Military & Aerospace

India's Nuclear Doctrine
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol 24.4 Oct-Dec2009 | Date : 04 Apr , 2011

A central tenet of India’s nuclear doctrine is No First Use. India’s is therefore  a doctrine of ‘assured retaliation’. The popular understanding of India’s nuclear doctrine is that the promised ‘assured retaliation’ would be a punitive response of ‘massive’ proportions. This article attempts to query this understanding by a rereading of India’s nuclear doctrine. It is hazarded that this understanding is at variance with the relevant clause in India’s nuclear doctrine as explicated in the press release on its official adoption by the Cabinet Committee on Security on 04 Jan ’03. It bears mentioning that the press release mentioned carried India’s nuclear doctrine.

This is to distinguish the doctrine from the earlier Draft Nuclear Doctrine of August 1999 that had been prepared by the first National Security Advisory Board. While the Draft recommended adoption of a punitive nuclear retaliation as doctrine, it did not use the term ‘massive’ but settled for the term ‘sufficient’ instead. It is posited here that in keeping with the Draft, the nuclear doctrine as explicated in the press release potentially rules in ‘flexible response’, as against the popular interpretation that it is one of ‘massive’ punitive retaliation.

Click for IDR subscription

This understanding of the nuclear doctrine has not been reflected in strategic literature and on this count requires highlighting. This article is an attempt at initiating the same. It argues that the correct interpretation of the doctrine is that it is one of ‘flexible response’ and seeks to show that this is in the Indian national and military interest in the India–Pakistan context.

Presently, Pakistan has admitted to four thresholds ““ territorial; attrition in military and strategic assets; economic strangulation; and, lastly, externally induced internal instability. In a conflict scenario, all these thresholds would simultaneously be subjected to pressure to different degrees from Indian military action.

This paper dwells in detail on whether the doctrine entails retaliation in the form of ‘assured destruction’ or of ‘graduated deterrence’, alighting on the latter is the accurate interpretation of India’s nuclear doctrine. The fact that it is widely believed to be one of ‘massive’ punitive retaliation is indicative of the lack of debate in the strategic community on the nature of the doctrine. In case the article makes a persuasive case, there is a need for clarification by the government.

This should then be made available as public information and also made known to the adversary as part of ‘communication’ so essential to deterrence. At present, the lack of clarity revealed in this paper, could lead to confusion and dissonance in the mind not only of the adversary, which is bad enough, but also Indian security and military planners, which is unthinkable. Therefore a revisit to India’s nuclear doctrine is considered essential.

This paper argues that there has been a shift in our nuclear doctrine to potentially countenance ‘graduated deterrence’. It is contended that this is in consonance with our land warfare doctrine for Limited War, dubbed Cold Start. It is also in keeping with India’s wider nuclear use philosophy that nuclear weapons are political weapons for deterrence alone. The case is presented by first bringing out that the popular version of India’s nuclear doctrine is inaccurate. It then presents the ‘correct’ picture of the doctrine and thereafter establishes that the latter is in consonance with India’s defence policy.

Doctrinal Considerations

Pakistan has not articulated its doctrine, but in not having acceded to No First Use, it has reserved the option of ‘first use’. In emulating the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, it claims to require nuclear weapons to also redress conventional asymmetry, seen as in India’s favour. Unlike the NATO, however it has not ‘coupled’ its nuclear weapons to its conventional doctrine. It has been assessed that it has a reasonably high nuclear threshold that has even been characterized as ‘first use, last resort’. Rhetoric apart, it is not as if Pakistan would resort to nuclear weapons on India’s crossing of the border or Line of Control.

This has prompted Limited War thinking in India in which the gap between the sub-conventional warfare and the nuclear threshold is taken as permissive of conventional operations with limited intent, as envisaged in its new Cold Start doctrine. The concept is sustainable in case Pakistan does indeed have a high nuclear threshold. There are dangers of triggering a low nuclear threshold in case of Pakistan having a low nuclear threshold. Since the Pakistani threshold is indeterminate, it cannot be assured that Indian conventional thrusts into Pakistan are not risking nuclear dangers. Operational planners can be expected to take the precautions necessary in choice of terrain objectives and attrition priorities. Therefore these dangers can be considerably alleviated.

Editor’s Pick

The problem however is in the conflict environment impacting Pakistani nuclear decision making. Presently, Pakistan has admitted to four thresholds – territorial; attrition in military and strategic assets; economic strangulation; and, lastly, externally induced internal instability. In a conflict scenario, all these thresholds would simultaneously be subjected to pressure to different degrees from Indian military action. In the land dimension, Cold Start doctrine would have ensured capture of a broad swathe of territory. Since developed terrain is encountered in the Pakistani heartland of Punjab even at limited depth, such penetration would have a greater psychological impact. In attempting to engage Pakistani strategic reserves at greater depth, the military attrition threshold of Pakistan may be breached.

In an air war, the Air Force would likely follow the pattern of recent air operations elsewhere in the two Gulf Wars and in Operation Enduring Freedom. It would execute operations in keeping with its self-image as the service of strategic decision. It would address enemy centers of gravity, comprising civil and military infrastructure and military assets. Strategic assets, such as Pakistani nuclear capability, may be avoided. This could be under the extant agreement under which annual exchange of lists of nuclear facilities is exchanged. It could also be, in keeping with limited war aims, not to trigger Pakistani anxiety over the survivability of its nuclear capability.

“˜First use here is taken as introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict situation. This is not to be confused with “˜first strike, which technically means an attempt to take out the enemys retaliatory capability.

The Navy has in the Kargil conflict and in the 2002 crisis demonstrated its flexibility by shifting the center of gravity of its fleet to the western sea board, thus giving itself the capability of interdicting Pakistani sea borne commerce. This would impact the economic threshold, besides creating panic in Pakistan’s commercial hub, Karachi.

Even if the intelligence agencies refrain from fueling internal unrest in areas as Baluchistan, internal stability threshold would be impacted by a right wing upsurge; by the actions of levee en masse in developed terrain encountered by Indian Cold Start forces; by the reaction these civil militias would receive from an inconvenienced Indian military; and, lastly, by the design of irregular and asymmetric warfare that Pakistan would, no doubt, engineer in occupied areas as a lesson learnt from Iraq.

1 2 3
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ali Ahmed

is independent Strategic Analyst and author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge).

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left