Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2014-04-09 05:08:30 Published on Apr 09, 2014
India's nuclear doctrine and strategy still continues to harp on the mantra of "minimum credible deterrent", even though Pakistan has now overtaken India in the number of nuclear warheads it possesses. Some analysts say that there are no signs that the Pakistani buildup is slowing down.
Updating India's nuclear posture
"The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 2014 election manifesto has promised to study "in detail" India’s nuclear doctrine and "revise and update it to make it relevant to challenges of current times". Many analysts are interpreting this to mean that India will alter its long-standing policy of no-first use of nuclear weapons, but the language of the BJP’s manifesto is quite moderate and clear. The BJP’s commitment needs to be seen in the context of the failure of the UPA government to update India’s nuclear doctrine and prevent the emergence of a rugged and credible nuclear force and evolve a strategy which would integrate the country’s conventional war-fighting potential with its nuclear weapons capability. In light of this, it is worth examining the various issues connected to India’s nuclear doctrine, strategy and posture. When India conducted its nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, it created a sensation. Predictably, Pakistan followed suit. There was uniform condemnation of both the countries and the UN Security Council passed resolution 1172 that not only condemned the action, but ordered India and Pakistan to cease all nuclear weapons programme, halt ballistic missile activity and the production of fissile material. All countries were asked to prohibit export of equipment, materials and technology. Egregiously, the UN also offered to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Given this climate, New Delhi’s response was to try and calm the world community. To this end, it declared that it would enter into a voluntary moratorium on testing, develop only a credible minimum deterrent, and offer a no-first-use pledge on the employment of its nuclear weapons. A year later, in August 1999, the National Security Advisory Board wrote out a Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) for India, which did not quite appear minimalist—it called for a triad with nuclear weapons capable of being delivered by aircraft, land-based and sea based missiles. It said that any nuclear attack on India and its forces "shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor." Importantly it also spoke of the need for an early warning system and "survivable and operationally prepared" nuclear forces and an "integrated operational plan or a series of sequential plans predicated on strategic objectives." However, 15 years later, most observers will agree that many of these objectives have yet to be achieved, especially on the score of an operationally prepared deterrent. India’s doctrine and strategy still continues to harp on the mantra of "minimum credible deterrent", even though Pakistan has now overtaken India in the number of nuclear warheads it possesses. Some analysts say that there are no signs that the Pakistani buildup is slowing down. Likewise, there continues to be a belief that India provides an unqualified "no first use" pledge on the employment of nuclear weapons. But this no-first-use pledge has gone through a lot of changes since it was first enunciated. A document titled "Evolution of India’s nuclear policy," was tabled by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he first spoke to Parliament after the tests on May 27, 1998. Among other things, it noted "In 1994, we had proposed that India and Pakistan jointly undertake not to be the first to use their nuclear capability against each other. The Government on this occasion reiterates its readiness to discuss a "no-first-use" agreement with that country, as also with other countries bilaterally, or in a collective forum." On August 4, 1998, speaking on a debate on foreign policy in the Lok Sabha, Vajpayee was more categorical. He offered an unequivocal global no-first-use pledge, saying that India would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, and not be the first to use them against the nuclear weapons states. The Draft Nuclear Doctrine of August 1999 gave the no-first-use another twist. It declared, "India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against States which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapon powers." Prior to this, India had given a "no use" pledge to non-nuclear weapons states, by now removing "states aligned with nuclear weapons powers" from the list, the DND suddenly included entire blocs of countries, such as the European members of NATO or Japan and South Korea. However, the current version of "no first use", was contained in a speech to the National Defence College in April 2010 by National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon which has said that India’s "no-first use" pledge is only valid against non-nuclear weapon states. Therefore, Pakistan and China, and the other six nuclear weapons states, are excluded from what was originally a global Indian pledge. As Menon told the NDC, in a speech which was publicly distributed, "The Indian nuclear doctrine also reflects this strategic culture, with its emphasis on minimal deterrence, no first use against non-nuclear weapon states and its direct linkage to nuclear disarmament." But Menon’s statement needs to be put against what passes off as India’s official nuclear policy which comes from the press statement of January 4, 2003 following a Cabinet Committee on Security discussion. This says that India would adopt a posture of "no first use" and that nuclear weapons would "only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere." The note added that even if Indian forces were attacked " by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons." For the record, China still maintains a pledge it made in 1964 when it first tested its nuclear weapons that it will not be the first to initiate a nuclear attack. In itself, there is nothing wrong with the NFU. It is much more economical because you do not need a too large an arsenal. In NFU mode, you need bombs that will destroy cities. In "war fighting" mode, you need very accurate weapons which can destroy the enemies hardened silos, as well as tactical nuclear weapons to take on his conventional capabilities. Further, you do not need sophisticated surveillance and early warning capabilities. Another aspect of India’s nuclear policy relates to the nature of India’s retaliatory strike. The Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999 had spoken of "punitive retaliation" and "unacceptable damage" to an attacker. However, the policy announced in January 2003 said that India’s retaliation to "a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage." India’s commitment to "massive retaliation" received confirmation of sorts on April 2013 by the convener of the National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran. In response to the development of small tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan, Saran suggested in a well-publicised speech that India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but regardless of the size of the attack, Indian retaliation "will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary." Now "massive retaliation" has a certain connotation in strategic literature and almost all authorities say that it lacks credibility, if only for the simple reason that if an attacker is going to face "massive retaliation", he could well be tempted to ensure that his attack is "massive" as well. There are other issues, too, such as the credibility of a doctrine of "massive retaliation". Would India really destroy Lahore, if one of our army brigades which have entered Pakistan is struck by a small nuclear weapon? A country that did not retaliate after the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, does not look like one that would destroy a city of 6 million, just like that. There is certainly an issue of credibility here. Nuclear weapons are weapons that should never be used in war. That is a common sense, as much as a political declaration. However, they are weapons, though of a special category. They have a certain function—to deter potential adversaries from coercing you with nuclear weapons or undertaking an action that threatens your national existence. This deterrent effect can only be effective, if the potential adversary is convinced you will use the weapons and that you very clearly demonstrated means of carrying out a retaliatory attack that could inflict unacceptable damage on him. This credible force must, therefore, be based on systems which can survive a nuclear attack. Missiles that are rugged and accurate, nuclear weapons which are robust, a command and control system, and a national decision-making setup which will convince an enemy that India has the wherewithal to assuredly retaliate and inflict unacceptable damage on them. We have a problem in almost all these areas. It is no secret among independent observers that India has problems with its missile arsenal, as well as its nuclear weapons. Its thermo-nuclear test, which would be the basis of its city-busting retaliatory capability, did not work as expected. Unfortunately, the Department of Atomic Energy personnel, specifically R Chidambaram, who is currently Principal Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister, claimed that everything had worked as planned. However, this claim was contested by K Santhanam, the DRDO scientist who was the coordinator of the nuclear programme and responsible for conducting the tests. Analysts who studied the seismic data related to the tests, too, raised doubts about its efficacy. As for the missiles, the DRDO claim that everything is on track is based on a couple of tests of each missile. Here take the example of Russia, which has huge experience in missile development. It did some 17 test launches for its most modern missile the Topol M between the mid 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, the high rate of failures of its Bulava submarine launched missile points to the complexity of missile development, especially those launched from submarines. But all these problems don’t faze our DRDO. It has declared the Agni II as cleared for production after its second test. The Agni III had four tests, of which one failed, yet it was declared ready for induction in 2010, the Agni IV has had three tests so far. Mercifully, neither the DRDO, nor the Defence Minister has yet claimed that it is operational. Who will believe that we have a rugged and top-quality missile to deliver nuclear weapons ? As it is, there is no verification, independent of the DRDO, on the accuracy of the tests. Even the so-called user tests are conducted by the DRDO with the service personnel watching on. There is an equally major problem relating to our decision-making set up which excludes armed forces expertise in the strategic (nuclear) arena. It is well known that the warheads of our nuclear weapons are under the custody of the Department of Atomic Energy and the DRDO. While the specially designated Air Force and Army personnel under the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) are to employ the nuclear weapons, the armed forces themselves are kept away from the decision-making relating to nuclear weapons. This is self-defeating for three reasons. First, the SFC may come under the Nuclear Command Authority headed by the PM, but practically the units function within the armed forces where they can be protected and their movement can be kept effectively secret. Second, it is dangerous to maintain a firewall between conventional military strategy and nuclear strategy because one could have a bearing on the other. The best example is that of the Cold Start doctrine from which the army has now distanced itself. Its clearest impact was in Pakistan acquiring midget Theatre Nuclear Weapons. This means opens a hypothetical scenario where an army thrust into Pakistan, results in a nuclear attack on its unit, compelling India to then, as per its own doctrine, undertake a "massive retaliation." Likewise, in a conventional war, the Indian Air Force may, as part of its plans, take out several Pakistani storage sites and degrade Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, pushing Islamabad on a "use it or lose it" mode. Third, you end up in a situation where strategic plans are made by outfits like the DRDO, rather than the armed forces. An example of this is the Ballistic Missile Defence system where there is no Air Force involvement, and which has possibly served to encourage Pakistan to expand its nuclear arsenal. For its own sake, India needs to integrate the armed forces into its highest decision-making levels. This is because national security strategy cannot be divided neatly into two compartments, one nuclear and one conventional. Decisions by the armed forces can have nuclear consequences. Likewise, decision-making in the nuclear arena controlled so far by scientists, bureaucrats and politicians, requires close consultation and coordination with the armed forces who may have to bear the brunt of their decisions, and, in any case, be responsible for employing the weapons. Clearly, these are issues that need to be thought through. India’s nuclear doctrine and strategy cannot be static. Changes have been taking place in its neighbourhood and in the abilities of our potential adversaries. India must therefore adjust its own thinking on these issues. Words like "no first use" and "massive retaliation" are just policy declarations which must be fleshed out into a nuclear strategy which, in turn, must jell with the country’s national security strategy, as well as its instrumentality—the country’s armed forces. Nuclear weapons must never be used, but if they are to play their principal role as deterrents, the country needs to ensure that they can be used. (The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi) "
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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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