Wednesday, 15 January 2014

the nuclear domain: in irreverance

Published in Badrul Alam (ed.) Perspectives on Nuclear Strategy of India and Pakistan, New Delhi: Kalpaz publications, 2013


By Ali Ahmed, Ph.D*


The back-to-back tests as has been the wont in South Asia since May 1998, of the Agni V and Shaheen 1 respectively in early summer 2012 brought out the manner perception management regarding nuclear developments by the two states, India and Pakistan. The hype by the nuclear complex and the nationalist media around the tests demonstrated a blind spot, amounting to a veritable black hole, in the nuclear imaginings of the respective security elites. This paper highlights this deficit in strategic thinking to conclude that, firstly, the nuclear complex needs stringent oversight, and, secondly, that a nuclear peace movement needs to be energized expeditiously. Towards this end, the paper first brings out the current scope of nuclear strategic thinking in India and then dwells on the aspects that seem to have escaped nuclear strategy, specifically, the aftermath of a nuclear exchange. While the effects of nuclear exchanges have been dwelt on in literature to demonstrate how horrendous will be the outcome, what is missing is engagement with the social and political fallout of such exchange(s). This is the blind spot the paper seeks to dispel. In doing so it demonstrates that the opportunity provided by the distasteful manner the nuclear complex sought to present its questionable wares must prompt appropriate attitudinal corrections towards nuclear weapons.

Nuclear doctrine

Nuclear doctrine can be both declaratory and operational. There may or may not be a convergence between the two. The declaratory doctrine may be distinct from operational doctrine, even though in light of the connection between transparency and deterrence, they may be the same. In India’s case, the declaratory doctrine is the one in the open domain. There is also presumably an operational doctrine. Whether the two are the same or distinct is a matter of conjecture. However, as this section will seek to demonstrate, the irrationality endemic in the declaratory doctrine suggests that the operational doctrine could possible be different.

India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine is that in case of nuclear first use by an adversary in any manner against India and its forces anywhere, India will retaliate with a ‘massive’ counter to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’. Firstly, as to whether it requires a ‘massive’ strike to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’ is moot. Secondly, in case of Chinese nuclear first use against India, for India to go ‘massive’ in retaliation makes little sense. As to how India will mount a ‘massive’ counter strike has not been explicated since Agni V will not be in serial production for another half a decade. Also in case India were to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’ on China, it can be assured of receiving the same right back and with some interest. This implies that going ‘massive’ against China is irrational. In case Chinese first use has been ‘massive’ or of first strike proportions, then it is not understood how India can mount a ‘massive’ counter. India would require breaching the ‘minimum’ in the popular formulation of its nuclear doctrine – ‘credible minimum deterrence’ – in case it is to acquire the number necessary to survive a ‘massive’ Chinese strike and then to counter with an equivalent salvo.

In respect of Pakistan, ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation against its nuclear first use of higher order proportions makes eminent sense. After all a higher order nuclear attack would certainly have damaged India enough to make India exact an appropriate if not proportionate price. However, in case of nuclear first use by Pakistan restricted to a lower order strike then if India was to go ‘massive’ in retaliation, Pakistan could be incentivised to retaliate similarly. Given that its nuclear numbers are reportedly in the range of lower three figures, it has the arsenal to inflict unacceptable damage on India.

This brief dismissal of the intent of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation is necessary to demonstrate that though India had overtly had the bomb for over three years by the time the doctrine was officially endorsed by the Cabinet Committee on Security, India had not been able to cope doctrinally. The term was an unnecessary introduction, suggestive of the other aims the declaratory doctrine had set out to achieve, such as for instance political muscle flexing by India in wake of Operation Parakram. That the declaratory doctrine, despite widespread criticism on this score and more, has remained unchanged implies that there is a possible disconnect between declaratory and operational doctrine. It is infeasible that operational doctrine can be coincident with declaratory doctrine that is so bereft of strategic logic.

However, in case the term ‘massive’ is disregarded, then the retaliation criterion left is ‘unacceptable damage’. Is retaliation with a quantum of force to inflict unacceptable damage sensible in all manners of nuclear first use? When nuclear first use by the enemy is of such an order as to result in unacceptable damage to oneself, then it makes eminent sense to consider retaliation that inflicts like damage on the enemy. However, in case the damage caused by the nuclear first use is not of an unacceptable order, such as when it is a single warhead of low kilo-tonnage on a tactical level target, then inflicting unacceptable damage in return would lay India open to receiving a like counter strike. This means escalation is inevitable. The logic behind the doctrinal threat is that deterrence involves promising just such an escalation. It will make first use considerations more fraught, leading to abandonment of the nuclear option. However, where an enemy has the capacity for strike back in equal measure, as does China unquestionably and arguably even Pakistan in light of higher numbers now available to it, then default escalation to unacceptable levels of damage is not sensible as a operational doctrine, how-so-ever persuasive its deterrence logic may be. Therefore, even the much haloed term, ‘unacceptable damage’, sanctified as dogma exam in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine, cannot be taken as gospel.

What then is left of retaliation criteria? It emerges that in India’s case declaratory doctrine is very likely to be distinct from operational doctrine. Absence of articulation of operational doctrine is only superficially understandable. While nuclear secrecy has its place, nuclear transparency has significance for deterrence. For instance, if India’s declaratory doctrine in all its imperfection was indeed its operational doctrine then the fallout would be as follows. The enemy knowing that India would launch a ‘massive’ counter to any form of first use, would take care to launch a first strike attempt so as to degrade India’s retaliatory strike to the extent possible. This would surely be of unacceptable order many times over. In other words, promising a massive counter only serves to make India insecure. After receiving enemy first use of a massive order, India would unlikely be in a position to launch a massive counter, even if it is still able to inflict unacceptable damage. In other words, the enemy may be materially less set back than India in such an exchange. Given this, transparency that operational doctrine is not as irrational as declaratory doctrine is necessary. In other words, nuclear secrecy is not always an altogether good thing.

In the consideration so far, the ‘massive’ criterion has been decisively negated and ‘unacceptable damage’ stays on. In the latter case it has been seen that inflicting unacceptable damage as counter to first use not of levels of unacceptable damage amounts to escalation and is also escalatory. Therefore, unacceptable damage in retaliation for first use exacting unacceptable damage makes sense and little sense otherwise. This implies that for lower order strikes, lower order retaliation makes more sense. The criterion that emerges then is a ‘tit for tat’ nuclear response. Tit for tat implies massive to counter massive first use, unacceptable damage in return for unacceptable damage and lower order retaliation for lower order first use. This may be how operational doctrine, that needs to be notably rational, is configured.

The advantages are several. Assured Retaliation is in place in that there would be no question of self-deterrence since the retaliation would be equivalent, militarily feasible, politically justifiable and diplomatically sustainable. It will enable a negotiated end to both the exchange and to the conflict, the latter under the shock effect of multiple nuclear blasts. It negates escalation, enabling termination at the lowest level of nuclear use possible. It limits both the exchange and damage received, since inflicting equivalent damage in return would not incentivise a counter strike. A seemingly disproportionate counter will likely see a continuing exchange and higher cumulative damage at the end of it all. It is the closest equivalent in tacit bargaining which incentivises limitation while conveying an implacable intent to match the enemy ‘tooth for tooth, eye for eye’. The latter assures deterrence. Given these advantages, it is well nigh possible that a ‘tit for tat’ nuclear doctrine may well be the operational doctrine.

The ‘tit for tat’ strategy makes sense for reacting to nuclear first use and to the initial exchange(s). Beyond a point, there may be a need to limit damage to oneself by indeed going ‘massive’ to take out the enemy’s ability to continue exchanges. The understanding is that the nuclear blast in its effects can have the fallout of awakening the strategic leadership to the consequence of its use that exercises and war games simply cannot replicate. Therefore there is hope for ending an exchange at the lowest level, but in case that proves to be false in the context of unfolding reality, then ‘tit for tat’ can be abandoned. This brings out the criterion of circumstance dependent strategic choice.

The argument against such calculation – ‘tit for tat’, strategic choice -  presumes that nuclear war can be kept limited. A critique would have it that this may be a false notion, given escalatory tendencies in nuclear use. In this logic, escalation being inevitable, it is better to shoot off what one has prior to the enemy resorting to this while one still has the capability to do so. The ‘in case I don’t he will and since he will, I must…’ logic will lead to higher order strikes sooner than later. In other words, nuclear war can only be Total War and reaching this speedily at that. Such thinking possibly is behind the terms ‘massive’ and ‘unacceptable damage’. It does have deterrence value in that an enemy contemplating nuclear moves would be compelled to rethink in face of inevitability of receiving such damage. However, an enemy may well be compelled to go first due to military circumstances in at the conventional level of the conflict. This conventional-nuclear interface requires being brought onboard nuclear strategic thinking. Inadvertent escalation could occur, as also accidental crossing of the threshold; war, after all, being a game of chance, fog and friction. Therefore, recourse to inevitable escalation and suffering the resulting damage makes less sense in case push comes to shove, taking the realm beyond nuclear deterrence to nuclear employment.

Given this seemingly self-evident logic, why does the term ‘unacceptable damage’ have such credence? That the term is associated with distinguished nuclear experts lends it currency. However, the term was relevant a decade ago, when the state of the arsenal perhaps permitted only such an option. Having few warheads and limited means of delivering them, there were fewer options of in terms of operational employment of nuclear weapons in counter strikes. Even then it was not necessary to ‘go’ with all or majority of them straight off. However, using even a few of them would amount to a greater proportion being used since they were fewer then than now. The term unacceptable damage was euphemism for counter city or counter value strike. The few weapons would be put to good use and not ‘wasted’ on tactical targets. This makes ‘massive’ understandable, in that if for instance ten are used of an arsenal comprising 25 weapons, it would be over a third of the weapons being used. That these number would wreak unacceptable damage is a given. However, even then it was possible to use, say, three weapons in reply to a nuclear first use with a single warhead by the enemy. In such a case neither would the strike necessarily be massive nor would it inevitably cause unacceptable damage. It would only be so in case of counter value targeting. Since fewer weapons were available and delivery systems were not as variegated and accurate, they were more likely to be employed in such a manner. 

Additionally a buffer existed then at the conventional-nuclear interface. India’s conventional doctrine was a defensive one of counter offensive in wake of Pakistan’s taking to the offensive first in keeping with its military doctrine of offensive defence. In such a case, a nuclear first use threat would only have developed after Pakistan had struck first conventionally and India had replied with a counter offensive using its strike corps. Given the strategic possibility of being torn into two at the midriff in the well known scenario of a dash to the Sukkur barrage at Rahim Yar Khan, the possibility of Pakistan going nuclear was immanent. The situation then was of recessed deterrence with both states only a screw’s turn away from deployable warheads. The nuclear threat would only develop well into the conflict, one in which Pakistan was against the ropes.

This situation has changed drastically in light of a changed conventional doctrine in India. India no longer sees itself as a defensive power. Its military doctrine is one of proactive, offensive operations, albeit in keeping with a Limited War concept. India is ready to be off the blocks in case of subconventional provocations, believing that its readiness helps deter such provocations. This means that the threat for Pakistan reaching the nuclear button could develop in quick time, the buffer of India first awaiting and then reacting to Pakistani conventional military moves having long gone. India is intent on making Pakistan react. The nature of the reaction is only partially in Indian hands, in that India can preclude nuclear reaction by ensuring that its military operations keep below the nuclear threshold. However, Pakistan has demonstrated a capability for tactical nuclear employment that is suggestive of early nuclear first use in a low nuclear threshold mode. This means that a nuclear outbreak can be in fairly short order.

Such an outbreak need not necessarily, as earlier, be in a higher order strike in that earlier it was so since, as mentioned, the bombs were fewer and the delivery systems less well developed. Therefore, higher order first use was ruled in, to which India’s promise of unacceptable damage in return, made eminent sense. Now that is not the case. Firstly, India is on the offensive. Secondly, Pakistan has the ability for a lower order strike. Thirdly, India has a variegated capability that includes lower order nuclear responses. Therefore, there is no need to persist with the term ‘unacceptable damage’, leave alone ‘massive’. Given the change at the conventional level to the offensive, there needs to be a corresponding change at the nuclear level. Being more offensive at the conventional level, India needs to be more restrained at the nuclear level. This means that India could threaten anything, but does not need to carry out the promise in exact. Some would say that this would impact credibility in that it would negate India’s image of promise keeping, making it more prone to and vulnerable against nuclear threats. However, promise keeping has to be weighed against damage avoidance (to be tackled in the next section). By keeping the promise escalation is assured into the unacceptable domain since even if unacceptable damage is caused, and perhaps more because such damage is inflicted, the enemy counter will be to inflict like damage right back. This is now within its capability. In effect, what starts out as a subconventional provocation demanding of conventional punishment ends up as a nuclear conflagration, unacceptable damage on both sides amounting to as much. This is strategic imbecility, a blind spot aggravated by the discussion on possible damage scenarios discussed in the next section.

Mutual assured destruction?

The problem with nuclear strategic thinking is that it restricts itself to deterrence. However, nuclear strategy is also about employment of nuclear weapons once deterrence of first use has proven to be wanting in the introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict. In effect, once deterrence is no longer the chief factor, what are the criteria for nuclear weapons employment? For deterrence there is a need to make threats believable through stating it, having the capability, demonstrating a will to follow through to make the threat credible and communication of both the intent and capability to the adversary. Nevertheless in case of break down in deterrence, then contemplating nuclear weapons employment requires a fresh framework. While deterrence will continue to have a role, such as how to deter escalation, the deterrence logic has it that the threat having been made, follow through is all that needs being done so as to reinforce credibility into the future. This is a blind spot in nuclear strategic thinking that can prove a black hole, as the remainder of this section will attempt to bring out.

In case of enemy nuclear first use of a higher order, there is a stronger case to go proportionately high in retaliation. Higher order nuclear first use would have exacted unacceptable damage. In order to punish the enemy and make him desist, it may be necessary to inflict on it like damage so that it’s strategic elite returns to strategic rationality. However, for lower order nuclear first use against India or its forces, going for higher order retaliation will lay India open to a similar counter. This is avoidable escalation in light of the consequences of unacceptable damage. What are the possible consequences?

The material aspect of the damage from the physical effects of nuclear weapons such as their blast, heat, radiation etc effects has been competently assessed elsewhere. The social, psychological and political consequence has not found reflection in literature. This requires imagining for ensuring the operation of self-deterrence on political decision makers. In case unacceptable damage is taken as euphemism for counter value targeting then receiving such attacks may prove a telling blow on the socio-political fabric of the nation-state, fragile as it is at the best of times. While defence technologists boast of an ability to defend at least two urban concentrations against missile strikes, their credibility is too well known to dwell on in any detail here. Therefore, their words can be taken as instance of information warfare meant for the putative enemy or self-aggrandisement, the likelier explanation, rather than for informing nuclear choices of a political decision maker. The boast in any case brings out the vulnerability of the remainder of the country. The statement is to imply that the command and control assets of the state will be preserved by anti missile defences and therefore the state will be able to survive. While this may be so, it is difficult to imagine that it would be able to cope with the immediate and long term social turmoil that could result.

The precedence of having coped with Partition can be trotted out to establish that India can, and will, survive. On the other hand, precedence of the anti Sikh riots of 1984, the Babri Masjid demolition and Gujarat carnage suggests that the state will not be able to reestablish itself for at least some time. In the interim the social fabric will disintegrate, preventing the state from recreating state and society in its pre-nuclear incidence image. All consequences will be compounded by the environmental disaster. The extant social and economic inequality will exacerbate, enabling attempts at take over of the state and society by forces currently located at both extremes of the political spectrum. The well-honed suppressive powers of the state may require exercising and in the process changing India. In effect, while India may reemerge it would not be as we know it. This means that the assumption that informs nuclear strategy that India can survive while Pakistan will be finished is untenable. India as we know it will be ‘finished’. In other words, Pakistan has ‘assured destruction’ capability, with assured destruction being redefined not in the percentages of Cold War vintage but in terms more suited to India’s reality of a subcontinental state in size, diversity and resulting complexity. The possibility of an unraveling of India, not unknown in history, is the foremost political level consideration in nuclear decision making. The decision imperative is therefore how to avoid this.

The nuclear security establishment and the nuclear complex operate on the strategic level and not the political level. They may tender advice that is leavened with political factors, but would retain its strategic level bias. Therefore, it would likely be pitched at the implications for in-conflict deterrence rather than on wider national security. It is therefore the prerogative of the political head to accede to the advice to the extent required or override it in its entirety. While the political head and the civil-military nuclear complex share the goal of security, the principal-agent problem arises when there is divergence between the two. Bridging this gap bottom-up cannot be done by the nuclear complex since that would amount to usurpation of political functions. Instead, civilian political masters need to take on the bridging function. The charge of ‘meddling’ can be managed under the principle of civilian supremacy. The nuclear complex, as represented by its expert civil-military leadership, has little claim to socio-political expertise, and therefore cannot dictate strategy.

The political level consideration in circumstance of nuclear use is therefore not deterrence focused but based on the socio-political outcomes of nuclear exchange(s). The overriding consideration in such a circumstance for a political decision maker is therefore preservation of a given socio-political order. This imperative must inform the choice made from among retaliation alternatives. The option that best provisions this is the one to alight on, irrespective of the deterrence oriented dictates of nuclear doctrine. Nuclear strategy is therefore not about the threat of damage to the enemy and carriage of it to fulfillment, but of preserving the state and society from such damage.

The criterion for nuclear employment is different from the criterion for nuclear deterrence. While the latter has threat and its delivery at heart, the former is about self-preservation. In a situation in which the enemy has a capability to set back state and society, even if not an assured destruction capability, avoiding nuclear escalation to such levels is the prime consideration. A strategic level argument that can be anticipated could be that this can be done by damage limitation strikes to take out the enemy’s retaliatory capability. Such reasoning carries the kernel of first strike. However, the enemy even if recipient of either a first strike or damage limitation strike has the capability of broken backed retaliation that can prove telling for state and society, even if, as mentioned, it is not of assured destruction levels. Pakistan has taken care to proliferate vertically with just such an intention in mind. This must be a message for India to recalibrate its doctrine, or at a minimum arrive at an operational doctrine that concedes Pakistan assured destruction capability, defined as an ability to set India back inordinately.

Directions in nuclear strategy

The blind spot having been identified, it needs plugging. The first step must be to recognise what’s the current direction for what it is. This is not necessarily coincident with what the nuclear complex and nuclear security establishment purports it to be. Their projection is that India’s is a deterrent doctrine. It is a ‘retaliation only’ doctrine. However, the nature of the retaliation, as seen in the previous sections, is not in Indian security interests. It makes India doubly insecure. Firstly, it invites nuclear first strike since the enemy would want to degrade India’s nuclear might to the extent possible so that the promised ‘massive’ retaliation is less than it would otherwise be. Second, in case first strike is not resorted to in first use and instead the enemy settles for a lower order strike, then upping the ante to unacceptable levels is, as brought out in the previous section, suicidal besides being self-admittedly genocidal. Therefore, ‘retaliation only’ may be good, but is not good enough as doctrine. A doctrine needs to optimally secure India and minimally not make India any more insecure. A reformulation of the doctrine is therefore necessary.

It is important to do so since from a doctrine emerge force structures, command and control and arsenal size and composition etc. From the direction of India’s deterrent it is clear that India is going in for ‘something of everything’. Arguably this would be acceptable in case the ‘minimal’ in the formulation ‘credible minimum deterrent’ is maintained inviolate. Is this the case? India is going in for a nuclear triad. It is also working towards a ballistic missile shield. These are advertised as reinforcing its No First Use pledge in that the enhanced survivability will help with assured retaliation. The numbers to inflict unacceptable damage need to be able to survive. These would be for both adversaries. In addition there is to be a reserve. This would make the numbers climb, impinging on ‘minimal’. Numbers will tend to stabilize only when assured destruction capability is perceived to have been reached after absorbing a first strike. This in its interaction with two adversaries will be incessantly upward. Besides, depending on how the missile shield shapes up, India, with its additional numbers, could position itself well to even consider abandoning No First Use at will. First strike considerations will not be far away, especially when faced with two foes in the ‘two front’ scenario, subscribed to earlier by the military and now acceded to even by a government that should know better.

This possibility in a conflict with a nuclear backdrop will enhance the ‘Will he, won’t he?’ apprehension on both sides, building in a tendency to preemption by either. The suggestion in nuclear strategic counsels could well be a change from NFU to the inadvisability of waiting for the enemy to strike. Such a strike if of first strike proportions could deflate India’s promise of ‘massive’ and even ‘unacceptable damage’. Therefore, an Indian first strike could well be on its way, with a preventive or preemptive rationale. Pakistan’s nuclear numbers indicate that it will not spare India irrespective of the damage it receives. Clearly, while Pakistan may ‘cease to exist’, as is put in some gleeful perspectives, so will India as we know it, as seen in the previous section.

This direction in India’s deterrent needs arresting. This is easier said than done. The record of India’s nuclear complex and nuclear security establishment has been one of an avid political player. The two are cognizant of institutional interests and are adept at playing the bureaucratic and perception management game. They have taken undue advantage of their ‘brahmanical’ position and the ‘holy cow’ status of high science. Politicians have for their part been debilitated by a seeming political necessity of not appearing ‘soft’ on defence. Therefore, there has been little check and oversight of the direction and pace of nuclear developments. The nuclear peace lobby has always been marginal, and increasingly perhaps sidetracked in combating the advance of nuclear power across the country. Therefore, there has been little challenge to nuclear verities. This has allowed blind spots to be inherited by succeeding generations of strategists. It is time the pied piper be called to attention and the emperor revealed to have no clothes on.

What then needs to be the direction? Firstly, there needs to be an over-watch by a parliamentary committee. Just as war is too serious a business to be left to generals alone, likewise the nuclear complex cannot dictate in what is essentially an issue in the political domain. The manner a state provisions security for itself is a political decision. It is time political India resurrects itself to take command of the strategic heights. The nuclear complex is peopled by technologists, while the nuclear security establishment has strategists. Neither is intellectually equipped, leave alone authorized, to intrude into the political domain. The insights of military sociology on civil-military relations, specifically the control of the military, need to expand beyond the uniformed military to include the military technological sphere.

An instrument of control is doctrine. An expansively phrased doctrine, as India’s has been shown up here, is at root of the tendency towards nuclear expansionism. A reworking of the doctrine can limit and thereby help reestablish control over the civilian-military nuclear sphere. This reworking, as noted, must move beyond the deterrence domain to deal employment. This means the criterion of limiting both the risk of and damage received for self-preservation must inform doctrine. The current emphasis is on punishment. The converse as demonstrated makes more sense. Therefore, the formulation should be to end nuclear exchange(s) at the lowest level possible. This has advantages of preserving the ‘minimal’ under threat in case of autonomy for the nuclear sector from institutional compulsions. The formulation is in keeping with deterrence in that the escalatory threat is held out in case the exchange is not terminated. The shift to self-preservation incentivises the enemy to shift likewise. This does not need to await the outbreak of nuclear exchange. Restricting nuclear use to the lowest level necessarily implies building mechanisms in peace time robust enough to withstand the buffeting of war. This can serve to reconcile doctrines and arsenals in peacetime. Such a mechanism should be self-annihilating: the more used, the less needed.


The celebrations of technological prowess such as an ability to ‘take out’ Beijing obscures the insecurity such ability brings with it. Strategists play as much a part in this obfuscation as technologists. While the latter’s motivations are sufficiently transparent, centered as they are on institutional interest, those of strategists are less so. These could range from nationalism and its variant, cultural nationalism, to narcissism. This contaminates their output. Therefore, leaving the nuclear strategic space to the nuclear complex and the nuclear security establishment is an abdication of political responsibility by the political leadership. Recouping would involve political examination of the doctrinal sphere afresh. A blueprint for such examination has been laid out here. It now awaits political attention and will.  


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* Ali Ahmed is an Assistant Professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Jamia Millia Islamia.