February 25, 2006Foreign AffairsSecurity

Deterrence and the deal

The focus shifts to the delivery

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Regardless of how the pie is sliced eventually, it is clear that for India, the cost of entering the international nuclear mainstream will be more constraints on the number of warheads it can produce. The essence of the compromise, which The Acorn supports in principle, is that this is a price worth paying considering the potential benefits — towards improving energy security, and more importantly, towards improving its troubled relations with the United States and other western powers. But given the reduction in the amount of weapons-grade fissile material and the consequent reduction in the number of warheads in its nuclear arsenal, does this mean that India’s nuclear detterent will necessarily weaken?

Not necessarily. Bear in mind that nuclear weapons, especially strategic ones, are not actually meant to be used. In the first instance, credible evidence of ownership and readiness for use serves as a detterent for potential attackers. Moreover, India’s no first strike doctrine carries with it an implicit signal of an arsenal and a delivery mechanism that can survive a first strike. With this much in place, it is reasonable to conclude that at the present time India does possess adequate nuclear deterrence vis-a-vis its strategic adversaries. Unlike in the cold war context, India shares borders with both China and Pakistan, making it harder to distinguish purely tactical (or battlefield) nuclear weapons. Partly for this reason, India’s no first strike policy (which is implictly an assured second strike policy) covers attacks on Indian troop formations. By making no distinction between attacks on Indian troops on non-Indian territory and attacks on its own territory, India has extended its nuclear deterrence to the tactical space.

But what if the balance of power changes? China and Pakistan have been among the most active proliferators in history and their strategic cooperation will continue. New nuclear powers, with yet unknown intentions towards India, may emerge. Or Pakistan may be further tempted to exploit the stability/instability paradox. Will the constraints on the size of the nuclear arsenal undermine India’s capability to safeguard its national interest in spite of potentially adverse changes in the international balance of power?

Again, not necessarily. Even if the number of nuclear warheads were kept constant, it is possible to increase deterrent capability by improving delivery mechanisms qualitatively and quantitatively. The number of nuclear-capable missiles on land, on aircraft, ships and submarines can be changed to create the uncertainty that underpins nuclear deterrence. It is not necessary for every nuclear-capable missile that is deployed to be fitted with a real nuclear warhead to achieve the deterrence. There are limits to this, but as long as you don’t call five aces” while playing bluff with one deck of cards you will be taken seriously.

Similarly, qualitative improvements — cruise missiles that can achieve surgical strikes, or submarine-launched missiles that can extend the range — provide additional means to calibrate the posture of deterrence. These need to be accompanied by improvement in warhead designs. It is possible to achieve both without requiring huge amounts of additional fissile material.

The major implication for India’s strategic weapons programme is that it needs to increase its focus on delivery mechanisms. There is already some cooperation with Russia, Israel and the United States on missile-related programmes. A successful nuclear deal with the United States should make it easier for India to expand these programmes. Naval capabilities — including fleet expansion and the replacement of the navy’s aircraft carrier — are scheduled for the near term. India will need to accelerate the deployment of a nuclear submarine, and for this reason, should not accept any proposals to place facilities related to this project on the civilian list. Fortunately, India’s emerging security policy already recognises these imperatives.

Much of the separation anxiety has been driven by an assumption that India is about to accept a deal that will undermine its national security by weakening its nuclear deterrence. That is only true if the number of warheads is the sole determinant of deterrence. But even with a small number of warheads its the capacity to deliver them that makes a big difference. Indeed, if India imaginatively avails of the opportunities created by improved relations with the United States and the West as a result of the nuclear deal, it may well be able to improve its nuclear deterrence.

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