Welcome rethink in India's Nuclear Posture?
India’s nuclear doctrine of massive retaliation as a deterrent appears to be changing because developments within the Sino-Pak entente cordiale point to the possibility of a “window of vulnerability” caused by the phenomenon known as electromagnetic pulse or EMP.
The EMP occurs naturally during a lightning strike and the consequences are well known to mankind. But it can also be induced by the detonation of a nuclear warhead at altitudes ranging from 100 km to 400 km above the surface of the earth. This is called a nuclear EMP or HEMP because it occurs at high altitude.
While natural lightning has a largely vertical orientation and is thus confined, the induced HEMP interacts with the earth’s magnetic field and creates a surge that spreads laterally over hundreds of kilometres. It short-circuits and burns out all kinds of electronic/electric equipment thereby destroying channels of communications between the high command and the response/retaliation mechanism.
The reality now is that a nation (like Pakistan) which has embraced a policy of nuclear “first strike” as a deterrent can launch a pre-emptive strike and cripple India’s communications system and thus prevent the execution of the promised “massive retaliation”.
It is this emerging “window of vulnerability” that is being sought to be closed. This is evident from the writings of former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and the suo moto pronouncement of erstwhile Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar hinting at a first strike against an unreliable nuclear adversary.
“Why should I foreclose my options?” was the gist of Parrikar’s pronouncement.
Shivshankar Menon was more pointed in his book released in 2016 — “Choices: Inside The Making Of India’s Foreign Policy”. He wrote: “Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS (nuclear weapon state) that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.”
This would suggest a clear shift from allowing an adversary to cause nuclear destruction on the Indian landmass to one of zero tolerance to any kind of strike against India.
The rationale for a policy of “massive retaliation” after an enemy “first strike” had become infructuous with the growing awareness of the uses of the nuclear fallout to mould the battlefield. Studies into the phenomenon known as EMP (electromagnetic pulse) — all nations with nuclear weapons have assessed the advantages of a pre-emptive EMP — that could obviate the occurrence of a “massive retaliation” if the political leadership is unable to order the retaliatory strike.
Not for nothing is China threatening to raise at the UN the issue of India’s Agni 5 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) which brings nearly all of the vast Chinese landmass within contention. It has also railed against India’s decision to set up a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) to intercept enemy missiles both outside the atmosphere (exo-atmosphere) as well as within the atmosphere (endo-atmosphere).
China has shed its pretence of not being Pakistan’s nuclear mentor and has recently indicated that it will help in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme both in warhead and delivery vehicles.
Clearly, the Sino-Pak combine had become overconfident that the transfer of technology of MIRV (multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicle) and MARV (manoeuvrable reentry vehicle) from China to Pakistan coupled with the EMP phenomenon could render India hors de combat in the “First Strike”.
The statements of two eminent personalities in the Indian security establishment indicate a welcome rethink in the Indian nuclear posture. For several reasons, foremost of which would be which portion of India can the Indian leadership sacrifice to Pakistan’s “first strike: Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra? Also, can it allow a situation where EMP could affect its promise of “massive retaliation”?
That Pakistan is serious about using nuclear weapons against India at the first signs of another Bangladesh-sized disaster has to be an accepted fact in the skein of India’s foreign policy. Calculations that familial ties on both sides of the border may induce caution and hesitation in the Pakistani military establishment which controls the nuclear trigger are far-fetched.
There is no better illustration of this refutation than former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, a former resident of Daryaganj, in Delhi, a “Mohajir” (refugee) who does not tire of threatening India not just with nuclear weapons but also terrorists who, he says, will not be content with grabbing just Kashmir. His mindset indicates that there is no hope for “live and let live” in the Pakistani calculus.
For dealing with EMP, India has developed a two-layered Ballistic Missile Defence that will destroy incoming missiles that could be used in airburst configuration to induce EMP.
To make doubly sure, Menon has suggested that India should shift to a policy of “launch on warning”. This would ensure that any missile launched against India would be knocked down within Pakistani territory with obvious consequences.
The Menon-Parrikar formulation addresses the question of protection of all territories and peoples within its territorial jurisdiction. No one would want to be the first to be nuked.
Everyone in India will say Amen to that.