Monday, 30 May 2016

Nuclear Retaliation Options

Debates on Nuclear Doctrine
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(unedited version)

The last thrust for revision of India’s nuclear doctrine was in the run up to the national elections of 2014 when the BJP manifesto stated that the party intended to, ‘Study in detail India's nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times (BJP 2014:  39).’ The latest impulse towards review of nuclear doctrine was in April at a seminar of the Indian Pugwash Society, incongruously organized at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi (Indian Pugwash Society 2016).
In discussions on nuclear doctrine, there is a consensus on the need for periodic review. While on that count most agree that a review of the current doctrine adopted in January 2003 (Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) 2003) is long overdue, disagreement is over two issues. Firstly is whether the No First Use (NFU) posture should be retained, and secondly, if NFU stays, what is the best manner of retaliation, not only to deter but also to follow through in case deterrence fails to work. While agreeing on the need for review and for continuing with ‘retaliation only’ (National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) 1999) doctrine, this commentary questions the nuclear retaliation options under discussion.
Higher order retaliation
Nuclear retaliation options can be classified according to the levels of retaliation envisaged: higher order and lower order retaliatory options. Higher order options in turn are pitched at two levels: ‘massive’ and ‘unacceptable damage’. The phrase ‘massive’ figures in the 2003 doctrine (CCS 2003). Its progeny, the 1999 Draft Nuclear Doctrine favoured ‘punitive retaliation’, presumably with lesser warhead weight and numbers, to inflict ‘damage unacceptable’ to the enemy (NSAB 1999).
Higher order nuclear retaliation votaries rely on arguments from the early nuclear era in South Asia. Then, India had only a few bombs in the basement and a rudimentary delivery capability. Deterrence was understandably based on dropping these on cities. India was constrained to go in for counter value targeting, colloquially called ‘unacceptable damage’. This phrase has since become a mantra (gospel), though much water has flown down both the Ganga and Indus.
Today, India has moved from a defensive conventional military doctrine based on counter offensives by strike corps to an offensive doctrine envisaging proactive offensive operations by both, border guarding - pivot - corps and offensive - strike - corps. India’s conventional war doctrine - that is not explicitly one for limited war (Ahmed 2014: 71) - has potential to nudge Pakistan’s nuclear redlines. In effect, India is to kick off the conventional war in double quick time, even as Pakistan promises to reach early for the nuclear button.
Under the current nuclear doctrine, this would to trigger ‘massive’ retaliation. Its expansive interpretation involves both counter value and counter force targeting, while a more moderate interpretation restricts itself to only counter value targeting (Nagal 2015). Pakistan’s nuclear warheads, now numbering in the lower three digits, confer on it a second strike capability or ability to strike back even in case of higher order attack on it. With both states having second strike capability in terms of numbers of warheads that would survive a higher order strike, India and Pakistan are now in a stage of ‘mutual assured destruction’ (MAD) (Lavoy 2015: 4). Taken together, the tonnage involved in the retaliatory exchanges would result in an environmental disaster on a global scale. Clearly, ‘massive’ is unthinkable and a review to excise it from the nuclear doctrine is indeed overdue.
The favoured option to replace the guiding formulation - ‘massive’ - is ‘unacceptable damage’ or retaliation with ‘sufficient nuclear weapons to inflict destruction and punishment that the aggressor will find unacceptable’ (NSAB 1999). While the phrase already figures in the doctrine (CCS 2003), its votaries wish it to have pride of place through a review. To votaries of ‘unacceptable damage’, when less is enough, going ‘massive’ can only make rubble bounce.
However, Pakistan has put the cat among the pigeons by acquiring tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) as part of its ‘full spectrum deterrence’ (Dalton and Krepon 2015: 3). India’s conventional offensive could trigger Pakistani nuclear first use in the form of TNW (Lavoy 2015: 8-9). Indian retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage would not only be disproportionate, but would open India to receiving unacceptable damage in return. This impacts the credibility of ‘unacceptable damage’ to deter. Believing its nuclear numbers have checkmated higher order retaliation, Pakistan may up-the-ante in face of Indian conventional attack at a lower order level with TNW. Therefore, ‘unacceptable damage’ is no advance. 
There are two other disadvantages. Firstly, both higher order options – massive and unacceptable damage - pressure a first strike attempt on Pakistan’s part. First strike is an attempt to disarm an enemy’s nuclear retaliatory capability. Pakistan apprehending higher order retaliation from India could well go first - not with TNW - but with higher order nuclear first use, intended to set back India’s retaliatory capability. Secondly, NFU is further threatened with abandonment. Higher order options are predicated on a belief that India can survive nuclear war, while Pakistan cannot. This induces a belief that it might be prudent to get a grievous nuclear blow in first. Doing so would set back Pakistani counter strike that would be further degraded by India’s missile shield, enabling India to survive. Such thinking contributes to the arguments against NFU and to technological thrusts that making this possible – ballistic missile defences, surveillance, accuracy, multiple warheads.
The assumption that India can survive, needs debunking. Along with the environmental and economic consequences, the likely socio-political effects have to also be factored in. To illustrate with a scenario, a nuclear war could see its largest minority, its Muslims, further beleaguered. The magnitude of the Gujarat pogrom of February 2002 was aggravated by the context of the then-ongoing crisis in wake of the 13 December terror attack on parliament. A decade and half down the road India’s minority is in more dire straits. Under the circumstance, should Pakistan use nuclear weapons, the minority would end up a readily available scapegoat. In effect, the fallout of nuclear war would be in a reinforcing of the right wing in policy, of authoritarianism in governance and of militarization of society. Manifestly, even if Pakistan is ‘finished’, India as we know it would be too. Hence, higher order options are just as suicidal as are genocidal.
Lower order retaliation
This brings to fore the lower order retaliation options. Higher order nuclear first use is ruled out by onset of MAD. For Pakistan, its graduated deterrence posture serves to extend nuclear deterrence cover to the conventional level by signaling crossing of thresholds by India’s conventional operations. The most likely nuclear first use scenario is of Pakistani TNW against India’s conventional forces. This can be at two levels: one targeting Indian offensive forces and the second as nuclear messaging. The first requires many warheads and would cause considerable collateral damage. The second may be for catalyzing international intervention by signaling onset of nuclear war. The latter is the more likely manner of nuclear first use by Pakistan.
Lower order nuclear first use in this manner can best be answered by lower order retaliation. This option abjures higher order retaliation and is escalation control friendly since it incentivizes restraint by Pakistan. In-conflict deterrence does not suffer since higher exchanges remain a threat-in-being. Critics however could argue that it risks inducing a belief that Pakistan could get away lightly for the temerity of violating the seven decade long nuclear taboo. However, the converse is equally true: since it provides a credible answer to Pakistan’s TNW, it strengthens deterrence.
The second criticism is of the potential arms race impacting ‘minimum’ in India’s doctrine of ‘credible minimum nuclear deterrence’ (NSAB 1999) and knock-on nightmares for operationalisation and civil-military relations. As seen, Pakistan’s use of TNW would most likely be for nuclear messaging, rather than in a massed mode to stop India’s conventional forces. Since three of five of India’s nuclear tests eighteen years back at Pokhran II were of sub-kiloton variety, India likely has the nuclear ordnance. Therefore, a lower order response does not imply acquiring TNW in large numbers, but employing existing capability in selective, non-escalatory targeting. This could induce a possible reversion to strategic sanity and at the least possible cost in terms of nuclear damage sustained and inflicted.
However, lower order options assume escalation control. The charged atmosphere of a war gone nuclear can be expected to put paid to political rationality and strategic thinking. Escalation control therefore requires prior arrangements with doctrinal exchanges between the two sides as a first step. Escalation control mechanisms can even be tacit and reliant on foreign powers trusted by both sides. However, in a circumstance as currently obtains with the two not even talking to each other, creating such mechanisms can be ruled out. The paradox is that where trust levels enable such mechanisms, then such mechanisms would not be required in first place.
Caveated proportionate retaliation
In case India has to persist with its nuclear doctrine of higher order retaliation, it has to wind down the offensive content of its conventional doctrine. With no reflexive Indian conventional offensives, there would be no crossing of redlines. There would be no need for punitive retaliation that can only draw like punishment on India in turn. However, India wishes to keep its conventional advantage honed, to tamp down on Pakistan’s propensity for proxy war. India cannot have its cake and eat it too. It requires tempering its nuclear doctrine. Proportionate retaliation fits the bill. It deters higher order nuclear first use and to lower order first use, enables lower retaliation.
However, proportionate retaliation needs a caveat. As seen lower order nuclear first use by Pakistan would be less to halt India’s armoured thrusts, than for nuclear messaging to warn off India and bringing international conflict termination pressures. Proportionate retaliation in a lower order mode to this most likely scenario may not be the best response. It would imply shooting back, with attendant escalation risks. The more appropriate response to this most likely manner of Pakistani nuclear first use is nuclear non-retaliation. This is the caveat to proportionate retaliation.
Nuclear non-retaliation appears to be an oxymoron when deterrence is taken as obtaining from credibility, predicated on capability and intent. However, nuclear non-retaliation is compatible with the concept of existential deterrence, which posits that the very possession of nuclear weapons deters. There is no compelling need for displaying a resolve and will and building a variegated nuclear arsenal. It is in line with the two pillars of the nuclear doctrine that command a consensus, NFU and minimum deterrence. Absence of nuclear retaliation from India in such a case would be de-escalatory, reducing the premium on escalation control.
By abjuring nuclear weapons, India can capture the political and moral high ground. It would put Pakistan’s leadership in the dock. It can continue applying its conventional military advantage, since international pressures would be on Pakistan. The military exercises this year, Exercises Shatrujeet and Chakravayu II, testify that India’s military is well practiced, even though the separate press releases on the exercises carefully omit mention of any nuclear backdrop (Press Information Bureau 2016 (a), (b)).
The effect of the caveat – nuclear non-retaliation - is that the bets are off in case Pakistan persists or escalates. Deterrence is not absent since any nuclear action enhances the probability of escalation. Pakistan cannot persist with strikes since the caveat only covers nuclear first use and not subsequent strikes, deterred by proportionate retaliation.
The best option of all
The aim in a war gone nuclear should be to heed General Sundarji who had it that nuclear exchanges must be terminated at the lowest threshold of nuclear use (Sundarji 2003: 146-153). He further went on to say that this must be done for the conflict itself, if necessary by unilateral politically feasible concessions. Instead of his sage arguments voiced in the discussion, the debate is confined to realists arguing over which of the two higher order options is better: ‘massive’ and ‘unacceptable damage’. In a MAD situation, both being insane, proportional retaliation enabling lower order retaliation is a contribution from the liberal perspective. This enables Sundarji’s stricture that a nuclear war be brought to end straight at its very outset. The caveat of initial non-retaliation is one such measure.
Voices other than of realists need to be heard in the debates on nuclear doctrine. The realists underemphasize the equalizing effect of nuclear weapons. Strategists of the liberal perspective are wishful in believing escalation control is possible. The anti-nuclear community is missing in action in the debate. Here non-retaliation is taken as a caveat. An abolitionist’s contribution to the debate could well be that non-retaliation is the best option across the board; indeed, to even higher order nuclear first use. This is strategically sustainable, even if deterrence heresy. It can yet carry the day since nuclear employment strategy – to be used when the balloon goes up - is distinct from nuclear deterrence doctrine – to keep the balloon tethered in peacetime. Nuclear abolitionists’ avoiding the nuclear deterrence debate is well founded in the fear that deterrence discussion legitimizes nuclear weapons and deterrence is a false god. However, such avoidance is not without a price. Thinking about the least damaging way nuclear weapons can be employed may prevent worse outcomes inevitable when their use is hijacked by nuclear hawks.  
BJP (2014): Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat: BJP Election Manifesto 2014: New Delhi, 26 March 2014, accessed on 1 May 2016,
Indian Pugwash Society (2016): Panel Discussion Report On “Future of India’s Nuclear Doctrine”: New Delhi, 25 April, accessed on 5 May 2016
Cabinet Committee on Security (2003): Press Release of the Cabinet Committee on Security on Operationalisation of India’s Nuclear Doctrine 04.01.03: New Delhi, Press Information Bureau, 4 January 2003, accessed on 23 April 2016
National Security Advisory Board (1999): Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine: New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs, 17 August 1999, accessed on 3 May 2016,
Ahmed, Ali (2014): India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia, New Delhi: Routledge.
Nagal, Balraj (2015): “India’s Nuclear Strategy to Deter: Massive Retaliation to Cause Unacceptable Damage”, Center for Land Warfare Studies Journal, Winter 2015, pp. 1-20, accessed on 20 April 2016,
Lavoy, Peter (2015): A Conversation with Gen. Khalid Kidwai, Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference 2015, 23 March, accessed on 15 April 2016,
Dalton, Toby and Michael Krepon (2015): A Normal Nuclear Pakistan, Washington D.C.: Stimson Center and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed on 4 May 2016,
Press Information Bureau (2016 (a)), “Chief of Army Staff Reviews Exercise Shatrujeet”, New Delhi: Ministry of Defence, 22 April 2016, accessed on 5 May 2016,
Press Information Bureau (2016 (b)), “Exercise Chakravyuh-II”, New Delhi: Ministry of Defence, 6 May 2016, accessed on 7 May 2016,

Sundarji, K (2003): Vision 2100: A Strategy for the Twenty First Century; New Delhi: Konark Publishers.