Time to nuke the storm in the teacup

It is time for India to undertake a comprehensive review of its nuclear doctrine and kill the unnecessary speculation

Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

During the recently concluded 2017 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set the cat among the pigeons by suggesting that India’s nuclear strategy, if not the doctrine, might be undergoing some significant changes. At the centre of attention are two of the most debated aspects of the doctrine: (1) no first use, and (2) massive retaliation. Narang derived the strength of his argument from Shivshankar Menon’s 2016 book Choices: Inside The Making Of India’s Foreign Policy.

In the book, Menon extols the utility of the no-first-use (NFU) doctrine but also goes on to say: “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.” Narang marshalled the remarks of B.S. Nagal, former commander-in-chief of the Strategic Forces Command, and Manohar Parrikar, former defence minister, questioning no first use to boost his claim.

While Menon agrees with the promise of “massive retaliation” stated in India’s nuclear doctrine, he seems to shift its meaning from inflexible and non-credible countervalue targeting of urban centres to a counterforce targeting of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile. In exact words, Menon says: “India would hardly risk giving Pakistan the chance to carry out a massive nuclear strike after the Indian response to Pakistan using tactical nuclear weapons. In other words, Pakistani tactical nuclear weapon use would effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan.”

Both of Menon’s arguments when combined suggest that once India is convinced that Pakistan is going to unleash its tactical nuclear weapons, New Delhi will launch a disarming first strike to eliminate Pakistan’s stockpile of high-yield nuclear weapons. Narang contends that India’s development of Mirvs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles) and missile defences further indicates that this may indeed be India’s evolving strategy. After all, Mirvs will enhance first-strike efficiency and missile defences will help neutralize Pakistan’s remaining weapons after a majority of them have been eliminated in the first strike.

If this is the case, then Pakistan will be incentivized to go first. And why will it start with tactical nukes? It will indeed be tempted to start with strategic nuclear weapons. Therefore, in theory, a nuclear war could ensue tomorrow. But let us step back for a moment. Perhaps too much is being read into the chapter which Menon has clearly written to defend India’s NFU pledge—consistent with the overall tenor of the book which portrays India as a restrained power with mature leadership. It is difficult to imagine that Menon has deliberately ended up building a case for India triggering a nuclear war with guaranteed mutually assured destruction just because a company-sized troop is in danger of being attacked with short range nuclear weapons on the soil of Pakistan.

Moreover, if Menon was going so much against conventional wisdom, he needed to elaborate further. For instance, a comprehensive counterforce strike just when Pakistan’s use of tactical nukes is imminent would hardly be more credible than countervalue targeting after the tactical nukes have been used. If the latter’s lack of credibility stems from political unwillingness, the former’s comes from a lack of capability—immaculate intelligence and accurate missiles are required to implement a comprehensive counterforce doctrine. The task is even more difficult to contemplate with the proliferation of mobile land-based weapons systems and Pakistan’s moves towards sea-based platforms.

Menon’s chapter also gives contradictory signals and is casually written. For instance, at one point he also opens the door for a mixed counterforce and countervalue targeting: “There is nothing in the present doctrine that prevents India from…choosing a mix of military and civilian targets for its nuclear weapons”. Surely, countervalue (even if mixed with counterforce) targeting does not make sense with first strike in response to mere sabre-rattling using tactical nukes in Pakistan.

Further, at another point Menon says that Indian doctrine talks of “punitive retaliation”. He is plain wrong here. The phrase “punitive retaliation” was used in the draft doctrine prepared by the National Security Advisory Board in 1999. The official doctrine which was released in 2003 by the cabinet committee on security changed it to “massive retaliation”. In other words, India consciously chose to make the doctrine more inflexible.

The phrase “massive retaliation” has a particular meaning—it was first expounded in a January 1954 speech by then US secretary of state John Foster Dulles in clear countervalue terms. Interestingly, Dulles later retracted to a great extent in the April 1954 issue of Foreign Affairs. In contrast, Menon at best is cryptic and at worst contradictory and confused. Neither helps the Indian cause, especially when your adversary is a military-industrial complex looking for excuses to build more nuclear weapons and amass more powers to the detriment of its own country and people.

Perhaps it is time for India to undertake a comprehensive review of its nuclear doctrine and release an updated version to kill the unnecessary speculation. It will be good for India to climb down from its “massive retaliation” perch but it should stick steadfastly to its NFU pledge.

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