Has Mission Shakti made India safer?
The answer to the question posed in the title has potential to absolve the Modi government on the counts it is being arraigned by strategists criticizing its conduct of the anti-satellite (A-Sat) test on 27 March. If found wanting in making India safer, it can easily then be seen to be yet another election jumla,indicating a certain panic over the possible outcome of elections.
To the decision maker, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the test proved his courage in decision making and claims for being strong on national security, complementing as it did the earlier ‘surgical strikes’ on land and through the air.
On the face of it, clubbing the three takes the shine off the A-Sat test.
If the surgical strikes along the Line of Control conducted in wake of the terror attack on the Uri military facility had been of any consequence, a subsequent terror attack of the magnitude as occurred at Pulwama two years later should not have happened.
As for the aerial strike in end February at Balakot to avenge the mid-February Pulwama terror attack the jury is still out on its deterrence value and the outcome would only be known over the coming summer.
In short, the result of the surgical strikes on land did not work out as intended. The Balakot aerial strike is unlikely to prove any different. What of the third surgical strike, in space?
Former Pakistan president, General Musharraf, from his current-day perch in self-exile in Dubai, made an interesting observation during the recent India-Pakistan crisis, on the nuclear dimension to an India-Pakistan confrontation.
He said that Pakistan is liable to be finished by an Indian counter of merely a score of nuclear weapons to Pakistani nuclear first use, even if of only one weapon. To him, Pakistan would need to preempt any such Indian counter by going first with a large nuclear salvo comprising some fifty weapons.
Worried by the possibility of such Pakistani nuclear temerity, India is apparently readying to go first with a preemptive damage limitation strike of its own.
Former national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, in his book, Choices, indicated that a ‘gray area’ attends India’s No First Use (NFU) policy. He wrote that, ‘[C]ircumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.’
The official nuclear doctrine dating to January 2003 has it that India’s would be ‘a posture of "No First Use”: nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.’
Since the official nuclear doctrine is widely taken as largely based on the preceding draft nuclear doctrine of August 1999, the interpretation of NFU in the draft is of significance. The draft has it that ‘India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike….’
Taking the two together, it cannot be said with any certainty any more that India would await a nuclear strike prior to launching its own ‘retaliation only’ counter.
India’s tentative movement away from NFU has been spotted by two avid watchers of nuclear India, Vipin Narang on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Christopher Clary, who teaches at the University of Albany.
In a recent edition of the prestigious journal, International Security, they write: ‘India may be developing options toward Pakistan that would permit it to engage in hard nuclear counterforce targeting, providing India a limited ability to disarm Pakistan of strategic nuclear weapons.’
The idea appears to be that a first strike equivalent retaliation, in anticipation of imminent nuclear first use by Pakistan (even if not of first strike proportions), would not be violation of the NFU since Pakistan would be the one initiating the strike; thus absolving India of violating its NFU pledge.
Catching Pakistani signatures that betray such initiation requires intimate satellite coverage of the prospective locations and hides of its strategic assets. For this, India’s military reconnaissance and surveillance satellites are critical. Ensuring that these are not taken out by the enemy is therefore necessary.
This logic provides a plausible deterrence rationale for the A-Sat test. Since a kinetic-kill test is more visible, it has a higher deterrent value, even if kinetic-kill by use of missiles is no longer the likely way to take out such satellites. The cyber route is the more likely route in the future.
However, this does not answer the question if India is made any safer by a movement towards a capability for damage limitation strikes that stands enhanced by the A-Sat tests.
The logic appears to be that taking out most Pakistani strategic weapons prior to launch would leave Pakistan with only a few it could yet lob across. These could be shot down with the ballistic missile defence (BMD) cover being put in place. The A-Sat test was itself an indirect demonstration of BMD efficacy, which also stands being enhanced by the purchase of the Russian S-400 weapon system.
India is thus supposedly safer. But this neglects the numbers that Musharraf alluded to.
If, to Musharraf, Pakistan requires roughly 50 warheads for a first strike to preserve itself from the twenty Indian warheads that would otherwise finish it off, India would require rather more than 50 to set back any Pakistani first strike.
By most accounts, Pakistan is ahead of India in numbers of warheads and in the missile race. India also has another foe, China, necessitating keeping some bombs up its sleeve. Thus, India would unlikely be able to forestall a broken-backed retaliation by Pakistan, which in the event can only be counter value city-busting.
What the exchange does to the regional environment over the long term needs imagining, besides implications of refugee flows on the social fabric and political complexion of the regional states.
As regards China, against whom the capability is advertised as more relevant, it has had a head start over India in its A-Sat capability by a dozen years. It is no wonder that the asymmetry has precluded any substantial discussion of deterrent effects of the A-Sat test in relation to China.
Given the complaints of debris, that the National Aeronautic and Space Agency head claims are endangering the international space station, it is inconceivable for a kinetic-kill A-Sat capability to figure in war with China. The collateral damage to other countries satellites would be prohibitive politically for either side. Since both sides have a NFU in place and have the conventional war-fighting resources, seeking a first strike advantage may not figure in war.
At best, a reference to China, and the other two who have demonstrated the capability, the United States and Russia, has instead been to legitimize the tests.
Clearly therefore to the extent that the A-Sat capability incentivizes the movement away from a strict NFU and towards a putative first strike capability and intent against Pakistan, the A-Sat test does not make India safer. On the contrary, it incentivizes the insensible move to rescinding the NFU under a motivated reinterpretation of it.
By this yardstick, for the ruling party to have gone to town taking credit for Mission Shakti – and the other two ‘surgical strikes’ – makes the capability even more worrying, since, contrary to its claims, the capability is not self-evidently in safe hands, in hands of minders who should know better.