writings of ali ahmed, PhD (JNU), PhD (Cantab), with due acknowledgement and thanks to publications where these have appeared. Download books/papers from dropbox links provided. Twitter: @aliahd66
Also see blog-www.subcontinentalmusings.blogspot.in. Former UN official, academic and infantryman. Author India's Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). All views are personal.
A central tenet of India’s nuclear doctrine is No First Use. India’s is therefore a doctrine of ‘assured retaliation’. The popular understanding of India’s nuclear doctrine is that the promised ‘assured retaliation’ would be a punitive response of ‘massive’ proportions. This article attempts to query this understanding by a rereading of India’s nuclear doctrine. It is hazarded that this understanding is at variance with the relevant clause in India’s nuclear doctrine as explicated in the press release on its official adoption by the Cabinet Committee on Security on 04 Jan ’03. It bears mentioning that the press release mentioned carried India’s nuclear doctrine.
This is to distinguish the doctrine from the earlier Draft Nuclear Doctrine of August 1999 that had been prepared by the first National Security Advisory Board. While the Draft recommended adoption of a punitive nuclear retaliation as doctrine, it did not use the term ‘massive’ but settled for the term ‘sufficient’ instead. It is posited here that in keeping with the Draft, the nuclear doctrine as explicated in the press release potentially rules in ‘flexible response’, as against the popular interpretation that it is one of ‘massive’ punitive retaliation.
This understanding of the nuclear doctrine has not been reflected in strategic literature and on this count requires highlighting. This article is an attempt at initiating the same. It argues that the correct interpretation of the doctrine is that it is one of ‘flexible response’ and seeks to show that this is in the Indian national and military interest in the India–Pakistan context.
Presently, Pakistan has admitted to four thresholds ““ territorial; attrition in military and strategic assets; economic strangulation; and, lastly, externally induced internal instability. In a conflict scenario, all these thresholds would simultaneously be subjected to pressure to different degrees from Indian military action.
This paper dwells in detail on whether the doctrine entails retaliation in the form of ‘assured destruction’ or of ‘graduated deterrence’, alighting on the latter is the accurate interpretation of India’s nuclear doctrine. The fact that it is widely believed to be one of ‘massive’ punitive retaliation is indicative of the lack of debate in the strategic community on the nature of the doctrine. In case the article makes a persuasive case, there is a need for clarification by the government.
This should then be made available as public information and also made known to the adversary as part of ‘communication’ so essential to deterrence. At present, the lack of clarity revealed in this paper, could lead to confusion and dissonance in the mind not only of the adversary, which is bad enough, but also Indian security and military planners, which is unthinkable. Therefore a revisit to India’s nuclear doctrine is considered essential.
This paper argues that there has been a shift in our nuclear doctrine to potentially countenance ‘graduated deterrence’. It is contended that this is in consonance with our land warfare doctrine for Limited War, dubbed Cold Start. It is also in keeping with India’s wider nuclear use philosophy that nuclear weapons are political weapons for deterrence alone. The case is presented by first bringing out that the popular version of India’s nuclear doctrine is inaccurate. It then presents the ‘correct’ picture of the doctrine and thereafter establishes that the latter is in consonance with India’s defence policy.
Pakistan has not articulated its doctrine, but in not having acceded to No First Use, it has reserved the option of ‘first use’. In emulating the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, it claims to require nuclear weapons to also redress conventional asymmetry, seen as in India’s favour. Unlike the NATO, however it has not ‘coupled’ its nuclear weapons to its conventional doctrine. It has been assessed that it has a reasonably high nuclear threshold that has even been characterized as ‘first use, last resort’. Rhetoric apart, it is not as if Pakistan would resort to nuclear weapons on India’s crossing of the border or Line of Control.
This has prompted Limited War thinking in India in which the gap between the sub-conventional warfare and the nuclear threshold is taken as permissive of conventional operations with limited intent, as envisaged in its new Cold Start doctrine. The concept is sustainable in case Pakistan does indeed have a high nuclear threshold. There are dangers of triggering a low nuclear threshold in case of Pakistan having a low nuclear threshold. Since the Pakistani threshold is indeterminate, it cannot be assured that Indian conventional thrusts into Pakistan are not risking nuclear dangers. Operational planners can be expected to take the precautions necessary in choice of terrain objectives and attrition priorities. Therefore these dangers can be considerably alleviated.
The problem however is in the conflict environment impacting Pakistani nuclear decision making. Presently, Pakistan has admitted to four thresholds – territorial; attrition in military and strategic assets; economic strangulation; and, lastly, externally induced internal instability. In a conflict scenario, all these thresholds would simultaneously be subjected to pressure to different degrees from Indian military action. In the land dimension, Cold Start doctrine would have ensured capture of a broad swathe of territory. Since developed terrain is encountered in the Pakistani heartland of Punjab even at limited depth, such penetration would have a greater psychological impact. In attempting to engage Pakistani strategic reserves at greater depth, the military attrition threshold of Pakistan may be breached.
In an air war, the Air Force would likely follow the pattern of recent air operations elsewhere in the two Gulf Wars and in Operation Enduring Freedom. It would execute operations in keeping with its self-image as the service of strategic decision. It would address enemy centers of gravity, comprising civil and military infrastructure and military assets. Strategic assets, such as Pakistani nuclear capability, may be avoided. This could be under the extant agreement under which annual exchange of lists of nuclear facilities is exchanged. It could also be, in keeping with limited war aims, not to trigger Pakistani anxiety over the survivability of its nuclear capability.
“˜First use here is taken as introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict situation. This is not to be confused with “˜first strike, which technically means an attempt to take out the enemys retaliatory capability.
The Navy has in the Kargil conflict and in the 2002 crisis demonstrated its flexibility by shifting the center of gravity of its fleet to the western sea board, thus giving itself the capability of interdicting Pakistani sea borne commerce. This would impact the economic threshold, besides creating panic in Pakistan’s commercial hub, Karachi.
Even if the intelligence agencies refrain from fueling internal unrest in areas as Baluchistan, internal stability threshold would be impacted by a right wing upsurge; by the actions of levee en masse in developed terrain encountered by Indian Cold Start forces; by the reaction these civil militias would receive from an inconvenienced Indian military; and, lastly, by the design of irregular and asymmetric warfare that Pakistan would, no doubt, engineer in occupied areas as a lesson learnt from Iraq.
Thus all four thresholds will be impacted to a degree. The extent of the impact would not be so much as to breach any of these individually, but cumulatively the impact could be an in-conflict lowering of the nuclear threshold. The psychological impact of the broad front war – one liable to be lost – on a decision maker has to be taken into account. Even if the conflict were to start with India set on terminating it before the threshold is breached, an intelligence watch would require to be maintained on the possibility of in-conflict lowering. What are the possible reasons that could prompt Pakistani nuclear first use?
First, ‘first use’ should be taken as having been ruled in by Pakistan; since, simply put, it has not been ruled out by that state. Second, its nuclear capability is deemed essential by it to redress conventional asymmetry. The capability was acquired for this purpose in the first place. If the asymmetry is proved to be of telling proportion in the dynamics of an ongoing conflict, then the capability would be leveraged. At first would be rhetoric and nuclear signaling; failing which a nuclear strike cannot be ruled out. Third, Indian aims, even if limited at the outset and studiously maintained as such, would likely include a suitable degradation of Pakistani military capability.
“First use” is ruled out here as the least likely option. The least likely manner of “˜first use would be through “˜first strike, for the simple reason that it does not have “˜first strike capability.
The aim would be such attrition as to render the Pakistani Army impotent post-conflict, not so much with respect to the Indian military, but within Pakistani polity. This would enable an Indian exit strategy and help address concerns that prompted the conflict in the first place. Knowing that it would be finished as a corporate entity were this to occur, the Pakistani military may countenance retrieving the situation through running the extreme risk of escalation.
How then could Pakistan use its nuclear capability? Nuclear signaling would continue right through the conflict beginning in with the preceding crisis period. The nuclear context would thus already be set by the time the capability is exercised. “First use” is ruled out here as the least likely option. The least likely manner of ‘first use’ would be through ‘first strike’, for the simple reason that it does not have ‘first strike capability’.
‘First use’ here is taken as introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict situation. This is not to be confused with ‘first strike’, which technically means an attempt to take out the enemy’s retaliatory capability. Next is a counter value ‘assured destruction’ equivalent salvo against Indian population centers. This would leave its own cities exposed to like response in case India’s retaliatory capability is not degraded. Since Pakistan does not have enough numbers to do both, it stands to be destroyed as a state and society. The third option is a ‘decapitating strike’ attempting to take out the Indian leadership.This has limited possibility of success considering that the strike would be well into the conflict by which time the Political and Executive Council of the Nuclear Command Authority and the alternative chain of command would already be ensconced in the Nuclear Command Post and Alternate Command Post respectively. Such a strike has the greatest chance of success only as a ‘bolt from the blue’ attack at the outset of a war and in the crisis period itself. Such a possibility is remote considering that unrestrained retaliation would inevitably result once Indian command and control resources mobilize to cope with a leaderless situation. In any case, India has now acquired a more proactive strategic doctrine and contemplates being first off the block in any future conflict.
What then are the feasible options in a possible conflict scenario? These in descending order of likelihood are: limited counter value targeting; limited targeting of a mix of counter value and counter force; counter force targeting; operational level usage against Indian forces in Indian territory; tactical usage against Indian forces in Pakistani territory; and lastly nuclear use without any explicit military purpose but solely as a measure of nuclear signaling. The likelihood of limited nuclear attacks is lesser owing to the escalatory risk and the certainty of and vulnerability to retaliation. Given the imbalance in numbers, India’s retaliatory capability can never be degraded enough to levels at which Pakistan could escape ‘unacceptable damage’ in punitive response.
The expectation is that Indias nuclear doctrine of “˜assured retaliation with “˜assured destruction levels of punitive response would stay Pakistans nuclear hand.
Therefore, all that Pakistan has left as options are use against military targets at tactical and operational levels and demonstrative nuclear use. Demonstrative explosions are not quite attacks but would have a major strategic impact in terms of focusing conflict termination efforts, particularly of the international community. They, however, cannot be termed nuclear ‘first use’ since these would not be targeting Indian forces or territory. Operational level targets on Indian territory, such as airfields and concentrations of follow on forces, would have greater escalatory potential than tactical targeting on own territory in a defensive mode. Therefore, the latter is the most likely form of nuclear ‘first use’.
Would Pakistan be deterred from nuclear ‘first use’ in this manner? The expectation is that India’s nuclear doctrine of ‘assured retaliation’ with ‘assured destruction’ levels of punitive response would stay Pakistan’s nuclear hand. Popularly, the doctrine is deemed to be one of punitive retaliation in ‘massive’ quantum to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’ to the adversary. In assuring this, India has acquired second strike capability with respect to Pakistan. This article questions the extant wisdom in querying, firstly, whether this would stay Pakistan’s nuclear hand; and, secondly, whether this is indeed the correct interpretation of India’s nuclear doctrine.
India’s Nuclear Doctrine Reconsidered
India’s nuclear doctrine, as explicated in Sub Para 2 (iii) of the press release of the Cabinet Committee on Security of 4 Jan 2003 states: “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”1 This means that the ‘assured retaliation’ promised by India would only be of ‘assured destruction’ levels in case of first strike by the enemy. As assessed above, this is the least likely manner of ‘first use’ since Pakistan does not have ‘first strike capability’.
That India has apparently given itself scope for nuclear retaliation that is not restricted to “˜assured destruction, it would be able to respond to such an outrage in a more rational, balanced and commensurate manner. Presently, the expectation of retaliation of a “˜massive order has certain drawbacks.
Since India’s succinctly phrased doctrine does mention how it would respond to nuclear ‘first use’ by an adversary in case of ‘first use’ not amounting to ‘first strike’, it can be interpreted that other options of response have not been ruled out. In not being ruled out, these can be expected to be ruled in by Pakistani planners. Therefore, given that the doctrine lends itself to such interpretation, there is a possibility of Pakistan not being deterred from ‘first use’ in the most likely manner discussed – that of tactical use in a defensive mode.
That India has apparently given itself scope for nuclear retaliation that is not restricted to ‘assured destruction’, it would be able to respond to such an outrage in a more rational, balanced and commensurate manner. Presently, the expectation of retaliation of a ‘massive’ order has certain drawbacks. These are that it would not be commensurate; would be disproportionate and indiscriminate; and would be escalatory in exposing Indian population centers to Pakistani counter value targeting in vengeance attacks. Therefore, in case of a ‘flexible’ punitive retaliation,2 India could think through its response to include going ‘massive’ if she so chooses.
It could thus be able to respond keeping two overriding principles in mind. One is that it would be a democratic government’s responsibility not to wantonly increase the nuclear threat faced by its citizens. Second is that keeping the escalation risk at the lowest manageable level makes sense if Limited War was what was intended at the outset of the conflict. That it has acquired nuclear dimensions should not imply default abandonment of initial aims.
Three recommendations emerge. One is that limitation should not be abandoned in case of a war, originally begun as a Limited War, turning nuclear. Second, is that greater clarity needs to attend India’s nuclear doctrine. Is it one of ‘assured destruction’ or can it also be interpreted, as done here, as one countenancing ‘flexible’ punitive response? Lastly, moving to the latter doctrine explicitly is recommended.
‘Flexible’ punitive retaliation is the recommended doctrine for the reason that in a conflict situation the decision maker should have options of response. In case a doctrine were to tie down the decision maker to a counter value response – which is how the euphemism ‘unacceptable damage’ is usually interpreted – then the decision maker would lose flexibility. It would render vulnerable Indian cities to like retaliation. In case India were to degrade also the adversary’s nuclear capability through an overwhelming counter force attack, the response with the few weapons then available with Pakistan would most likely be counter value. To avoid such escalation, flexibility in response options should be worked into the doctrine from before itself.
The only impact would be on Indias stated policy that nuclear weapons are political weapons, not meant for military use. While this is Indias considered position, potential adversaries see nuclear weapons differently. Pakistan has reserved for itself the possibility of “˜first use.
This does not decrease deterrence since Pakistan would be assured of receiving a counter strike most likely of greater severity. India’s escalation dominance at both conventional and nuclear levels would help avert further escalation. In any case, in ‘flexible response’ the option of responding massively is in any case with the political decision maker. The arguments for ‘graduated deterrence’ that were witnessed in the Cold War setting in the Sixties may be considered.3 The chief argument then was that the decision maker should not be restricted to ‘massive retaliation’ as the only response option, since it may result in self-deterrence. This stands good in the Indian case too.
The only impact would be on India’s stated policy that nuclear weapons are political weapons, not meant for military use. While this is India’s considered position, potential adversaries see nuclear weapons differently. Pakistan has reserved for itself the possibility of ‘first use’. Therefore, in the eventuality of Pakistan exercising the option, India would be forced to respond militarily. This would have to be a befitting response that considers Pakistani compulsions, the strategic context, operational situation and international opinion. This means politico–military consideration of nuclear use cannot exclude military utility of nuclear weapons.
In any case, the manner of administering sufficient punishment in retaliation would require thinking through of target sets. This is a military exercise for which the Strategic Forces Command has been raised and tasked. Military usage is inherent and practicability of nuclear use contributes to deterrence. While India’s position is unexceptionable that nuclear weapons are for deterrence, on deterrence breaking down through enemy nuclear ‘first use’, they are available for military use. Therefore, the understanding that nuclear weapons are ‘political weapons’ should not be taken too far as to impact doctrinal thinking.
Such ‘thinking through’ of nuclear dangers and appropriate response sets requires to be done prior to being faced with the fait accompli. India’s nuclear doctrine is permissive of two interpretations.4 Clarity is required since ‘transparency’ and ‘communication’ are attributes of credible deterrence.
A ‘flexible’ punitive retaliatory doctrine is recommended. This is feasible in light of nuclear developments since the doctrine was promulgated over half a decade ago. Secondly, it is in keeping with India’s Limited War doctrine.
The conventional doctrine may trigger the nuclear threshold in a lower order enemy nuclear use. This may require India to respond commensurately and thereby maintain and achieve its limited war aims. Lastly, assessment of ecological fallout of a ‘massive’ strike has not been done.
It can be estimated to be of critical consequence for India, given the proximity with Pakistan. Therefore, there is a need to think in terms of Limited Nuclear War in case one is thrust on India.
Press release on India ’s nuclear doctrine is available at: http://meaindia.nic.in/pressrelease/2003/01/04pr01.htm
Not to be confused with the NATO doctrine of ‘flexible response’.
Freedman, L., The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy; London, Macmillan, 1981, p. 112.
Ahmed, A., ‘The need for clarity in India ’s nuclear doctrine’, available at: http://www.idsa.in/publications/stratcomments/AliAhmed111108 .htm