Severe Indigestion From Nuclear Orthodoxy
By ALI AHMED
Wed Apr 30, 2014
Shyam Saran, chair of India’s National Security Advisory Board, in a recent op-ed, ‘The dangers of nuclear revisionism’(http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/shyam-saran-the-dangers-of-nuclear-revisionism-114042201335_1.html), begins by defending the NFU, but goes on to make the case for preservation of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation as a tenet in India’s nuclear retaliatory doctrine.
Since Saran is against nuclear ‘revisionism’, he would no doubt agree that nuclear orthodoxy is just as bad. Which of the two is worse can be best gauged from the answer to the pertinent question he poses: ‘Why, it is argued, should one retaliate with all of one’s nuclear assets if a tank brigade or some military installations are destroyed in a tactical nuclear attack, and thereby ensure the incineration of most of our cities and populace in a further and inevitable counter-attack using strategic nuclear weapons?’
Nuclear orthodoxy would lie in believing that ensuring the credibility of ‘massive’ retaliation assures deterrence. Faced by credible Indian actions to ensure follow through with its doctrine will stay Pakistan’s nuclear hand. India by not recognising any distinction between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and believing that limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms will appear implacable to Pakistan. Pakistan will then desist from nuclear first use.
What does Saran mean by ‘massive’? Wargaming the aftermath of the scenario in the question Saran poses may help with determining if ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation is credible. ‘Massive’ can be taken as short hand for counter value targeting. Even if counter value targeting is abjured, in order to preserve own value targets from being the object of the enemy’s counter retaliation, then ‘massive’ would imply higher order counter military targeting. This, by Saran’s own reasoning of lack of distinction between tactical and strategic weapons, implies considerable collateral damage of an order as to make countervalue targeting indistinguishable from higher order counter military targeting.
Given the magnitude of such a strike, it can plausibly be argued that Pakistan would be finished. But would the war end at that? Pakistan has taken care to get into the lower three digits in terms of warhead numbers. These it has been cautious enough to spread across six to ten or more sites. Therefore, it has potential for counter strike. When Saran asks for strengthening of the current nuclear posture, he probably means that India must rely on its anti-missile capability, currently in infancy and likely to be of limited credibility when it matures, to ward of the counter strike Pakistan is sure to launch. Even if such a strike back is broken backed, it would be considerably damaging. India would then, as part of its ‘massive’ strike, have to ensure a counterforce attack to set back this residual ability.
The key question is how many weapons does Saran imagine are required for such a retaliatory strike? In a conflict, the weapons will be with the strategic forces commands of respective service across Pakistan. Some would be postured forward to give credibility to the low nuclear threshold it projects. Some may be held back as reserve in order to provide for a second strike capability once India unleashes its promised ‘massive’ nuclear attack. India would be faced with a large target set and widely spread.
India can decrease the nuclear ordnance used by ensuring degradation through conventional means as also by selective targeting, such as of Pakistan’s command and control systems. At places even Special Forces could be employed. It can make the nuclear degradation task easier by relying on intelligence, both technological and human and on foreign sources of support on this score, including perhaps Israel and at a pinch even the US.
A degraded arsenal would imply reduction, conservatively estimated for our purpose here of back-of-the-envelope calculation, by about a third, which means taking out about 40 warheads. Even if conventional attacks take care of a fourth of this amount, there are still 30 remaining. To take out 30 weapons that are militarily ready to use, would require at least an equivalent number to be launched. This means that there would likely be a minimum 50 nuclear explosions in Pakistan.
As mentioned if Pakistan was to launch a bedraggled counter strike, comprising a sixth of its numbers left, this number increases to sixty explosions. Even if India takes care to configure its most of strike to ensure against fallout, Pakistan on the contrary would not be so inclined. Therefore, there can be expected to be at least 30 mushroom clouds formed by the explosions across the subcontinent.
Pakistan with its ten nuclear bombs lobbed cannot be expected to take out more than perhaps three cities. Even if we are to here assume that Mumbai and Delhi are not among these and India can cope with three cities less, visualising 30 fallout hotspots, including three Indian cities and perhaps double the number Pakistani urban centres, may give a better idea of the post exchange environment.
The second edition of a report on the effects on climate and in turn impact on agricultural production increased the numbers at risk globally from one billion to two billion in case of a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan involving 100 detonations. Since in our scenario only 60 weapons have been used, it would imply that these figures can be reduced by about a third. It is quite clear that even then the numbers should deter Pakistan from nuclear resort.
However, the same is true for India. India must surely also be deterred from visiting such a retaliation on Pakistan. This means that India cannot reasonably launch the kind of retaliatory strike on Pakistan as it proposes to. This means that India’s doctrine lacks credibility. This lack of credibility increases Pakistan’s propensity for nuclear first use, especially in the manner encapsulated by the question Saran posed and failed to answer credibly.
If and since Pakistan could well go first in the manner suggested in the scenario, it would be best India also have options up its sleeve. It is evident that neither country can possibly think of taking further step up the nuclear ladder than the very lower rungs. This means there is little need for the capability Saran says is necessary to make for credibility of deterrence.
Incidentally, it is perhaps for the first time in a piece on nuclear matters, the term ‘minimum’ does not figure even once in Saran’s article. This implies ‘minimum’ in India’s doctrine has been jettisoned implying India has gone down the Cold War route even as it protests Cold War logic. If India following Saran was to have its cake and eat it to, only fatal indigestion can result.
Instead, since nuclear weapons exist, India and Pakistan need to follow General Sundarji’s sage advice to work out a modus vivendi to end a nuclear confrontation at the lowest threshold of nuclear use.
(Ali Ahmed is author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge). He blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in.)