Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Direction of India’s Deterrent

Vipin Narang’s timely reminder, ‘Indian Nuclear Posture: Confusing Signals from DRDO’, ( on discipline as an index of institutionalization of the nuclear deterrent is welcome. He takes umbrage at the DRDO’s propensity for role expansion as evidenced by its press releases subsequent to tests that ascribe operational roles to their wares, such as ballistic missiles having a nuclear role. The task is rightly that of the NSCS. Such checks from independent strategic experts is useful to avoid criticisms that ‘experts’ advantaged with ‘insider’ knowledge tend to orchestrate information in the media and Indian strategic literature.

However, Narang unwittingly brings up some assumptions that ought to be questioned. The contention of their universality needs interrogation. The more significant one is that India’s deterrent managers are sufficiently cognizant of the implications of India’s deterrent mantra ‘minimum credible deterrence’. It is intended that there be equity of emphasis between the two. However, the tendency in this formulation, as pointed out by Rajesh Basrur, has been towards the ‘credible’.

This is self-evident from the formulation of the related tenet of India’s nuclear doctrine, as expanded upon in the CCS review of 2003: ‘Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.’ This has been reasonably interpreted by its military as being a ‘very heavy’ retaliation, as phrased by the departing Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. General ‘Paddy’ Padhmanabhan had, rather colourfully and truthfully, said during his memorable press conference, ‘the perpetrators of such an outrage will be punished so severely that their continuation in any fray will be in doubt.”

In effect, the assumption that India’s nuclear doctrine is one merely of ‘assured retaliation’ is not fully accurate. In addition, the promised retaliation is to be of ‘sufficient’ dimensions, which may not necessarily be ‘massive’, to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’. Inflicting unacceptable damage in retaliation commands a consensus in India. Its definition has not been attempted officially, but refers to hurting the enemy considerably for nuclear first use. This is in keeping with the underlying idea of deterrence by punishment.

The problem that India faces is in the interaction between its conventional and nuclear doctrines and those of the putative adversary, Pakistan. Pakistan has demonstrated a capability for tactical nuclear use by unveiling the Nasr, and insists that its deterrent is also to deter conventional attacks by India. India for its part has over the last decade moved to a proactive conventional posture, so as to under cut the impunity seemingly enjoyed by Pakistan at the sub-conventional level at which it practices proxy war. Thus, in case Pakistani nuclear threshold is triggered unintended by India’s conventional operations, India’s escalation to unacceptable levels of damage on the enemy may result in like retaliation. Such an Indian response will be perfectly credible for higher order nuclear first use by Pakistan, but much less so for lower order use such as against a tactical target with the intention of strategic communication.

Therefore, for the DRDO to be furnishing India suitable options of response for threatened lower order nuclear first use seems to be sensible. That it has not unilaterally embarked on this can be conceded since the NCA, the NSCS and the SFC have been around for the better part of the last decade. In fact, it could well be that DRDO and its press releases are being employed for tacit signaling.

Narang is right that it needs to be centralized and institutionalized. But for the moment keeping the communication exchange low profile perhaps suits India in being faithful to the idea that South Asia continues as the ‘most dangerous place on earth’. Narang rightly discerns a move towards a war-fighting posture to under-grid deterrence in India’s developing a variegated nuclear capability in Prahaar and Shaurya. In case such signals emanated from the nuclear complex then they would be liable to be read with greater alarm, not only outside but also inside the country. India’s self-effacing nuclear moves will then come under scrutiny. With the DRDO at the firing line, it can be ascribed as a case of easily remedied institutional over-extension, rather than a deliberate off the record policy movement. Narang has evidently spoiled the party.

But is the nuclear complex right in moving in the direction that Narang detects? While this is not approved of by Narang, subscribing as he does to the traditionally accepted framework of India’s deterrence, it is contended here that India needs to move away from the older formulation of unacceptable damage. It is not credible for lower order nuclear first use. In which case, there needs to be a suitable ‘tit for tat’ capability on hand. This will ensure deterrence at this level too, even while ‘unacceptable damage’ remains within the prerogative of choice.

It is another matter that even at this lower level of nuclear exchange, India does not need the variegated nuclear capability it is acquiring. Is it a case, as Narang suggests, of organizational momentum, or a case of ‘keeping up with the Jones'? Either way, Narang’s recommendation that institutionalization proceed apace is both welcome and timely.

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