Monday, 18 August 2014
India's forthcoming nuclear doctrine review
Aakrosh July 2014
India’s forthcoming nuclear doctrine review
A nuclear doctrine review is on the cards. The BJP having promised in its manifesto to conduct a review would likely follow through, in the least to keep up its credibility. The last review was done in 2003 when the earlier NDA government adopted the official nuclear doctrine. It is believed that the official, declaratory nuclear doctrine was largely based on the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999. While the UPA government that followed did not review – read revise - the doctrine, this does not imply that it did not keep the doctrine under review. The National Security Advisory Board, that are convened for two years, are tasked to review national security and as part of this can be expected to have engaged with nuclear questions. Their output has been kept confidential. Besides, the six monthly meetings of the Executive Council of the Nuclear Command Authority have found mention in the media. Therefore, it will only be fair to acknowledge that lack of transparency on this score does not imply inaction. It can be inferred from the fact that the declaratory doctrine has not been revised, that the UPA governments in both its tenures either did not think it necessary to revise the doctrine or that it may have revised the operational nuclear doctrine even while keeping the declaratory nuclear doctrine in place and intact.
The BJP has broached the issue owing to its projection as a nationalist and conservative party that is serious about national security. Since traditionally conservatives are taken as ‘strong’ on defence universally, that the issue figured in the BJP’s concerns is understandable. It has also been buoyed by the support of a cohort of retired brass and diplomats, some of who have been on the strategic circuit taking pot shots at the previous government. The BJP’s internal deliberations would therefore have been informed by the strategic community input. Strategic entreprenuers would also have been looking to use the issue for placing themselves in positions of utility for the government in case the BJP. There was also an upsurge of interest in nuclear questions in the fag end of the UPA tenure, most perceptibly the one on No First Use. There is also the critique of India lacking an explicit strategic doctrine. This would also have been conveyed to national security minders in the new dispensation by supporters in the strategic community. Though it has not given out its mind as yet at this early stage in its tenure, it would likely also initiate a written document. The fact that the BJP corralled reputed domain experts to present a Vision document to the people when in power is harbinger of more doctrinal activism yet to come.
This brief measure of the political, institutional and personal drivers behind the BJP’s campaign promise by no means precludes strategically weighty reasons to take a relook at nuclear doctrine. Chief among these has been the dilemma posed to India’s nuclear doctrine by the induction of the Nasr nuclear missile system by Pakistan. In any case, nuclear developments in the region comprising China, Pakistan and India have moved considerably over the decade since the last review. A review of the doctrine is also necessitated by India’s nuclear trajectory that will witness the induction of the nuclear submarine with submarine launched ballistic missile capability and a long range nuclear ballistic missile to cover all of China. Since the BJP would be at the helm in the period that these are operationalised, the developments call for an appropriate doctrine. Therefore, as the manifesto pointed out, there was reason for revisiting doctrine.
Reconsideration can well result in retention of the doctrine. It could also, as possibly done in the UPA period, lead to changes in the operational doctrine that are then kept confidential. It can also result in significant changes in the doctrine itself, particularly if it is to come up with answers for the nuclear challenge currently posed by Pakistan and possibly by China once India’s second strike capability is operational by end decade. The process itself can be expected to last into midterm of the government at the latest. Therefore, by the time the freshly minted doctrine is out it could prove quite timely. If the doctrine is synchronized with the outcome of any thinking on strategic doctrine, then reasonably strategic doctrine, in the form of a defence white paper, would require preceding nuclear doctrine. Since both would require a minimum of six months to undertake, it can only be in about a year’s time that nuclear doctrine emerges. In any case the government is at the moment only in formative stage with its key appointments not all in place yet, such as at the time of writing, that of the defence minister.
Of the process itself it can at this stage be gauged that it would unlikely be led by the National Security Adviser. Since Mr. Doval has an intelligence background with no known felicity on nuclear issues, it is possible that the government may appoint a committee with a respected denizen of the strategic community to head it. The National Security Council Secretariat could provide the support. One lesson from the 1999 experience that would inform the question of how large should this committee be is that the 1999 one comprising the first NSAB, itself full of stalwarts on nuclear issues, was rather big and consequently came up with a Draft that allowed India all manner of options. The then government distanced itself from the Draft initially, only to adopt major aspects of it, with modifications as the official nuclear doctrine in 2003. Given this evolution of the doctrine in place, aspects such as the mechanism and process for a new doctrine become relevant. There are also institutional pulls and pressures, in particular from the scientific lobby and the military, requiring a high powered committee to navigate. It is for this reason the issue of a ‘blue ribbon’ committee has figured in the discourse calling for change.
There is no shortage of personages to head the committee and form its part since eminent practitioners and thinkers, some of who may share the ideological credentials of the government, have been the mainstay of Delhi’s strategic circuit. A problem would be in the temptation for experts to ride their hobby horses. Used to criticizing the government, defending favoured strategic or political positions or determined to bring change for sake of change subjectivity in experts can build up and skew the result. Some may function as Trojan horses of affiliated institutions in the bureaucratic politics that can be expected to attend the exercise. A keen eye and strong hand of the NSA can help but a significant first step would be design of a process to ensure strategic rationality. Thereafter, would be selection of the right people to deliver. A wide interface of the mechanism tasked with the strategic community and civil society may be necessary in addition to the essential input of institutions charged with security. Involving the two, experts and society, will ensure a wholesome debate and acceptability of the product. A cautionary word needs being said on the likelihood of media manipulation by players in the field, not least of which are foreign players with vested interests such as for instance in the defence investment field that is reportedly set to open up further to foreigners. That should however not keep the final product from being placed in the open domain. This would help place India among the great powers, a shared feature of whom is a national security strategy, even if specifics are kept closed hold.
The advantage of the controversy was that it placed the nuclear issue, that otherwise tends to the background, towards the national spotlight. The commentary was also well informed with luminaries, both in India and abroad, pitching in, making for an effervescent strategic debate and informing and involving the public alongside. This sets the stage for a vigorous debate. Generation of a consensus will be unlikely given that the national debate includes those for abolishing nuclear weapons possession to those wanting a tous azimuts capability. It may also not be desirable to have a consensus for that would imply dominance of a particular idea or position, leading to short cuts in the contention of ideas that could include suppression and manipulation.
The controversy had the effect of taking doctrine down from the realm of high politics and inserting it into the public domain. If and since society is the object of security this was both useful and democratic. In a nuclear world, that security has to be society centric is even more critical in light of the genocidal nature of nuclear warfare. Therefore even if doctrine is a decision for the government to take, for the doctrine making process to take a view of the public debate would be enlightened, even if a departure from the practice of closed door doctrine making. The assumption that the public cannot know what is good for it does not wash any more. Instead, the beneficial effect of public interest is in ensuring that the doctrine caters for escalation control, de-escalation, damage limitation, exit points and saliencies and engages with the non-military and non-nuclear dimensions of the ‘all of government’ effort at nuclear conflict termination.
The usual emphasis in deterrence is on the threat of inflicting damage on the enemy and the ability to do so when needed. However, limiting damage to one’s own society is of equal significance since survival and recovery capacity is itself is threatened in the era of mutual assured destruction. The compulsions of modern democratic accountability, with India at the democratic frontline as the largest democracy, are such that the exercise of doctrine making cannot be restricted to a narrow security elite, but has to be responsive to people. This can only to an extent be mediated by having the duly elected political decision maker make the decision. It equally involves the process being sensitive to taking societal tendencies onboard at the formulation stage itself. The security processes so far have been under the belief that security is too specialized a field for having public participation, relegated therefore to backrooms full of experts. However, since the nuclear dimension involves societal survival directly and crucially, its urges and eddies in its opinion cannot be ignored any more. Therefore, the process has to be inclusive, non-partisan and in the collation stage open. The deliberations of the mechanism could thereafter be closed door and its recommendations also confidential. Following this, the final product, with due redactions, can be shared with the people in whose name security is enacted.
Incorporating this into the process will have the beneficial effect of ensuring that the operational and strategic considerations do not overshadow political considerations since the political domain supersedes the strategic. The mechanism for doctrine formulation will likely be populated by experts in nuclear strategy and their input directed at deterrence and nuclear use strategy. However, nuclear use decisions are unambiguously in the political domain on account of the nature of nuclear weapons as a distinct category. Therefore, what may appear rational at the strategic level may be subject to modification by political considerations. Keeping this distinction between the strategic and political levels in doctrine making is critical. A design and mechanism for doctrine review that starts off with this informing it will be more likely to turn out a doctrinal product that balances strategic and political considerations, while privileging the latter.
The specific issues that may come up in the review have already been aired during the controversy. The discussion in the open domain basically sets the stage for the doctrine revision to follow. Essentially, there were four points over which divergence was visible: No First Use; ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation; the place of ‘minimum’ and ‘credible’ in relation to each other; and finally on nuclear weapons and security in a situation of mutual assured destruction.
The popular verdict on No First Use is largely in favour of retention. There are three views. The challenger view is that this needs to be done away with. Firstly, in the strategic culture perspective, it is expression of an effete strategic culture that India needs going beyond. This has philosophical resonance in the political ideology of the government, in that there is a belief that India’s strategic reticence has been mistaken for weakness historically and taken advantage of by neighbours. Remedy calls for a more assertive India. Since NFU seemingly epitomizes a defensive and reactive mindset, vide this logic it needs being overturned. Also in this perspective, India’s political elite is timid. Therefore, in case of nuclear attack, it may well throw in the towel under foreign pressure and under operation of self-deterrence. It therefore may not be sensible to await a nuclear attack before response. Secondly, in a strategic perspective India does not have the capability of appropriate response in face of nuclear attack. Its recovery capability is also suspect. It may well go first, particularly for preemption.
The contrary view is that NFU has served India well for many reasons. It is in keeping with India’s strategic culture of prudence. It recognizes the political reality, in that India’s ruling elite has been attuned to its developmental trajectory and therefore would not like to see a back slide by initiating a nuclear war. Mr. Modi in dampening the nuclear controversy had said as much indicating that the policy of moderation followed by his predecessor, Mr. Vajpayee, would be his line as well. India would not like to pay the political and moral cost of breaking the nuclear taboo that has developed since nuclear weapons were last used. It would not have the political capital to explain away such resort. Allowing the enemy to choose first use may enable retention of the high ground and would help post war political and legal maneuvers. In the strategic perspective NFU is required to keep nuclear fingers steady, lest in the fog of war misperception of India going first with nuclear weapons may trigger nuclear first use by the enemy. An avoidable competition in preemption could develop. India has conventional advantages that it first seeks to exploit. Unlike other states that need nuclear weapons to help balance an adversary, India does not need this even on the China front. It is currently evening the balance there with an additional deployment of two divisions in a defensive role and a mountain strike corps. Since India can achieve its objectives of territorial defence and if necessary limited offensive by conventional means, there is no need for it to go first with nuclear weapons. Finally, on the argument of preemption, the nuclear moves made by the enemy for deterrence purposes are liable to be mistaken as nuclear readiness for strike. This may push India into first use where it need not have opening up its military and society to unnecessary nuclear strike and counter strikes. Given this reasoning the motion in favour of NFU appears to have carried the day for the moment.
The second area of divergence in opinion is more significant. The votaries of India’s current doctrine of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation are firm that it does not merit dilution. In strategic cultural terms, it projects India’s resolve serving deterrence, especially where Indian resolve has consistently been mistaken by its adversaries. It may also be internally directed in that in case ‘massive’ is promised to be delivered then even a weak kneed political leadership will at least resort to a proportionate attack. This caters for any infirmities in strategic culture. The institutional reason for keeping course has been referred to in a rather tongue in cheek fashion. Since the alternative of proporationate response or contemplation of limited nuclear operations involves operationalisation that would bring the military into the loop, the prospect of losing proprietary control over the crown jewels does not enthuse them. They couch their argument in civil-military terms, but the more likely origin is in institutional interest in which the status quo favours the scientific lobby and bureaucrats, specifically foreign service officers involved in disarmament matters, as against the military that has only lately come on board. The strategy programs staff that includes military officers and the presence of two three-star general officers in the NSCS, one as military adviser and the other who has headed the Strategic Forces Command earlier, are harbingers of operationalization necessary not only for credibility of the deterrent but also of response in case of its breakdown.
Strategically, to them the doctrine is one for deterrence. Their argument is that inevitable escalation takes place in nuclear war and notions of a ‘graduated nuclear ladder’ are just that, notions. The surety of absolute harm deters better than other options of deterrence such as proportionate deterrence. Aware that it would escape unacceptable harm, Pakistan in particular could well use nuclear weapons. When it is absolved of this notion through Indian acquisition of capability and display of will, then it would be suitably be mellowed. This will allow India’s conventional might fuller play since it would tend to heighten Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. As far as China is concerned, the threat of ‘massive’ retaliation signifies intent to hit it where it hurts, on the eastern seaboard. This will keep India’s heartland that China is able to access more easily due to proximity from Tibet more secure. Since even a limited nuclear war would in this case amount to total war for India, India would require redressing the imbalance in damage received by going ‘massive’.
The key argument of votaries of ‘massive’ with those challenging them is on whether ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation deters lower order nuclear first use. The second argument against ‘massive’ is over the quantum of ‘massive’: what does ‘massive’ mean and its consequences. The first argument has been prompted by Pakistan’s introduction of the Nasr missile system suggesting lower order nuclear in a low threshold, early first use mode. This implies that the deterrence sought by the declaratory nuclear doctrine is not quite working. Lack of credibility can be remedied by moving away from ‘massive’ to ‘flexible’ or ‘proportionate’. Pakistan, perhaps finding ‘massive’ incredible, may consider balancing India’s conventional limited war strategy guided by precepts of the so-called ‘cold start’ doctrine. In case India responds massively, under the circumstance of the nuclear lead in numbers that Pakistan maintains, it would be in a position to counter strike equally potently. This may not only place India’s military objectives out of reach, but also place India in harm’s way. Prevention of such exposure can only be in case India takes out Pakistan’s retaliatory capability in the retaliatory strike. This is not possible given the numbers and their likely dispersal and concealment. Attempting to take out the retaliatory capability of over 100 nuclear weapons spread over ten locations may spell nuclear doomsday environmentally, certainly for the region, and as studies on wider climatic effects of regional nuclear war point out for the globe. Therefore, India cannot execute a ‘massive’ strike for two reasons: one is that it would receive a massive counter strike right back in case Pakistan’s retaliatory capability is left intact; and, two, in case it tries to take out the retaliatory capability, firstly, it will not succeed and, secondly, it would bring environmental disaster. Given the latter, the international community will not permit India to retaliate in this manner. Therefore, since a lower order retaliation is the only possible answer to lower order first use, India would require moving beyond ‘massive’ to ‘flexible’, if not ‘proportionate’. Whereas ‘massive’ appears incredible, at least to Pakistan, ‘flexible’ may deter better since India would have the answers for Pakistani nuclear first use at every level, whether lower order or higher order introduction by Pakistan of nuclear weapons into a conflict.
The third aspect of review is the inter-se relationship between ‘credible’ and ‘minimum’. Minimum has been India’s longstanding position and has been threatened by the emphasis on ‘credible’. Credibility is taken to require both numbers and variegation of arsenal to confer second strike capability. A former deputy national security adviser writing for the IDSA websites advocates aiming for numbers in the middle three digits! This would place India as the third largest nuclear power in the world, ahead of both its rivals, Pakistan and China. It would spark off an arms race that the two together would likely outpace India, besides putting both geopolitically onto one side unambiguously. While the mid-three digits may be extreme, the trends in India’s nuclear developments suggest a move towards eclipse of ‘minimum’. The missile shield coupled with variegation of missile systems to include MIRVs and developments in accuracy and satellite based surveillance capability are suggestive of first strike capability, even if NFU is in place. In case NFU is disturbed, then the first strike option gets ruled in. In any case NFU is a pledge that can be rescinded any time. Since a ‘massive’ attack would be required to keep Pakistan from retaliating effectively, a first strike, defined here as the attempt to take out the enemy’s retaliatory capability, could be attempted. In war conditions, where misperceptions can be formed by even defensive and deterrence related moves of the enemy’s nuclear deterrent, this would make for very nervous nuclear fingers on both sides. Clearly, then a review is called for not only on the eventual size of the deterrent, but also it’s the manner it appears to be shagging up. This will ensure that technological determinism does not overtake strategic prudence and political oversight.
A relatively minor aspect on the credibility issue is the perceived need to go for another round of testing for the thermonuclear device that is reported to have turned out a ‘dud’ in the Pokhran tests. By now it is possible that cold tests have enabled creation of a thermonuclear deterrent that does not require India to buck the emerging global norm against nuclear tests and India’s unilateral nuclear test moratorium. The review could ascertain the place of the thermonuclear bomb in India’s arsenal. It must ensure against the necessity of tests and if that is not possible then decide on whether it is essential to deterrence. There is a view that with MIRV capability, increased accuracy and ranges of missiles and numbers of missiles and warheads, city busters may not be necessary to deter. In any case they would not be usable since Indian cities will be likewise exposed, particularly to Chinese strikes. Acquisition of these also cannot be placed beyond Pakistani ingenuity in light of their playing catch up at Chagai despite the push in India’s technological community for Pokhran II in order to call Pakistan’s ‘bluff’.
The final issue discussed here is on expectations of nuclear weapons. This can best be done by situating the capability in wider grand strategy. The government that will take a final call on the nature of the doctrine will have to evaluate the product of the mechanism it deputes to reformulate doctrine in light of its professed objective of development. Development cannot envisage a decisive backslide that a nuclear war will bring. Therefore a doctrine must not only cater for deterrence, but also be reassuring for prospective foes in that it must not project a threat that can then prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. For instance, a critique of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation is that it exposes India to enemy first use more likely in the form of a first strike, or an attempt to reduce India’s retaliatory capability maximally. Even if India has a survivable second strike capability, there is little reason to run the risk, particularly one brought on by an ill-considered doctrine. This argument led to calls for a reversion to the formulation of the Draft that called for infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’ with ‘sufficient’ force and did not use the term ‘massive’. The surety of ‘unacceptable damage’ deters even as it does not provoke. However, there are other doctrinal options, not least of which is that of General Sundarji. He called for ensuring conflict termination in case of a nuclear conflict at the lowest threshold possible, if necessary by the use of political outreach and diplomatic engagement to include concessions short of the national bottomline. This option is sensitive to the mention earlier that doctrine must be democracy friendly. Society is not interested in being secured by the threat of being exposed to threat of being bombed to extinction. This Cold War spillover into the region and the current era is eminently avoidable. The flippant statement that while Pakistan would be finished, while India will survive may have been true a decade or so ago. Pakistan’s second strike capability is patent and that of China only more so. This argument rules in the Sundarji doctrine. It only remains to make it workable.
The counter would be that it is inconceivable to think about diplomatically engaging the opponent in a nuclear war. However, it bear consideration that though counter intuitive it would be most necessary to do so lest inexorable escalation, that votaries of ‘massive’ retaliation refer to, take place. Escalation control and de-escalation are in the interest of both states in nuclear exchange(s). They can therefore be expected to cooperate and the international community would enable the same. This is not going to come about of its own. Recognising that this is possible and making prior contingency arrangements may be in order. This could be in the form of a Nuclear Risk Reduction Center. While precedence exists of the one in the Cold War, it came about when the Cold War was about to end. There is little reason for regional initiatives to wait till the détente here. Hot War might well intervene, irrespective of the periodic upturns in relations such as the bonhomie between India and its neighbours being experienced in the initial period of the new government’s tenure. A doctrine that reassures such as does the Sundarji doctrine and one that enables taking nuclear CBMs to the next higher level of must on this score carry the day.
The nuclear doctrine review in the offing is an opportunity for a relook at whether nuclear weapons and the trajectory of their development are leading to a more secure India. A dispassionate answer would be that this is not so not only because of what neighbours are doing but also because of India’s own nuclear developments not being served by a reckonable doctrine. India has to domesticate the nuclear establishment and the means to do so is to draw up a doctrine that is nothing but a blueprint for their action. The doctrine has to be situated in the overall national grand strategy and policy context. Clearly, while the government, that is the decision maker, will have its ideological preferences influence its imprint on doctrine, it must keep accountability to fore by ensuring that doctrine is compliant with the developmentalist plank on which the government was elected. Specifically, the ideological preference of demonstrating a ‘strong’ India must not skew doctrine into an aggressive direction ill-suited for India’s security. For doctrine to come out right, the design of the process and the mechanism for formulating it would require being sensibly arrived at. The government may like to anchor the doctrine in the strategic doctrine and therefore may sequence the two. Since its early diplomatic initiatives have bought it time, it can use this to good effect. It would require warding off its supporters in the strategic community who may be more interested in advancing respective pet theories and projects and self-interest and proving a point in regard to the previous administration, rather than India’s longer term interest at heart. The government must on receipt of the product ensure that it is political factors are not over shadowed by strategic level considerations. Only then would India have used an opportunity well. Else, retrospect will only be in a nuclear winter.