Military & Aerospace

Urgent Need to Have a Re Look at India’s Minimum Deterrence
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 14 Jun , 2016

The need for a re-look at our nuclear posture has become imperative after the Jan 2016 Pathankot attack. What if the infiltrated terrorists had succeeded in blowing up several aircraft? How would India reacted? What would have been Pak response to the Indian reaction- be it limited foray/air attacks or whatever! Could India have exercise restraint like the 26/11? It seems that Pakistan must have calculated the risks and still gone ahead or was unable to control its own proxies. In either case the result would have been the same- escalation of conflict…..

Pakistan position is clear. Since that country is weak in conventional arms and lacks strategic depth, it has a policy of using nuclear weapons first in case of a conventional attack on its mainland.

One of C Northcorte Parkinson’s law on triviality says that the least important but easily visualized issue takes disproportionate time of discussion. Our media, both electronic and print seem to faithfully follow this rule generally but more so in case of defence and security. Thus while lot of ink is spilt on say defence scams or OROP (one rank one pension), weighty issues like India’s nuclear posture or failure to deter terror attacks seldom attracts enough attention. Politicians, with their antenna are firmly tuned to public mood, pay attention to the trivial while the more important issues get sidelined. Indian nuclear posture has been the singular victim of this syndrome.

One of the most glaring omissions from Modi government’s two years report card is any serious re think on India’s nuclear posture. If any review has indeed taken place then it is not in public domain, the right area for such an important issue.  One is not expecting the Nitti- gritty to be made public, but since ‘deterrence’ by definition relies on openness and transparency, lack of public declaration can assume to mean no change in the ‘no first strike-minimum deterrence’ paradigm.

This inaction is surprising since the BJP had clearly promised this in its election manifesto. I quote, “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, revise and update it to make it relevant to challenges of current time”, unquote. Looking back at BJP’s past performance, for instance it had promised overt nuclerisation in 1996 and carried out the tests in 1998, ( it tried it as early as 1996 but lost its majority before it could implement its pledge) this is surprising.

The Modi government also faces legacy issues. The nuclear issue received scant attention during the previous UPA regime. It never had its heart in the nuclear posture having opposed it in 1998. The Congress President Sonia Gandhi had denounced the nuclear test of Vajpayee government. In addition, India faces major handicap on any fresh thinking in   Lutyen’s Delhi. The Delhi intellectual ecosystem and seminar circuit is more an echo chamber than a generator of fresh ideas.

‘Second Strike Capability’ is the bed rock of `deterrence’ strategy and means an ability to absorb a surprise first strike by the enemy and yet retain a capability to inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor.

In the last few years another development has added to the ideological ‘fog’ in Delhi. This is the entry of foreign funded ‘think tanks’ to add to the crowded space in Lutyen’s Delhi. It is indeed bizarre that organizations like  Carnegie Endowment that have been in the forefront of opposing Indian nuclearization, have the temerity to advise Indians! With their deep pockets and lure of Western recognition, these extensions of Western think tanks, have arrogated an important role in influencing policy. That former holders of high government office have joined these outfits is incomprehensible! Can one imagine the IDSA (Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis) opening a Washington branch and claiming to advise the US government?

The need for a re-look at our nuclear posture has become imperative after the Jan 2016 Pathankot attack. What if the infiltrated terrorists had succeeded in blowing up several aircraft? How would India reacted? What would have been Pak response to the Indian reaction- be it limited foray/air attacks or whatever! Could India have exercise restraint like the 26/11? It seems that Pakistan must have calculated the risks and still gone ahead or was unable to control its own proxies. In either case the result would have been the same- escalation of conflict…..

All the issues raised above call for a re think of our posture. But before we discuss re think, it is first necessary to understand what is the current Indian and Pakistani postures. Pakistan position is clear. Since that country is weak in conventional arms and lacks strategic depth, it has a policy of using nuclear weapons first in case of a conventional attack on its mainland. India on the other hand has assured that it will not be first to use nuclear weapons but will respond to any use of nuclear weapons by adversary, in short India is prepared to be second in striking with nukes. We also claim that such survivable nuclear capability we have will be kept at ‘minimum’ level of deterrence. These are the broad contours of the two countries approach to the nuclear question.

‘Second Strike Capability’ is the bed rock of `deterrence’ strategy and means an ability to absorb a surprise first strike by the enemy and yet retain a capability to inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor. The logic being that once this is known, a would be aggressor will have no motive to launch a surprise/first strike. ‘Minimum  Deterrence’ is also understood as finite or  counter city strike capability. This strategy envisages threat of strikes on enemy’s population and industrial centres in order to deter him from acting against one’s own `vital interest’.

The French force was small in comparison with the US or the Soviets. The French made it highly mobile; basing it on submarines, so as to ensure that it could survive a Soviet strike.

Here it is necessary to distinguish the scenario in Indian Subcontinent from what obtained during the Cold War. The development of ‘second strike capability’ was partly a product of technological revolution as well as the fear of ‘surprise first  strike’. During the Cold War both sides had ability to strike first but never a ‘Splendid First Strike’ capability to launch a surprise strike in which all or most of enemy’s nuclear forces could be destroyed .  In the case of Pakistan, it’s declared policy of ‘first use of nukes’ is actually a defensive response to Indian conventional superiority. In order to still limit escalation, Pakistan has now proposed to  use ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. But here, like the Russians during the Cold War, Indians refuse to accept this distinction and would regard ‘any’ use of nuclear weapon as unacceptable and inviting full force of retaliation.

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Evolution of exclusive ‘second strike ‘based strategy owes a lot to the French thinking on the subject. In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the detente flourished, Europeans became increasingly unsure of American response to a Soviet conventional aggression. The French took concrete steps and dis-associated themselves from the NATO and created their own independent nuclear force, the `force de frappe’.

The French force was small in comparison with the US or the Soviets. The French made it highly mobile; basing it on submarines, so as to ensure that it could survive a Soviet strike. De Gaulle, the architect of this said,

“If the Soviets strike us they can surely destroy us, but we will still retain the ability to take out a city or two. The point is will it be worthwhile for them to destroy us then!”

The French called their strategy as being based on `dissuasion’ and not deterrence. The difference between the two is subtle. While deterrence presupposes capability to inflict `unacceptable damage”, dissuasion strategy relied on the rational calculation of cost benefit /some major damage to the enemy and thus could be achieved with much lesser levels of weapons.

Deterrence by itself can nether be qualified as minimum or maximum but merely as ‘adequate or inadequate’. If the retaliatory force is inadequate then it can no longer be deterrent.

Unlike the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, that tested the ‘deterrence’, the concept of dissuasion or tactical nuclear weapons, was never put through a test of a real life crisis. In retrospect it appears that even the `dissuasion’ strategy of the French relied heavily on the nuclear deterrent wielded by the Americans. The French force de frappe, during the cold war, was but an extension of American power in Europe.

If the logic of the situation in Europe is accepted then strategy of `Dissuasion’ has to be seen in context of the American deterrence and almost as a part of it. Independently of the American power, the French force de frappe would possibly have never worked. When countries such as India think of `dissuasion’ capability as adequate, this point must be borne in mind.

‘Minimum deterrence’ has the advantage of sounding politically correct and has been the holy grail of Indian nuclear posture since 1998.Like elephant and five blind men of Hindustan (ref is to a book by General K Sundarji) it means many things to many. To Indians it is means to avoid conflict in the entire spectrum, to the Pakistanis it means they can continue with proxy conflict under nuclear overhang.     The stable deterrence between the US and USSR had ‘assured second strike capability ‘ as the bed rock. India rightly accepted ‘second strike’ but spoiled the issue by substituting ‘assured un acceptable destruction’ by ‘minimum’ deterrence.

No First Use is a fine policy provided the retaliatory force can cause assured and un-acceptable damage on to the enemy.

Deterrence by itself can nether be qualified as minimum or maximum but merely as ‘adequate or inadequate’. If the retaliatory force is inadequate then it can no longer be deterrent. Minimum thus depends upon what the targeted nation thinks as unacceptable ………not the deterring nation ….it is thus based on clear sighted understanding of enemy psyche. The touch stone of Indian deterrent vis a vis Pakistan ought to be Hafeez Sayeed and his LeT. India has to create such a retaliatory force that LeT, the lowest common denominator is afraid and exercises caution lest India unleash annihilation. If credible threat of total annihilation is the ‘minimum’ that is needed to deter, so be it.

No First Use is a fine policy provided the retaliatory force can cause assured and un-acceptable damage on to the enemy. In case like Pakistan’s, it may well mean not minimum but massive retaliation capability.

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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.

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3 thoughts on “Urgent Need to Have a Re Look at India’s Minimum Deterrence

  1. PM or Defense Minister do not worry about Pakistan Nuclear capability . We have several ways to tackle them. We do not want to Install a puppet Gov like the USA is doing.

    They should have the leader like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. So the best way to provide three layer or four layer fencings all along the border to prevent the infiltration with latest surveillance equipment. I think the Govt. already planned for it. Please read the news “To prevent Pathankot-like attacks, India plans 5-layer ‘lock’ at Pakistan border”

  2. Pakistanis know about their own nuclear capabilities or incapabilities. Other than posturing, they also know that they may all wake up in God’s paradise and not on earth, the next day. I mean return retaliation will be devastating. That is unacceptable to even a suicider minded nation. They want to win, and rule from Delhi, but if they all die in a retaliatory strike, what is the point of having nuclear weapons. These are good for posturing.

    Even if the first Pakistani nuclear strike over India is made in hurry by Pakistan and is successful, there is a good chance that more than half of the missiles and aircraft will be shot down. Some will descend over India for destruction, too bad that retaliatory strike wipes Pakistani out of the face of the earth. As for India, quote Mao Tse Tung, there will enough Indian left to begin and become a very strong nation again free from anybody pulling them down and many nations big and small simply afraid of it.

    • It is not easy to use the nuclear weapon . Moreover, Dharma will prevail everywhere. It is like Karna kept Bhramastra to kill Arjuna. Then everybody knows what happened. So I do not give much importance to this kind of article.

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