writings of ali ahmed ...with due acknowledgement and thanks to publications where these have appeared. Views expressed are personal and may not be associated with any organisation. Follow on twitter: @aliahd66
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With the Bharatiya Janata Party in power in India a nuclear doctrine review is in the offing. Since the issue found controversial mention in the elections, it will likely figure high in the ‘to do’ list of the new government. Praveen Swami informs that the prime minister has been briefed by the outgoing National Security Adviser and the chief of the Strategic Forces Command early this month. Now that an intelligence czar has been placed as NSA, the government would likely either appoint a nuclear expert to head a committee to revise the nuclear doctrine or it could task the National Security Advisory Board for this.
Among the ideas up for discussion are NFU, ‘massive’ and ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation, the inter-se relationship between ‘credible’ and ‘minimum’, the degree of operationalization necessary in keeping within India’s unique civil-military relations and structural matters such as appointment of a fulltime four star general to, inter-alia, oversee the SFC. This article advances the idea of Nuclear Risk Reduction Center as one whose time has come.
A nuclear review itself is long overdue, the last in 2003 resulting in adoption of the official nuclear doctrine. Though the Congress neglected to revise it in its ten years in power, this does not mean that the government did not keep the doctrine under review. It is known that its National Security Advisory Board, that has a lifespan of two years, is charged with reviewing national security. The Executive Council of India’s Nuclear Command Authority, that includes military brass, also meets every six months in a meeting chaired by the prime minister, who heads the Political Council. India has also created a strategic programs staff in its National Security Council Secretariat that no doubt has mild resemblance to Pakistan’s famous Strategic Plans Division of its National Command Authority. Therefore, while the nuclear doctrine is kept under watch, it is likely stayed unchanged since there has been little reason to change it.
The commentary in the aftermath of the mention of the review in election time suggests that No First Use, a cardinal pillar, is seen as worth retaining in India’s security interest. India, having the advantage in conventional forces, does not need to resort to nuclear first use to further any strategic ends. Besides, it is useful from projecting India as a responsible nuclear power, particularly when contrasted to Pakistan which has studiously avoided an NFU commitment. Therefore, it is unlikely NFU would be unhinged in any review, particularly with the incoming Prime Minister, Mr. Modi, indicating as much.
However, it is the other facet of India’s doctrine, ‘credible minimum deterrence’ that may be reviewed. Even though the BJP manifesto mentions ‘credible minimum deterrence’, ‘minimum’ has long since been superseded by ‘credible’. Credibility is predicated on capability, resolve and communication of both to the adversary. India has been putting into place a triad. The final piece in the form of a nuclear armed and powered submarine would likely be operational by the mid-term of the next government. This would confer on India an ‘invulnerable’ second strike capability. While credibility exists at the higher, level of nuclear exchange(s), Pakistan has with the induction of the tactical nuclear weapons system, Nasr, posed a dilemma for India.
Currently, India’s nuclear doctrine is one of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation for any form of nuclear first use against it or its forces anywhere. The problem that Nasr poses is that in case of its use against an advancing Indian military in Pakistani territory, India would under the tenets of its current doctrine have to retaliate against counter value targets in Pakistan: counter value being strategic short hand for urban centers. Since Pakistan now has nuclear weapons in the lower three digits, its counter strike would likely be equally damaging for India; resulting in an escalatory spiral. Therefore, India may have to rethink its nuclear doctrine for lower order levels of Pakistani nuclear first use, symbolized by the Nasr. It may then have to go from ‘massive’ to ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation.
The current debate therefore revolves around the votaries of ‘flexible’ insisting that going ‘massive’ is incredible and the votaries of ‘massive’ believing that ‘flexible’ is a move away from a deterrence to a war fighting doctrine. Since escalation control is not assured, a ‘war fighting’ doctrine is to go down the Cold War route, especially since this is but a short step short of a ‘war winning’ doctrine.
On account of this impasse, a third model has suggested itself: the Sundarji doctrine, named after the famous Indian general, known more for his conventional war doctrine on mechanised warfare. Sundarji’s nuclear doctrine has it that a nuclear exchange, signifying onset of nuclear conflict, must be terminated through appropriate political and diplomatic means at the lowest threshold of nuclear use. Explicitly acknowledging this intention to end the nuclear exchange(s) earliest gives the other side an assurance against escalation, thereby enabling escalation control, even as political measures including appropriate mutual concessions are made by both sides.
Since escalation control is a two way street it implies an element of cooperation. In the midst of a nuclear conflict, it would be counter intuitive to suggest cooperation. However, Nobel prize winning nuclear deterrence theorist, Thomas Schelling, has posited cooperation in conflict stating: ‘Still some kind of cooperation with the Russians or mutual restraint, formal or informal, tacit or explicit, may prove to make a significant difference in the stability of the balance of terror…’ (The Strategy of Conflict, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980. p. 251).
Therefore, it appears that deterrence requires being complemented by reassurance. It is not only the threat of great damage in store that deters but reassurance that such punishment would not be resorted to if some conditions are fulfilled also stays the nuclear hand. Therefore, given the shared interest in national and regime survival, the two states would require to engage with each other when most needed and when seemingly least possible. The international community, energised by the conflict going nuclear, can step in to facilitate this.
Reassuring the sceptical enemy of limited conflict aims would be required in a time critical manner. Likewise, the enemy looking for a way out of a nuclear escalatory spiral would also be interested in a reassuring political exchange. Bernard Brodie’s sage counsel will be relevant at this juncture: ‘Clausewitz’s classical definition must be modified, at least for any opponent who has a substantial nuclear capability behind him. Against such an opponent one’s terms must be modest enough to permit him to accept them, without his being pushed by desperation into rejecting both those terms and the limitations in war fighting (Strategy in the Missile Age. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1959: 313).’
These can be diplomatically conveyed. However, there would be clutter in communication, particularly those messages sent through even well meaning intermediary states that are friendly to both countries. What is additionally needed to supplement diplomatic efforts is a direct mechanism of interface. This is the role of the proposed nuclear risk reduction center in conflict. However, it cannot be a creation at the cusp of conflict in case it is to withstand the test of conflict. It would require being in existence prior and its staff from both countries practiced in networking each other.
To develop the ethos and habits that would stand it in good stead in conflict, it may require being the hub of nuclear confidence building during peace, involved in issues such as missile test information exchange, mutual nuclear accident intimation etc. Tasked with nuclear risk avoidance, escalation control and de-escalation, this would supplement hotlines already in place. The two states can take their nuclear confidence building talks further to the nuclear risk reduction level through this. Currently, these desultorily dwell on doctrines and status of nuclear CBMs in place. Ten years since their start, taking them a step ahead is necessary.
Since it would tacitly imply a lack of faith deterrence, contingency plans can be drawn up during the talks, even if a mechanism is not created right away. It could be placed outside the region or within the region in either a third country or in either of the two countries. However, it bears reckoning that while nuclear war prevention is important, how to react in case it does break out must also be in the reckoning. Putting all the eggs in the deterrence basket may lead to retrospective judgment of strategic imprudence if deterrence does break down.
How is this in India’s interests? Conflict in the nuclear age can at best be in the limited war tradition. Preventing the tendency in war towards ‘Absolute War’, as conceptualized by Clausewitz, is through exercise of political control. Political aims in conflict being limited, any outbreak of nuclear war therefore would upturn original political aims, requiring reconfiguring of political and military aims and objectives for the nuclear conflict. Nevertheless, limitation will be an overriding necessity. NRRC can serve to convey this mutually shared aim to each other by the nuclear belligerents, especially when both have second strike capability and have ‘assured destruction’ levels of arsenal.
Hypothetically, in case India wishes to punish Pakistan conventionally for subconventional provocation in future, its limited war doctrine is designed to keep this conflict from going nuclear. However, that the nuclear decision would be Pakistan’s to make, a limited conventional war cannot be guaranteed. India’s counter, irrespective of its declaratory nuclear doctrine, may well be in accordance with an operational nuclear doctrine that rules in limited nuclear operations. ‘Flexible’ nuclear retaliation in this manner may entail taking prior precautions against escalation. This is where NRRC comes in and is in India’s interest.
Will Pakistan bite? Pakistan’s interest is clearly in ensuring against conflict outbreak and its earliest end at the lowest threshold. Failing attempts at conflict avoidance, Pakistan would like to deny India its conventional advantage. It would certainly not like to be the first to go nuclear. In case it is indeed pushed past the threshold it may consider lower order nuclear strike so as to enable de-escalation and early conflict termination. This will ensure that Pakistan is preserved from nuclear damage to maximum extent possible for post conflict stability and early recovery. While its nuclear weapons would enable deterrence at all levels of the conflict, including in-conflict deterrence, it would nevertheless require mechanisms for de-escalation and assurance. The latter is always to complement deterrence. A mechanism for interface even during conflict as proposed here enables reassurance.
Pakistan has expressed its interest in NRRMs for many years. Officers proceeding to Stimson Center on sabbatical from its Strategic Plans Division have written up their papers at that think tank along these lines. This indicates that there is scope for Indian to pursue the Lahore Memorandum of Understanding to its logical conclusion along the lines here through the formal channel of talks on nuclear CBMs when it reconvenes after the forming of a new government.
This would entail introducing the Sundarji nuclear doctrine into the discourse as an alternative to both ‘massive’ and ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliatory doctrines currently being discussed. Making the Sundarji doctrine workable would require establishing a Nuclear Risk Reduction Center. While the two Cold War adversaries waited till the end of the Cold War, to set this up, for the two South Asian states to wait till the end of their own Cold War may be to risk ‘hot war’ in the interim. Since there is no guarantee for conflict resolution in the subcontinent any time soon, the mechanism is a necessary mitigation measure for the risk.