Monday, 29 April 2019

Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, July-Sep 09
Manpreet Sethi, Nuclear Strategy: India’s March Towards Credible Deterrence, New Dehi: Knowledge World, 2009, pp. 395, Rs. 880/-, ISBN 978-81-87966-70-8

The author is the quintessential strategic analyst with a dozen years in defence think tanks. This is her third book and bears the mark of her earlier academic training at JNU. These credentials from complementary fields lend credibility to her ambitious attempt at dissecting India’s nuclear strategy. The otherwise daunting subject is packaged simply for ease of access even by the concerned citizen. Therefore the book is recommended reading as an introductory primer, particularly as it covers the entire gamut of nuclear doctrine, not excluding the topical nuclear deal. 

Her book is enhanced by her conversations on various aspects of the strategy with eminent thinkers and practitioners in the field including the ‘Bhishma Pitamah’, K Subrahmanyam and his protégé, Jasjit Singh. Thus, it conveys the Indian position, and the intricate thinking behind it on many connected and subsumed issues. It also brings out mainstream Indian reflection on the Chinese and Pakistani nuclear postures. It takes the middle-of-the-road position, with hyper-nationalists being on one side and the radical critique on the other. Befitting a book on the strategy of nuclear deterrence, it is rightly dedicated to the next generation with the intent that they ‘may live without the fear of a nuclear holocaust’.

The book carries a chapter each on the current state of nuclear strategy of great powers; nuclear doctrines of Pakistan, China and India; specific strands of the Indian case with respect to command and control and survivability; controversial issues as ballistic missile defence, the nuclear deal and the coming arms control and disarmament negotiations; and lastly, the connection between nuclear and conventional planes. It largely restricts itself to conceptual issues. This approach acquaints the reader to the major, if not dominant, perspective in the strategic community. The wider ranging book therefore has areas where argument could have been more rigorous; a critique that carries the underside that then the length would have made it dissuasive.  

The author brings out that nuclear weapons are political weapons meant for deterrence rather than war-fighting. India’s strategy is of ‘assured retaliation’ of ‘massive’ proportion to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’. The author rightly brings out that a ‘massive’ punitive counter may not be necessary. While such a posture may be useful from deterrence point of view, it would require to be reconsidered on breakdown of deterrence. In case the levels of provocation of ‘first use’ by the enemy are not of a level warranting counter value targeting, then India would do well to move towards a ‘flexible’ punitive retaliation posture. This would preserve India from like targeting by an enemy enraged by what it perceives as India’s intemperate and incommensurate response. In such cases misplaced political resolve would lead to an undesirable increase in nuclear threat to Indian value assets. The likelihood of higher order nuclear first use is limited by the operation of deterrence and ongoing developments, including acquisition of a nuclear submarine, in India’s second strike capability. Therefore, lower order use is possible, requiring India to think through options other than reflexive infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’ as defined by the author.

Curiously, despite recounting the four famous Kidwai thresholds – territorial, military, economic and political stability - in which the word ‘large’ is used thrice, she deems this as the exposition of a low threshold. The author rightly considers that Limited War is a feasible proposition. However, her expectation that a deeper penetration is possible in the desert sector as against the developed sector may be contested, given that Pakistan would more likely use the weapon in the desert sector to avoid collateral damage. Likewise, her discussion of air in a limited conflict leaves out that Pakistan would likely react in the dimension they are stronger, indicating the inherent escalatory dynamic in the use of air power. Admittedly, she merely provides a provocative start point in the discussion on the conventional-nuclear interface and her book is a timely call for consideration along these neglected dimensions.

More importantly, her suggestion of inclusion of the three service chiefs in the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority needs to be taken up separately. (Mistakenly the term National Command Authority is used in referring to the NCA, a term used by Pakistan.) The Political Council is mandated to take nuclear related decisions. It is obvious that it would do so after the requisite all-round consultations, including with the military brass. Inclusion of the apex military leadership into the decision making body would be to queer deliberations with institutional baggage; an expectation that organisational theory bears out. The criticism that the military has been kept out of the decision loop is no longer tenable, therefore a recommendation based on such an understanding would amount to an over-correction. Though not explicit, given the author’s seeming scepticism of the presence of political resolve, her inclusion of the military men, in an imitation of the Pakistani case, may be to strengthen political resolve against the possibility of self-deterrence. This may be required in case perhaps of a future minority government with squabbling ministers of different parties. Even against such a possibility, at best, the Political Council could have the Chiefs, or more preferably the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee and better still the Chief of Defence Staff, when created, in an advisory capacity, along with the  National Security Advisor, and not as members empowered to take decisions. The deliberations and decision should remain a political prerogative and be taken on a political, as against a military dominant, yardstick. Her recommendation inexplicably leaves out the NSA, much required to integrate the civil component of security.  

Though altogether a compliment-worthy effort, a few points are highlighted here. The author, while covering the Draft Nuclear Doctrine could also mention that one time Defence Minister, Jaswant Singh, had stated in an interview to The Hindu that the draft doctrine was merely recommendatory. Secondly, some sources have it that the Chinese nuclear doctrine is without caveat. While the author credits a noted China expert on the caveats she mentions, this could be re-examined. Her discussion of the CDS could be fleshed out further, since the appointment is consequential in integrating the conventional and nuclear planes of a conflict. It is not a job that can be done by a double-hatted Chief; one who, in our system, is also an operational head of his service.  

The hard cover book is well turned out in a presentable jacket and only a few printer’s devils. Its font lends itself to an easy read as does the unforced and unpretentious writing style. Perhaps for its next edition, the author could add a recommended reading list, in particular because resort to foot notes has not been very liberal. This would, along with appendices and list of acronyms, enable readers find most issues within one set of covers. It is recommended here as a ‘must read’, particularly for those embarking on the journey in security studies either in uniform or out of it, and a ‘must buy’ for libraries servicing this clientele.