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Business News/ Opinion / How to counter tactical nukes?

How to counter tactical nukes?

India should aim to expand the space for conventional warfare, where it holds a definitive edge over Pakistan

A file photo of Agni II intermediate range missile. Photo: HTPremium
A file photo of Agni II intermediate range missile. Photo: HT

How should India respond to Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons? This question has regained importance in the light of Pakistan’s foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry’s recent remarks justifying tactical nuclear weapons as a means to deter India from launching a conventional war. In the realm of nuclear warfare, one has to find real answers to hypothetical questions, else the questions may no longer remain hypothetical.

India’s current nuclear doctrine—Option X, let’s say—professes a “massive" nuclear strike “to inflict unacceptable damage" in response to any kind of nuclear attack—high-yield or low-yield. An Option Y is often proposed, which advocates “proportionate" response in case of low-yield attacks by tactical nuclear weapons. Before comparing the utility of both the options, let us first decide what Indian nuclear doctrine should aim for. A sound Indian nuclear doctrine should (a) minimize the chances of Pakistan using tactical nukes (Aim 1), and (b)prevent escalation to strategic nuclear weapons which bring about mutually unacceptable damage or mutually assured destruction (Aim 2). In other words, India should aim to expand the space for a conventional warfare where it holds a definitive edge over Pakistan.

The achievement of Aim 1 depends on the product of two factors—the scale of the doctrinal response and the credibility of delivering that response. A very low score on either may bring down the probability of achieving this aim considerably. The achievement of Aim 2 depends on the space for escalation left after fulfilling the doctrinal response. The more the space for escalation left, the greater is the opportunity for the two parties to come to a truce before the use of strategic nuclear weapons.

How do the two options—X and Y—fare in achieving Aim 1 and 2? While the scale of response in Option X is high, it suffers from a very low credibility. One, India has not shown enough stomach for a tough response in the past, be it after the attack on Parliament in 2001 or after the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Two, it is unlikely that India will undertake the high-risk option of massive retaliation in response to a battlefield nuke resulting in few Indian casualties. Therefore, the probability of Option X achieving Aim 1 is low.

Option X effectively forecloses de-escalation opportunities as a massive nuclear attack by India will be responded to in kind by Pakistan. Therefore, Option X does not achieve Aim 2 either. As far as Option Y is concerned, its credibility is high, but scale—being proportionate to the scale of a low-yield attack—is low. Thus Option Y has a low to moderate chance of achieving Aim 1. Option Y leaves enough space for escalation and, therefore, for striking a truce. Thus its probability of achieving Aim 2 is high. Overall, Y seems to be a lot better option than X, the latter being—just a reminder—part of the current Indian doctrine.

A new option—Option Z—has been introduced in a recent paper Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Deconstructing India’s Doctrinal Response by Arka Biswas. He proposes counter-force targeting, such as an attack on the enemy army’s headquarters, as opposed to counter-value targeting, such as bombing a city, in response to Pakistan using tactical nukes. The scale of such a response would be between that of a proportionate and a massively disproportionate response.

In order to distinguish it from a proportionate response using counter-force targeting, India should clearly specify, argues Biswas, “the category of counter-force targets, like military headquarters, strategic military and nuclear assets, nuclear command, control, and communications centres and so on".

The scale of response in Option Z is somewhere between that of Option X and Option Y. The credibility is moderate and not high because clear targeting helps Pakistan beef up security accordingly. The best example is to recall how India’s plan of attacking the nuclear facility at Kahuta in the 1980s—once leaked—failed to materialize as Pakistan boosted its air defences around the nuclear plant. Therefore, the probability of Option Z achieving Aim 1 is moderate. This option leaves adequate escalation space, but less than that left by Option Y. And so, its probability of achieving Aim 2 is also moderate.

Now the big question: which among the three options is best for India? It is clear that the incumbent option should be altered to either proportionate response or a “proportionate plus" response using counter-force targeting as suggested by Biswas. Of course, the assumption is that these three are the only options. One may devise more options and use this framework to evaluate their utilities as well. The two other main assumptions behind my framework are (a) India’s credibility to fulfil its doctrinal response is hampered not by inadequacy of power or ill-preparedness but by intent alone, and (b) Pakistan’s nuclear weapons including tactical ones are credible.

The choice between options Y and Z depends on the weightage we assign to Aim 1 and Aim 2. The probability of achieving Aim 1 is low or moderate across the options (see the table) and hence one can argue that India should focus on achieving Aim 2. This reasoning would lead us to select proportionate response as the right choice for India. Conversely, one can argue that India should try to achieve Aim 1 because (a) it helps (but does not guarantee) in achieving Aim 2, and (b) even Pakistan would be trying to achieve the same Aim 2 (Pakistan’s Aim 1 is different: it is to deter a conventional war while providing a nuclear cover to sub-conventional warfare). In that case, India should select Biswas’s suggestion. Take your pick; no choice is perfect.

Kunal Singh is staff writer (views) at Mint

Comments are welcome at

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Published: 12 Nov 2015, 10:00 PM IST
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