevates as Boko Haram propagates the concept of exclusivism that tends to oppose other value systems and beliefs. This creates a rift the society and deteriorates the sense of co-existence. As a result, Boko Haram represents a destructive paradox that promotes religious extremism and violence through misinterpretation of Islamic principles. Pursuing the political agenda of Boko Haram under the banner of Islamic law; which is power-oriented and would help them maintain dominance politically, economically, and territorially in the African region.

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Security of nuclear materials in India

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Terrorism

The author is of the view that nuclear security is lax in India. More so, because of the 123 Agreement and sprawling  nuclear installations in several states. The thieves and scrap dealers even dare to advertise online sale of radioactive uranium. India itself has reported several incidents of nuclear thefts to the international bodies. The author wonders why India’s security lapses remain out of international focus. Views expressed are personal.  

Amid raging pandemic in the southern Indian state of Maharashtra, the anti-terrorism squad arrested  (May 6, 20210) two persons (Jagar Jayesh Pandya and Abu Tahir Afzal hussain Choudhry) for attempting to sell seven kilograms  of highly-radioactive muranium for offered price of  about Rs. 21 crore. The “gentlemen” had uncannily advertised  the proposed sale online.. As such, the authorities initially dismissed the advertisement as just another hoax. They routinely detained the “sellers-to-be” and forwarded a sample of their ware to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.  They were shocked when the centre reported that “the material was natural uranium”.  As such the squad was compelled to book the duo under India’s Atomic Energy Act, 1962 at Nagpur police station (Explained: ATS seizes 7 kg uranium worth  Rs. 21 crore from a scrap dealer…Indian Express May 7, 2021).

Not a unique incident

The event, though shocking, is  is not  one of its kind. Earlier, in 2016 also, two persons were arrested by Thane (Maharashtra) police while they were trying to sell eight to nine kilograms of depleted uranium for Rs. 24 crore.  It is surmised that sale of uranium by scrap dealers in India is common. But, such events rarely come in limelight. According to Anil Kakodar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, `Factories using uranium as a counterweight in their machines are mandated to contact the Atomic Energy agencies and return uranium to them. They however resort to short cuts and sell the entire machine with uranium in scrap’.

India media scarcely report such incidents. However, Indian government sometimes reports such incidents to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to meet disclosure requirements. According to international media reports (February 25, 2004), India reported 25 cases of “missing” or “stolen” radio-active material from its labs to the IAEA.  Fifty-two per cent of the cases were attributed to “theft” and 48% to the “missing mystery”.  India claimed to have recovered lost material in twelve of total 25 cases.  It however admitted that 13 remaining cases remained mysterious.

India’s reports such incidents to the IAEA to portray itself as a “responsible state”.  It is hard to believe that radio-active material could be stolen from nuclear labs without operators’ connivance.

Nine computers, belonging to India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation establishment at Metcalfe House, New Delhi, were stolen. India communicated 25 cases of ‘stolen or missing’ uranium to the IAEA. In different incidents, uranium in varying forms and quantities continue to be recovered from scrap dealers and others by Indian authorities. The recoveries include fifty-seven pounds of uranium in rod form, eight kilograms in granular form, two hundred grams in semi-processed form, besides twenty-five kilograms in radioactive form, stolen from the Bibi Cancer Hospital.

Too, the ‘thieves’ stole three cobalt switches, worth Rs. 1.5 million, from Tata Steel Company laboratory at Jamshedpur (Jharkhand). A shipment of beryllium (worth $24 million), was caught in Vilnius, on its way to North Korea. Taiwanese authorities had intercepted a ship carrying dual-use aluminum oxide from India to North Korea. A New Jersey-based Indian engineer Sitaram Ravi Mahidevan was indicted for having bypassed US export procedures to send blue-prints of solenoid-operated valves to North Korea.

We know that the Taiwanese authorities had intercepted a ship, carrying dual-use aluminum oxide from India to North Korea.  The oxide is an essential ingredient of rocket casings and is, as such, prohibited for export to “rogue” countries.

Pakistan bashing

Despite recurrent incidents of theft of uranium or other sensitive material from indiandian nuclear labs, the IAEA never initiated a thorough probe into lax security environment in government and private nuclear labs in india. However, the international media has a penchant for creating furore over uncorroborated nuclear lapses in Pakistan. The Time magazine article ‘Merchant of Menace’, had reported that some uranium hexafluoride cylinders were missing from the Kahuta Research Laboratories.  Pakistan’ then information minister and foreign-office spokesman had both refuted the allegation.  Masood Khan (foreign office) told reporters, `The story is a rehash of several past stories’.

Similarly,  Professor Shaun Gregory in his report ‘The Security of Nuclear Weapons’ contends that those guarding about 120 nuclear-weapon sites, mostly in northern and western parts of Pakistan, have fragmented loyalties. As such, they are an easy prey to religious extremists.

Frederick W. Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon, also draw a gloomy portrait of the situation in Pakistan. In their article, published in The New York Times, dated November 18, 2007, they predicted that extremists would take over, if rule of law collapses in Pakistan. Those sympathetic with the Taliban and al-Qaeda may convert Pakistan into a state sponsor of terrorism. They pointed to Osama bin Laden’s meeting with Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, former engineers of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission (having no bomb-making acumen).

They claimed that U.S. military experts and intelligence officials had explored strategies for securing Pakistan’s nuclear assets. One option was to isolate the country’s nuclear bunkers. Doing so would require saturating the area, surrounding the bunkers, with tens of thousands of high-powered mines, dropped from air, packed with anti-tank and anti-personnel munitions. The panacea, suggested by them, was that Pakistan’s nuclear material should be seized and stashed in some “safe” place like New Mexico.

Rebuttal

The fact is that the pilloried Pakistani engineers had no knowledge of weaponisation (“When the safest is not safe enough,” The Defence Journal -Pakistan), pages 61-63). The critics mysteriously failed to mention that Pakistan is a party to the UN Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials. The steps taken by Pakistan to protect its nuclear materials and installations conform to international standards. The National Command Authority, created on February 2, 2000, has made fail-safe arrangements to control development and deployment of strategic nuclear forces. Pakistan’s nuclear regulatory authority had taken necessary steps for safety, security, and accountability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, facilities, and materials even before 9/11 incident. These controls include functional equivalent of the two-man rule and permissive action links (PALs). The indigenously-developed PALs are bulwarks against inadvertent loss of control, or accidental use of weapons. So far, there has been no security lapse in any of Pakistan’s nuclear establishments.

Abdul Mannan, in his paper titled “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism in Pakistan: Sabotage of a Spent Fuel Cask or a Commercial Irradiation Source in Transport”, has analysed various ways in which acts of nuclear terrorism could occur in Pakistan (quoted in “Pakistan’s Nuclear Future: Worries beyond War”). He has fairly reviewed Pakistan’s vulnerability to nuclear terrorism through hypothetical case studies. He concludes that the threat of nuclear terrorism in Pakistan is a figment of imagination, rather than a real possibility.

There are millions of radioactive sources used worldwide in various applications. Only a few thousand sources, including Co-60, Cs-137, Ir-192, Sr-90, Am-241, Cf-252, Pu-238, and RA-226 are considered a security risk. The Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) has enforced a mechanism of strict measures for administrative and engineering control over radioactive sources from cradle to grave. It conducts periodic inspections and physical verifications to ensure security of the sources. The Authority has initiated a Five-Year National Nuclear-Safety-and-Security-Action Plan to establish a more robust nuclear-security regime. It has established a training centre and an emergency-coordination centre, besides deploying radiation-detection-equipment at each point of nuclear-material entry in Pakistan, supplemented by vehicle/pedestrian portal monitoring equipment where needed.

Fixed detectors have been installed at airports, besides carrying out random inspection of personnel luggage. All nuclear materials are under strict regulatory control right from import until their disposal.

Concluding remarks

Nuclear controls in India and the USA are not more stringent than Pakistan’s. It is not understood why the media does not deflect their attention to the fragile nuclear-security environment in India. It is unfortunate that the purblind critics fail to see the gnawing voids in India’s nuclear security.

The ‘research work’ by well-known scholars reflects visceral hatred against Pakistan. The findings in fresh ‘magnum opuses’ are a re-hash or amalgam of the presumptions and pretensions in earlier-published ‘studies’. It is time that the West deflected its attention to India where movements of nuclear materials, under the 123 expansion plan, are taking place between nuclear-power plants sprawling across different states.

Above all, will the international media and the IAEA look into open market uranium sales in India.

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