Friday, 1 June 2012

Demonstration strikes, in an Indo-Pak conflict scenario
Ali Ahmed
Research Fellow, IDSA
Deterrence is the sine qua non of nuclear weapons. In the Indian scheme, these are not meant for war-fighting. Therefore the accent in discussion on their utility is rightly restricted to the credibility of deterrence and how this can be enhanced. This is the case in India, more so because it has been a ‘reluctant nuclear power’. Its nuclear doctrinal tenets therefore reflect deterrence, weighing in heavily towards ‘assured retaliation’ and that too, one designed to cause ‘unacceptable damage’.
It is possible that the Strategic Forces Command may dwell on war-fighting as part of contingency planning and professional curiosity. This would be directed to ensure that if the enemy is the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the conflict, it is not only deprived of any perceived benefits, but also pays a price. Alongside, there would be considerations of damage limitation, escalation avoidance and control to the extent feasible, in-conflict deterrence, nuclear signalling, and responding to international concerns in order to gain the political and moral high ground. The aim would likely be to see that favourable war termination ensues with minimum damage incurred, even if this means that the enemy escapes maximum punishment.
In any such exercise, targets and desired effects on them would be weighed against the options available in terms of bombs, damage templates and delivery systems to inflict the same. It is understandable then if the value of demonstration strikes escapes full attention. This article dwells on this less remarked upon aspect of nuclear use.
In the case of Pakistan, the famous ‘option enhancing strategy’ has nuclear tests and demonstration strikes at the lowest escalatory level of nuclear first use. It is imagined that in case of conventional conflict, such nuclear explosions that are essentially target less would serve for nuclear signalling. The intent would be to convey to India that the nuclear threshold is nigh and that threatening conventional actions be called off or desisted from. The idea is to call attention of the Indian political and military leadership to the dangers in the situation. At the kernel is hope for war termination by bringing to bear international pressures on both sides to end the conflict while it is still in the non-nuclear plane.
Since nuclear use in this manner would not have targeted Indian troops or territory, there would be no necessity for India to consider nuclear retaliation. However, India may yet like to convey that it remains undaunted. While rhetoric to that effect would serve a purpose, there may be a political need to demonstrate resolve. This can be done by mirroring Pakistani demonstration by either carrying out a nuclear test or doing a demonstration strike. While the former capability has already been made explicit over the past three instances of tests, the latter has the advantage of indicating that India has married a useable nuclear warhead to a workable delivery system. This tit-for-tat behaviour would serve to stay Pakistani hand even as it contemplates going nuclear.
A demonstration strike cannot easily be taken as the introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict, even if it is in an uncontested part of the conflict theatre. It is therefore not quite ‘first use’. Since Pakistani nuclear use in this fashion cannot be construed as ‘first strike’ or first use; similar Indian reaction keeps it within the parameters of NFU.
Since there is no breach for NFU in demonstration strikes, even though they do make the conflict more fraught, India can also consider using tests of warheads and missiles and demonstration strikes in a proactive mode also. The advantage is in reinforcing deterrence once conventional conflict has broken out. There is a need to do so at the critical juncture when Pakistan could be in the midst of contemplating a lowering of the nuclear threshold or early nuclear use. This would create the space for conventional operations that are most likely to be conducted in the Limited War concept to reach their culminating point. The aim should be to see that the culminating point is below the perceived enemy nuclear threshold. Since this cannot be known with any degree of accuracy, there is a requirement of attempting to broaden the gap between the sub-conventional level and the nuclear threshold for force application of desired levels of conventional power. Demonstration strikes may be considered as one option available to do so.
These would supplement diplomatic efforts, the information campaign, official statements and political pronouncements that collectively serve to inform the enemy of limitation to Indian aims and intent of early war termination. This increases the space for conventional force application as it reduces any enemy inclination towards nuclear resort either by design or in fear and haste. Even if the enemy nuclear threshold is assessed as high enough to permit conventional operations below it, there is no guarantee that it is instead a dynamic situation dependent one or against it getting disengaged from its higher tither in the furry of conflict. Communications through multiple channels to this end would be reassuring and function as the carrot to the demonstration strike that can act as stick.
There would be a requirement of orchestrating the warning, statements from political and official quarters and action of agencies involved in the demonstration. The warning would be required so that there is no misunderstanding and the enemy’s attention is drawn to the desired site. Such options need consideration and debate in peace, in order that in times of actual conflict rehearsed means are on hand to implement without a faux pas.
The counter argument has validity. In case India were to go in for a demonstration strike, would it be counter productive by bringing down international pressures to bear on the government to cease operations prior to its preferred end state? Would it heighten fears within the populace and thereby bring internal pressures equally to bear on war time decision making? Since the nuclear genie would have been let out, would it be the rationale for eventual enemy nuclear ‘first use’? These questions need fair consideration prior to operationalising the option. But to not cater for the option would be self denial that can only be regretted at leisure.
The answer is in what demonstration strikes mean for deterrence.