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Thinking about the aftermath of Pakistani nuclear first use is not a vote on India’s nuclear deterrence doctrine. While India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine of January 2003 is for nuclear deterrence, it is based on India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999. It bears recall that the Draft had used the phrase ‘peacetime posture’ in reference to measures taken to reinforce deterrence including the warning of punitive retaliation. By using the phrase ‘peacetime’ it enables flexibility for wartime, the context in which deterrence breakdown cannot be ruled out.
It is not necessary for a state to have its operational nuclear doctrine, or nuclear doctrine in case of deterrence breakdown, in the open domain. Therefore, even as the declaratory nuclear doctrine is taken as sacrosanct, the existence of an operational nuclear doctrine cannot be ruled out. It can reasonably be taken that the two – declaratory and operational – nuclear doctrines may be one and the same. However, that they can be distinct and with substantial differences cannot be ruled out. The fact that the Draft used the term ‘peacetime’ and the 2003 doctrine is based substantially on the Draft suggests the possibility that India’s nuclear doctrine for the contingency of breakdown of deterrence, or its operational nuclear doctrine, may be different. Therefore, for visualizing Indian responses to Pakistani nuclear first use, there are two possibilities.
In the case of declaratory doctrine, deterrence breakdown in the form of nuclear first use by Pakistan would invite ‘massive’ punitive retaliation by India inflicting unacceptable damage. Visualizing this for higher order Pakistani nuclear first use, such as on Indian soil and its urban centers is easy. However, doing the same for lower order first use options taken by Pakistan is relatively difficult. This owes to the problem of disproportionality.
Higher order retaliation by India to lower order first use by Pakistan may result in Pakistan resorting to equally pain inflicting counter strikes. Vertical proliferation in its case enables it have a second strike capability in place for this. India’s ‘massive’ strike would require being of considerable proportions to take out this capability. Doing so could result in environmental consequences that India would not be able to sustain. A panicked global reaction may intervene to halt such a response.
Therefore, conceding that Pakistan will have enough left over to inflict pain on India or that it has a second strike capability in terms of numbers may be a useful start point to rethink the ‘massive’ retaliation formulation once the nuclear doctrine comes up for review. India would therefore need to as part of the review think along the lines of limited nuclear operations in case of deterrence breakdown.
While it may already have such an operational doctrine in place but has sensibly kept it confidential, it is for consideration if this needs to continue to be so in the event of Pakistani projection of a low nuclear threshold. The assumption behind the Nasr missile is that Pakistan can get away with nuclear first use in the belief that India cannot follow through on its declaratory nuclear doctrine.
In Pakistani thinking this may owe to self-deterrence by India, forceful intervention by foreign powers catalyzed by Pakistani first use threat or its going first and lack of Indian lower order response options. It is a misinterpretation that Pakistan intends using the Nasr for anything other than strategic purposes, in particular nuclear signaling and to catalyse foreign conflict termination intervention.
Deterrence of Pakistani first use at higher order levels can be taken as granted since India has the capability and in case it is recipient of such a strike will unlikely be self-deterred in its response. However, for lower order first use India could think of lower order nuclear response. By no means does this mean indulging in nuclear exchanges and going up the proverbial Kahnian ladder. It is only to strike Pakistan back for in-conflict deterrence and to gain time for nuclear exchange termination effort, if not conflict termination itself. Since such a strike back cannot risk exposing India to greater threat, as would a ‘massive’ retaliatory strike as discussed above, lower order strikes may require to be thought through.
Such thinking can be done in the run up to the review along three lines. The first is the effect on deterrence. In case India gives itself limited nuclear retaliatory options for lower order threat with conflict termination intent, then it would rule out Pakistan’s notion that India lacks options. This will reinforce deterrence, even while ensuring escalation control. An operational doctrine as this for the period post deterrence breakdown can complement the declaratory doctrine aimed at deterrence.
Second is the effect on conventional operations underway. Conventional operations may require continuing to achieve political aims that in turn may in the event of nuclear use be modified suitably. Operations would need a suitable deterrent cover. This is best provided by operational doctrine including limited nuclear options.
Third, limited nuclear operations entail escalation control. Whereas conflict termination is the best measure towards escalation control, the next best is exchange termination at the lowest possible threshold of nuclear exchange. If measures towards this need to be in place prior so as to withstand not only the charged environment of conflict but the heightened tension stemming from nuclear dimension of the conflict, these would require contemplation as part of the forthcoming nuclear review.
A nuclear review’s start point has to be the possibility of nuclear use. Concentrating on deterring this is useful, but not enough. India needs to also have limited nuclear response options up its sleeve. Letting Pakistan know of this will reinforce deterrence and in the event of its breakdown, will leave India with the flexibility to choose to either go ‘massive’ or proportional, or indeed, if strategy so warrants, even choose to keep Pakistan in the political and moral dog house by conventional response to lower order nuclear first use.
Col Ali Ahmed is author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge, 2014).