IDSA WORKSHOP ON NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGY
Nuclear Doctrine and Conflict
By Ali Ahmed
India has made enviable progress since Independence in building social equality,
deepening democracy and making economic strides. These gains not only
require protection but also furthering over at least another generation and
definitely out till the time horizon of this workshop, 2020. India’s approach to
security would therefore require being mindful of the national endevour. In other
words, India’s civilisational trait of temperance and strategic culture of resolve
and restraint need to be in evidence for the duration. While crises and conflict
can be anticipated in the interim, given the security circumstance of the
neighbourhood, the national aim must not be lost sight of.
India’s military doctrines are predicated on a strategic doctrine of deterrence.
Deterrence is based on both the surety of denial and possibility of punishment.
To reinforce deterrence, an offensive orientation to its military doctrines and
expanding military potential has been in evidence of late.
conventional doctrine has a proactive and offensive orientation. Its nuclear
doctrine posits inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ in retaliation.
While threats exist
and could arise over the decade, it is unlikely that these cannot be managed by
the diplomatic and political strategy. However, wild cards as internal political
instability affecting the judgment of both neighbours need to be factored in.
Conflict outbreak, despite best intentions and however unlikely, nevertheless
needs catering for. In any case, contingency preparedness in absence of threats
is a valid recourse.
It is argued that this requires a melding of conventional and nuclear doctrines in
their interface. This implies a movement in both doctrines. The paper suggests
Ali Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
The paper is based on the author’s monograph at IDSA, Reconciling doctrines: Prerequisite for
peace in South Asia.
The menu of strategic choices ranges between appeasement, conciliation, coercion, deterrence
and compellence. According to Kautilya, the strategic prongs are ‘sam, dam, dand and bhed’.
While conventional doctrines are routinely described as ‘proactive’, the nuclear doctrine has
some offensive elements such as the NFU caveat extending nuclear deterrence to cover a major
attack by chemical and biological weapons.
Cabinet Committee on Security (2003), ‘Press Release of the Cabinet Committee on Security
on Operationalisation of India’s Nuclear Doctrine 04.01.03’
http://meadev.nic.in/news/official/20030104/official.htm. (Accessed July 02, 2008). 2
that conventional doctrine move towards an explicit Limited War formulation. The
nuclear doctrine in turn needs to genuflect towards limitation by ensuring conflict
termination at the lowest possible level nuclear use in line with the ‘Sundarji
This argument is presented in two parts: in the first part the current
doctrinal interface is dilated on. In the second part, a recommendation is made in
favour of the Sundarji doctrine of ending any nuclear exchange at the lowest
The doctrinal interface
India has two potential adversaries, Pakistan and China. Given differing power
equations and problems with each, India’s has a differentiated
orientation. With respect to Pakistan, India has been forced to emphasise its
capability for coercion, if not compellence, to, at a minimum, keep Pakistani
resort to terror and proxy war below India’s ‘level of tolerance’. Over the last
decade, the conventional doctrine against Pakistan has been popularly termed
as ‘Cold Start’.
Lessons from the Kargil War and Operation Parakram have
moved India’s strategy dating to the eighties of relying on counter offensives for
deterrence to a proactive offensive strategy.
This is to be executed by launch of
integrated battle groups up to limited depth with the strike corps released in their
wake as per the political aims set. Giving itself the capability does not imply
reflexive resort to offensives. Instead, military action short of war to deliver on
limited political aims would be preferred.
On the other hand, in face of Chinese assertiveness,
it is moving from
‘defensive defence’ to ‘active defence’,
implying greater investment in
conventional credibility. Improved infrastructure in Tibet has resulted in greater
Chinese capability for offensive. Combined with the problem of intrusions across
an unresolved border, this has heightened the threat perception. The response
has been for an improved defensive posture to include additional forces to
retrieve lost ground or, if necessary, to take the conflict across onto the Tibetan
India is well aware of the nuclear backdrop and is conscious of the fallout on the
economic trajectory of military engagement. Therefore, deterrence will continue
as the primary role for the military instrument. Deterrence can only be improved
See K. Sundarji, ‘India’s Nuclear Options’, Wellington: DSSC Trishul, V (1), 1992; and ‘Nuclear
Deterrence Doctrine for India’, Part 1 and 2, Trishul, V (1) and V (2), 1992.
Karnad terms India’s doctrines varying with respect to Pakistan and China as ‘differentiated’
Gurmeet Kanwal, ‘India’s Cold Start Doctrine and Strategic Stability’, IDSA Strategic Comments,
1 June 2010.
Praveen Swahney, ‘Punching Hard: Learning from Operation Parakram, the army sharpens its
pro-active strategy’, Force, Jan 2008
The PM used the term ‘assertive’ in relation to Chinese behavior.
Two divisions are under raising in the North East to counter the China threat perceived as
having increased with the infrastructure development in Tibet. 3
in case of preparedness for the worst-case scenario of conflict outbreak.
Doctrinal preparedness requires abiding by Limited War tenets. Limitation to
conflict would be in the mutual interest of the antagonists. Currently, India’s
doctrine in respect of Pakistan rules in offensives by strike corps. The escalatory
potentiality of this can be tempered by various means such as choice of sector of
operations etc, in accordance with Limited War doctrine. Likewise, against China,
while minimal stakes in a possible border war lend themselves to escalation
control, the problem of ‘face saving’ may constitute a significant pull in the other
direction. In other words, on both fronts, even if a war is ruled out, in the remote
case of one, there are inherent escalatory possibilities requiring a deliberate
effort at control.
This provides a two step buffer to the nuclear level – one is in war avoidance and
the second is of limitation in its conduct. The nuclear level is further insulated by
nuclear deterrence operating independently. However, being sanguine along
these lines does not help deterrence. Currently, India’s nuclear doctrine
contemplates inflicting unacceptable damage in retaliation for enemy nuclear first
use of any kind against India or its forces.
The term used in the doctrine to
underscore the intent is ‘massive’.
Even if it is not ‘massive’, the very possibility,
if not certainty, of India’s violent nuclear reaction is to deter nuclear first use.
However, utmost analytical attention, necessitated by the nuclear overhang,
requires the possibility of nuclear resort by the enemy to be factored into any
consideration of conflict. In Pakistan’s case, the oft-quoted contingency of
nuclear use in own territory, in a defensive mode and against a nondescript
target as a strategic signal for termination has found mention. Since its threshold
is not known, it cannot be taken uncritically as high and its doctrine as ‘first use
but last resort’.
In case of China, nuclear use has not been thought through in
light of both states having a ‘No first use’ policy (NFU). But to conjure up a
scenario, China could resort to nuclear use at a low escalatory level in case two
circumstances: one in case its internal political situation, that gives rise to the
conflict in first place, is permissive; and two, in case it is placed in an untenable
position due to unexpected operational success of Indian joint air and ground
Manpreet Sethi thinks destroying five to six cities would be 'unacceptable damage' in the
Pakistan context (Nuclear Strategy India's March Towards Credible Deterrence, Knowledge
World, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 251-252). Gurmeet Kanwal believes that up to 10 cities may require
to be targeted to inflict unacceptable damage on China.
Cabinet Committee on Security (2003), ‘Press Release of the Cabinet Committee on Security
on Operationalisation of India’s Nuclear Doctrine 04.01.03’
http://meadev.nic.in/news/official/20030104/official.htm. (Accessed July 02, 2008).
Rajesh Rajagopalan posits that a rational Pakistan is unlikely to use nuclear weapons other
than as a last resort. This is unlikely to happen since India would not push it that far (Second
Strike: Arguments of Nuclear War in South Asia, Penguin, New Delhi, 2005, p. 43). 4
India’s nuclear doctrine is meant for deterrence.
Massive nuclear retaliation is
explicable in cases of enemy first strike intended as a disarming strike,
decapitation strike or counter value targeting. Inflicting unacceptable damage on
the enemy in case he has caused unacceptable damage in his nuclear first use is
understandable. However, in case of higher order nuclear retaliation by India in
face of lower order nuclear first use by the enemy, as in the scenarios above, a
like response from the enemy can be expected. This could prove costly for India.
Such a reaction from India that would lead to its own pain makes the doctrine of
massive nuclear retaliation incredible. Therefore, enemy nuclear first use is not
India need not then be tied down by the nuclear deterrence
doctrine, but realistically prepare for a nuclear exchange, even if unprovoked and
Once first use has occurred, the situation is not one of deterrence but of its
breakdown. Therefore, the doctrine need not dictate India’s response. Instead,
the response could be through a separate nuclear operational or employment
doctrine. This may rule in proportionate or commensurate response, particularly
in the scenario of low level nuclear first use by the enemy. This would enable
escalation control through avoidance of strategic nuclear exchange. In other
words, the employment doctrine could be flexible.
Flexibility does not reduce
deterrence since when the capability of escalating exists, India’s exercise of
choice cannot be ruled out.
Summing up this section, it bears iteration that India’s conventional doctrine
needs to be informed by Limited War thinking. This is not explicitly so at the
moment. Even while the overarching military doctrine may continue
contemplating use of strike corps etc, a separate, supplementary, Limited War
doctrine needs articulation alongside. For its part, the nuclear doctrine for
deterrence is fair enough. It unmistakably foregrounds the potentiality of a
massive nuclear retaliation in case of nuclear first use. However, in case
deterrence breakdown, the operational doctrine need not be unduly restricted by
the declaratory doctrine. Any flexibility this builds in need not necessarily be in
the open domain. However, change towards an alternative, the ‘Sundarji
doctrine’, is recommended,
the case for which is made in the following section.
The Sundarji doctrine
‘Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine’, 1999,
http://meadev.nic.in/govt/indnucld.htm (Accessed October 10, 2008).
Ali Ahmed, ‘Pakistani Nuclear Use and Implications for India’, Strategic Analysis, 34 (4), July
Bharat Karnad favours a flexible doctrine relying on a variegated set of armament.
K. Sundarji, Vision 2100: Strategy for the Twenty First Century, Konark Publishers, New Delhi,
2003, p. 146. 5
The Sundarji doctrine posits termination of nuclear conflict at the lowest level of
This may entail offering politically acceptable terms of settlement to
bring about war termination. The doctrine’s call is for early, if not immediate,
termination, not only of nuclear exchange(s) but also of the conflict. The difficulty
of nuclear conflict termination in face of pressures for nuclear escalation is
acknowledged in this formulation. Therefore, the intent to preclude such
escalation is articulated unambiguously. This incentivizes the enemy, having a
shared interest in avoiding higher rungs of the nuclear escalatory ladder, to
acquiesce. The doctrine has two major advantages. The first is that it is in sync
with India’s national aims and with follow-on conflict aims. The second is that it is
cognizant of India’s strengths and weaknesses as a society and polity.
India’s national aim, mentioned at the outset, is to fulfill its potential. The national
interest is in conflict avoidance to the extent possible. In case of conflict
outbreak, the conflict aim would be circumscribed by the need for the least
possible deflection from India’s growth trajectory. It follows that it would be
limited, capable of being attained without inordinate economic and human costs.
Mutuality with China can be expected, since any diversion would set it back with
relation to the United States. Since India would not like a set back in relation to
China, it would restrict stakes involved in any confrontation with Pakistan. This
entails limitation both at the conventional and nuclear levels.
As seen, current doctrines at both levels do not automatically envisage limitation.
While limitation can be read in the doctrines as a subtext, it is not a given. This
could lead to inadvertent escalation in reactions and responses of the adversary.
Nuclear first use on the adversary’s part could lead to possible counter city
exchange(s). This cannot but have an adverse affect on the economy, society
and polity. The human consequences apart, economic consequences would be
on long term recovery. The gains of the last six decades and of the last two in
particular would be squandered. Even conflict termination finds India advantaged
strategically, the price may prove rather high in relation to the original stakes.
In light of India’s vulnerabilities, a nuclear exchange may prove unaffordable.
This is particularly so if a prudent view is taken of the efficacy of the ‘idea of
India’. There are known deficiencies in India’s governance structures and
processes. Given current levels of policy capacity, penetration and authority,
especially at the local level, it is unthinkable that India can cope effectively with a
nuclear attack, not only at the place of occurrence but also elsewhere in its
psychological, political and social effects. In case of disruption at the national
level, through the leadership’s indisposition due to being in the National
Command Post, or due to partial or successful decapitation, the challenge for
governance would be considerable. The targeting of the national capital could
lead to a de-centering of India over the long term. If governance is to carry on,
democratic methods may prove inadequate. Thus, even if a government regains
K. Sundarji, Vision 2100: A Strategy for the Twenty First Century, New Delhi, Konark
Publishers, 2003, p. 146. 6
control, it would be at the cost of India’s democratic character. India as it has
been created post Independence cannot survive a nuclear exchange amounting
to receiving unacceptable damage. That a nuclear adversary ceases to exist
thereby is no compensation or consolation. It follows that India should prudently
avoid inflicting unacceptable damage unless it is a prior recipient of the same.
This is an under-researched area. While the physical effects have been
these may in the long term turn out the lesser of the consequence.
Possible contours of political, social and geographical fallout are hazarded here.
The political effect would be a function of the fact that lower classes would be
more imposed upon. Their disposition towards Maoist philosophy would be much
pronounced. This would have its own backlash with the state and the upper
sections of society tending towards the Right. The vacuum could herald a
revolution and a counter-revolution. The second dimension is social disruption. In
case of conflict with Pakistan, involving nuclear weapons, the possibility of India’s
Muslim minority being victimized for guilt by association cannot be ignored. This
would make India ungovernable over the duration of bloodletting. Lastly, is the
geographical effect in terms of ethnicities opting out of the ‘Union’. Lack of
security that a nuclear exchange signifies involves a breach of social contract by
the state. The effected ethnic group, and those witnessing it, may choose to
rescind the tacit contract with a state that has not provisioned security as
stipulated. For instance, in case of a nuclear exchange even at the lowest level
with China in the east, the ethnic groups there may want out of an India-China
contest that risks their homelands. While this pessimistic view may not in the
event transpire, the risk of finding out that it is wrong is not worth running.
What does this imply for deterrence doctrine? The implication for deterrence
philosophy is that promise of infliction of unacceptable damage only deters
receipt of unacceptable damage in nuclear first use. The formulation, favoured by
India, that ‘nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons’ stands disputed by
Pakistan’s reliance of nuclear weapons to also deter conventional war.
Therefore, the risk of nuclear weapons use exists. Clearly, inflicting unacceptable
damage, if it lays India open to like attack, is unthinkable. The understanding that
India can take the necessary measures to survive, such as ballistic missile
defences, disaster management, civil defence improvement etc appears
plausible. However, given that India has pronounced deficiencies in institutional
culture, this could prove self-delusion at an inopportune time. A political view,
sensitive to India’s wider concerns, needs to be taken of institutionally-led
arguments along these lines. The commitment trap needs avoiding. Therefore,
instead of the cultivation of resolve as deterrence theorists prescribe, India would
do well to ponder the virtues of self-deterrence.
‘The Consequences of Nuclear Conflict between India and Pakistan’, Natural Resources
Defence Council, http://www.nrdc.org/nuclear/southasia.asp 7
India’s political leaders are not obliged to risk national suicide to prove that
deterrence theory - questioned by nuclear pessimists
- works. The strategist’s
approach to nuclear deterrence is distinct from that of the decision maker at the
India’s leadership in the Political Council of the Nuclear
Command Authority needs to be apprised of their democratic obligations at a
higher level than that of the strategic advice they receive from the Executive
The need not be held hostage to declaratory doctrine. They need not
be held hostage to nuclear strategists either. They need to envision their role as
political decision makers with India’s long term interests, of which survival is
primary, in mind.
The least damage to India or the idea of India would be in
case any nuclear exchange, likely to be an inadvertent escalatory act, is
terminated at the lowest level. This involves prior movement in India’s nuclear
doctrine to the Sundarji formulation.
The ‘Sundarji caveat’ – of offering the enemy politically acceptable and fair terms
for conflict termination - would also require to be operationalised.
entail having direct and uninterruptible links with the enemy even in the face of
crises and conflict. This means creation of a standing mechanism such as the
nuclear risk reduction center. This would be more than a confidence building
measure or a nuclear risk reduction mechanism. It could prove critical in
managing escalation and war termination in a conflict. Its role at other times
could be to facilitate doctrinal exchange and more ambitiously arms control and
disarmament, both conventional and nuclear. Shared interest may help in
mirroring thinking. Reconciling doctrines can be taken up in negotiations in this
What are the implications for deterrence, the non-occurrence of nuclear war?
Deterrence has been variously conceptualized.
In one, the very capability
suffices to deter. This is termed existential deterrence. A variant of this is that the
capability requires being substantial, based on a thermonuclear capability. In the
second conceptualization, deterrence requires constant working upon. It is
Robert Jervis, ‘Deterrence theory revisited’, World Politics, 31 (2), 1979, pp. 289-324.
This is the insight gained by both McNamara and McGeorge Gundy from their experience.
The organization of the Nuclear Command Authority is given in Cabinet Committee on Security
(2003), ‘Press Release of the Cabinet Committee on Security on Operationalisation of India’s
Nuclear Doctrine 04.01.03’ http://meadev.nic.in/news/official/20030104/official.htm. (Accessed
July 02, 2008).
Ali Ahmed, ‘The Political Factor in Nuclear Retaliation’, Strategic Analysis, 34 (1), January
Ali Ahmed, 'In Tribute: Recalling the Sundarji Doctrine', USI Journal, Jan-Mar, CXXXVIII (571),
2008, pp. 108-14.
Ali Ahmed, Reconciling Doctrines: Prerequisite for Peace in South Asia, IDSA Monograph, pp.
Rajesh Rajagopalan, ‘Nuclear strategy and small nuclear forces: The conceptual components’,
Strategic Analysis, 23 (7), pp. 1117 — 31. 8
predicated on surety of retaliation. A variant in this is that such retaliation
requires being considerable to deter. India’s current doctrine is inspired by the
latter. Instead, when less is enough, more is not necessarily better.
words, reversion to existential deterrence would help keep the nuclear complex
under control in both peace and war.
This problem with this is in a tendency towards deterrence ‘creep’ or a move
away from ‘minimum’ to ‘limited’ deterrence.
Even if with a growing economy
India can afford this, it would be to move away from the understanding explicated
in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine that India would not be slave to the Cold War
deterrence concepts. A conscious check of the nuclear complex is required.
During peacetime, the nuclear complex needs to be ensconced in the Indian
democratic system of checks and balances, in particular through two measures:
one is to extend the benefits of parliamentary oversight to it, and second, to
extend oversight through the Political Council, activated also for peace time
control. Doing so would help deepen it for qualitative deterrence. In wartime, this
is facilitated by the Sundarji doctrine that lends itself to protecting the ‘minimum’
in India’s nuclear deterrent. It eschews nuclear war-fighting, does not envisage a
variegated nuclear arsenal and enables a city avoidance strategy.
A critical question is: What is the national interest in case of a conflict going
nuclear? The answer is informed by India’s national aim. Though any security
circumstance is indeed substantively changed by intrusion of the nuclear
overhang into the foreground, the national aim would continue to have currency.
The primary aim would be to survive the conflict as intact as possible; which
means the less damage sustained the better. Damage inflicted on the enemy is
secondary. As seen, survival over the long term is endangered by receipt of
unacceptable damage. Democratic political responsibility lies in appreciating that
the national interest would be to ensure a termination of nuclear conflict earliest.
Termination of the war itself would be essential. This is more likely and at all
possible at the lowest level of nuclear use. The higher the levels of nuclear
exchange the less likely the possibility of nuclear war termination. The idea that
nuclear escalation control is not possible may well be right. But not attempting to
escalation control would make this inevitable. Therefore, a move towards the
Sundarji doctrine is necessary.
Words - 3117
More is not better when less is enough (Kenneth Waltz).
Rajesh Basrur, Minimum Deterrence and India's Nuclear Security, Singapore: NUS Press,
2009, p. 172.