Homeland Security

Defence : dangerous drift!
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 07 Apr , 2015


In another two months time the Modi led BJP govt. will complete one year in office. One has waited in vain for the much needed correction on some fundamental defence issues like the country’s nuclear posture. The election manifesto of BJP had promised a review but from all indicators available in public domain there seems to have been no movement. It appears the new (by now 10 months old) govt. has succumbed to international pressure and/or the status quo lobby of Delhi that sees virtue only in its own voice and is immune to cold and hard logic of nuclear game. The issue concerns all citizens, our children and grandchildren.

Nuclear weapons are unique and essentially weapons to ‘deter’ an enemy.

Indian nuclear posture has been based on twin planks of no first use and minimum deterrence. Both these concepts are deeply flawed and actually make a nuclear conflict in the Indian subcontinent more plausible despite the apparent overlay of ‘peace’ rhetoric inbuilt in these. To understand how good intentions pave the road to hell, read on!

But before we discuss the whole gamut of Indian security policies some clear headed understanding of nuclear issues is necessary. Nuclear weapons are unique and essentially weapons to ‘deter’ an enemy. Nuclear weapons are useless as a weapon  of ‘defence’ or ‘offense’. The long term radiation effect, global effect on climate change and political costs of breaking a ‘taboo’ on use (in place since 1945) makes their ‘use’ problematic. The adage that ‘a nuclear war can never be won and therefore must never be fought’ has more than a ring of truth to it. The only role of nuclear weapons is that of ‘deterrence’. Let us understand the issue of so called minimum deterrence first.

Deterrence in military/security domain has a precise meaning. It means to possess such an assured   strength of retaliation that causes ‘unacceptable damage’ that the potential adversary is ‘deterred’ from taking any action against us that we perceive as against our interests. Defined thus, deterrence is an absolute concept, there is nothing like partial deterrence (like there is nothing like partial pregnancy), it is all or nothing. Difference with concepts of offense/defence is that there can be partial defence in the sense that defender could lose some territory or resources or in case of offense it could be a partial victory not so in case of deterrence. Thus the very concept of ‘minimum deterrence’ is an oxymoron. It is either adequate/successful deterrence or none.

India due to its past behavior of not forcefully responding to threats lacks ‘credibility’. All this leads to a conclusion that in case of Indian strategy of deterrence a far higher retaliatory capability is necessary.

It is interesting to recall how the terminology of ‘minimum deterrence’ came into existence. At one level this referred to the Cold War scenario between US and erstwhile USSR where the US particularly at one stage feared a pre-emptive attack by the Soviet Union given its huge arsenal of land based missiles that were accurate and were thought to someday carry out a pre-emptive attack and virtually disarm (in nuclear terms) the US. The US then decided to base its own nuclear weapons on submarines that would survive this attack and yet in retaliation cause un-acceptable destruction on Soviet Union.

As the arms control negotiations began in 1970s in order to reduce the size of nuclear arsenals of both the countries it became a guiding principle that in order for the deterrence to remain mutual and stable, both must have minimum deterrence- in terms of both numbers and survivability. But even as this debate went on, the French decided that they must have their own ‘minimum deterrence’ so that US does not abandon Europe in face of Soviet aggression (with memories of WW II like defeat). The French therefore decided on minimum deterrence that emphasized survival after an attack and yet sufficient strike capability to cause ‘some significant damage’ to Soviet Union so that it should lead to a general nuclear war. In short to act as a spark with reliance on huge arsenal of the US that would get sucked into the equation.

Note the difference between this concept and deterrence that envisages ‘unacceptable’ damage. Obviously the French therefore could do with a small arsenal based on nuclear submarines. Since 1974 till the end of Cold War, India as an undeclared nuclear power similarly depended on this ‘uncertainty’ and ‘ambiguity’ for its security against a nuclear armed China. Overt nuclearisation became inevitable once Cold War ended and this security through ‘linkage’ was no longer available.

The confusion in India has been caused by equating our minimum deterrence with the French style force de frappe. Not much thought has been given to what is unacceptable damage that is needed to deter our Western neighbor. Further complication has been that the mindset in adversary nation is such that the level of what is likely to be ‘unacceptable’ is not known. In addition India due to its past behavior of not forcefully responding to threats lacks ‘credibility’. All this leads to a conclusion that in case of Indian strategy of deterrence a far higher retaliatory capability is necessary. Available open source information paints a picture of capability far from that is necessary.

Pakistani argument that its option of first use of nuclear weapons is dictated by its weakness in conventional strength is patently false.

Indian nuclear strategy is further complicated by the ‘no first use’ pledge given by us. It would have made eminent sense if the potential adversary was to also give a similar pledge, which is not the case. We have of course clarified various situations which we will construe as having been attacked. But the timing element has been left ambiguous. For instance we ought to clarify that in a crisis situation say if the adversary begins to move his missiles to launch position or the enemy aircraft armed with nuclear weapons began to approach Indian airspace will we then wait for the first nuclear bomb to fall on our cities before retaliating? This is absurd. The at what stage will we determine  that a nuclear attack is imminent and launch our own retaliation? This would necessitate drawing of clear ‘red lines’ as what would constitute ‘unacceptable’ behavior in terms of threatening posture! It is lack of clarity on these and host of other issues that led to Kargil intrusion of 1999. There is also an additional issue of nuclear or chemical attack by non-state actors!

In addition to the above stated problems, India tends to treat the conventional, sub-conventional and nuclear threats in isolation. What this divergence between the conventional and nuclear has done is that there is a lack of synergy in defence planning between the various facets of defence forces and linkages of various threats. Once our security is linked to the nuclear weapons, the linkage though escalation ladder with conventional and sub conventional conflicts is inevitable. It is lack of this linkage and clear thinking on our part that has hamstrung our security policies. In addition this also brings in the possibility that we may stumble on the slippery slope of nuclear war by escalation.

The issue of revision of Indian nuclear doctrine has acquired great urgency since come June 2015 and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the whole region faces an uncertain future.

Pakistani argument that its option of first use of nuclear weapons is dictated by its weakness in conventional strength is patently false. While it is true that India does have an edge in conventional military forces, it is far from attaining any kind of ‘superiority’ over Pakistan. Many Indians nostalgically point out at the proactive Israeli strategy against terror attacks but fail to appreciate that India does not enjoy that kind of superiority over Pak. It is an axiom that in modern era, defence is inherently superior to offense and this goes in favour of Pakistan. Finally, the canal and river system in Punjab make it a nightmare for any major offensive. India’s attempt to create a counter in terms of ‘Cold Start’ force and doctrine was dead even before it was born. Pakistan has seen through this bluff. Given the close strategic co-ordination between China and Pakistan vis a vis India, it seems that the combine is playing a Mutt and Jeff or Good Cop Bad Cop game with India. With China acting as a good cop and non threatening while Pakistan acts aggressive. In short, China is getting Pak to do its dirty work.

The issue of revision of Indian nuclear doctrine has acquired great urgency since come June 2015 and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the whole region faces an uncertain future. The govt. has to come out with an unambiguous revised nuclear doctrine and force posture to cope with looming threats.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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3 thoughts on “Defence : dangerous drift!

  1. The revision of Indian nuclear document can be done only if India can counter both Pakistan and China, simultaneously and effectively. If we use nukes against Pakistan first, China will also use nukes against India at the outset of the war, instead of going in for a conventional fight first. Unless, India develops credible missile defence & offensive capabilities, India cannot risk nuking Pakistan first. The best option currently is to developed cruise missiles with long range and in large numbers. Cold start option should be fine tuned to neutralized Pakistani nukes missiles, subs and jets with large scale air attacks and cruise missile strikes, followed by occupation by ground troops. The special forces should be able to secure the balance nukes. Army should be able to occupy Pakistan with in 24 hrs. Then we will be able to stop Pakistan from nuking India. On the China front, India should not just be able to hold China’s offensive but also occupy Tibet, East Turkestan and Yunnan provinces. This is possible, if we are able to launch large strikes on main land China also. This will reduce the movement of additional troops to Tibet, East Turkestan and Yunnan. Occupation of these 3 regions will lead to loss of more than 50% of Chinese territory. In order to ensure this, we should be able to deploy at least 1.2 million troops in these 3 regions. We should also fire enough cruise missiles to overcome its missile defence & destroy China’s nuclear missile and bases, especially on main land China. We should also have complete air dominance over both China and Pakistan. Air dominance should be achieved with in 24 hrs in Pakistan and 48-72 hrs against China. Only then we will be able to avoid nuclear strike by Pakistan and China. We should also deploy IN & IAF in the pacific, along with some troops. India’s nuke arsenal should also be equivalent to China’s and Pakistan, if not more. This capability can be achieved by 2030 with more spending and integration of the services.

  2. India’s foreign policy and defence preparedness has never been coherent.
    We probably base all our policies based on presumption that Pakistan dare not attack India, or use nuclear weapons against India. Seeing previous behaviour by our neighbour, the presumption appears to be false. With expansionist behaviour by other neighbour China, time is running out for India. Despite BJP and Modi being at helm of affairs for last 10 months, our country has not made any substantial progress on this issue.

  3. Sometimes back, I had given my similar view that India should be well prepared to make its own indigenous Intercepting ballistic nuclear missile or with the US collaboration making such a missile for the protection of our cities & its economy. In my view, we are spending billions of dollars on arms and other defence armaments but not thinking discretely, how to protect our huge cities from the enemy no. 1 Pakistan, if God forbids , paused a real threat of nuclear armament against India. At that juncture, what should we do ? I fully endorsed your article on the subject.

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