Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Illogic of ‘Massive’ Punitive Retaliation

The latest CRS Report for the US Congress, ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues’, estimates that there are plans to increase Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal beyond its estimated current holding of 60 weapons, in the near future. What are its implications for India’s nuclear deterrent capability?

Expansion in the Pakistani arsenal could have two motives. One could be to gain a second strike capability with respect to India, thereby contributing to deterrence stability. Second could be to acquire a first strike capability, defined as sufficient weapons, to degrade India’s nuclear retaliatory capability, substantially. It is perhaps the latter interpretation of Pakistan’s nuclear expansion that prompted India’s Army Chief to comment, “Even if Pakistan is looking at deterrence, they require a minimum amount. But when you keep increasing it, it is a matter of concern….” For Pakistan to attempt to acquire a first strike capability would worry New Delhi only in case India’s arsenal was small.

It has been estimated in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that India has 70 warheads. If this is enough to survive a Pakistani first strike has perhaps prompted Indian concerns. A Pakistani ‘first strike’ would require destroying at least 50 Indian weapons. For this it would require over 100 weapons. Since India’s arsenal is not going to be static in the interim, a first strike capability for Pakistan is ruled out. In case Pakistan is only assuring itself a second strike capability, what are the implications for India’s doctrine of ‘massive’ punitive retaliation?

In case India responds to Pakistani first use with ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation, it exposes itself to a similar counter strike. In case Pakistan’s arsenal is taken at the higher estimated figure of 90 weapons, India would require destroying up to 70 weapons to preserve itself from a counter strike of similar ‘massive’ proportions. This implies expending about double the number of weapons in the attacks. Adding for reserves and a second strike capability with respect to China, the numbers India requires move beyond 300. Since India has abjured arms racing, it requires rethinking its doctrine of ‘massive’ punitive retaliation.

‘Massive’ retaliation implies inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’. Since this has not been defined by India, it can be along three dimensions – counter value, counter force and mixed. Going in for the last without degrading the enemy’s retaliatory capability would open up India to unthinkable retaliation. This is the problem with the estimate that India requires busting 10 Pakistani cities for deterrence. In case its nuclear retaliatory capability is degraded through counter force strike, as has been estimated above, India requires jettisoning ‘minimum’ in its doctrine of ‘credible minimum deterrence’. The implication of mixed targeting is the same as that of counter force targeting.

Unless the adversary is deprived of his means of nuclear retaliation, it would be imprudent to go in for a ‘massive’ strike against it. This can never be guaranteed since the location of dispersed, hardened and camouflaged weapons can never be known with any degree of certainty. Even achieving 90 per cent levels of degradation is not good enough since the surviving weapons are liable to be used in a counter value mode as vengeance; even a defeated enemy can launch limited and sporadic attacks. Achieving such levels of degradation is possible against minimal nuclear arsenals. In expanding its arsenal, Pakistan is no longer in that category.

With respect to China, ‘massive’ punitive retaliation makes even less sense since China certainly would have enough nuclear warheads left over from any nuclear exchanges with India to prevail. Even if China’s seaboard is devastated, India would be grievously hurt. Therefore, there is no reason to provoke a Chinese ‘massive’ response by unnecessarily going ‘massive’ in the first place, even if in response to Chinese nuclear first-use. No-first use pledges notwithstanding, going ‘massive’ would be suicidal. Therefore, ‘massive’ punitive retaliation requires a rethink.

It has been averred that the nuclear doctrine is only for deterrence. Once deterrence has broken down, India has the option of departing from the doctrine meant for deterrence in favour of one meant for war-fighting. This implies that India requires a distinct nuclear war-fighting doctrine. The idea would also face the criticism that there cannot be two doctrines, one for deterrence and another for war-fighting. It is perhaps due to this that little thinking has been done on these issues

The argument here is that ‘massive’ punitive retaliation as doctrine is incredible on two counts. One is that it is untenable against lower order nuclear first use by the enemy, which is the more likely manner of nuclear use. Second, it lays India open to like retaliation since the enemy’s nuclear retaliatory capability cannot be degraded sufficiently. Attempting to do so would be to engage in an arms race as witnessed in the Cold War. Therefore, there is reason to shift to a war-fighting nuclear doctrine. Efficacy of deterrence would remain in Assured Retaliation; only Assured Deterrence needs to be jettisoned.

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