Tupolevs and the place of nukes in India’s grand strategy
Note: The news is unconfirmed, with one informant saying that the former Air Chief was misquoted. Even so, the analysis stands.
In its typical style, India’s regime pulled a rabbit from its nuclear hat. It’s reportedly going in for six Tupolev strategic bombers. The unveiling was in a curious manner, a former Air Chief going public with the news at a conference. But as is its habit, there was no preceding discussion on the move. Even India’s leading nuclear hawk, Bharat Karnad, who has long advocated such moves, was also pleasantly surprised at the conference.
It seems India’s Strategic Planning Staff of (SPS) is in full gear. But the SPS can only propose and presumably does so with a strategic rationale. Acceptance of an SPS proposal at the political level can only genuflect to strategy. It is informed by political parameters that, in India’s case, do not all necessarily have external, geopolitical stimuli. The impulse behind the decision therefore cannot be sought in looking at power equations and how the next war might play out, as is the wont of strategists. Instead, in India’s case, it must be seen against the principle political project of the regime: the consolidation of Hindutva.
India’s grand strategy
India’s grand strategy has so far eluded strategists. Their excuse is that it has not been written down. To critics, this is because it does not exist. This helps the strategic community to pussy-foot round the elephant in the room for some 100 years now: Hindutva. Strategic vocabulary, largely a product of rationalist-modern conception of state as a social contract centered on the Constitution, cannot easily accommodate an identity-based idea of the Indian nation. The National Security Adviser (NSA)-led Defence Planning Committee – mandated to write up the national security strategy - cannot admit to this as impulse, since identity is seen as infra-dig in a rational-modern undertaking. Personal politics keeps NSA Ajit Doval from taking cue from Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s helpful rumination on ancient well springs of Indian strategic philosophy. So, India’s grand strategy eight years into the Narendra Modi era, notwithstanding the regime’s boasts of being strong-on-defence, is still under wraps.
For our purposes here, even as the charade continues, the grand strategy can arguably be inferred from the strategic actions of the regime. In its first term, the regime went about consolidating itself in power, in order that it could propagate Hindutva, its ideological fount. It sought to set the external environment in a manner as to not upset its internal aim. Its second tenure sees Hindutva as the dominant political philosophy in political culture. External stability is prerequisite to ensure longevity of and deepening of hold of this political philosophy over Indian minds.
Having set the internal house in order with the political (and partially social) dominance of Hindutva in the run up to and winning of the 2014 elections, the regime in its first term shifted to strategic proactivism. Its excuse for strategic assertiveness was that its reaching out to Pakistan not having met with due regard, left it with no recourse. Recall Modi’s visit to Sharif’s home was spurned in the terror attack on Pathankot airfield.
Soon enough it was disabused of its illusions over strategic assertion by both neighbours. Not only did Pakistan strike back within 48 hours of Indian aerial surgical strikes, but drew blood in aerial combat as it did so. Modi was reduced to rhetoric, referring to nuclear weapons as not meant for ‘diwali’. As for the China front, he publicly dissimulated on intrusions in Ladakh, hoping his sway over the discourse would carry the day. In the event, talks have traded Indian operational space for the Modi dispensation claim of staring down the Chinese. Its deterrence bid having drawn a blank at Doklam, there is a turn to strategy: to one of appeasement.
As things stand, there is quietude on the Pakistan front. With Pakistan preoccupied internally, recently revealed secret talks have not been taken to their logical conclusion. Pakistan is holding out to see developments in Kashmir, namely, elections and reversion to the India-promised statehood. India developed cold feet in Kashmir – after the Gupkar signatories upturned its Kashmir strategy in local level elections. Unsure that electoral chicanery – by manipulation of the assembly constituencies by a demarcation commission – will gain the regime a puppet in Srinagar, India is held up on elections.
Against China, an interminable round of military talks continues, supplemented with working level diplomatic talks designed to go nowhere. The Special Representative – who is the NSA – and the defence and foreign ministers have studiously kept from taking the talks forward. The regime, despite its parliamentary majority, is unwilling to invest politically in border talks. Their scope is now to retain the post-intrusion status quo, while dressing it up internally as a partial - for now - return to status quo ante. China is reportedly building infrastructure on talks’ process-conceded Indian land, but official prevarication continues.
Almost as if messaging both neighbours, India has shelved its strategic proactivism of the first term. Not only has the Chief of Defence Staff appointment been kept unfilled for unconscionably long, but a newly launched scheme – Agnipath – has been thought up to scupper the military. The military is kept introspective with reforms (integrated theatre commands) and an offensive turn (integrated battle groups (IBG)) taking their leisurely pace. Only one offensive IBG has been conjured up on the Pakistan front since the concept was envisaged twenty years ago as part of Cold Start doctrinal thinking. Its forces are kept operationally deployed in a supposedly deterrent posture on the China front, though doing so interminably will lead to a tiring out in the middle term. It’s going in for reducing the Army’s numbers, can only attenuate this problem.
What we see is a dilution in strategic posture on both fronts. This is of a piece with a policy of appeasement. Appeasement having a bad press, it is obfuscated over by initiatives as the currently ongoing exercise with troops of the United States (US) and, in a first, talks with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Appeasement is projected as temporary, to tide over India catching up with China’s head-start of some 10 years and to end the ‘two front’ problem by having the failing state, Pakistan, fall off the equation. The interim is to be used to build up muscle power – (Rafale, air craft carrier, S-400, nuclear powered and armed submarines etc) and its projection capability through, for instance, road building and jointness. By end decade, a self-confident India could then credibly fend off China. Evidently the Ukraine example of taking down a formidable foe happened rather too late for India to emulate. ‘By not losing, Ukraine wins’ is a concept of victory subscribed to by underdogs. India – a civilisation at par with China – cannot see itself as underdog.
The external prong of strategy allows for breathing space to consolidate Hindutva internally. Having seen what a mere intrusion could do – be it in Kargil or Ladakh - Hindutva cannot countenance instability resulting from issues with neighbours getting out of hand. Modi would prefer to forego an Indira moment (1971) rather than chance a Nehru moment (1962). Military resort being intrinsically of uncertain result cannot be hazarded. Therefore, war avoidance is best.
Deterrence and appeasement are two strategic options that furnish such an aim. Deterrence having failed, appeasement is the default option. It buys time for Hindutva – through gimmicks as Agnipath – to militarise Indians, enabling internal balancing. Alongside, external balancing is by taking on Pakistan’s hitherto role as rentier state, offering India’s strategic location for the US for use in its faceoff against challenger China. Deft diplomatic footwork is expected to keep the strategic pot from boiling over.
This rather long introduction is to help situate nuclear weapons in India’s strategy. The current storm in the tea cup is the reported intention to acquire the Tupolev 160 for the role of a strategic bomber. An ability to threaten China’s eastern seaboard would stay Beijing’s nuclear hand. Having both the nuclear and conventional advantages, China has escalation dominance.
A serving Indian colonel, writing for the website of the Army’s think tank, bids for counter value targeting by India for deterring China. He advocates that India, “(A)dopt a ‘Conditional First Use’, nuclear policy which would permit India to launch its counter value nuclear strikes if the casus-belli of Indian Redlines are crossed.” Intriguingly, his very next point rides on the back of a Herman Kahn quote: “holding the enemy’s population centres as intact Hostages can guarantee survival of own population centers.” With this, he contradicts himself, in that if India is to go counter value at first blush, then how are cities held hostage? Cities can be held hostage if India does not go in for counter value targeting on its invoking the ‘conditional First Use’ when China trips up a trip wire. The author predicates First Use with ‘conditional’ as he appears shy of calling for ‘first use’ right off. No First Use (NFU) has been India’s virtue signaling for close to a half-century. Jettisoning it is not easy for the colonel. All first use is ‘conditional’, even a ‘bolt from the blue’ first strike – conditional on, say, a closing window of opportunity. In any case, India’s NFU has been undercut by at least two defence ministers, who sit in its Nuclear Command Authority.
What’s intriguing is advocacy for first use to be massive (counter value or the going after cities, and, if Karnad is persuasive, dams). It would expose India to counter strike of more grievous proportion. This blindsides India’s vulnerabilities. It is implausible that the incomplete-as-yet acquisition of the S-400 and nuclear defences, that rest on the defence research organization’s tall claims and tunneling in environmentally vulnerable mountain zones, can assuage these concerns.
Nuclear thinker, Ashley Tellis, in his latest opus for the Carnegie think tank, writes that despite nuclear developments across the board in Southern Asia, India largely maintains its nuclear doctrine of deterrence by punishment, predicated on NFU and punitive retaliation. However, both have come under cloud. As per the preceding NSA, India contemplated the launch-on-warning option, that, to a couple of strategic hands has first strike proportions. Tellis informs there is not only doctrinal flexibility but also operational capability for proportionate retaliation. Even so, he flogs his quarter-century old thesis of the Indian deterrent being more of a force-in-being.
However, there is a sound perspective that the deterrent is more readily usable and in a war fighting mode informed by deterrence by denial. Pakistan has broadcast its deterrence by denial philosophy, which when matched with India’s deterrence by punishment promises escalation. Since India has more to lose and Pakistan – having little - has little to lose, escalation dominance is not necessarily in India’s favour. Against China, it would be fool hardy to provoke higher order exchanges from a position of disadvantage. India too has much to lose, therefore cannot replicate Pakistan’s gung-ho attitude to wrest escalation dominance from China.
Escalation dominance is not about equations alone, it’s also judgments on moral strength. What stays the hand of a decision maker is the assessed degree of hurt received, even if what makes a finger itchy is the degree of harm that can be inflicted. The hurt-harm calculus is central to escalation dominance, more a moral than a material factor. In India’s case it must be seen against the Hindutva project, central to the regime’s grand strategy.
Returning to the Tupolev
Tellis’ thesis on Indian nuclear conservatism – sticking with a doctrine beyond its sell-by date - better explains the acquisition of the capability to inflict punitive retaliation that is conferred by the Tupolev. The regime is tacitly revealing a capability to hit mainland China. The capability is questionable since a nuclear package would require half of India’s Air Force to see it through to target. The force package for the Balakot strike and the response to Pakistan’s Operation Swift Retort indicate as much. Losing the Tupolev enroute – the defence-offence game always being of indefinite outcome – would be equivalent to losing the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. Therefore, its fit with the regime’s grand strategy is a better way to figure out what it really means.
There is little threat of the two sides coming to meaningful blows. Post-spring 2020, China is satiated, having never claimed Ladakh beyond its 1959 claim line. It has kept up a notional claim to ‘South Tibet’, but having vacated it in 1962 has left the difficulties of its defence to tie India down. Evidently, Tibetan territorial interests only instrumentally drive the Chinese. In any case, Indian deterrence, regurgitated with two divisions, has held up. India is not about to precipitate matters in light of its switch to appeasement. Its plurilateralism allows cover for engaging China, with trade hitting record highs as is the adverse trade balance. Even Chinese provocation of the levels that obtained in Ladakh could not budge India from strategic restraint, a term associated with the preceding, Congress-led government. This suggests that with hostilities remote, it is possible for India to remain in the game by projecting a capability to take on China. At upper rungs of a nuclear ladder this will only remain untested, a bluff not about to be called.
Apologists might have it that India was unable to respond with gusto in Ladakh on account of force asymmetry. It was hobbled by escalation dominance in Chinese favour. Were India was to have forcefully pushed the Chinese out, conventional escalation – horizontal and vertical – might have ensued. If India was to compensate by asymmetric escalation, it would still have been shy of escalation dominance at the nuclear level. Self-deterrence would keep it from going nuclear at its lowest rung – tactical or operational level nuclear first use. The ability of China to withstand escalation pressures had to be whittled by acquiring an ability to render China’s urban heartland insecure. Geography has given India a poorer hand, with its Gangetic heartland being within sight of the Tibet plateau, site of Chinese missiles. In contrast, India’s ballistic missile submarine force is taking time to gain potency. It’s doubly short: of boats on patrol and ballistic missile range. Its land based ballistic missiles need complementing with an air delivery vector.
This is where the Tupolev comes in. A fledgling strategic triad duly reinforced in one medium – in this case air – helps ward-off self-deterrence, enabling reaching for nukes are lower rungs of the escalation ladder, commensurate with the trip wire crossed. A deficit in escalation dominance at the conventional level, that apparently prevented India from responding adequately to the Ladakh provocation, seemingly stands addressed by enabling India to countenance asymmetric escalation and deterrence by denial. At lower nuclear rungs, the match is relatively equal since any exchange would not involve several iterations, either being discontinued on better sense prevailing or escalating to consequential exchanges prior to either of the two expending their respective nuclear armoury designated for that level. Thus, India can checkmate China.
Politically, when the bluff is not going to be called – appeasement having made it more remote - it’s easier to trade on it. An internal political dividend is the offing. The regime can tacitly present itself as weighing-in in the Chinese weight category, matching it at the higher end of the nuclear ladder. The timing of the annoucement suggests a need to dispel the critique that India might fall military to China within a mere ten days. At the organizational level, since this puts the Air Force closer to pole position in the strategic triad stakes, prosaic reasons can also be at play. It gives the Air Force some reason for bluster, as sweetner to fall in line with the theaterisation concept it is reluctant to sign up to.
Factoring in grand strategy
For Tupolev like acquisitions have a strategic rationale, this is not what carries the day. Just as in the US system, the predilections of the military industrial complex and inter-service bureaucratic politics cannot be wished away, in India, strategic calculations provide rationalizations while the impulse behind strategic moves must be sought elsewhere. In India, this is in viewing the move in relation to the regime’s pet project: Hindutva. Moves that further the project have political backing. Therefore, strategic rationale must be complemented by a political level perspective to understand India’s strategic moves. Here the case study was of the Tupolev. The approach of factoring in grand strategy can serve as a model to holistically view other and future strategic moves of the regime.