The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian air force
By formally announcing its nuclear doctrine and the formation of a strategic forces command, security-wise India has at last completed what it set out to do with Pokh- ran II. The doctrine commits India to “no first use”, and is based on the policy of a “credible minimum nuclear deterrence”. It further declares that in the event of a nuclear, biological and chemical attack on India or its forces anywhere, India’s punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons will inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor. Finally, the ultimate authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons will be the prime minister’s. It is in furtherance of these aims that the subsequent triad of delivery systems, operational structures, command and control, survivability aspects and alternate chains of command as also the organization are being evolved.
Unlike conventional warfare, which has for centuries drawn military thinkers and practitioners to write treatises and manuals, nuclear warfare is virgin territory since a nuclear war has never been fought. The lessons that emerged as a result of the Cold War nuclear stand-off and the many near disasters are for the most part still classified, thus leaving this vacuum unfilled. Yet, unlike conventional warfare, which is essentially one fought between militaries or against targets that contribute directly to the war-effort, use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons will directly affect the survival of large sections of the civil population and their successive generations, non-military infrastructure and the entire environment covering vast areas, unmindful of national boundaries. It stands to reason therefore that the debate on the national nuclear posture must extend beyond the security community to encompass larger participation.
To try and understand the concept and efficacy of nuclear deterrence one can only attempt to look to the Cold War period. During the initial stages of the Cold War, both the United States of America and the Soviet Union were guided by the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. General Lee Butler — who commanded the US air force strategic air command and served in responsible positions as a nuclear strategist, operational commander and public spokesman within his nuclear establishment and is now a supporter of nuclear disarmament — explains deterrence as hinging “on the credibility to mount a devastating retaliation under the most extreme conditions of war initiation. Perversely, the redundant and survivable forces required to meet this exacting test is readily perceived by a darkly suspicious adversary as capable or even designed to execute a disarming first strike. Such advantage can never be conceded between nuclear rivals. It must be answered, reduced, nullified.”
Until the mid-Eighties, it was this desire to achieve advantage that triggered the most horrific nuclear arms-race between the two superpowers. It was driven by the apparent belief that one or the other side could come out better after a nuclear exchange. And neither was willing to be the runner-up. By the time the two had sunk in vast amounts of financial resources and amassed nuclear warheads to destroy the earth many times over, it dawned on them that the doctrine of “nuclear deterrence” had actually led them on to the edge of an abyss of “mutual assured destruction”. It was then that the superpowers mutually conceded that nuclear wars cannot be won and must not therefore be fought.
With this historical background, let us attempt a simplified look at our own nuclear doctrine. The essential elements of the doctrine are “credible minimum deterrence”, and in the event of deterrence failing, “punitive retaliation causing unacceptable damage” to the aggressor within a “no first use” commitment. While India’s weap- onization and doctrine are not Pakistan-specific, the following discussion will attempt to look at implications vis-à-vis Pakistan since Pervez Musharraf has on more than one occasion threatened India with nuclear use.
Deterrence, in the context of Pakistan, implies that India has the capability to absorb a Pakistani nuclear attack and still retaliate with nuclear weapons, causing unacceptable damage to Pakistan. For this deterrence to be credible, Pakistan must be convinced of this capability. Only if these conditions apply will Pakistan be deterred from launching a first strike. But Pakistan has factored nuclear weapons precisely to neutralize India’s conventional forces. Can it be expected to see its perceived nuclear advantage neutralized by a credible Indian response capability'
As General Butler notes, “such advantage can never be conceded between nuclear rivals”. So while Pakistan will work towards neutralizing this advantage, India must retain it, as its very doctrine is premised on such an advantage! While this argument is being projected in a theoretical sense, reality only makes things worse as other politico-military-fundamentalist dynamics will come into play in Pakistan. In India also, having ventured on this route, there will be inter-departmental and other interests that will affect the dynamics.
The bottom-line in both cases remains one of erring on the safe side, towards perceived enhanced national security. This was the classical deterrence theory, which led the Cold War protagonists into an uncontrolled nuclear arms-race. How will it be any different in the sub-continental context, except that well before reaching any monumental arsenals, we may be compelled to join our western neighbour in eating grass'
It is in this context that one should consider the other element of our doctrine, that of “minimum” deterrence. One assumes that this implies a self-imposed qualitative and quantitative cap on the nuclear capability to pre- empt international fears of a sub-continental nuclear arms race. During the Strobe Talbot-Jaswant Singh talks, it was reported that the Americans were very keen on India committing itself to specific numbers. India did not oblige, quoting this to be dictated by a dynamic situation. As potential adversaries attempt to neutralize India’s perceived advantage by enhancing their own capability, pressures on India to respond will naturally grow.
Punitive retaliatory action resulting in unacceptable damage to the aggressor is another principle of our doctrine, which merely emphasizes deterrence through fear of revenge and punishment. What is unacceptable damage in the mind of the Pakistani establishment must however remain an unknown factor. In an environment where the culture of fidayeens and jehadis is promoted, it is not too far-fetched to imagine a talibanized finger on Pakistan’s nuclear trigger, to whom any retaliation is acceptable, provided millions of Indians are first evaporated. Indeed this may be considered a diplomatic passport to heaven.
The Pakistan army’s pathological hatred for India is now legion and so is its frustration at not being able to take on India in a conventional war. With fundamentalists having established themselves within the army, can anyone be sure if the logic of deterrence as understood by Indian security planners will appeal to their minds'
To Musharraf and his corps commanders, their nuclear weapons are weapons of war. As the general has already said, they are factored in their battle plans. If they intend to use them, then their first strike must be effective enough to neutralize India’s retaliatory capability. They will therefore enhance their nuclear arsenal both qualitatively and quantitatively to achieve this objective. One can then predict the best-case scenario as one of an escalating an nuclear arms-race fuelled by Pakistan or the worst-case scenario of a conflict situation, misunderstanding or indeed a fundamentalists-created situation — escalating to mutual assured destruction, aptly called MAD.
To quote Butler again, “Deterrence in the Cold War setting was fatally flawed at the most fundamental level of human psychology, in its projection of Western reason through the crazed lens of a paranoid foe. Little wonder that intentions and motives were consistently misread. Little wonder that deterrence was the first victim of a deepening crisis, leaving the antagonists to grope fearfully in a fog of mutual misperception. Deterrence was flawed equally in that the consequences of its failure were intolerable. While the price of undeterred aggression in the age of uniquely conventional weaponry could be severe, history teaches that nations can survive and even prosper in the aftermath of unconditional defeat. Not so in the nuclear age.”
These words ring true today and merit introspection. In its widest definition, national security must ensure survival of the nation and not its destruction. Travelling the slippery slope towards a nuclear arms-race, especially with an unstable neighbour, will keep us perpetually on the edge of a nuclear abyss. While achieving nuclear capability was a necessary first step towards avoiding nuclear blackmail and has been achieved, India must look beyond. The draft nuclear doctrine prepared in 1999 had also stated that global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament was a national security object, and that India will continue its efforts to achieve the goal of a nuclear-free world at an early date. India must now use its new-found strength towards achieving this goal and not be drawn into the quicksand of a nuclear arms-race fomented by a failing state.