Former Defence Minister, Mr. Manohar Parrikar had set the cat amongst the pigeons and doves some months ago when he mentioned a need to have a re-look at our nuclear posture. Encouraged by this open-ness and also deeply disturbed by the shallow treatment of the subject by the former NSA (National Security Advisor- ‘Choices: Making of India’s Foreign Policy) I had raised certain concerns regarding the Indian nuclear posture of no first use and threat of massive retaliation in case of first use by the enemy.
…since nuclear weapon ‘use’ is fraught with danger of an Armageddon or national suicide the primacy is to the threat of its use. Thus psychological warfare is an integral part of nuclear strategy as much as weapons dialectics.
I received a very terse response from one of our foremost Delhi based think tank. Quote “The debate on nuclear deterrence has been more or less concluded decades ago: one bomb over one city is unacceptable damage. In any event, we already have the necessary capability to comprehensively destroy Pakistan through the use of nuclear weapons” The author then went on to say that the ‘real’ issue today is how to ‘deter’ Pakistan at the sub-conventional level” unquote.
There is a reason to believe that this represents the dominant view in the think tanks fraternity in Delhi. My experience in Delhi has shown that think tanks there often resemble an ‘echo chamber’. Thus there is need to take this response seriously.
But before we embark upon the debate, there is need to understand some basics of nuclear strategy. This is one form of warfare that has no ‘history’ to back up various theories since mercifully no nuclear war has taken place in last 72 years. The one model of nuclear competition/threats/coercive use is the interaction between the US and erstwhile USSR during the Cold War.
Second important point is that in nuclear warfare it is the weapon and its delivery system that is central to all strategies. Nuclear strategy at a basic level can be understood as ‘Weapon dialectics’. It is quite akin to the tactical level, where there are certainties of outcomes, very few options, direct result and pure violence (contrary to Clauswizian notions of war being politics by other means). It is like war for an individual soldier on battle field and is a question of survival. As a result many analysts often use ‘rational actor mode’ as a tool of analysis. Technical understanding of various weapon systems is a basic foundation.
…amongst the major powers, the US has consistently declined to give a no first use guarantee. In the context of the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan has explicitly declared that it will use nuclear weapons first if threatened with conventional weapons…
On the other hand since nuclear weapon ‘use’ is fraught with danger of an Armageddon or national suicide the primacy is to the threat of its use. Thus psychological warfare is an integral part of nuclear strategy as much as weapons dialectics.
At the risk of oversimplification, one can summarize the Indian nuclear posture as consisting of pledge of ‘no first use’ and ‘massive retaliation’ in case of ‘any’ use by an adversary of a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon against Indian territory or Indian forces. The issue of such a use by proxies or terror groups or non-state actors and our response to it has been left vague. ‘Deterrence’ of sub-conventional conflicts or proxy wars is mentioned as one of India’s strategic objectives but how that relates to nuclear deterrence or a conventional deterrence (Cold Start doctrine) has been left vague. These constitute the grey areas of Indian strategy.
“No First use” of nuclear weapons has long been championed by India. Short of universal nuclear disarmament, if all countries are to give a no first use assurance then the danger of nuclear war could be avoided, is the basic logic. China has given similar pledge with a proviso added that it applies to only non-nuclear weapon states. The Chinese version of no first use thus was more a non- proliferation tactic rather than a universal/mutual restraint policy. It is noteworthy that amongst the major powers, the US has consistently declined to give a no first use guarantee. In the context of the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan has explicitly declared that it will use nuclear weapons first if threatened with conventional weapons or in other unspecified circumstances.
The Indian strategy of ‘massive retaliation’ has an interesting parallel with the Cold War era. It was on 12 Jan 1954 that the then American secretary of State, John Foster Dulles announced that henceforth the US will resort to ‘massive retaliation’ to any provocation by the Soviet Union and the Communist block that had launched a series of conflicts worldwide to change the territorial status quo that favoured the West. The just concluded Korean War (during which the US lost nearly 54000 soldiers) was the backdrop to this. The looming war in IndoChina, specially the siege of Dien Bien Phu, provided the immediate backdrop. This was American attempt to deal with Soviet proxy wars by invoking the nuclear threat. A point to be noted was that at that point in time the Soviet Union had still not developed retaliatory nuclear capability.
Proxy war against India or Jihad for Kashmir is a necessity for Pakistan. The unending violence is due to ideology, perceived history, demography, economic reasons and in self-interest of Pak Army as well as the politicians.
A partial parallel to Indian situation is very discernable. We also face a proxy war and have promised a massive retaliation as a threat to deal with escalation of that proxy conflict. In our case the adversary possesses retaliatory capability and unlike the US of 1950s we are not immune to reaction to our so called massive retaliation. Another major difference between American threat during Cold War and our situation is that the proxy conflict is being waged on our own soil and not some distant theatre.
It is instructive that despite these various advantages, the ‘massive retaliation’ strategy of the US never worked. Once the Soviet Union developed retaliatory capability, massive retaliation became and empty and non-credible threat and never worked. The Soviet Union continued its proxy wars and ousted the US from Vietnam in a spectacular manner in April 1975 when the American Ambassador fled Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city). India’s ‘massive retaliation’ strategy was dead on birth as it lacks credibility, clarity and resources. Will our adversary believe that we will risk our cities if he has inflicted damage on mid to large sized military unit as part of our response to a terror incident?
The other major strategic issue that is uppermost on our priority list is how to deter the proxy war? At the sub-conventional level we are already fighting a proxy war and what is needed is not deterrence (which is a pre-conflict phase concept) but compellance. What we face today is a proxy war fought by Pakistan using tactics of guerrilla warfare. We can learn from our NE experience only in a limited way. We must remember that in case of proxy war with tactics of guerrilla warfare as well as terrorism, we have to contain and roll back the conflict. The time for deterrence is long over. What this means in strategic terms is that we need ‘action’, be it in form of cross border retaliation or counter proxy war in enemy’s hinterland! It seems from various actions, the present govt. has understood the issue and it acting on it under ‘Doval Doctrine’. Proxy war against India or Jihad for Kashmir is a necessity for Pakistan. The unending violence is due to ideology, perceived history, demography, economic reasons and in self-interest of Pak Army as well as the politicians. It must also be clearly understood that the ‘soft power’ of religious ideology is far superior to its cultural variant.
Indians have to put their heads together and find a solution. Ostrich approach to national security will not do.