Monday, 25 August 2014

Limiting Nuclear War in South Asia

Limiting Nuclear War in South Asia

SP's Landforces 4/2014

Unedited version

The strategic cul de sac
Pakistan by introducing tactical nuclear weapons into its armoury has attempted to checkmate India’s conventional war doctrine of proactive offensive from a ‘cold start’. Since India’s military has been preparing to fight in a nuclear environment since its Exercise Total Victory in 2001, it is not at the conventional level that India is seeking an answer to Pakistan’s nuclear challenge. From the recent flurry in strategic circles brought on by BJP’s reference to nuclear doctrine in its manifesto has emerged contending views on what India must do, firstly to deter Pakistan and secondly, to respond effectively.
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.
Questioning the status quo
Some have questioned the credibility of an intention to go ‘massive’, 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 implies considerable collateral damage of an order as to make counter value 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, or a second strike capability. It is unlikely that India’s missile defences, currently in infancy and likely to be of limited credibility when mature, would be able to ward off the counter strike entirely. Even if such a counter is broken-backed, it would be considerably damaging and likely of ‘unacceptable damage’ levels if not more. India would then, as part of its ‘massive’ strike, have to ensure a counter force attack to set back this residual ability of counter strike of Pakistan.
A counter force attack targeting Pakistan’s nuclear assets would of necessity have to be considerably large. India would be faced with a large target set and widely spread with Pakistan’s ‘crown jewels’ being with the strategic forces commands of all three services across Pakistan and indeed if on diesel submarines, also at sea. 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.
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. More likely, a nuclear degradation strike would involve a minimum 50 nuclear explosions in Pakistan.
As mentioned if Pakistan was to launch a bedraggled counter strike, comprising, say, a sixth of its numbers left, this number increases to sixty explosions. Even if India takes care to configure most of its retaliatory strike to ensure against fallout, Pakistan is unlikely to be so inclined. Therefore, there can be expected to be at least 30 mushroom clouds formed by about 60 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 urban centres, may give a better idea of the post nuclear exchange environment for the region.
A report late last year by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, ‘Nuclear famine: Two billion people at risk?’, is on effects on climate and in turn impact on agricultural production. Its hypothetical scenario is 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. Even so, they are bad enough.
Surely then, such a possibility should deter Pakistan from nuclear first use. Therefore, at first blush, ‘massive’ seems to be a plausible doctrine. However, the problem is that since the major portion of the nuclear winter would be brought on by India’s doing - its going ‘massive’ - India too would be self-deterred. This would increase Pakistan’s propensity for nuclear first use, especially in a low-threshold, early-use mode comprising low opprobrium levels of attack with limited nuclear ordnance.
Looking for answers
If first use possibility is heightened for want of credibility of the ‘massive’ formulation, anticipating the nature of Pakistani nuclear first use and having an appropriate response is in order. This owes to India wanting to work its conventional advantage in case necessary. The conventional advantage stands faced with a stalemate brought about by introduction of Nasr by Pakistan. This implies that India must also have limited nuclear options up its sleeve.
It is also evident that neither country can possibly think of taking further step up the nuclear ladder than the very lower rungs. Receiving ‘unacceptable damage’ from Pakistan may set India back with respect to its main long term challenge on the eastern front. It is here that a ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation doctrine makes more sense than ‘massive’. The apprehension among advocates of ‘massive’ is that in case ‘massive’ is abandoned in favour of ‘flexible’ then there is a threat of going down the Cold War nuclear war waging doctrinal route of hyper alertness, abandonment of ‘minimum’ in the doctrine and an operational readiness enabling the military greater say at the strategic and operational levels. There is also the need to think about escalation control and war termination.
This debate between ‘massive’ and ‘flexible’ currently ongoing means a ‘third model’ is necessary. The third model has not found mention in the recent debate though it has been around in since the early nineties in the writings of General Sundarji. His conventional war thinking, recently revised by the move towards Cold Start, eclipsed his nuclear doctrinal recommendation. His sage advice of the early nineties can help pull India out of its strategic cul de sac.
The Sundarji doctrine has it that adversarial nuclear states must work out a modus vivendi to end a nuclear confrontation at the lowest threshold of nuclear use, if necessary by mutual political and diplomatic concessions. The sense in the Sundarji doctrine is that it eliminates ‘massive’ as option and caters for the shortfalls of ‘flexible’ doctrine.
It is predicated on the cooperation possible between both nuclear belligerents mutually interested to avoid a worse outcome. This would entail creating the necessary nuclear risk reduction measures prior and working these with the help of the international community in case conventional push comes to nuclear shove. The opportunity for a review can help bring Sundarji’s nuclear sense back to the subcontinent.
Contours of the doctrine review
It is possible that this is already present in ample measure in that even as India maintains the ‘massive’ declaratory doctrine for deterrence; it may well have an operational doctrine that envisages limited nuclear operations for the contingency of breakdown of deterrence. Therefore the operational nuclear doctrine may already be different and predicated on ‘flexible’ doctrine. In this case, the impending doctrine review provides India an opportunity to, firstly, to match the declaratory and operational nuclear doctrines, and, secondly, cater for escalation control through nuclear risk reduction measures.
That a convergence between declaratory and operational nuclear doctrines is necessary stems from the need for credibility. A nuclear state must say what it means and means what it says. The fear may be that admitting to ‘flexible’ doctrine involving limited nuclear operations may be to admit incredibility of the ‘massive’ formulation. It may be thought to reduce India’s status as a responsible and mature nuclear power that abstains from nuclear war fighting thinking, believing that nuclear weapons are a class apart as weapons. Also, there may be skepticism on Pakistan’s credibility as an cooperative interlocutor in a nuclear risk reduction mechanism such as a nuclear risk reduction center.
However, a convergence between the two – declaratory and operational - would enable limiting nuclear war in case it does break out. Given that potential triggers remain active; this is not a non-trivial consideration, especially when both states continue to be proactive on the subconventional and conventional levels respectively.
But more importantly, any such shift must not degrade deterrence. While it is self-evident that ‘massive’ is incredible, it is arguable that ‘flexible’, with escalation controls of the ‘third model’, does not degrade deterrence. Therefore, while a shift is incumbent to make to ‘flexible’, can it involve a move all the way to the ‘third (Sundarji) model’ is the question.
Since ‘flexible’ does not answer to the critique of the ‘massive’ votaries that escalation is ‘inexorable’, the third model can be used to supplement the ‘flexible’ model to enable escalation control and conflict termination. Clearly, war being an act of politics, limiting nuclear war is a must and only conducting limited nuclear operations aimed at exchange(s) termination and conflict termination can bring this about.
Therefore, thinking on how the combined political-diplomatic-information-military-nuclear operations will work out is what the doctrine review must strive towards. This is ever more so if indeed limited nuclear operations are what the Strategic Forces Command is already seized with. It cannot be solely a military exercise nor be military led. Doctrinal clarity towards this end will bring about the ‘all of government approach’ necessary to limit nuclear war.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

dissonance in strategic doctrine

Dissonance in India’s Strategic Doctrine
India’s prime minister while commissioning India’s largest indigenously build frigate, INS (Indian Naval Ship) Kolkata, gave out his government’s strategic doctrine as deterrence. As he put it, a strong military ensures that no one dare cast an evil eye on India. Deterrence is the ability to influence a putative adversary’s calculations of relative gains and losses in a way that he decides against taking action that may harm us. A strong military signals to the adversary impossibility of military gains either in face of heavy losses or by the surety of punishment. This stops an adversary from an action undesired by us.
This article reviews India’s strategic doctrine of deterrence and tests whether this is true for India’s two fronts: China and Pakistan. While deterrence serves India on the China front, India’s cancellation this week of the talks with Pakistan suggests that on the Pakistan front there is more to India’s strategic doctrine than deterrence.
India has managed to arrive at deterrence after investing in its military over the past decade. On the Pakistan front it has three strike corps, one more than Pakistan, and has a doctrine by way of which it can use these in a nuclear setting. On the China front, it has raised two mountain divisions and a mountain strike corps, opened up high altitude airfields and staged forward combat aircraft. It has sensitized China to its maritime vulnerability with the prime minister commissioning two warships in quick succession: aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, as his first official act, and more recently INS Kolkata.
Since deterrence is always a work-in-progress, these efforts continue with the country spending $350 million on arms imports this year. It has also upped the strategic partnership with the US, with the US becoming the largest military supplier to India, which incidentally is the largest arms importer in the world. This helps in external balancing or leveraging diplomatic resources to enhance power especially since China’s defense spending is three times India’s. On the nuclear dimension, India has given itself a Strategic Programs Staff, headed by a former three star rank officer, presumably to upgrade operationalization of its nuclear deterrent.
Against the ‘two front’ ‘collusive’ threat in which Pakistan and China are taken as ganging up against India, particularly where the two fronts converge in Ladakh, India has inducted an armored regiment and is to induct an armored brigade onto the Leh plateau. One of the two divisions of the mountain strike corps is being raised in Pathankot, perhaps to be immediately on hand for induction into Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The mountain strike corps could build up in its wake. Therefore, the worst-case has also been catered for.
These efforts suggest that deterrence alluded to by the prime minister is in place. Pakistan has already registered as much, a fact mentioned in the prime minister’s Leh speech in his reference to Pakistan resorting to proxy war since it was not able to conventionally move India on Kashmir. Instead, India has the capability of going on the offensive against Pakistan, albeit one restricted by the nuclear threshold. Thus, it has ability for both ‘deterrence by denial’ and ‘deterrence by punishment’.
Against China, India is in a position to ensure that China cannot ‘teach it a lesson’. While China may make localized gains owing to its investment in Tibetan infrastructure, India’s offensive capability in mountains can either negate these by counter attack or can make equivalent gains elsewhere. China, in the midst of a growth trajectory, intended to match the US, is unlikely therefore to test waters. However, India’s deterrence preparedness being incomplete, with army expansion and road building underway and artillery purchases only signed on now, India reasonably is underplaying the ‘transgressions’ that take place on the Line of Actual Control as ‘routine’. Diplomatically, the
Chinese president’s visit to Delhi next month indicates India’s diplomatic outreach to keep deterrence from being tested.
It is on the Pakistan front that dissonance in strategic doctrine is apparent. This week, India has proceeded to summarily cancel the exploratory talks with Pakistan. Pakistan for its part said that it was not subservient to India. This exchange between the two sides suggests that Pakistan is projecting itself as a state that will not be intimidated and India in its cancellation of talks appeared peremptory. As seen with offensive deterrence in place, India was militarily in a comfortable position with Pakistan. And yet it chose not to use the favorable military positioning to diplomatic advantage. What does this imply?
India’s deterrence subsumes its defense against proxy war with its military poised to deliver a ‘befitting reply’ on the Line of Control (LC) and continuing to dominate the hinterland in Kashmir. India fears possible diversion of Islamist energy by Pakistan into Kashmir with the planned US drawdown in Afghanistan by 2016. It is here that India’s offensive capability kicks in. The capability is to send the message that India has the capability and new conventional doctrine it lacked earlier in the nineties to administer conventional punishment. However, the dynamics at the nuclear level, in particular Pakistan’s testing of its tactical nuclear missile system in November 2013, have emboldened Pakistan.
Increased LC clashes are evidence that it is sensitizing India; thereby attempting to incentivize India to talk. In the event, this proved counter-productive. For India, the current juncture indicates the limits of offensive deterrence. At best it can create a favorable condition for talks. It cannot bring about the outcome of Pakistan abandoning Kashmir. Only meaningful talks can and so can ‘compellence’, a strategic concept involving compelling the adversary to give up a course of action embarked on, if successful. By not keeping up with talks, India is tending towards the latter.
Given that India has an active diplomatic prong to complement deterrence for the China front it needs to replicate this for the Pakistan front. On this score, its cancellation of the talks with Pakistan right at the inception earlier this week is counter-productive. The self-fulfilling prophecy could well kick in: India’s tendency towards compellence can only prompt Pakistan’s ‘deep state’ or ‘establishment’ to up-the-ante and vice versa. India can do without such dissonance in its strategic doctrine.

Monday, 18 August 2014

India's forthcoming nuclear doctrine review

Aakrosh July 2014 

India’s forthcoming nuclear doctrine review

The process
A nuclear doctrine review is on the cards. The BJP having promised in its manifesto to conduct a review would likely follow through, in the least to keep up its credibility. The last review was done in 2003 when the earlier NDA government adopted the official nuclear doctrine. It is believed that the official, declaratory nuclear doctrine was largely based on the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999. While the UPA government that followed did not review – read revise - the doctrine, this does not imply that it did not keep the doctrine under review. The National Security Advisory Board, that are convened for two years, are tasked to review national security and as part of this can be expected to have engaged with nuclear questions. Their output has been kept confidential. Besides, the six monthly meetings of the Executive Council of the Nuclear Command Authority have found mention in the media. Therefore, it will only be fair to acknowledge that lack of transparency on this score does not imply inaction. It can be inferred from the fact that the declaratory doctrine has not been revised, that the UPA governments in both its tenures either did not think it necessary to revise the doctrine or that it may have revised the operational nuclear doctrine even while keeping the declaratory nuclear doctrine in place and intact.
The BJP has broached the issue owing to its projection as a nationalist and conservative party that is serious about national security. Since traditionally conservatives are taken as ‘strong’ on defence universally, that the issue figured in the BJP’s concerns is understandable. It has also been buoyed by the support of a cohort of retired brass and diplomats, some of who have been on the strategic circuit taking pot shots at the previous government. The BJP’s internal deliberations would therefore have been informed by the strategic community input. Strategic entreprenuers would also have been looking to use the issue for placing themselves in positions of utility for the government in case the BJP. There was also an upsurge of interest in nuclear questions in the fag end of the UPA tenure, most perceptibly the one on No First Use. There is also the critique of India lacking an explicit strategic doctrine. This would also have been conveyed to national security minders in the new dispensation by supporters in the strategic community. Though it has not given out its mind as yet at this early stage in its tenure, it would likely also initiate a written document. The fact that the BJP corralled reputed domain experts to present a Vision document to the people when in power is harbinger of more doctrinal activism yet to come.
This brief measure of the political, institutional and personal drivers behind the BJP’s campaign promise by no means precludes strategically weighty reasons to take a relook at nuclear doctrine.  Chief among these has been the dilemma posed to India’s nuclear doctrine by the induction of the Nasr nuclear missile system by Pakistan. In any case, nuclear developments in the region comprising China, Pakistan and India have moved considerably over the decade since the last review. A review of the doctrine is also necessitated by India’s nuclear trajectory that will witness the induction of the nuclear submarine with submarine launched ballistic missile capability and a long range nuclear ballistic missile to cover all of China. Since the BJP would be at the helm in the period that these are operationalised, the developments call for an appropriate doctrine. Therefore, as the manifesto pointed out, there was reason for revisiting doctrine.
Reconsideration can well result in retention of the doctrine. It could also, as possibly done in the UPA period, lead to changes in the operational doctrine that are then kept confidential. It can also result in significant changes in the doctrine itself, particularly if it is to come up with answers for the nuclear challenge currently posed by Pakistan and possibly by China once India’s second strike capability is operational by end decade. The process itself can be expected to last into midterm of the government at the latest. Therefore, by the time the freshly minted doctrine is out it could prove quite timely. If the doctrine is synchronized with the outcome of any thinking on strategic doctrine, then reasonably strategic doctrine, in the form of a defence white paper, would require preceding nuclear doctrine. Since both would require a minimum of six months to undertake, it can only be in about a year’s time that nuclear doctrine emerges. In any case the government is at the moment only in formative stage with its key appointments not all in place yet, such as at the time of writing, that of the defence minister.
Of the process itself it can at this stage be gauged that it would unlikely be led by the National Security Adviser. Since Mr. Doval has an intelligence background with no known felicity on nuclear issues, it is possible that the government may appoint a committee with a respected denizen of the strategic community to head it. The National Security Council Secretariat could provide the support. One lesson from the 1999 experience that would inform the question of how large should this committee be is that the 1999 one comprising the first NSAB, itself full of stalwarts on nuclear issues, was rather big and consequently came up with a Draft that allowed India all manner of options.  The then government distanced itself from the Draft initially, only to adopt major aspects of it, with modifications as the official nuclear doctrine in 2003. Given this evolution of the doctrine in place, aspects such as the mechanism and process for a new doctrine become relevant. There are also institutional pulls and pressures, in particular from the scientific lobby and the military, requiring a high powered committee to navigate. It is for this reason the issue of a ‘blue ribbon’ committee has figured in the discourse calling for change.
There is no shortage of personages to head the committee and form its part since eminent practitioners and thinkers, some of who may share the ideological credentials of the government, have been the mainstay of Delhi’s strategic circuit. A problem would be in the temptation for experts to ride their hobby horses. Used to criticizing the government, defending favoured strategic or political positions or determined to bring change for sake of change subjectivity in experts can build up and skew the result. Some may function as Trojan horses of affiliated institutions in the bureaucratic politics that can be expected to attend the exercise. A keen eye and strong hand of the NSA can help but a significant first step would be design of a process to ensure strategic rationality. Thereafter, would be selection of the right people to deliver. A wide interface of the mechanism tasked with the strategic community and civil society may be necessary in addition to the essential input of institutions charged with security. Involving the two, experts and society, will ensure a wholesome debate and acceptability of the product. A cautionary word needs being said on the likelihood  of media manipulation by players in the field, not least of which are foreign players with vested interests such as for instance in the defence investment field that is reportedly set to open up further to foreigners. That should however not keep the final product from being placed in the open domain. This would help place India among the great powers, a shared feature of whom is a national security strategy, even if specifics are kept closed hold.  
The advantage of the controversy was that it placed the nuclear issue, that otherwise tends to the background, towards the national spotlight. The commentary was also well informed with luminaries, both in India and abroad, pitching in, making for an effervescent strategic debate and informing and involving the public alongside. This sets the stage for a vigorous debate. Generation of a consensus will be unlikely given that the national debate includes those for abolishing nuclear weapons possession to those wanting a tous azimuts capability. It may also not be desirable to have a consensus for that would imply dominance of a particular idea or position, leading to short cuts in the contention of ideas that could include suppression and manipulation.
The controversy had the effect of taking doctrine down from the realm of high politics and inserting it into the public domain. If and since society is the object of security this was both useful and democratic.  In a nuclear world, that security has to be society centric is even more critical in light of the genocidal nature of nuclear warfare. Therefore even if doctrine is a decision for the government to take, for the doctrine making process to take a view of the public debate would be enlightened, even if a departure from the practice of closed door doctrine making. The assumption that the public cannot know what is good for it does not wash any more. Instead, the beneficial effect of public interest is in ensuring that the doctrine caters for escalation control, de-escalation, damage limitation, exit points and saliencies and engages with the non-military and non-nuclear dimensions of the ‘all of government’ effort at nuclear conflict termination.
The usual emphasis in deterrence is on the threat of inflicting damage on the enemy and the ability to do so when needed. However, limiting damage to one’s own society is of equal significance since survival and recovery capacity is itself is threatened in the era of mutual assured destruction. The compulsions of modern democratic accountability, with India at the democratic frontline as the largest democracy, are such that the exercise of doctrine making cannot be restricted to a narrow security elite, but has to be responsive to people. This can only to an extent be mediated by having the duly elected political decision maker make the decision. It equally involves the process being sensitive to taking societal tendencies onboard at the formulation stage itself. The security processes so far have been under the belief that security is too specialized a field for having public participation, relegated therefore to backrooms full of experts. However, since the nuclear dimension involves societal survival directly and crucially, its urges and eddies in its opinion cannot be ignored any more. Therefore, the process has to be inclusive, non-partisan and in the collation stage open. The deliberations of the mechanism could thereafter be closed door and its recommendations also confidential. Following this, the final product, with due redactions, can be shared with the people in whose name security is enacted.
Incorporating this into the process will have the beneficial effect of ensuring that the operational and strategic considerations do not overshadow political considerations since the political domain supersedes the strategic. The mechanism for doctrine formulation will likely be populated by experts in nuclear strategy and their input directed at deterrence and nuclear use strategy. However, nuclear use decisions are unambiguously in the political domain on account of the nature of nuclear weapons as a distinct category. Therefore, what may appear rational at the strategic level may be subject to modification by political considerations. Keeping this distinction between the strategic and political levels in doctrine making is critical. A design and mechanism for doctrine review that starts off with this informing it will be more likely to turn out a doctrinal product that balances strategic and political considerations, while privileging the latter.
The review
The specific issues that may come up in the review have already been aired during the controversy. The discussion in the open domain basically sets the stage for the doctrine revision to follow. Essentially, there were four points over which divergence was visible: No First Use; ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation; the place of ‘minimum’ and ‘credible’ in relation to each other; and finally on nuclear weapons and security in a situation of mutual assured destruction.
The popular verdict on No First Use is largely in favour of retention. There are three views. The challenger view is that this needs to be done away with. Firstly, in the strategic culture perspective, it is expression of an effete strategic culture that India needs going beyond. This has philosophical resonance in the political ideology of the government, in that there is a belief that India’s strategic reticence has been mistaken for weakness historically and taken advantage of by neighbours. Remedy calls for a more assertive India. Since NFU seemingly epitomizes a defensive and reactive mindset, vide this logic it needs being overturned. Also in this perspective, India’s political elite is timid. Therefore, in case of nuclear attack, it may well throw in the towel under foreign pressure and under operation of self-deterrence. It therefore may not be sensible to await a nuclear attack before response. Secondly, in a strategic perspective India does not have the capability of appropriate response in face of nuclear attack. Its recovery capability is also suspect. It may well go first, particularly for preemption. 
The contrary view is that NFU has served India well for many reasons. It is in keeping with India’s strategic culture of prudence. It recognizes the political reality, in that India’s ruling elite has been attuned to its developmental trajectory and therefore would not like to see a back slide by initiating a nuclear war. Mr. Modi in dampening the nuclear controversy had said as much indicating that the policy of moderation followed by his predecessor, Mr. Vajpayee, would be his line as well. India would not like to pay the political and moral cost of breaking the nuclear taboo that has developed since nuclear weapons were last used. It would not have the political capital to explain away such resort. Allowing the enemy to choose first use may enable retention of the high ground and would help post war political and legal maneuvers. In the strategic perspective NFU is required to keep nuclear fingers steady, lest in the fog of war misperception of India going first with nuclear weapons may trigger nuclear first use by the enemy. An avoidable competition in preemption could develop. India has conventional advantages that it first seeks to exploit. Unlike other states that need nuclear weapons to help balance an adversary, India does not need this even on the China front. It is currently evening the balance there with an additional deployment of two divisions in a defensive role and a mountain strike corps. Since India can achieve its objectives of territorial defence and if necessary limited offensive by conventional means, there is no need for it to go first with nuclear weapons. Finally, on the argument of preemption, the nuclear moves made by the enemy for deterrence purposes are liable to be mistaken as nuclear readiness for strike. This may push India into first use where it need not have opening up its military and society to unnecessary nuclear strike and counter strikes. Given this reasoning the motion in favour of NFU appears to have carried the day for the moment.
The second area of divergence in opinion is more significant. The votaries of India’s current doctrine of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation are firm that it does not merit dilution. In strategic cultural terms, it projects India’s resolve serving deterrence, especially where Indian resolve has consistently been mistaken by its adversaries. It may also be internally directed in that in case ‘massive’ is promised to be delivered then even a weak kneed political leadership will at least resort to a proportionate attack. This caters for any infirmities in strategic culture. The institutional reason for keeping course has been referred to in a rather tongue in cheek fashion. Since the alternative of proporationate response or contemplation of limited nuclear operations involves operationalisation that would bring the military into the loop, the prospect of losing proprietary control over the crown jewels does not enthuse them. They couch their argument in civil-military terms, but the more likely origin is in institutional interest in which the status quo favours the scientific lobby and bureaucrats, specifically foreign service officers involved in disarmament matters, as against the military that has only lately come on board. The strategy programs staff that includes military officers and the presence of two three-star general officers in the NSCS, one as military adviser and the other who has headed the Strategic Forces Command earlier, are harbingers of operationalization necessary not only for credibility of the deterrent but also of response in case of its breakdown.
Strategically, to them the doctrine is one for deterrence. Their argument is that inevitable escalation takes place in nuclear war and notions of a ‘graduated nuclear ladder’ are just that, notions. The surety of absolute harm deters better than other options of deterrence such as proportionate deterrence. Aware that it would escape unacceptable harm, Pakistan in particular could well use nuclear weapons. When it is absolved of this notion through Indian acquisition of capability and display of will, then it would be suitably be mellowed. This will allow India’s conventional might fuller play since it would tend to heighten Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. As far as China is concerned, the threat of ‘massive’ retaliation signifies intent to hit it where it hurts, on the eastern seaboard. This will keep India’s heartland that China is able to access more easily due to proximity from Tibet more secure. Since even a limited nuclear war would in this case amount to total war for India, India would require redressing the imbalance in damage received by going ‘massive’.
The key argument of votaries of ‘massive’ with those challenging them is on whether ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation deters lower order nuclear first use. The second argument against ‘massive’ is over the quantum of ‘massive’: what does ‘massive’ mean and its consequences. The first argument has been prompted by Pakistan’s introduction of the Nasr missile system suggesting lower order nuclear in a low threshold, early first use mode. This implies that the deterrence sought by the declaratory nuclear doctrine is not quite working. Lack of credibility can be remedied by moving away from ‘massive’ to ‘flexible’ or ‘proportionate’. Pakistan, perhaps finding ‘massive’ incredible, may consider balancing India’s conventional limited war strategy guided by precepts of the so-called ‘cold start’ doctrine. In case India responds massively, under the circumstance of the nuclear lead in numbers that Pakistan maintains, it would be in a position to counter strike equally potently. This may not only place India’s military objectives out of reach, but also place India in harm’s way. Prevention of such exposure can only be in case India takes out Pakistan’s retaliatory capability in the retaliatory strike. This is not possible given the numbers and their likely dispersal and concealment. Attempting to take out the retaliatory capability of over 100 nuclear weapons spread over ten locations may spell nuclear doomsday environmentally, certainly for the region, and as studies on wider climatic effects of regional nuclear war point out for the globe. Therefore, India cannot execute a ‘massive’ strike for two reasons: one is that it would receive a massive counter strike right back in case Pakistan’s retaliatory capability is left intact; and, two, in case it tries to take out the retaliatory capability, firstly, it will not succeed and, secondly, it would bring environmental disaster. Given the latter, the international community will not permit India to retaliate in this manner. Therefore, since a lower order retaliation is the only possible answer to lower order first use, India would require moving beyond ‘massive’ to ‘flexible’, if not ‘proportionate’. Whereas ‘massive’ appears incredible, at least to Pakistan, ‘flexible’ may deter better since India would have the answers for Pakistani nuclear first use at every level, whether lower order or higher order introduction by Pakistan of nuclear weapons into a conflict.
The third aspect of review is the inter-se relationship between ‘credible’ and ‘minimum’. Minimum has been India’s longstanding position and has been threatened by the emphasis on ‘credible’. Credibility is taken to require both numbers and variegation of arsenal to confer second strike capability. A former deputy national security adviser writing for the IDSA websites advocates aiming for numbers in the middle three digits! This would place India as the third largest nuclear power in the world, ahead of both its rivals, Pakistan and China. It would spark off an arms race that the two together would likely outpace India, besides putting both geopolitically onto one side unambiguously. While the mid-three digits may be extreme, the trends in India’s nuclear developments suggest a move towards eclipse of ‘minimum’. The missile shield coupled with variegation of missile systems to include MIRVs and developments in accuracy and satellite based surveillance capability are suggestive of first strike capability, even if NFU is in place. In case NFU is disturbed, then the first strike option gets ruled in. In any case NFU is a pledge that can be rescinded any time. Since a ‘massive’ attack would be required to keep Pakistan from retaliating effectively, a first strike, defined here as the attempt to take out the enemy’s retaliatory capability, could be attempted. In war conditions, where misperceptions can be formed by even defensive and deterrence related moves of the enemy’s nuclear deterrent, this would make for very nervous nuclear fingers on both sides. Clearly, then a review is called for not only on the eventual size of the deterrent, but also it’s the manner it appears to be shagging up.  This will ensure that technological determinism does not overtake strategic prudence and political oversight.
A relatively minor aspect on the credibility issue is the perceived need to go for another round of testing for the thermonuclear device that is reported to have turned out a ‘dud’ in the Pokhran tests. By now it is possible that cold tests have enabled creation of a thermonuclear deterrent that does not require India to buck the emerging global norm against nuclear tests and India’s unilateral nuclear test moratorium. The review could ascertain the place of the thermonuclear bomb in India’s arsenal. It must ensure against the necessity of tests and if that is not possible then decide on whether it is essential to deterrence. There is a view that with MIRV capability, increased accuracy and ranges of missiles and numbers of missiles and warheads, city busters may not be necessary to deter. In any case they would not be usable since Indian cities will be likewise exposed, particularly to Chinese strikes. Acquisition of these also cannot be placed beyond Pakistani ingenuity in light of their playing catch up at Chagai despite the push in India’s technological community for Pokhran II in order to call Pakistan’s ‘bluff’.
The final issue discussed here is on expectations of nuclear weapons. This can best be done by situating the capability in wider grand strategy. The government that will take a final call on the nature of the doctrine will have to evaluate the product of the mechanism it deputes to reformulate doctrine in light of its professed objective of development. Development cannot envisage a decisive backslide that a nuclear war will bring. Therefore a doctrine must not only cater for deterrence, but also be reassuring for prospective foes in that it must not project a threat that can then prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. For instance, a critique of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation is that it exposes India to enemy first use more likely in the form of a first strike, or an attempt to reduce India’s retaliatory capability maximally. Even if India has a survivable second strike capability, there is little reason to run the risk, particularly one brought on by an ill-considered doctrine. This argument led to calls for a reversion to the formulation of the Draft that called for infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’ with ‘sufficient’ force and did not use the term ‘massive’. The surety of ‘unacceptable damage’ deters even as it does not provoke. However, there are other doctrinal options, not least of which is that of General Sundarji. He called for ensuring conflict termination in case of a nuclear conflict at the lowest threshold possible, if necessary by the use of political outreach and diplomatic engagement to include concessions short of the national bottomline. This option is sensitive to the mention earlier that doctrine must be democracy friendly. Society is not interested in being secured by the threat of being exposed to threat of being bombed to extinction. This Cold War spillover into the region and the current era is eminently avoidable. The flippant statement that while Pakistan would be finished, while India will survive may have been true a decade or so ago. Pakistan’s second strike capability is patent and that of China only more so. This argument rules in the Sundarji doctrine. It only remains to make it workable.
The counter would be that it is inconceivable to think about diplomatically engaging the opponent in a nuclear war. However, it bear consideration that though counter intuitive it would be most necessary to do so lest inexorable escalation, that votaries of ‘massive’ retaliation refer to, take place. Escalation control and de-escalation are in the interest of both states in nuclear exchange(s). They can therefore be expected to cooperate and the international community would enable the same. This is not going to come about of its own. Recognising that this is possible and making prior contingency arrangements may be in order. This could be in the form of a Nuclear Risk Reduction Center. While precedence exists of the one in the Cold War, it came about when the Cold War was about to end. There is little reason for regional initiatives to wait till the d├ętente here. Hot War might well intervene, irrespective of the periodic upturns in relations such as the bonhomie between India and its neighbours being experienced in the initial period of the new government’s tenure. A doctrine that reassures such as does the Sundarji doctrine and one that enables taking nuclear CBMs to the next higher level of must on this score carry the day.
The nuclear doctrine review in the offing is an opportunity for a relook at whether nuclear weapons and the trajectory of their development are leading to a more secure India. A dispassionate answer would be that this is not so not only because of what neighbours are doing but also because of India’s own nuclear developments not being served by a reckonable doctrine. India has to domesticate the nuclear establishment and the means to do so is to draw up a doctrine that is nothing but a blueprint for their action. The doctrine has to be situated in the overall national grand strategy and policy context. Clearly, while the government, that is the decision maker, will have its ideological preferences influence its imprint on doctrine, it must keep accountability to fore by ensuring that doctrine is compliant with the developmentalist plank on which the government was elected. Specifically, the ideological preference of demonstrating a ‘strong’ India must not skew doctrine into an aggressive direction ill-suited for India’s security. For doctrine to come out right, the design of the process and the mechanism for formulating it would require being sensibly arrived at. The government may like to anchor the doctrine in the strategic doctrine and therefore may sequence the two. Since its early diplomatic initiatives have bought it time, it can use this to good effect. It would require warding off its supporters in the strategic community who may be more interested in advancing respective pet theories and projects and self-interest and proving a point in regard to the previous administration, rather than India’s longer term interest at heart. The government must on receipt of the product ensure that it is political factors are not over shadowed by strategic level considerations. Only then would India have used an opportunity well. Else, retrospect will only be in a nuclear winter. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

Echoes from first world war

South Asia: Echoes From Across a Century

Recent commentary on the outbreak of the First World War has highlighted the link between the political and military spheres, in which military mobilization timetables exercised a negative influence over the political positions of governments. Interestingly, there are echoes of the same phenomenon in South Asia today. Moreover, India’s “two front” problem is similar to the problem faced by Germany when it felt the need to first defeat France, before turning its attention to the slower and more removed mobilization of Russia. Could the dangers of South Asia today be echoes of those a century ago?
First, consider the issue of mobilization schedules. With Serbia and Austria-Hungary squaring off, their respective allies, Russia and Germany, went into a competitive mobilization that culminated in the outbreak of war. South Asia is presently experiencing some aspects of this narrative. India is today looking to review its conventional doctrine adopted a decade ago. The doctrine called for swift mobilization in order to be able to react to terrorist threats from Pakistan, as in the case of the attack on Parliament in December 2002. On that occasion, India was not able to respond swiftly – its strike corps took three weeks to get into position. So India chose to go in for coercive diplomacy rather than attacking Pakistan militarily. The latter would have proven costly and there was also the nuclear threat to consider.
This led to the “cold start” doctrine, in which India shifted its reliance from strike corps to smaller, swifter formations closer to the border that could react quickly. A critique of this doctrinal innovation was that it reduced the time window for crisis diplomacy, a harkening back to the Guns of August, which expertly describes the political-military gap leading to the Great War.
The problem, as it was a hundred years ago, remains the military’s interest in full preparedness. For instance, if India was to launch a portion of its combat-ready integrated battle groups into Pakistan in response to a terror attack, they could face a piecemeal response from Pakistan’s army. For that reason, the troops cannot be sent across the line of control in isolation, but would require at least partial mobilization from the rear so as to either deter or respond to Pakistan’s military counter. In light of this mobilization, the Pakistanis, uncertain as to India’s intent, would likely race to follow suit, leading to a national mobilization of both sides quite in the tradition of the First World War. During the Kargil War, though it remained localized, the Indian army partially mobilized and kept a portion of its troops at the border elsewhere, in a defensive position.
Even as these two militaries theoretically make their moves, diplomacy would be underway. In light of the nuclear backdrop, international pressure would be considerable. Some of the moves by both countries would be directed at the international community, in order to pressure the other side to either slow down or back off. Thus, in the initial period, the contest would be between the two diplomatic-military strategies. While the new dimension, the nuclear component, could be expected to bring about a different outcome from that in the summer of 1914, the feature of “saving face” that existed then may continue to complicate matters now.
During the Kargil War, the distinction in Pakistan between its civilian government and the military enabled the civilian government to wash its hands of the military’s actions. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went across to Washington to organize a de-escalation. In 2002, the U.S. presence in the region was great enough to prevail upon General Pervez Musharraf to do an about turn with his January 12 speech, in which he promised a crackdown on extremists. These fortuitous circumstances may not exist in future. Therefore, there is a case for South Asia to move beyond conditions reminiscent of Europe a century ago.
The second issue is the one in which India may perceive itself to be in Germany’s “two front” situation. In the First World War Germany had the Schlieffen Plan, designed to knock out France. India’s strategic writing talks of “a collusive threat.” On its Chinese front, mobilization schedules play a role in that China’s infrastructure building in Tibet has prompted India to change from a defensive strategy to one of active deterrence. Over the past half-decade, India has given itself the wherewithal to cope with both fronts. Its three strike corps have been deemed effective on the Pakistan front. It can now square off defensively while also having a countervailing capability in the form of a mountain strike corps on its China front. Given that operations are slower in the mountains, the possibility of India first achieving victory on its western front and then turning its attention to the east is a possibility. Alternatively, since China is a stronger opponent, India may hold on the western front and put its weight into warding off China.
India’s ability to counter Pakistan was found wanting in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Some of the $350 million in military spending that India has recently approved is for equipping itself for these alternatives. It is likely therefore that by importing more than three times the amount of Chinese and Pakistani arms (which are the next two largest importers), combined with these additional monies, enable both alternatives. This is yet again reminiscent of the arms race of a hundred years ago that preceded and enabled the muscle flexing of 1914.
The difference this time is nuclear weapons. Their presence should imply that aggressive strategic doctrines do not coexist with offensive military doctrines. That, however, is apparently not the case in South Asia. The region’s militaries are still in the modern age. The might be cognizant of the revolution in military affairs and the nuclear age, but so far at least they have been only partially responsive to it.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

conventional operations in nuclear conditions

At the Conventional-Nuclear Interface
9 August 2014
Conventional backdrop to nuclear foreground
Accustomed to the phrase ‘nuclear backdrop’ as the army has been over the past two decades, the title may require explaining. The assumption is that in case of introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict, even at the lower order levels of nuclear first use and retaliation, the conflict is dramatically transformed from its original scope. The understanding that informs the pre-nuclear use situation, specifically conventional operations in a nuclear backdrop, has therefore to change to one in which conventional operations form the backdrop for a nuclear foreground.
The political and diplomatic dimension will be dominant and nuclear operations will supersede conventional operations, making the latter recede in significance, urgency and importance to the background.
This implies that conventional operations will require deferring to nuclear operations and would be subject to a greater stringency in so far as supporting the political and diplomatic dimension goes. Clearly, military aims and conventional objectives would require review. Since this can be anticipated, the contingencies can be thought through for early and speedy realignment of conventional operations.
There are two conceivable directions along which this could proceed. Operations duly tweaked for the nuclear situation could either proceed with greater vigour exploiting the nuclear shock or they could be more restrained and cautious since nuclear operations may proceed apace. In either case, the endeavour will be to gain a favourable position for conflict termination since this could, under the nuclear circumstance, be sooner than later in light of international conflict termination initiatives.
The latter may be more likely since quickening operations under conditions of mobility and logistics under nuclear conditions may not be readily possible. Also, the slow-down, to include tactical pauses, may help create the conditions for nuclear retaliatory strikes. Since counter strikes can be expected, caution in movement and particularly in reconfiguring of the communication zone may be necessary to prevent targeting from counter strikes.
On the other hand, the former – speeded up operations – may be more dangerous in a nuclear situation since, firstly, the enemy may get into a ‘use them-lose them’ dilemma; and secondly, his resulting conventional paralysis may make him rely more on the nuclear card. Also, own nuclear retaliatory strikes will require space for execution, uncluttered by ongoing conventional operations.
However, in case of enemy lower order nuclear first use or demonstrative strike, there could be a case for postponing nuclear retaliation and proceeding with conventional operations at a heightened tempo. As has been argued on the IDSA website in 2008 and recently in 2014,[1] India’s nuclear doctrine lends itself to be interpreted accordingly. Since it states that nuclear retaliation will be of unacceptable levels in case of ‘first strike’, if India is to interpret ‘first strike’ as a higher order first use aimed at degrading India’s retaliatory capability, then India’s nuclear retaliation can be flexible – later and/or lesser. In case lower order strikes are met with a lower order nuclear retaliation the scope for conventional operations potentially enlarges.
From a politico-diplomatic point of view, India’s position to press on conventionally will be unassailable since Pakistan will be in violation of the nuclear taboo. India can retain the choice of punishing it either by nuclear means, by conventional means or both. In such a case, the retaliatory strike can be reconfigured to suit the conventional battle so as to together shape conflict termination.
Anticipating other down-flow effects from the nuclear level to the conventional level enables preparing for them. This collapsing of the two levels – nuclear and conventional – seen as distinct in the spectrum of conflict into one with the disappearance of the nuclear firebreak will require factoring into planning and preparation. As seen above, conventional operations will require playing second fiddle to nuclear operations and the military plane to the politico-diplomatic one, but not necessarily so such as in the case of lower order first use and proportionate retaliation.
Which of the two – speeding up or slowing down – suits the military is the input that the military needs to make, not only at the crux in face of enemy first use, but also in the discussion stage of doctrine formulation. Since both doctrines are up for revision – the nuclear doctrine being 11 years old and the conventional doctrine 10 years – the ongoing, run-up or warming-up stage, is the time for doctrinal free thinking.
Given that Pakistan will play the asymmetric card there will also be a collapse between the conventional level and the subconventional level. The Doctrine for Sub Conventional Operations (ARTRAC 2006) stops at the border. It does not talk about stabilisation operations that will be akin to low intensity conflict. In case of nuclear incidence, then the conventional-subconventional interface can be expected to be much more violent. Clearly, even subconventional doctrine that is closing on ten years may require being part of this doctrinal upheaval.
Since higher order nuclear retaliation risks stabilisation operations, this is an input that the military alone can provide. Such input tends to tilt the consideration towards ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation. Alternatively, in case of default higher order nuclear retaliation, then the army may well require recoiling to the border so as to cauterise the social and humanitarian effects. In case it is in vicinity then the onus may fall on India to respond to the catastrophe, one it cannot meet in light of the subconventional challenge its conventional forces can be expected to meet.
The exercises have had the nuclear dimension as background. This needs reimagining so as to come up with operational level options in a war gone nuclear. One way to do this is to cease beginning exercises with an ‘I’ Day scenario in which ‘I’ stands for a mass terror incident. Instead, exercises could begin with an ‘N’ Day scenario in which ‘N’ stands for day of nuclear first use. Preparedness such as this helps with deterrence as also with its breakdown.
Effects on the conventional level of nuclear operations
In an op-ed piece in the New Indian Express (24 July), Manpreet Sethi of a sister think tank writes that, ‘it should also be made widely known that Indian troops have the ability to fight through tactical nuclear use.’ To her, this is necessary to, ‘send a message of preparedness to handle such use without bringing conventional operations to a halt or even confronting the political leadership with the choice of war termination, as assumed by Rawalpindi.’ This is to strengthen the present concept of deterrence that India subscribes to: deterrence by punishment.[2]
Irrespective of how the competing concepts of deterrence influence the new nuclear doctrine when it emerges from an impending review, the point Sethi makes, that conventional operations cannot remain unaffected by advent of nuclear weapons on the battlefield, is of consequence. This part deals with possible implications of nuclear operations on conventional operations.
That there is a mutually influential relationship between the two levels – conventional and nuclear – has been recognised fifteen years ago in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine. The Draft had required India to maintain highly effective conventional military capabilities to raise the threshold of outbreak both of conventional military conflict as well as that of threat or use of nuclear weapons. Further, defence forces are to be in a position to execute operations in an NBC environment with minimal degradation. Since, barring the exceptions in the official doctrine of January 2003, the Draft has been adopted as the nuclear doctrine. These stipulations of nuclear doctrine therefore are operative for conventional operations.
That the army is cognisant of this is clear. Take for instance its turn from defensive defence to active deterrence with the reconfiguration for the eastern front. It has enhanced conventional deterrence and in the event of its failure, it can undertake operations without India resorting to the threat of use of nuclear weapons. This is to keep the NFU inviolate. In so far as continuing operations in a nuclear environment is concerned, the press reports from the generally well covered corps level exercises indicate that nuclear dimension, both conceptual and physical, is incorporated in these exercises.
However, as with everything, there is a room for improvement. What direction this should take would be dependent on visualising the nuclear battlefield. There are two ways this has been done. The first is in anticipating the manner Pakistan may resort to first use. Since India has second strike capability, that will with the operationalisation of the Arihant be unassailable soon, Pakistan will unlikely go for first strike. Therefore, lower order options are ruled in.
The Nasr, its tool for this, has two possibilities of employment. One could be as a shot across the bow, for strategic signalling. The purpose would be catalytic, to use the term of Vipin Narang, in order to energise foreign, read US, conflict termination efforts. This may well be in the form of a ‘green field’ option with no Indian military targets. The second could be more widespread in case India’s proactive offensives threaten to overwhelm the Azm-e-Nau-honed preparedness of Pakistani forces with Nasr and other nuclear weapons for operational level employment. This may be to stop an armoured formation in its tracks by either hitting spear heads or the shaft or support bases including fire support bases, logistics and supporting airfields.
The former will unlikely have any immediate effect on conventional operations. However, increased caution in terms of nuclear preparedness of troops in the combat and communication zone would require to be incorporated in operations, necessarily slowing these down. The effect of breaking of the nuclear taboo would be such as to make the diplomatic prong of strategy the more significant one. Operational level military moves would be conditioned by the need to support the diplomacy predominant action at the strategic level. Two options present themselves: either proceed with greater vigour under cover of the fact that Pakistan is in the nuclear doghouse; or be more cautious lest conventional moves complicate the political positioning at the strategic level or, worse, trigger avoidable nuclear escalation.
In case of the latter, more widespread use but at the operational level to redress emerging conventional disadvantage, India would be contemplating nuclear retaliation. The conventional moves would therefore yet again take second place, this time in relation to the nature of the retaliation. The nature of India’s retaliation and likely counter by Pakistan, alongside the intensified politico-diplomatic activity, would determine the direction of conventional operations. Next, there is also the possibility that has found mention in strategic circles that the international community may intervene more forcefully to include with military muscle, such as declaring no-fly-zones, for escalation control. This has increased in likelihood with the publication of the report in late 2013 that even a regional nuclear war would have global environmental consequences.
In this case, the tempo of conventional operations will be considerably degraded. While there would be immediate nuclear effects to cope with, shifting of gears in the form of rethinking priorities, weight along thrust lines, tactical pauses etc. may be required. The priorities will rearrange around the nuclear retaliatory strikes and the communication zone will have to be reconfigured to prevent targets for Pakistani counter strike. In this consideration, while in-conflict deterrence will be pre-dominant, the anticipated fallout on conventional operations requires feeding in.
Two concluding points emerge. Firstly, in case this inter-face is not in the ambit of the Strategic Programs Staff of the NSCS, a mechanism located in HQ IDS needs being created. The SFC, concerned with nuclear operations, cannot be the site for this. Secondly, the principal effect is that in both cases of lower order first use – catalytic and operational – the conventional level is superseded by the state of play at the nuclear level. Therefore, how the nuclear doctrine shapes up is of consequence for the military. It would require inputting the endeavour, lest the traditional distinction between the nuclear and conventional sphere in India continues unwarrantedly.
[1] Doctrine_gbalachandran_200614.html and

Friday, 8 August 2014

eurasia review article

By Ali Ahmed, PhD
India’s nuclear doctrine promises 'massive’ retaliation. It may not be of the order of ‘assured destruction’ as visualised in the cold war. It could mean much less, after all even a town less would amount to a ‘massive’ loss. India certainly wishes ‘punitive’ retaliation to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’. Therefore, when India promises that its nuclear retaliation will be ‘massive’, it may not be all that bad. After all it would not wish to send Pakistan back to the stone age since the nuclear fallout will affect India directly.
Therefore what India means by ‘massive’ retaliation is that it would resort to a city busting nuclear strategy in case of nuclear first use by Pakistan against it or its forces anywhere. This means that even if Pakistan was to use nuclear weapons defensively on its own territory and against advancing Indian forces, it would stand to lose a town or two.
Let us visualise the scenario. A mega-terror incident occurs in India in which Pakistan’s establishment is implicated. India resorts to its ‘cold start’ doctrine and sends its integrated battle groups across to teach Pakistan a lesson and end the perception of impunity of its military. Pakistan in panic, anger and fear, fires off a nuclear tipped missile against an advancing Indian column.
It is reckoned that it takes several warheads to stop an advance of mechanised forces that are fairly well spread out while advancing in a potentially nuclear battlefield. Therefore, it is unlikely that Pakistan would be trying to stop this column with its nuclear attack.
Instead it would likely be sending a warning signal that the conflict could get worse. It could be prompting the international community to intervene and stop the conflict. However, India would be reluctant to allow Pakistan to get away with nuclear murder. It would want to exercise the right of reply.
Nuclear pundits in India recommend that India follow through with its nuclear doctrine in such a case and take out a Pakistani town or two at the very least. If the war were to end at this juncture, then it would be the ‘best case’. It is not an unreasonable juncture to end the conflict in that Pakistan would have been punished adequately for its temerity to break the nuclear taboo. Pakistan may get the message loud and clear finally. The international community would clamp down in double quick time.
India’s nuclear doctrine being one of nuclear deterrence is designed to stay Pakistan’s nuclear hand. Any reasonable Pakistani decision maker, knowing that Pakistan stands to lose a town or two, or perhaps a city, may not want to chance it. Also, it could end up losing more, if not all, since escalation could take place.
However, Pakistan may believe that since it has nuclear weapons in sufficient numbers it can get back at India. If India was to take out one of its cities then it would be at the risk of an Indian city or two falling to a counter strike. In Pakistan’s calculus, this may check-mate India into self-deterrence. India may not go for counter-city retaliation since it stands to lose as much as Pakistan.
This may embolden Pakistan to go first. This means India’s nuclear deterrence can potentially fail since it may appear less than credible to Pakistan.
Therefore, there is a chance of Pakistan going for the nuclear button. India in this case will be faced with a choice of how to respond. In case it goes as per its doctrine and reduces a town to nuclear cinder, it requires ensuring that a like counter strike does not occur.
It has three ways to do this. One is to rely on the international community to stop Pakistan. The second is that the strike on the town is deterrence in itself in that Pakistan would receive the message loud and clear that its remaining urban pockets could face like punishment unless it desists. The third is by targeting Pakistan’s retaliatory capability by both nuclear and non-nuclear means to ensure that Pakistan cannot counter strike even if it wants to.
Relying on the first would be useful since the international community will pull out the stops to halt a regional nuclear war as global climate stands to be affected. However, having failed to stop India’s ‘massive’ retaliation, it cannot be guaranteed as a success.
The second, in-conflict deterrence, may work, but for the fact that the tendency to vengeance would be strong, particularly if Pakistan perceives India’s retaliation as disproportionate. It may wish to get even, believing that with over a 100 weapons it too has in-conflict deterrence capability by holding Indian cities hostage to future strikes in case India keeps up the nuclear exchange.
The third is difficult to visualise but not impossible. India’s nuclear decision makers may want to protect Indian cities and towns and therefore when advised to go in for retaliation they may pose the question to their nuclear advisers on how can a Pakistani counter be guaranteed against. They may receive the recommendation that while India takes out a city or two in retaliation as per its doctrine, it may be necessary for it to also take out Pakistani retaliatory capability alongside. This may lead to counter-force targeting alongside a city busting attack.
The last is a less likely manner of ‘massive’ retaliation since this would kick up enough nuclear dust to bring on the nuclear famine environmental scientists visualised in their report on climate affects of regional nuclear war in 2013. While the international community may permit India to retaliate it would not want this option.
Therefore, if India wants to have its cake and eat it too, it should work to ensure that Pakistan does not counter strike under international pressure. However, as seen, Pakistan, believing that it too can play the in-conflict deterrence game, may not oblige.
Therefore, India must be prepared to absorb a counter strike.
It is at this juncture that both India and Pakistan, satiated after taking out a city or two of the other side and worried by the capability of the other side to take out more such cities, may be prepared to settle for a nuclear draw. Not only must pressure of the international community culminate at this point, but the two states must be willing to forego the satisfaction of ‘winning’ the exchange.
What is in it for the two states? India would have been hit twice over and got back but once. This may seem a gain for Pakistan. However, Pakistan by going first would be in the nuclear dog house. India by stopping the exchange would be on a higher ground, even though it would have targeted people first.
This ‘best case’ scenario will likely be taken as relatively in favour of Pakistan since Pakistan would have escaped at a low cost. Therefore, the idea of ‘massive’ that may be projected is that India should make Pakistan pay a higher cost, in one estimate up to five or six cities. The problem with this push would be that with Pakistan’s warhead numbers having crossed into three digits, it can hit back to inflict equal pain on India. To deter India from such a volume of retaliation, Pakistan could be thinking on a disproportionate counter strike, knowing that India, being larger, requires more damage to hurt equivalently. Such an exchange amounts to the prohibitive environmental costs that the 2013 report informed about. In other words, genocide would amount to suicide for India.
Therefore, India must clear to itself what it means by ‘massive’, ‘punitive’ and ‘unacceptable’ retaliation. There are two ways round the problem. One is that it moves away from this terminology by changing its doctrine for ‘flexible’ retaliation to include thinking about proportionate retaliation and graduated response.
Alternatively, if it persists with this doctrine, then it must spell out how it wishes to avoid escalation. The best exit point identified is after the first nuclear exchange. It is to exit at the lowest threshold of nuclear use. The international community’s good offices would be readily available to ensure this at two exit points: one is after India’s retaliation and the second is after Pakistan’s counter strike.
Clearly, this cannot be done in isolation. There has to be a modicum of doctrinal exchange with Pakistan. After all, Pakistan’s counter strike could itself be ‘massive’ plus, fearing an Indian wargasmic strike back. To halt this, not only must the caveat of stopping any exchange at the lowest level be part of the doctrine, but this must be made known to Pakistan. Even so, it may not be enough.
Two things additional require doing. One is, as mentioned, a doctrinal exchange with Pakistan. For this the mechanism of talks on nuclear matters already exists. The second is to create a nuclear risk reduction center in peace time with the intention of escalation control in which both states will have common interest in war time.
This is easier said than done. The former has not happened, other than at a rudimentary level in the six rounds of talks over the past decade. The latter is too much to expect at this stage of talks about resumption of talks. Also, there may be reluctance on this score stemming from conveying the impression to the other side that there are reservations on the health of the deterrence. Preparing for its breakdown can be taken as discrediting it.
Therefore, while the former may happen, the latter is less likely. Therefore, while the NRRC may not be put in place, there are two options. One is to have contingency plans drawn up in the talks for this to be put in place in case the balloon goes up. The second is that this can be put in place by a third country, say, the US, and offered for use to the two belligerents in case terrorist push comes to conventional shove.
Clarity in visualising a nuclear conflict such as attempted here can bring out the direction to go. As India embarks on nuclear doctrinal revision, here is a recommendation worth considering.
Ali Ahmed is author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). He blogs at