Strengthening India’s Nuclear Deterrence
Vol 11 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2017
India’s nuclear policy must necessarily be contextualised to those of its two major adversaries
Monday, December 4, 2017
One of the cardinal pillars in the edifice of national defence preparedness is the state of our preparedness in the nuclear dimension. In order to assess the same, there is a requirement to define the nuclear context (read threat) as it exists today from Pakistan and China, both individually and collectively, and evaluate our existing policy status in counter to the same.
The Nuclear Context
Pakistan follows a first use nuclear Policy which guarantees an immediate “massive retaliation” to an aggressive attacks against the State. Pakistan Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) in late 2001 defined their nuclear redlines in the form of four potential thresholds (reaching/crossing of which will trigger a nuclear response). These thresholds are however merely stated positions at a point in time and are subject to change at any time based on the ever-changing dynamics in the India-Pakistan relations. As of date, these stated thresholds are:
• Spatial Threshold. The armed and military penetration of Indian armed forces into Pakistan on a large scale which the Pakistan army is unable to stop.
• Military Threshold. The complete knockout or comprehensive destruction of a large part of Pakistan Armed Forces or armour, particularly Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Alongside this, an attack on the nuclear installations, as also, a chemical or biological weapon attack against Pakistan, could also trigger nuclear response.
• Economic Threshold. Possible Indian naval blockade of Sindh province or the coastal cities of Baluchistan province or the stoppage or significant reduction of Pakistan’s share of water in the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers or the capture of vital arteries such as the Indus.
• Political Threshold. Political de-stabilisation or large scale internal destabilisation of Pakistan leading to a stage where the integrity of the country is threatened.
In military terms, the possible scenarios in which the above thresholds were anticipated to be reached/crossed was through the conduct of conventional military operations by the Indian defence forces, wherein, while the Holding Corps of the Army contained the Pakistani Offensive, the strike Corps mobilised from their peacetime locations and launched punitive counter offensives (Sundarji Doctrine) .
As the impracticability of the above doctrine came to light during Op Parakram (in terms of inordinate delays in the mobilisation of Strike Corps), Indian Army promulgated the Cold Start doctrine, the one that envisaged shallow multiple thrusts along a wide front in Punjab and Rajasthan sectors thus creating a space for conventional operations without having to cross the stated ultimate nuclear thresholds.
Pakistan having realised that its nuclear bluff (of reaching ultimate nuclear thresholds) has been sort of made redundant by the strategy of shallow multiple responses along a wide front, recalibrated its response strategy. Starting with a series of joint military exercises (Azm-e-Nau III) it focussed on an offensive defence type of response against the Cold Start doctrine. One significant fall out of the above was the testing of Nasr a Short Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM) with a range of 60 km and a capability to carry four ready-to-fire nuclear capable missiles having weapon yields in the region of 0.5 to 5 KT. (called Tactical Nuclear Weapon or TNW)
With Nasr on board, Pakistan has put forward its rationale of using TNW to blunt Indian offensives even on shallower objectives, stating that its nuclear red lines have come down in response to India’s Cold Start doctrine.
The logic of such an approach is clear. The aim is to keep the nuclear bogie alive by adopting the position that nuclear thresholds will deemed to have been crossed even at shallow objectives and with that bogie in place, continue to engage in acts of cross border terrorism (Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri, Nagrota....)
In doing the above, Pakistan draws assurance from its conviction that the Indians actually believe that Pakistani nuclear thresholds have indeed come down. This conviction is further strengthened by its strong belief that in any case, the Indian resolve of massive retaliation with unacceptable damage (as stated in her nuclear doctrine) is unlikely to pass the decision dilemma in response to its pin-prick like acts in sub conventional domain. Pakistani nuclear brinkmanship is thus succeeding and under its garb, are succeeding the continuous acts of cross border terrorism.
On our part, every time a nasty incident takes place, there is a decision dilemma of putting boots across the border. One of the factors of hesitation is the chance of inviting Pakistani response of using a battlefield nuclear weapon thus starting a nuclear exchange which may snowball into an uncontrollable nuclear war. By repeated inactions, we are therefore getting duly deterred granting success to Pakistani nuclear brinkmanship which has led our decision makers into believing that the space for conventional warfare has indeed shrunk?
The Chinese Govt published its nuclear strategy in 2006 and took out a White Paper in 2013. This was followed by another White Paper issued in May 2015 on “China’s Military Strategy”. Some salient points contained in this White Paper are as under:-
• Chinese nuclear force is a strategic cornerstone for safeguarding national sovereignty and security.
• China will unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states, or in nuclear-weapon free zones and will never enter into a nuclear arms race with any other country.
• China has always kept its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required to maintain national security.
• China will optimise its nuclear force structure, improve strategic warning, command and control, missile penetration, rapid reaction and survivability and protection and deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.
• Notwithstanding all that has been said above, the paper also states, that China upholds the principle of counter attack in self defence and limited development of nuclear weapons. It endeavours to ensure the security and reliability of its nuclear weapons and maintains a credible nuclear deterrent force. Its self defence nuclear doctrine does not however consider nuclear weapons as offensive weapons of first use.
In essence therefore, while the Chinese policy is anchored on No First Use (NFU) doctrine, it reserves the option of counter attack in self defence for which a credible nuclear force is maintained.
That said, while the doctrines, have their place, our nuclear preparedness vis-a-vis China will be directly driven by the assessed Chinese perception of our policy and capability.
In the above context, some US and the Chinese experts opine that China does not consider Indian capability as a security threat to itself and knowing the military and technological gap between itself and India, it does not believe that India has the capability to threaten it. Flowing from the above, experts opine that China does not think that India seriously intends to go to war with China either on the nuclear or the conventional front.
Experts views notwithstanding, prudence, caution and past experience shows that while China may not pose an imminent threat to India, IT ALWAYS REMAINS A THREAT IN BEING and we must always be alive to this fact. This thought is corroborated by the currently prevailing geo-political and geo-strategic situation in the world at large and South Asia/ SE Asia/South China/ Tibet/ Asia Pacific in particular.
Coming to the specifics of the likely Chinese role in the Indo-Pak scenario the views of experts like Toby Dalton and George Perkovich, are worthy of note. According to these experts, while the escalation of tensions between India and China triggered by the border disputes is plausible, in an Indo-Pak confrontation scenario, China is unlikely to intervene with its own nuclear forces, especially if India does not initiate the use of nuclear weapons in the conflict.
It is assessed that China does perceive that India poses a threat to it in the medium term. This perception is based on three factors, namely, the foreign support for India’s great power aspirations, enhancement of India’s conventional military capability and the character of China’s interaction with India with regard to border disputes and Tibet. It sees with great concern, the growing strategic co-operation between US and India and the emerging US driven bilateral/trilateral arrangements in the Asia Pacific with India as a player (US-India-Japan/ US-India-Australia and the like). It perceives them as US efforts to forge a sense of balance Evaluation
In the nuclear context defined as above, India’s nuclear doctrine (as per the CCS notification of 04 Jan 2003) calls for maintaining a credible minimum deterrent with no-first use-posture. It states that India will use nuclear weapons only in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere. The nuclear retaliation to the first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.
Retaliatory attacks will be authorised only by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority. Nuclear weapons will not be used against the non-nuclear weapon States and India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons in the event of a major attack against it with biological or chemical weapons.
Clearly the doctrine is anchored on maintaining a credible minimum deterrence. In response to the central issue as to how this doctrine measures up to the nuclear context (threat) defined above and what measures need be taken to strengthen the deterrence on which stands the doctrine, three issues are examined:
The credibility of our deterrence in the perception of our adversary is the centre pole on which the doctrine stands. This perception of our capability stands on three pillars. First, the ready availability of nuclear warheads with us (of tactical, operational and strategic yields) Second, our delivery capability on land sea and air, and third, our command and control structures which will ensure the execution of the nuclear weapon launch as and when authorised by the civilian political leadership. Very basically, the strengthening of the nuclear deterrence will demand strengthening all the above three pillars and ensuring their ready operational status at all times.
Another shade of credibility is the capability to survive the first strike. Since the NFU posture envisages massive nuclear retaliation to the first strike by the adversary, the issue of surviving the same is paramount. For this to happen, the safety and security of our nuclear assets as represented by the three pillars of warheads, delivery means and command and control structures must be so comprehensively ensured and an overt show made of it that the adversary actually gets convinced to believe it. This requirement is critical to the credibility issue.
While that is true of the nuclear deterrent, there is another very strong and expanding domain of developing nuclear deterrence capability in the non-nuclear domain. This domain of deterrence has lately assumed tremendous significance given the net-centricity of the future battle field and its near total dependence on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The tools of such a deterrence arsenal make use of the enablers like the Electronic Warfare, Cyber Warfare and other Soft Kill means. The aim is to interfere/hack/debilitate adversary’s surveillance networks, target acquisition capability, missile guidance capability and more, as also, to strike at its command and control networks controlling nuclear launch. The soft kill arsenal is actually huge in range and depth and is only limited by the imagination of the attacker and the technologies at hand. This arsenal is cumulatively referred to as ‘Electronic Combat Capability’. The same has been covered elsewhere in the paper.
The No First Use Principle
The anchor of our doctrine is NFU. The same must be retained. NFU has given us a position of a moral high ground and the desirable tag of a ‘responsible nuclear power’, besides yielding several positives at various international fora (a non-NPT signatory getting exemption to NSG rules in 2008, Indo-US civil nuclear deal....). NFU also gels with several initiatives taken by India internationally (part of the UN call in 2006 for a UN Convention on prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons, spearheading the 2012 UN Treaty for banning nuclear weapons, et al.
Besides the above, NFU has kept us out of the nuclear arms race of trying to catch up warhead to warhead. The bottom line is that deterrence based on massive retaliation with NFU has held out for the last 14 years.
Tactical Nuclear Weapons
With TNW in hand, the Pakistani game of nuclear brinkmanship and under its garb, the continuing acts of terrorism stands enumerated in context. The primary reason for this continuing stance is the belief of the adversary that in the (unlikely) contingency of his using a low yield weapon in the battlefield the likely Indian ‘one-leap response’ (implying either total annihilation or nothing) is unlikely to get pass the political decision dilemma.
TNWs address this lacuna of ultimate or nothing response by ensuring that we have more options and no gaps in our nuclear arsenal. In other words we no longer suffer from the disadvantage of a unitary one-leap response (which the adversary feels unlikely).We have all choices open. What we will do at a point in time is our will. This projection of adequacy, completeness and multiple options for response will help removing the current belief in the adversary’s mind regarding unlikely feasibility of a massive annihilation strike by us in response to his use of battlefield nuclear weapons.
Pakistan’s nuclear brinkmanship currently anchored on TNWs will stand stymied if the adversary knows that we also have TNWs as one-one-one response, while we retain the option of massive retaliation at any point of our choice. In that, the TNWs do not pull us in a graduated response syndrome but end up completing our nuclear arsenal and thus providing us the complete choice spectrum in the nuclear continuum.
Therefore the need to have TNWs is not for using them, but to deter their use by the adversary. A completed arsenal will also remove any lurking doubts in the minds of our Commanders and troops of us being half-prepared, as deterrent equation on both sides will become even. This will have disproportionate effect as the whole game of deterrence, and to that effect, the war-fighting itself, plays out a great deal of itself in the ‘minds of the war-fighters and their commanders’. Men win wars not gizmos- goes an old cliché.
• All the three pillars on which stands the credibility of our nuclear deterrence, namely - warheads, delivery means and command and control structures - must be completed, strengthened and operationalised overtly.
• The survivability of our three pillars as stated above against adversary’s first strike must be overtly ensured.
• Efforts must be made to strengthen our deterrence in fields other than nuclear. The details of this requirement have been covered elsewhere in the paper.
• Our NFU stand must continue without any tinkering.
• There is an urgent operational need to develop and operationalise Tactical Nuclear Weapons and induct them into our nuclear arsenal at the earliest.