Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Illogic of ‘Unacceptable Damage’

India’s official nuclear doctrine of January 2003 has rightly been critiqued for including the term ‘massive’ in its formulation: ‘Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.’ Nuclear retaliation does not need to be ‘massive’ to ensure ‘unacceptable damage.’ On this score departure from the original formulation of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) Draft Nuclear Doctrine of August 1999 was not required since it was better phrased thus: ‘any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.’ This was in keeping with the ‘fundamental purpose’ the latter envisaged for Indian nuclear weapons, it being, ‘to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any State or entity against India and its forces.’ Here the idea of punitive retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage is queried. It is argued that infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’ on an adversary would lay India open to like retaliation and on that account may not be sensible recourse on breakdown of deterrence.
It must first be visualised as to what may be the most likely manner of nuclear first use. The upper end of nuclear use involving counter-city targeting, disarming first strike and decapitation, as was the thinking in the Cold War era, can reasonably be discounted. This owes to counter-value targeting assuredly leading to a counter-value escalatory exchange. There being no guarantee that a disarming first strike would succeed retaliation by a nuclear opponent, whose capability has been whittled by the strike, would inevitably be on counter value targets. Decapitation is only possible in a ‘bolt from the blue’ attack with its attraction degraded by means as command posts, alternative command chain etc.
Lower end first use in terms of being less provocative for escalation and with a lower ‘opprobrium quotient’ makes better sense. This enables nuclear signalling, particularly that of resolve for escalation and a desire for negotiated conflict termination. It may also have operational level military utility in case of adverse equations of relative strength. In a favoured scenario in discussions, this involves nuclear targeting of a tactical target in a defensive mode on own territory against an aggressor with an intent of strategic communication of the intent to escalate in case the aggressor does not back off.
This is a possible scenario in any future Indo-Pak conflict in line with the ‘option enhancing’ strategy Pakistan may choose to follow that has the first strike option ranged on an ascending scale of opprobrium quotient. Such a lower order strike could take place in a Sino-Indian conflict too, since it is believed that China has a caveat to its NFU policy permissive of nuclear first use on its own territory. Territory it claims, particularly Arunachal Pradesh, may be included as a theatre where India cannot ignore the Chinese first use.
It makes sense therefore to query if an escalatory retaliation by India of the order of inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ is sensible to a lower order first use, which, as has been seen, is more likely. Clearly, the promise of an escalatory and seemingly disproportionate retaliation is to stay the enemy’s resort to the nuclear option. This is par for the deterrence course. But should push come to shove, does it make sense as a nuclear employment doctrine as against a nuclear deterrent doctrine?
Violence associated with any nuclear strike is quite clearly of an ‘unacceptable level.’ Therefore, it is only factual to claim that nuclear retaliation would have ‘unacceptable’ consequences. But, ‘unacceptable damage’ also has the connotation of counter-value targeting. This could include population centres, infrastructure busting and more disturbingly, even targeting resulting in release of dangerous forces, such as dams, nuclear power stations etc. Self-evidently, an enemy on receiving such retaliation would strike back in like vein. Therefore, the satisfaction of inconveniencing an enemy cannot compensate for the damage received in return. Self-deterrence in such consideration makes sense.
A disarming strike would be required alongside infliction of ‘unacceptable damage.’ There is no guarantee of success. Reliance on the enemy being shocked into conceding is to invest too much into an expectation. In case ‘unacceptable damage’ is inflicted in response to what the enemy considers a lower order strike, then the seeming disproportion would impel counter strike. This begs the question: Why ‘unacceptable damage’? That counter-value targeting may result in case of breach of nuclear taboo helps deterrence. This implies that a shift can be done in case of breakdown in deterrence. Second, it gives confidence to the military of national support. But even the military would not expect the nation to commit suicide. Constitutional and democratic India would not be able to sustain ‘unacceptable damage,’ even if Pakistan is ‘finished’ and China is set back likewise.
Deterrence needs reformulation. Nuclear weapons may not deter war or lower order use, but deter ‘unacceptable damage.’ Therefore, there is a need to keep the promise of ‘unacceptable damage’ off India’s nuclear employment doctrine, even if it figures on the deterrent doctrine.

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