Nuclear targeting caveats
The grounding of over 17000 flights in one day due to Iceland's erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano is a timely reminder of the chaos that would accompany nuclear use in anger, fear or frustration. It only underlines the sense in India’s policy of treating nuclear weapons as political weapons meant for deterrence and not war-fighting. This manner of thinking about nuclear weapons helps keep them off Clausewitzian considerations on the instrumentality of the military for political ends. Since No First Use underpins India’s nuclear doctrine, the nuclear initiative would not be with India. Therefore, despite its preferences, India may require to contend with the introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict as a ‘worst case’ scenario.
Concentration on deterrence through the promise of ‘unacceptable damage’ from ‘assured retaliation’ helps prevent this. ‘Unacceptable damage’ has thus far been seen as an euphemism for ‘counter value’ targeting, in that the enemy’s urban concentrations or value infrastructure are held hostage to his nuclear good behaviour. Since in India’s case, prospective enemies have second strike capability, at least in terms of numbers, they would retain the capability of striking back.
In terms of numbers, it can be reckoned that ‘assured destruction’ capability exists with the three regional nuclear powers. In case of expansive nuclear exchanges, it has been estimated by the US Natural Resources Development Council that in a scenario of an India-Pakistan nuclear war involving 25 weapons, 22.1 million people would be exposed to lethal radiation in the first two days after the attack. The Iceland volcano gives an indication of the environmental consequences, reminiscent of the studies on nuclear winter in the eighties.
It follows that keeping any conflict non-nuclear would be the first priority. This would require exertion on the deterrence front as also limitation to conventional war. However, consideration also needs to be given to the ‘worst case’ scenario. The emphasis therefore needs to shift in-conflict from inflicting nuclear punishment to limiting the possibility of nuclear damage to oneself. While the promise of punishment is useful in deterrence, following through in case of deterrence breakdown does not make sense. Deterrence in terms of preventing nuclear use having ceased to operate, the scenario is one of deterring further nuclear resort subsequent to nuclear first use. While a ‘massive’ nuclear retaliatory strike – as the 2003 doctrine promises – could reduce the enemy’s capability to do damage in return, it would not rule out receipt of ‘unacceptable damage’ by India in a counter strike. To reiterate, the environmental consequences of such an exchange involving multiple weapons would be long term and considerable. This is what the phrase, ‘There are no victors in nuclear war’ really means. Therefore, while deterrence must continue to concentrate minds, thinking through nuclear retaliation options is unavoidable; bringing to mind Bernard Brodie’s query, ‘If deterrence fails, how do we fight a nuclear war and for what objectives?’ (‘Development of Nuclear Strategy,’International Security, Spring 1978).
The remainder of this comment dwells on some nuclear targeting caveats in terms of limiting the nuclear dimension of any conflict should, despite best intentions and efforts, a conflict were to go nuclear.
Firstly, General Sundarji’s insight needs to inform such thinking. His nuclear targeting philosophy summed up in his own words reads, ‘The desire to terminate the nuclear exchange at lowest level with a view to negotiate a politically acceptable peace.’ This echoes Brodie’s answer to his own query quoted above: ‘The main war goal upon the beginning of a strategic nuclear exchange should surely be to terminate it as quickly as possible and with the least amount of damage as possible – on both sides’ (emphasis added). He brought out the logic of this earlier in Strategy in the Missile Age thus: ‘Clausewitz’s classical definition that the object of war is to impose one’s will on the enemy, must be modified, at least for any opponent who has a substantial nuclear capability behind him. Against such an opponent one’s terms must be modest enough to permit him to accept them, without his being pushed by desperation into rejecting both those terms and the limitations in war fighting.’ In short, as Tsun Tsu put it, ‘Do not press a desperate foe too hard.’
Secondly, the international law on nuclear use, though ambiguous, needs to inform nuclear retaliation. The 1996 ruling by the International Court of Justice, ‘Legality Of The Threat Or Use Of Nuclear Weapons’ needs to be factored in. It stated that, “The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law. However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.’ While nuclear use appears permissible in extreme circumstances, such a circumstance may not necessarily be posed in all the first use options available with the enemy.
Thirdly, while nuclear retaliation would be a valid reaction, the nature of the retaliatory strike would determine its legality. In this the aspects of proportion, military necessity and discrimination would be consequential. The Court stated in this context that, ‘The entitlement to resort to self-defence under Article 51 is subject to the conditions of necessity and proportionality.’ The Court stated in the case concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (I. C. J. Reports 1986, p. 94) that ‘there is a specific rule whereby self-defence would warrant only measures which are proportionate to the armed attack and necessary to respond to it, a rule well established in customary international law.’
Fourthly, on targeting proper, Articles 56 and 15 of the first and second protocols to the Geneva Convention are of interest. These read: ‘Works or installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations, shall not be made the object of attack, even where these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.’ This rules out targeting to magnify effects, such as that of upstream dams, etc. Of this genre of restraints is also the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.
Fifthly, military necessity has been defined as, ‘An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy, it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.’ The Rome Statute (to which India is not a signatory) defines war crimes as: ‘Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly; Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities; Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives.’
Lastly, the India-Pakistan ‘Agreement on non-attack on nuclear facilities’ signed in December 1988 and operational since December 1990 must inform nuclear targeting. The Agreement has weathered the ups and downs of the relationship, best evidenced by the exchange of the list of nuclear installations even at the height of Operation Parakram. The significant portions read, ‘Refrain from undertaking, encouraging or participating directly or indirectly any action aimed at causing the destruction of or damage to any nuclear installation or facility in the other country.’ It places several potential targets out of reach by including ‘power and research reactors, fuel fabrication, uranium enrichment, isotope separation and reprocessing and any other installation with fresh or irradiated nuclear fuel and material in any form and establishment storing significant form of radioactive material’ in the proscribed list. On this score, the requirements of ‘pacta sunt servenda’ would have to be met even in conflict. These have been spelt out in Ariticle 26 of the Vienna Convention on Law of Treaties of 1969 as, ‘Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.’ It is assumed this has the attention of the Strategic Forces Command on both sides.
Nuclear exchanges in accord with targeting limitation would serve as powerful nuclear signaling to the other side in case of deterrence breakdown. Therefore, the issue requires greater attention than it has received. Perhaps the reticence is due to the belief that such thinking dilutes deterrence, based as it is on resolve to inflict unthinkable punishment. However, not to do so is to end up with only questionable ‘war winning’ strategies of Cold War vintage. Extending limitation into nuclear war makes sense. On this count, n