INDIA: DISSONANCE ON THE DOCTRINAL FRONT*
India’s strategic doctrine, not being available in a written form, is liable to varying interpretation. In the official, popular, version, it is a benign one with India seeing itself as a responsible and mature regional power. For critics of the conservative-realist school, India is an overly self-effacing power and ought to be more assertive. Those of liberal-rationalist persuasion find India as both ambitious and tough and on that count prefer a mellower India (Bajpai 2002: 245-51). Given this divergence in views on India’s strategic doctrine, gauging it is difficult but not impossible. The broad direction of its strategic doctrine can be visible from its program on the conventional and nuclear fronts, at the heart of which are military doctrines: conventional and nuclear. Taken together these spell its strategic doctrine.
While the current day strategic doctrine is often described as strategic restraint (Dasgupta 2012), there is also a strategic doctrine in-the-works that appears, on the contrary, to be based on offensive realism. While the extant strategic doctrine is for the regional power it is, the incipient strategic doctrine is intended to place India among the great powers over the middle term. Consequently, there appear to be two doctrines at play in India transitioning from a regional to a great power status: professed and aspirational.
The interplay between strategic doctrines and military doctrines is mutually constitutive. While strategic doctrine impacts military doctrine, there is a bottom-up interaction alongside. To this interpenetration can be ascribed the degree of doctrinal dissonance visible in India’s strategic doctrine and its transmission to India’s military doctrines: conventional and nuclear. This paper seeks to trace the dissonance on the doctrinal front in India by looking at strategic doctrine and military doctrines, both conventional and nuclear.
The paper first lays out the theoretical linkage between strategic and military doctrines. Next, it dwells on the Indian doctrinal inter-linkage by outlining in brief its strategic orientation and the impact on strategic doctrine. This is a difficult undertaking for most states in general and is exceptionally so for India in particular for want of a written strategic doctrine in India. Thereafter, the paper looks at conventional and nuclear doctrines, separately and in their interface. It highlights the doctrinal dissonance in doctrines at both levels: strategic and military. It concludes that this dissonance is problematic from a point of view of how India ‘causes’ security for itself and for regional security.
The doctrinal linkage
Strategic doctrine and military doctrine are inter-twined. Strategic doctrine orients the state in terms of its power relationship within the region and in the broader international political space. It is blueprint for the state to meet its internal and external security compulsions. According to Kissinger, it translates ‘power into policy’. To him, ‘strategic doctrine must define what objectives are worth contending for and determine the degree of force appropriate for achieving them (Kissinger 1969: 4)’. Strategic doctrine identifies whether ‘the goals of a state are offensive or defensive, whether it seeks to achieve or to prevent a transformation (Kissinger 1969: 7).’
What strategic doctrine is to achieve, to preserve the status quo or revise, implies that it is itself informed by the state’s security policy. Whether a state is status quoist or revisionist depends on the state’s comfort levels with its security environment in relation to its political aims. It sets the compass of its government in terms of how it views threats and opportunities and how it wishes to deploy power in response. Security policies are thus informed by defensive realism or offensive realism.
Self-imposition of restraint in pursuit of power is defensive realism. States do not always endeavour to increase their power without limits or single-mindedly. In this understanding, states seek security. Threats are viewed in relation to relative power, proximity, intentions, and the defence-offence balance. As increments in capabilities can be easily countered, defensive realism suggests that a state’s attempts to make itself secure by increasing its power are ultimately futile in face of responses these generate among neighbouring states. Therefore, states seek an appropriate amount of power (Elman 2007: 17-8).
On the other hand, ‘offensive realism’ is when states facing an uncertain environment rely on generating capabilities to offset threats and in case their aims are ambitious, then to use power so created for shaping the security environment for themselves. Security consequently to them implies enhancing capabilities, or power, to the extent feasible (Mearsheimer 2001: 37). A state must be in a position to determine its security environment through exercise of power in all its facets. Here the restraint on power is only on account of limited internal resources, a factor that can only be partially overcome by external balancing. To the extent that aims are pruned in relation to capabilities it is only temporally so.
Strategic doctrine reflects and expresses the strategic philosophy of the state. This accounts for diversity in strategic doctrines. The nature of a state’s response to its security environment – internal and external – through its strategic doctrine enables placing of each state along a defence-deterrence-offence continuum. Heterogeneity of strategic doctrines of states is a function of the political aims along with geographical, technological and political constraints and opportunities it faces (Posen 1984: 40). This suggests that strategic doctrines could be defensive, offensive, deterrent or compellent, depending on aims, constraints and opportunities. The divergence in strategic doctrines is brought out by Posen thus: ‘Offensive doctrines aim to disarm an adversary – to destroy his armed forces. Defensive doctrines aim to deny an adversary the objective he seeks. Deterrent doctrines aim to punish an aggressor – to raise his costs without reference to reducing one’s own (Posen 1984: 14).’
A state practicing defensive realism would have its strategic doctrine inclining towards the defensive and deterrence segments of the continuum. On the other hand, a state with a security policy informed by offensive structural realism can be expected to favour offensive strategic doctrines. To illustrate, status-quoist powers usually have defensive-deterrent strategic doctrines, while expansionist or revisionist powers are more likely to have offensive-compellent ones. Since a status quoist power seeks to preserve, it would prefer to employ its power to stave off a challenge, while the latter seeking change would prefer employing power to reboot, if not reset, prevailing power equations.
Power itself is variegated and multifaceted: political, cultural, technological, human resources, information etc. Strategic doctrines while reliant substantially on military power, are never exclusively so. What a state does with its power to bring about security for itself can be seen in its grand strategy, the manner it concertedly deploys its power for its ends. A state’s grand strategy - orchestration of power instruments towards the national purpose - is facilitated by its strategic doctrine. Grand strategy apportions the amount of effort to each instrument and constantly reviews this in light of effectiveness and changes affected in the environment. How grand strategy works the power instruments, in particular military power, is a function of strategic doctrine.
Military power being the ultimate arbiter is a consequential component. The effectiveness of the military instrument is a function of several factors such as military budgets, technological levels, martial spirit, political and military leadership and the civil-military interface etc. One among these, but of considerable import is appropriate military doctrine. Military doctrine has been defined as, ‘the underlying principles and specific guidance provided to military officers who produce the operational plans for the use of military forces (Sagan 2009: 222).’ Military doctrine deals with ‘what’ military means are to be employed and ‘how’ (Posen 1984: 13). Military doctrine is to military strategy what strategic doctrine is to grand strategy.
Military doctrine channels military power and aligns the military instrument with strategic doctrine. It provides the blue print for military strategy formulation and implementation. In providing the software for military strategy, it serves to link strategic doctrine and grand strategy at the politico-strategic level with the military level by shaping military strategy. Military strategy is formulated in the context of what eminent military sociologist, Morris Janowitz, termed as its ‘operational code’ or ‘logic’ of their professional behaviour (Janowitz 1960: 257). In other words, military doctrine forms the basis of military strategy, in turn deployed for the ends of grand strategy that is itself informed by strategic doctrine. Military doctrine therefore manifests the dictates of strategic doctrine by expressing it as either defensive, deterrent, coercive, offensive or compellent.
Indeed, the internal variegation does not stop at strategic doctrine. It is found in military doctrines too. For instance, a defensive strategic doctrine can well be manifest offensively in a military doctrine of offensive defence. This would imply an offensive bias to a defensive posture. Likewise, a deterrent strategic doctrine can either have a defensive or an offensive bias. A military doctrine based on denial would imply a defensive deterrent; whereas, one relying on punishment would amount to an offensive deterrent. Offensive doctrines at best rely on the defensive only instrumentally and for a duration, for instance to gain time or a rationale for an offensive. Therefore, even military doctrines of counter offensive, though awaiting the first punch by the enemy and liable to be included in defensive doctrines, can be categorised as offensive military doctrines. Furthermore, doctrines, while not dynamic, can transition from defensive to offensive and vice versa under influence of changes in strategic doctrine. Thus, for a period, doctrines can exhibit dual character.
Strategic doctrines and military doctrines require interrogation in their inter-relationship for understanding a state’s strategic posture and behaviour. Strategic doctrine is a product of the security policy of a state that is itself informed by defensive or offensive realism. Strategic doctrines are therefore defensive, deterrent or offensive. Military doctrines, a function of strategic doctrine, consequently can be categorised as defensive-deterrent or offensive-compellent.
India’s strategic doctrine
It is a long-standing critique in India that it lacks a strategic doctrine in the form of a defence white paper or official strategic review document. This is attributed variously to lack of a strategic culture; domination of bureaucrats in the national security sector who are illiterate in strategy; and political ignorance of ministers making them oblivious of the need to insist that national security minders first produce strategic doctrine and the rest would follow. For answer to why India does not have an explicit strategic doctrine, the answer may perhaps lie one step up: Whether it has a strategic philosophy and whether this is informed by defensive or offensive realism?
India’s self-belief is that defensive realism informs its security policy. It has to cater for collusive neighbours, with both having territorial ambitions on its territory. China uses Pakistan as its proxy in the region, while Pakistan readily lends its strategic location for such use in return for a Chinese assist in strategic balancing with India. China for its part wants to keep India boxed in the region in order that the pivotal status of India in Asia remains unrealised to its advantage in global power-play. Therefore, India believes that it needs to bolster its strength and eliminate deficiencies mistaken for strategic inadequacy by adversaries. Therefore, in its self-perception, its strategic repositioning owes more to defensive realism.
However, a slow but unmistakable shift can be seen from defensive realism to offensive realism from 1971 when it cut Pakistan to size to 1998 when it crossed the ‘rubicon’ (Rajamohan 2003). Since India continues being coy on this shift, its grand strategy may provide clues. Firstly, offensive realism is still in-the-works with India first catering for the capabilities it thinks necessary without provoking a security dilemma for its neighbours that would complicate its transition and security in the interim. India’s grand strategy appears to aim at transcending Pakistan and balancing against China through internal and external balancing measures. The aim is to have Pakistan wither away as a threat, thereby breaking out of the box of the South Asian security complex. Obviously, the power asymmetry against China implies that India’s strategic doctrine needs to be different. Against China, India has moved from a military doctrine of defensive defence to offensive deterrence over the past decade. Taken alongside its diplomatic outreach to the democracies ringing China, including the US, this implies a shift towards offensive realism (Malik 2012). However, in India not having stumped Pakistan or gained parity with China, its transition from defensive to offensive realism is likely continue, remain understated and, consequently continue to inject dissonance into strategic doctrine.
Whether lack of strategic doctrine is by design or default, articulation of the need for a strategic doctrine exists. Jasjit Singh stated that, ‘The central driving force for planning for defence, whether articulated in specific documentation or not, remains the strategic doctrine for defence that the country adopts… The twin goals of credible and affordable defence capability really grow out of the national strategic doctrine (Singh 2000: 1212-13).’ Despite cognisance of theory, a twofold problem exists in discerning India’s strategic doctrine. The first is the obvious one that it remains unarticulated. As a consequence, the second problem is that there appear two strategic doctrines co-extensive: professed, meant for the interim, and, the aspirational, for when India is deemed to have arrived as great power.
The professed strategic doctrine reasonably has as its aim a stable strategic environment in which India can progress its economic trajectory. This is understandable for an emerging power, one intent on harnessing its economic power in order to then derive military dividends that will propel it further into great power ranks. It protects prioritization of economic development and stability. It is in keeping with India’s strategic culture of resolve and restraint. However, conventional defence acquisitions and justificatory strategic commentary bespeak of an extra-territorial capability. This is evidence of great power ambition that cannot be attributed to or sustained by extant - professed - doctrine. Instead, it is evidence of the expansive – aspirational - strategic doctrine that India will scarce own up to. The professed doctrine tides India over the interim as in its build-up of the economic indices of power without triggering a security dilemma for its neighbours and detracting from its security in the interim.
Grand strategy is to hold threats from materializing into challenges by gaining time for India in order that when indeed they do materialize, India would be in a position to meet them. However, the aspirational doctrine detracts from this aim in setting India up against its neighbours. Neighbours that are themselves on power trajectories shaped by their security environments, of which India is part, are liable to view India’s growing capabilities with skepticism and act in accord with the concept of security dilemma (Herz 1950:157), to the detriment of Indian security.
In any case, the military’s significance in internal politics of its principal neighbour, Pakistan, leads Pakistan to view India’s professed doctrine with reservations. Pakistan therefore, albeit self-servingly for its military elite, readily bases its security response on the ‘aspirational’ doctrine. This explains the juncture in which India’s doctrinal shift is towards limited war under the nuclear umbrella, leading to Pakistan precipitately lowering the nuclear threshold in its introducing of tactical nuclear weapons into the regional military equations. Therefore, the dissonance in strategic doctrine carries a price tag of regional insecurity. Though strategic dissonance contributes to India’s insecurity, India, self-servingly, uses this as rationale for its doctrinal movement and power shift, arguing that, living in a hostile neighbourhood, it needs to cater for its own self-defence autonomously, justifying the shift from defensive to offensive realism. An advantage is in obfuscation by India of its strategic direction by way of which it can project a certain image even while taking advantage of ambiguity to get along an otherwise ambivalent strategic path.
Other than insecurity, there are significant drawbacks. Externally, an opportunity for reassurance that a written strategic doctrine could impart to neighbours is lost. Operating in the realist paradigm themselves, they would incline towards the ‘worst case’. Pakistan would see a regional hegemon, while China may see India as the US cats-paw. Internally, democratic accountability suffers. Manufacturing of consent of the attentive public is easier. Measures can be explained away as defensive and neighbours as aggressive, necessitating further movement by a self-regarding India. This leads to a democratic deficit in which public acceptability of India’s strategic direction is only seemingly democratic. Popularity of decisions, such as the nuclear tests, is mistaken as democratic endorsement of decisions that are otherwise taken, as Gaurav Kampani informs, by a secretive and narrow strategic elite (Kampani 2014: 81-2). Finally, military doctrine is doubly taxed. Not only must it cater for the current day clear and present dangers with what is at hand, but also cater for an India on-the-make and its security concerns. While admittedly both the present and the future are the temporal domains of military doctrine, leaving military doctrine without a valid start point, transmits dissonance in strategic doctrine to military doctrine.
India’s military doctrines
India’s professed strategic doctrine calls for offensive deterrence. However, its aspirational doctrine, aiming to transcend the regional box in which it is hemmed in by Pakistan and China, appears to approximate a quasi-compellent military doctrine in so far as its in-region challenger, Pakistan, is concerned. Consequently, it appears, further, as a differentiated strategic doctrine: with regard to Pakistan it is more assertive than it is in face of China (Ryan 2012: 39).
The conventional doctrine
In the nuclear era, limited war is the only kind of war-of-choice that India can possibly embark on. However, absent political direction to the military on this score, the army doctrine of ten years ago, does not explicitly articulate a limited war doctrine, even though it genuflects to the concept. While the basic doctrine of the air force is in the open domain, it is relatively sanitised. Professional discussion however centers on air dominance. It is clear that the first step – strategic doctrine articulation - not having been taken, the military has proceeded doctrinally without explicitly engaging with the requirement of limited war. Official imprimature to doctrines of the services is not reflected in annual reports of the ministry of defence. This means that the doctrinal space has been largely left to the military. This is problematic in the nuclear age since doctrine cannot but be a civil-military product. However, if civilians do not venture to construct strategic doctrine that is unmistakably within their ambit, with input from the military, they would unlikely be found engaging with what is largely a military product, but one that cannot be without civilian input and oversight.
The upshot is that the military is undecided on weighing in unambiguously on the side of limited war. The World War II syndrome of large battles involving large fronts and several formations persists even though the region entered the atomic age arguably by late eighties and definitely by late nineties. Since communication of limited war intent can help raise the nuclear threshold for conventional force application, the non-articulation of limited war doctrine would appear surprising. Reassuring the enemy of a limited war can prevent stampeding it into nuclear use. While in the overall reckoning the conventional doctrines have the limited war stamp, that these stop short nevertheless, conveys a threat of total war.
Militaries conceptualise a spectrum of conflict, defined as ‘a continuum defined primarily by the magnitude of the declared objectives’, and plan to be capable of victory, across the spectrum. Consequently, escalation dominance or superiority at the highest level of force in use along a particular scale in the spectrum of conflict assumes importance. Capabilities and plans aim for generating asymmetry and, in case of financial or technological constraints, at a minimum, symmetry (Cannon 1992: 94-5). Enemy capabilities become the defining yardstick rather than intentions. Since India faces two fronts, with adversaries of differing relative capabilities, its strategic doctrine has of necessity to be sensitive to relative power across respective borders.
Escalation dominance strategies are sought with respect to Pakistan. The firming in of the so-called ‘cold start’ doctrine is to bolster deterrence (Shukla 2012). The ability to punish has been enhanced by the creation of a mountain strike corps, ostensibly for the China front, but one that can be dual tasked for the Pakistani front. Escalation dominance across the spectrum is seen as useful in keeping conflict limited, in that Pakistan realising that the situation cannot be very different at a higher level may throw in the towel at the lower level and at lower cost. Escalation dominance can be read as a way to deter ‘asymmetric escalation’ (Narang 2009/10). However, the reverse can well occur since a nuclear adversary may equally lower the nuclear threshold to undercut any attempt at dominance.
Strategically, it can be argued not owning up to the limited war doctrine officially is to prevent Pakistan gaining the notion that it can escape at lower cost, thereby emboldening it on the subconventional level. Spelling out a limited war doctrine may exact a political cost in making India appear aggressive. It could also enable cues for the enemy to formulate its counter, thereby checkmating India’s moves. However, lack of an explicit doctrine will make a nuanced offensive difficult and on that count can lead to inadvertent escalation. For instance, India’s keeping of its strike corps even though a proportion has been parcelled out as integrated battle groups for the initial phase, of the conflict, that employment of these formations in the subsequent phases could prove escalatory. India appears to be relying on the nuclear deterrence for continued conventional escalation dominance.
For the China front, the power asymmetry (Singh, R. 2013) moderates India’s aims, restricting these to preventing escalation dominance through offensive deterrence. At the conventional level, defences strengthened with two divisions and a mountain strike corps are in place, while at the nuclear level the triad with its missile leg able to cover all of China, is in the offing by decade end (Clary and Narang 2013). This means that measures for deterrence both by denial and by punishment are being put in place. This is termed active defence in light of the offensive content in the deterrence. While defences would be static based on strong points across the disputed border, there would be adequate reserves and these would be recreated as necessary. The road network is being expanded towards this end. Even if losses in territory result, these will be compensated by the mountain strike corps making gains elsewhere. Measures for nuclear parity in hand are to prevent nuclear coercion by China in light of its nuclear head-start. In case of adverse circumstance, the debate surrounding the No First Use (NFU) retention is an indication that India could reserve the right to rescind it at an opportune moment.
The nuclear doctrine
The short hand for India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine is credible minimum deterrence (Press Information Bureau 2003). NFU is taken as its central pillar. However, the significant aspect from doctrinal point of view is in the nature of nuclear employment in case of breakdown of deterrence. Since NFU is in place this is a retaliation-only policy that can be easily be taken as defensive. However, the nature of retaliation promised is consequential in determining whether it is defensive or offensive. The retaliatory doctrine posits that in case of nuclear first use by an adversary in any manner against India and its forces anywhere, India will retaliate with a massive counter to inflict unacceptable damage.
In case of Chinese nuclear first use against India, for India to go massive in retaliation is incredible. Firstly, it does not have the capability (Narang 2013: 144) and secondly it would be suicidal. Aware perhaps of NFU on both sides, it can afford to make promises it cannot keep. The cost for its credibility, critical to nuclear deterrence, appears to be disregarded. In respect of Pakistan, massive nuclear retaliation against its nuclear first use of higher order proportions makes eminent sense. However, in case of nuclear first use by Pakistan restricted to a lower order strike, for India to go massive is arguably incredible in light of Pakistan’s vertical proliferation over the past decade. Pakistan incentivised to retaliate similarly is well able to do so since its nuclear numbers are reportedly in the range of lower three figures. Its unveiling of Nasr, a tactical nuclear missile system, suggests that whatever India’s belief in credibility of its deterrence, Pakistan views it through its own lens.
When nuclear first use by the enemy is of such an order as to result in unacceptable damage to oneself, then it makes eminent sense to consider retaliation of levels that inflict unacceptable damage right back. But, in case the damage caused by the nuclear first use is not of an unacceptable order, such as in the popular scenario when it is a single warhead of low kilo-tonnage on a tactical level target, then inflicting unacceptable damage in return would be to run the risk of suffering unacceptable damage in return. This consideration rules in a ‘tit for tat’ nuclear response. It is conceivable therefore that in India’s case declaratory doctrine may be distinct from operational doctrine. The latter may be predicated on limited nuclear operations enabled by a flexible nuclear retaliation. This debate between massive and flexible retaliation votaries has been set off by recent mention in the conservative nationalist party, the Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto expressing intent to revise the nuclear doctrine (BJP 2014: 39; Rajaraman 2014).
The second feature, NFU, has been under existential threat, so much so that the outgoing prime minister’s final address on strategic issues at the traditional venue for defence policy statements, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), was a call for a negotiated NFU between nuclear powers (Chari 2014). The position is unlikely to gather any momentum among nuclear powers addressed, especially since India’s own commitment to NFU is under question (Ahmed 2014). In effect, the reiteration of the NFU treaty may have been with intent of tying India down to the NFU by warding off the internal ideational challenge to NFU (Chari 2014). In the event, the election time controversy over NFU was however put to rest by the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Modi, ruling in favour of NFU citing the cultural rationale, indicating that it is of a piece with India’s historical tradition of military restraint in the world view of cultural nationalists (Reuters 2014).
Whereas the NFU projects India’s nuclear doctrine as defensive deterrent, this is upturned, firstly, by the caveats that attend NFU (Ahmed 2014: 23), and, secondly, by the introduction of the term, massive, into the doctrine. Even if massive is disregarded, the intent to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’ has the effect of pushing the doctrine towards the offensive camp since deterrence by punishment is by definition offensive deterrence. This goes against the grain of India’s posturing on nuclear maturity. Further, it is strategically bereft, placing India in harm’s way of an equal counter strike. Since the doctrine is for deterrence, it is possible to infer that in case deterrence breaks down, a different, operational, doctrine may kick in. This could well countenance limited nuclear operations. It is here that dissonance can be detected in that India argues that limited nuclear war is an oxymoron (Shyam Saran 2013: 16).
The conventional-nuclear interface
With respect to Pakistan, the deterrence logic is that the likelihood, if not inevitability, of spiral of nuclear exchanges on introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict, would see Pakistan worse off, while India owing to its size will survive such exchange(s). This would stay Pakistan’s nuclear hand. With Pakistan deterred, India can then proceed to administer conventional punishment for subconventional provocation. Since this would be a limited war, not intended to occupy territory, first use thresholds are to be steered clear of. Conventional assertion is to put an end to the ‘stability-instability paradox’ under which Pakistan, and its army, has impunity while India has suffered. The paradox has it that nuclear dangers having receded by mutual deterrence, Pakistan can get away with being venturesome at a lower level. By declaring an intention to go massive for Pakistan breaking the nuclear taboo, India has attempted to force upwards the nuclear threshold. This further under lines the offensive nature of India’s nuclear doctrine. Read in conjunction with the offensive content of conventional doctrine, this implies that against the grain of expectation, India does have quasi-compellent military doctrines.
The emphasis earlier on unacceptable damage, reflected in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine using the term (National Security Advisory Board 1999) owed to a buffer existing through the 1990s at the conventional-nuclear interface. India’s conventional doctrine was defensive-offensive based on counter offensive capability. India had an extensive defensive line that would cushion Pakistani aggression and provide the openings for launch of strike corps that were, like India’s proverbial war elephants, not particularly quick or agile. Pakistan was expected to be quicker off the blocks since it had its cantonments within striking distance of the border. It followed a military doctrine of offensive defence, one brought about by its limited strategic depth. Therefore, the nuclear factor could only come into the conflict once India’s counter offensives made good progress. This could only be well into the war, an unlikely eventuality in light of war termination efforts by the international community energized by war between two states known to be covert nuclear powers.
This situation has changed dramatically over the past decade in light of a changed conventional doctrine in India. India’s military doctrine is one of proactive, offensive operations. Keeping with a limited war concept, these operations are only to be to limited depths. India’s readiness to be off-the-blocks in case of subconventional provocation is to deter such provocations in first place and to be responsive in case deterrence does not succeed. The doctrinal formulation covering conventional operations in enemy territory is that India will go massive even in case of Indian troops being targeted ‘anywhere’. This links the nuclear and conventional levels and can cumulatively be taken as coercion. After all, Indian forces in light of absence of a limited war doctrine may well tread on the nuclear threshold, thereby prompting a nuclear response by Pakistan.
With Pakistan’s introduction of the tactical missile system, but one with a strategic import in terms of nuclear messaging, nuclear outbreak can be in fairly short order. The nature of Pakistani reaction is only partially in Indian hands. Pakistan has demonstrated a capability for tactical nuclear employment that is suggestive of early nuclear first use in a low nuclear threshold mode and cannot be discounted by the argument that its ‘bluff’ needs being called. This makes India a party to Pakistan’s breaking of the nuclear taboo. This modifies the understanding that the NFU makes for a non-aggressive nuclear doctrine on India’s part. Being offensive at the conventional level as also at the nuclear level means India’s military doctrines are both offensive when taken cumulatively. This is the work of dissonance in India’s military doctrines. By implication its unstated strategic doctrine, subject to bottom-up influence, cannot but be taken as offensive in respect of Pakistan.
India’s nuclear efforts are taken as motivated by the nuclear asymmetry with China (Narang 2013: 144). This helps India position itself in respect of the emerging superpower, China, rather than being hyphenated with Pakistan, a regional challenger. The NFU in place by both sides is useful to ensure that the situation of nuclear asymmetry does not overly disadvantage India. Nevertheless, India is in catch up mode with its nuclear ballistic missile submarine coming into action along with the Agni V and MIRV capable Agni VI by decade end (Subramanian 2013). However, the geographical disadvantage of a proximate heartland cannot be overcome. Consequently, India has taken care to up its conventional capabilities. These raise any resort to the threat of use of nuclear weapons on India’s part. The conventional capabilities are to action ‘active deterrence’ with defensive formations in a territory guarding role and reserves, constantly recreated and repositioned, by using the upcoming road network and air mobility capability, to compensate losses. This is reasonable under the extant, professed, doctrine of defensive deterrence.
The problem of dissonance kicks in with the possibility of horizontal expansion of the conflict. India’s aspirational doctrine appears to be relying on the sea front to compensate for any setbacks on the Himalayan front. Thus naval power is to activate to address the vulnerability of China at the Malacca straits. Since a limited war doctrine is not in place, the danger from such a strategic maneuver is under appreciated in India. While the idea appears to be to deter China with the threat of expansion and thereby keep conflict, expected to at best begin as a localized border incident, confined to its initial locale. A limited war doctrine could have explicated escalation control measures, exit points, firebreaks and saliencies, and benchmarks to recognize these and stimulate necessary action. Absent these, Indian deterrence appears to be relying on the ‘threat that leaves something to chance’ (Schelling 1980: 187). China is deterred from taking recourse to its advantages for fear of an escalation spiral, but attendant risks are higher.
Prospective doctrine review agenda
India is going in for a nuclear triad, working towards a ballistic missile shield and for missiles with extended ranges. These are taken as reinforcing its NFU pledge in that the enhanced survivability will help with assured retaliation. The numbers needed are reckoned as the minimum needed to inflict unacceptable damage after surviving a first strike. These are reckoned in relation to both adversaries and furthermore in light of the proverbial ‘bolt from the blue’ attack or the worst case scenario. In addition, there is to be a reserve. Such calculations tend to make the numbers climb, impinging on ‘minimum’. Already, numbers in the middle three digits are abroad intended to drive up numbers in any case. Besides, depending on how the missile shield shapes up, India, with its additional numbers, could position itself to even consider abandoning NFU. First strike considerations in light of surveillance capability and missile accuracy developments can be the next step. This possibility will enhance the ‘Will he, won’t he?’ apprehension on both sides, building in a tendency to preemption (Schelling 1980: 208). A preventive or preemptive war rationale, in deference to influence of global strategic culture, could appear.
The Cold War logic that may drive up numbers has so far been eschewed by India. India therefore has the opportunity of the nuclear doctrine review in the offing to rethink its nuclear doctrine. Other measures meriting attention are continuation of the NFU, rethink on the massive formulation and the nuclear cover provided for Indian forces anywhere. A holistic approach to the nuclear doctrine review could follow a sequential laying out of a strategic doctrine in a strategic review or whitepaper. The resulting strategic doctrine will then precede military doctrine.
Strategic doctrine remains amorphous, under-developed and little articulated. If this is the case with strategic doctrine that is essentially a civilian responsibility, inadequacies can only spill over to civilian engagement with military doctrine. The apex defence structure contributes to this firewall between the civilian and military. The ministry does not have either the ‘hardware’ (structure) or ‘software’ (doctrinal felicity) to think through linkages between the strategic and military doctrines. Further, the ministry is also not the site for nuclear doctrinal thinking, preserve of the National Security Council (NSC) system, comprising the National Security Council and its Secretariat (NSCS). The ministry also does not engage with military doctrines, seen as preserve of the military. Thus there is a structural disconnect.
The logic underlying nuclear doctrine is that these are political weapons and not for war fighting. However, in practice, as seen, it is apparent that India ends up looking to do more operationally with nuclear weapons by attempting to push up the nuclear threshold for conventional force application. The conventional doctrine domain is seen as the preserve of the military. The military, being historically little integrated at the nuclear strategy making level, the interface between conventional and nuclear doctrine and strategy is limited. As a result the two are undertaken autonomous from each other (Koithara 2012: 1). The civilian component has been loath to incorporate the military lest the growing operationalisation of the deterrent lead to rebalancing in civil-military equation in a way that would favour the military (Saran 2014).
However, cognisant of the potential for disconnect, an organisational innovation has been the creation of the Strategy Programs Staff within the NSCS (Saran 2013: 11). This comprises a multi-disciplinary staff to oversee the quality and growth of India’s deterrent. However, its charter does not mention operational planning other than having an intelligence role. This means there is an operational gap. India does not want to replicate the Strategic Plans Division (SPD) of Pakistan’s National Command Authority in its structures, knowing that the SPD is Pakistani military’s way to control Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory and trigger. However, lack of operationalisation keeps the military out, at the price of closing limited nuclear options, which as seen here, may require being ruled in. A start point on this exists for the review to follow up on the Naresh Chandra Committee’s recommendation of creation of a four star permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (Sarin 2014). The nuclear staff under the general could provide the operational picture at the interstices of nuclear and conventional levels, while the NSCS Strategy Programs Staff, duly mandated, can help integrate the strategic picture for input by the National Security Adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority’s Political Council.
Finally, and more importantly, the doctrine review if holistic to include a strategic policy review would help end dissonance surrounding India’s strategic doctrine. The conservative nationalist party has ideological anchor and political strength currently to be able to outline its strategic doctrine. This will enable the cue for military doctrines, thereby allowing doctrines to be rationally arrived at. While dissonance will ebb with aspirational doctrine finding voice, it is debatable whether the resulting doctrines will be in consonance with India’s national security.
A regional nuclear war will have consequence not only for the region but the planet (Helfand 2013). Further, India is hardly likely to survive unchanged, even if territorial frontiers remain unchanged. While there is little doubt that both states, India and Pakistan, have an assured retaliation capability, India may question Pakistan’s ability for assured destruction in light of India’s size. However, if not viewed in Cold War calculations of assured destruction, Pakistan can be expected to have the capability of counter strike(s) able to indubitably set India back in its ambitions in relation to China and in Asia. By this yardstick, the review needs to proceed on the assumption that Pakistan has assured destruction capability, as does India. Doing so will ensure a nuclear doctrine based on rational assumptions. The problem is in ideological blinkers of the cultural nationalist strategic subculture currently ascendant in India preventing acknowledgement of the fact that nuclear weapons as equalizers have leveled the strategic playfield in South Asia.
This implies that more needs doing to prevent war beyond deterrence. Firstly, nuclear and conventional doctrines cannot any longer be arrived at in isolation of each other; secondly, India must recognize that civilian and military domains overlap in doctrine making; and lastly, the political implications of the nuclear age compel overriding strategic and military compulsions that hitherto informed doctrine. Given this, the coming review cannot be left to experts alone.
India needs ensuring limitation in both conventional and nuclear doctrines (Ahmed 2014). It has to abandon the understanding that nuclear use inevitably triggers a spasmic nuclear exchange. It needs to ensure that the nuclear war is brought to a speedy close at the lowest levels of nuclear use by either side. Going a step further, counter-intuitively, a nuclear war entails cooperation with the enemy for escalation control and conflict termination. Therefore, the doctrine making exercise, even if national, needs a forum for exchange with the adversary in the form of a nuclear risk reduction center. In the case of India and Pakistan, the existing track in the dialogue process envisaging doctrinal exchanges needs being energized. More importantly, the region must arrive at a modus vivendi on the issues that could take the region down the nuclear route. Instead of an interminable and risky search for the elusive position of strength, politically negotiated deals envisaging a mutual give and take over Kashmir and the India-China border problem will mitigate the potential for conflict in the region. That is the inexorable logic of the nuclear age.
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* The unpublished paper was submitted for the SIPRI Project ‘Emerging Military Technologies and the Implications for Strategic Stability in the Twenty-first Century’. The author thanks Arko Dasgupta for research assistance.