Saturday, 1 March 2014

rethinking india's nuclear doctrine

Rethinking India’s nuclear doctrine

By Ali Ahmed

Published in Agni, Jan-Mar 2010, Vol XII, No. II, pp. 25-32 


Anti-nuclearists are most likely to discourse on post-nuclear use scenarios. Their reflections have so far been on the physical effects, for instance what might happen if an explosion were to occur on a city like Mumbai, and regional environmental effects. Little explored are the sociological and political consequences of nuclear a nuclear exchange(s) amounting to ‘unacceptable damage’ (usually defined as counter value). This is in emulation of the discussion in the Cold War era. However, the difference between ‘then and there’ and ‘now and here’ is essentially that South Asia has masses with a ‘history’. Herman Kahn could write off millions in his calculations and believe the Americans could survive the aftermath. To think similarly that any South Asian state can manage with a population rendered trifle smaller due to a nuclear attack is unrealistic. This article attempts to bring the dangers to fore and in doing so highlights the logic in self-deterrence. It thereafter dwells on the consequent need for India to move towards a nuclear doctrine that is responsive to the socio-political reality in South Asia.

Self-deterrence is a much maligned term. It is deemed to undercut deterrence since deterrence works best when self-deterrence is taken as non-existent or minimal. Such thinking accounts for projection of ‘irrationality’ in the decision maker to enhance deterrence, as was the case with Nixon and Reagan. The page has partially been borrowed by Pakistan.

Here, deliberately thinking through the consequences of nuclear use is attempted. In the eventuality of actual nuclear use consideration, as against those practiced in simulations and war games, there would be no escaping such a consideration. Since nuclear weapons are going to be around for, in President Obama’s words, through his ‘lifetime’, consequences of their use requires consideration on a wider spectrum than merely the physical outcome of nuclear explosion and fallout.

The doctrine and its consequences

India’s nuclear doctrine is based on infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’ on the enemy, albeit after enemy ‘first strike’; ‘first strike’ being synonymous in Indian understanding with first use. Such retaliation could result in like reaction from the enemy since it would still have nuclear weapon left over. What are the implications of receiving such a counter strike? How this question is answered should determine whether India should make good on its threat in the eventuality of nuclear ‘first use’.

Politically, a changed complexion in governance may arise with increased space for antagonisms towards the enemy. In India’s case, this could amount to an internal social rupture. Refugee movements in the midst of an emerging ideological clash, in the case of an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange, would make Partition appear but a ‘trailer’. The much bandied ‘thousand year war’ would cease being a rhetorical phrase. This apprehension is based on the reading of the tensions and expectations of clashes that have arisen earlier in the aftermath of terror attacks. The case of Gujarat is a case to point. Triggering such clashes is taken as one of the reasons for terror attacks. The government’s efforts to defuse tensions by pointing to the foreign origins of such attacks, indicates the sensitivity of the relationship. Can existing social tensions be expected to withstand a higher order nuclear strike, particularly when those that prefer disruption within polity wish to profit from the ensuing disturbances?

Sub-nationalities that have suffered unacceptably damaging strikes could reappraise their relationship with the Centre as a consequence not so much the physical effects but also of regressing in their inter-se relationship with competing sub-nationalities. This means that in case urban centers which are centers of where particular ethnic groups power and wealth are targeted, the relative position of these groups in relation to their neighbouring and peer ethnic groups would be effected. For instance, if the Andhrites were to lose the twin cities or the Maharashtrians, Pune or Mumbai, they would be considerably set back as an ethnicity. There would then be an internal political and judicial accounting on how such a circumstance came about. While the enemy would not doubt be arraigned, the culpability of the central leadership in not being able to avert such a circumstance will be to the detriment of center-state relations.

Externally, the government initiating the initial nuclear strike that causes ‘unacceptable damage’ can escape international isolation only if the enemy has resorted to ‘first use’ resulting in ‘unacceptable damage’. The key decision makers would be arraigned in international law. Presently, in law of armed conflict there is no clear judgment on the legality or otherwise of nuclear use. The International Court of Justice has ruled that at best it may be permissible as a case of defensive use in a ‘last resort’ mode. While having received a nuclear strike prior to retaliation can be taken as enough justification, the quantum of the retaliation and targeting will be consequential for ascertaining the legitimacy and legality of the strike. Causing ‘unacceptable damage’ when not in receipt of the same, may prove not to be persuasive. 

The apprehended outcomes are true for both states involved in the exchange. It would be true for all three states involved in case of a ‘two front’ nuclear war.

It may be counter-argued that the national interest would be supreme and considerations of morality, internal politics and international law are extraneous intrusions. Unaccountable leaderships, that India needs to face up to, would not be self deterred. In this perspective, leaderships cannot have their personal interests in survival or avoiding subsequent legal action to impact decision making. India’s previous wars such as 1962 and Kargil War demonstrate that India has been able to come together as a nation. Taking this precedence as cue, it can be said that it may be able to emerge strengthened from a nuclear catastrophe.

It is argued here instead that the ‘national interest’ in a nuclear exchange is to avoid suffering ‘unacceptable damage’. If the outcome scenario that impacts India’s very identity, mode of government and national character is plausible, then there is a case for self-deterrence, especially so in a democratically accountable leadership. Even if the likelihood that India would not whither away is taken as greater, India cannot possibly risk suffering ‘unacceptable damage’ and finding this appreciation as false. What are the implications for India’s nuclear doctrine?
Consequences for nuclear doctrine

Reluctance to use nuclear weapons and nuclear restraint on part of one helps stay nervous fingers from the nuclear button of the other. This is partially the logic of India’s NFU. India’s restraint reduces any tendencies towards lowering of enemy nuclear thresholds and pre-emption along the lines of ‘if I don’t he will, therefore I must’ thinking.

Self-deterrence from inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ so as not be end up being recipient of like damage, implies that one plank of India’s doctrine that of the promise of inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ needs be jettisoned. ‘Assured Retaliation’ is not effected, ensuring that deterrence does not suffer. However, flexible nuclear retaliation gets ruled in, with inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ entering the equation only if the enemy has first resorted to such a level of strike(s).  

Presently, the doctrine restricts itself to only the option of ‘massive’ retaliation. This is more likely an ‘unconsidered formulation’, to quote an informed critic. Indian nuclear deterrence is predicated on inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’, which for its votaries does not require ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation. The contention here is that deterrence does not require the default infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’. The assurance of nuclear retaliation is enough. Flexibility permits leaving the level of that retaliation to the circumstance then obtaining.

Being tied down to either massive levels or higher order levels of unacceptable damage is politically problematic. The prevalent thinking is that greater political ‘will’ and ‘resolve’ is required to be cultivated and exhibited to convince the adversary of Indian willingness to use nuclear weapons. The implication for internal politics is that the political ‘resolve’ necessary to make good on a nuclear doctrine is in that the political leadership would have to be one that is suitably predisposed. This has implications for the good health of democracy in that a ‘weak’ leadership, perhaps of a coalition, may not be considered as having the requisite ‘resolve’ for war waging. The situation in Germany in World War I, in which the civil dispensation was virtually supplanted by the Hindenberg-Ludendorf duo, is instructive in this regard.

The requirement of exhibiting political resolve is especially highlighted in India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999. This owes to nuclear strategists for most part believing that the Indian leadership is more likely to be perceived by the adversary as ‘soft’ and ‘indecisive’. It supposedly comprises ‘netas’ of varying commitment to the ‘national’ and reputedly unschooled in strategic matters. The need for muscularity has been built into the doctrine through the term ‘massive’. Since this inclusion was in the tenure of the Right wing NDA government in 2003, this may have been to tie down future dispensations that, in the rightist perspective, may be more inclined to compromise with the ‘national interest’.

However, massive nuclear retaliation has one strategic advantage over inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’. Inflicting only ‘unacceptable damage’ renders one equally liable to receiving like punishment in enemy nuclear retaliation. To escape this, ‘damage limitation’ (Kahn’s concept) would require simultaneously degrading the enemy’s nuclear retaliatory capability to maximum extent. This means going ‘massive’. The underside is that since elimination of the enemy’s capability cannot be guaranteed, the enemy, ‘broken backed’, can only go counter value. Therefore, even going ‘massive’ cannot prevent receipt of ‘unacceptable damage’ in return.

The other route to preventing receipt of ‘unacceptable damage’ requires heeding the logic of self-deterrence – incentivising the enemy not to resort to nuclear weapons at levels inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’. This can only be through retaliating to ‘first use’ of lower order strike(s) proportionately.

Moving to a new nuclear doctrine

Currently interpretations of deterrence are limited to two: one, that they deter war and, second, that they deter nuclear weapons use. Pakistan that holds the first view may find itself surprised by outbreak of war in case India, under grave provocation, implements its Cold Start doctrine. Likewise, India that believes in the second, may find itself surprised in case of nuclear ‘first use’ by Pakistan. Therefore, sense lies in being prepared for the worst case of war outbreak and nuclear use. A more appropriate and accurate interpretation of deterrence should instead be that nuclear weapons possession deters receipt of ‘unacceptable damage’.

This means that as long as nuclear weapons exist and conflict is possible, engaging with the manner of their use remains. So far strategy has centered on deterrence in which the threat of use is manipulated to keep them from being used by the enemy. However, the thinking has been that in case of deterrence break down, in-conflict deterrence is hugely difficult and escalation is a strong possibility. Therefore, limiting nuclear response is not a viable proposition. Therefore, in such analysis, nuclear retaliation should be punishing and of an ‘unacceptable’ level for the enemy. Not doing to do so would, one, send the message of lack of political resolve and, two, make nuclear war fighting appear a feasible proposition.

The question that arises then is how to limit even flexible nuclear retaliation, seen above as being preferable to ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation. Cognisance of this argument implies that flexible nuclear retaliation requires a caveat. It is here the formulation first introduced by General Sundarji makes sense. He maintained that should the nuclear taboo be broken then the endeavour should be to terminate the nuclear exchange(s) at the lowest possible level. Taking cue from this formulation, the nuclear doctrine should explicitly state that nuclear use would be terminated at the lowest possible level.

Critics would have it that this would place India at a deterrence disadvantage with respect to China. It being an authoritarian state would not be amenable to self-deterrence. The short answer is that China, having grown phenomenally over the recent past is would not want to imperil its gains. It would not wish to see its power effected negatively, particularly in relation to the USA. Therefore, it has not interest in pursuing nuclear war. This explains its NFU policy. Since it already has adequate conventional military capacity, it would be more than willing to limit any nuclear exchanges in line with the formulation of terminating nuclear war earliest.

With respect to Pakistan, it may be argued that a Jihadi regime, ideologically intoxicated that finally it would prevail, may not be self-deterred. Pakistan under such a regime may be willing to suffer asymmetric damage in return for the satisfaction of inflicting unacceptable damage on India. Even if true, India does not need to compel such nuclear resort by Pakistan by promising ‘unacceptable damage’ as the only manner of using its nuclear capability. The satisfaction of ‘finishing’ Pakistan is no compensation if India were to be changed immeasurably as a result. However, in case Pakistan were to go for a higher order ‘first use’ that causes ‘unacceptable damage’ to India, then India, in light of the tenets of a flexible doctrine, would have the right to even go ‘massive’ in return.


India should move to the ‘Sundarji doctrine’. Its present doctrine promising ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation and infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’ is valid only in case India receives such strikes from the enemy. This not likely to be the case since the nuclear second strike capability enables India to retaliate in kind and inflict on the enemy an unaffordable punishment. Therefore, terminating the exchange earliest when neither has suffered unacceptably makes strategic sense.

This is to move to a fresh intellectual territory, not traversed even in the Cold War era that was otherwise prolific on deterrence issues. Deterrence is rightly predicated on the assurance of nuclear punishment of the order of levels inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’. However, the argument here is that infliction of such punishment opens up India to like punishment in revenge or retaliation. It is uncertain whether India as we know it can withstand such punishment. Even if the appreciation is that it can emerge strengthened from such a nuclear exchange, the mere possibility of the outcome being otherwise is cause enough for self deterrence. In which case, India’s current doctrine of inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ as a default retaliation option needs a rethink. Instead, the proposition is for a move from damage infliction considerations - valid for deterrence - to damage limiting considerations in case of breakdown of deterrence. Even if damage infliction is the basis of nuclear deterrence, in case of breakdown damage limitation must be that of nuclear employment. Given the higher probability of nuclear escalation after the first exchange, it requires to be an explicitly stated that the exchange(s) would be terminated at the lowest possible level. This is essentially the ‘Sundarji’ doctrine.

This requires debate in India. The discussion being valid for other Southern Asian states, including China, the proposal for adherence of NFU needs to be extended to include adherence of this formulation too.