|The Post Conflict Factor in Nuclear Decision Making|
|Col Ali Ahmed|
Nuclear decision-making is only partially dependent on the doctrine. While the operational as against declaratory doctrine will inform such decision making, since doctrine by definition is to serve as guide, the significant coordinates of the conflict circumstance, the opponent’s manner of nuclear first use and conflict termination strategies that would inevitably kick in with introduction of nuclear weapons into the conflict will be equally significant. This article makes the point that along with these very pertinent considerations must also be factored in the post conflict scenario as a second order consideration.
The nuclear strategy chosen as response to the adversary’s nuclear first use will determine not only subsequent conflict strategy, end game and outcome, but also the nature of the post conflict future. This article examines two nuclear strategies that form potential options for India’s nuclear response: massive punitive retaliation and flexible nuclear retaliation. It argues that from a perspective of a post nuclear conflict future, the former suffers in comparison to the latter. This needs to inform nuclear retaliation considerations.
Nuclear use considerations usually limit themselves to what would deter best. They are formulated in order to prevent the nuclear use. India’s nuclear retaliation doctrine has it that India would respond with punitive retaliation to any form of nuclear use against it or its forces anywhere. In the declaratory nuclear doctrine, this would be of ‘massive’ levels. The threat of this, in an India-Pakistan conflict, is to stay Pakistan’s nuclear hand. It is not impossible to visualize that the operational nuclear doctrine could well be different and that in the event of enemy nuclear first use, the nuclear strategy might well be different.
Some analysts say that India must fulfil its promise in case Pakistan tests India’s resolve. Not doing so will reveal a chink in India’s resolve thereby subjecting it to further attacks. Punitive retaliation will return Pakistani decision makers to their senses. Others maintain that the circumstance of introduction of nuclear weapons into the conflict must dictate India’s response. While the deterrence doctrine will inform India’s response, it will not dictate it. Disproportionate response would be escalatory, opening up India to like retaliation.
What has not informed the debate so far is the factor of post nuclear conflict circumstance. Pakistan has not ruled out nuclear first use. The two approaches differ on the importance of the type of first use: whether this will be at a higher order in the form of an attempted first strike or a counter value strike or a lower order strike such as on India’s military formations on its territory. For the former – punitive retaliation – the type of nuclear first use does not matter. India’s response will be a heavy one. In case of the latter – flexible retaliation, this would be consequential to shaping India’s response.
From the perspective of a post nuclear conflict future, which of the two make better sense?
Punitive ‘massive’ retaliation makes sense in the circumstance of an attempted first strike by Pakistan. India will give back as good as it receives with a higher order strike. However, to the more probable manner of Pakistani nuclear first use – a lower order strike – this may be disproportionate. Even if the response sets back Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal considerably, of the 100 or so weapons it has, there would likely be some left over to damage India. While some analysts are sanguine that a large country like India can ‘take’ the loss of a couple of cities or so, they point out that Pakistan would be ‘finished’. This possibility would stay Pakistan’s hand and is therefore better for deterrence. What of the aftermath?
Firstly, are the environmental consequences; not only to Indian border-states, but possibly also globally. Secondly, there would be an accounting for the harm received by India. Blaming Pakistan may not be enough in the post mortem, since India’s own actions would be under scrutiny. This would be both internal and very likely also external. Internally, it is quite clear that the India’s disaster management capability would be overwhelmed. Externally, this may even take a legal turn with the decision makers being held responsible for their decision. Thirdly, there would be economic fallout. States not persuaded by India’s logic may make it an object of sanctions, effecting India’s recovery. Fourthly, politically, coping with these consequences may push into an authoritarian regime. Lastly, strategically, the expending of nuclear ordnance on Pakistan and the damage sustained by India’s nuclear and military infrastructure would push India back a generation in respect of China.
On the contrary, the flexible retaliation strategy predicated on proportional response in the initial stage of the nuclear part of the conflict does not suffer these disadvantages. In case of escalation, control is exercised and speedy conflict termination arrived at, the nuclear damage can be kept minimal. Environmentally, economically, diplomatically and politically this would be more sustainable.
Its unanticipated consequence may even be benign in a speedy mutual nuclear disarmament by both states. Having sustained nuclear damage, they would be more realistic on the utility of nuclear weapons to security. India would under the circumstance not have China’s retention of weapons detain it down this road. Globally, nuclear disarmament would receive a boost, making it a possibility in ‘Obama’s lifetime’.
Nuclear strategy making must go beyond deterrence and the conflict circumstance it is to prove responsive to. It has to also be informed by a vision of the post nuclear conflict circumstance. Such consideration reveals that ending the conflict earliest and with least damage sustained or inflicted makes strategic sense.
Col (Dr) Ali Ahmed (Retd) is a Delhi based strategic analyst.
He blogs at ali-writings.blogspot.in.