Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Nuclear Battlefield Preparedness

It is well known that in May 1998 India conducted five nuclear tests. One was reportedly of a nuclear weapon based on the 1974 test already in stock. The second was of a thermonuclear device with a fusion-boosted fission trigger with a potential yield of 200Kt. The other three were sub-kiloton fission devices.[i] Of the latter, writing ten years on in 2008, Dr. Chidambaram, the architect of the tests, wrote:
‘The sub-kiloton devices tested again had all the features needed for integration with delivery vehicles and were tested from the point of view of developing low-yield weapons and of validating new weapon-related ideas and sub-systems. Thus the carefully-planned series of tests carried out in May 1998 gave us the capability to build nuclear weapons from low yields up to around 200 kt. A great deal of further scientific and technical development work has taken place since then.’[ii]
Whereas the 15Kt and 45Kt yield tests attracted due attention, the three tests that confer on India a tactical nuclear capability have been largely overshadowed. This perhaps owes to the principle that under-grids the declaratory nuclear doctrine of 2003, that for India there is nothing known as TNW. However, it is not possible that three of five tests were without appropriate doctrinal pedigree. Consequently, the three have a rational basis that needs resurrecting.
Clearly, another seven years since Dr. Chidambaram’s assessment, it can be plausibly assumed that India has the low yield weapons mentioned in stock. From declaratory doctrine it is not certain that these are TNWs. Since all nuclear weapons are for strategic use, and not military use, these weapons, even if of low yield, may have strategic utility alone.
Good health of deterrence calls for reinforcing this line of argument. The nuclear enemy could erroneously assume that since India has low yield weapons it may undertake lower order retaliation. Such thinking may then tempt him to go first with TNW. Since Pakistan has proliferated vertically, it may reckon that it has in-conflict deterrence against higher order nuclear retaliation, thereby giving it confidence to use TNW. Pakistan therefore needs being constantly disabused of such thinking. The notion of TNW applicability in nuclear war has to be dispelled. For this reason India has abjured discussing TNWs.
By this yardstick, even if low yield weapons exist, these are for strategic targets, such as nuclear command and control facilities or for counter force strikes. Their low yields can prevent escalatory collateral damage, particularly since the Indus Valley is densely populated. Since these low yield weapons have strategic utility, they are not meant as TNW for battle field use.
That said, the fact is that the western adversary tacitly promises to ‘go first’ with TNW. Professional answer-seeking involves a look at the proverbial ‘worst case scenario’ of introduction of TNW into a conflict by the adversary. The military would then be able to focus on what to do and have the adversary in question know that it can follow through in a nuclear environment. Nuclear battlefield preparedness therefore has a two-fold logic.
Firstly, battlefield nuclear preparedness enhances deterrence Whereas India has no intention of viewing nuclear weapons as having military utility even in the circumstance of nuclear first use by Pakistan, Pakistan will be skeptical of this. As has always been reiterated by India that its troops will not fight at a disadvantage, Pakistan in its assessment cannot rule out Indian TNW use, in addition to the strategic retribution involving higher order retaliation it promises. Consequently, knowing that any prospective gains will be denied and at a cost, an adversary, suitably impressed, will then hesitate with TNW first use. The bonus for India is that it raises the nuclear threshold for optimum use of its conventional advantage.
Secondly, in any case, since the adversary tacitly promises to go first with TNW, a look at operational and tactical level implications is warranted as the battlefield could go nuclear.
At the strategic level this implies the Strategic Planning Staff considering whether India’s strategic response needs an operational supplement. The contours of this are not dwelt on here as the declaratory nuclear doctrine already rules this out.
At the operational level, there are three aspects. First, the initiative of TNW use being with the enemy, degradation through conventional means could prove preventive. To be sure, this runs the risk of occasioning nuclear first use by the enemy, triggering the ‘use them-lose them’ phenomenon. This risk may be inescapable since the enemy could employ the TNW more fruitfully later, such as on a bridgehead, if left unmolested.
Second, is building in conventional responses, such as through having at hand reserves and their appropriate use; an example is forcing through another bridgehead thereby denying the enemy any gain from TNW use. If in a defensive mode, this entails sidestepping reserves to plug any nuclear hole the adversary may punch.
The third is input for a nuclear response. Bottom-up options for this have to feed into considerations in the Strategic Planning Staff. In any case, operational fallout of any nuclear response options chosen need to be factored in. So that the nuclear dimension of conflict is not lost sight of in the melee of war, the operations staff corps level upwards can do with a nuclear operations cognizant adjunct.
At the tactical level, the impact will be more psychological. Ongoing commentary from the centenary commemorations of the Great War invariably covers the impact chemical weapons had on the battlefield. A similar effect can be imagined, if in greater magnitude.
Extant pamphlets no doubt cover decontamination and survival drills, and equipment is possibly stocked to a degree. Nevertheless, aspects such as cohesion, discipline, morale supports and perception management of troops need attention alongside. Defence lines and spearheads will be sorely tested, particularly horizontal subunit cohesion and vertical cohesion of command chains. An aspect warranting a closer look may be to have on hand military police and military law capabilities for speedy battlefield justice.
Communication zone nuclear strikes could have front line effects, such as in case cantonments are targeted for their command and control and logistics facilities, with collateral damage on resident families. This may entail mobilization schemes from front line military stations also undertaking speedy vacation by troop families. This is a foreseeable measure to prevent inadvertent escalation.
War games to simulate the complexity of the nuclear environment must include such non-kinetic effects. ‘A’ matters need a review in light of the tactical effects of nuclear impacts. Finally, incorporation into training needs moving from pamphlets and lecture halls to squad posts and exercise areas.
Nuclear preparedness cannot be left to the Strategic Planning Staff, charged with serving the Nuclear Command Authority, and the Strategic Forces Command for executing nuclear retaliation. Operationalization of the deterrent involves the wider army too.
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