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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 www.ali-writings.blogspot.in.