April 7, 2017

It is wrong to mistake debate over nuclear doctrine for a change in India’s position.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.

This is a draft of my column in Business Standard today.

Shakaal and Gabbar have a long-running feud. They nurse grievances against each other but would like to avoid fighting as they won’t be able to avoid getting hurt. Since misunderstandings can cause minor incidents to inadvertently escalate into big, bloody fights, one day Shakaal puts up posters around town proclaiming that his gang will not attack Gabbar’s first, but will go all out if attacked.

Now put yourself in Gabbar’s shoes? How seriously will you take Shakaal’s solemn promise?

Talk is cheap, and the the only thing that backs Shakaal’s verbal commitment is his desire to avoid getting hurt. You can never rule out the possibility that Shakaal’s declaration is a clever ploy to deceive you into complacency, so that he can take you by surprise. So you are likely to watch him closely, matching him strength for strength, always suspecting that he might attack first, despite what he said on those posters.

That is exactly how China and Pakistan treat India’s declared doctrine of no-first-use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. That is also how we look at China’s NFU. Any declaration of no first use by one side cannot avoid being seen by its adversary as deception for a surprise first strike. It is the fear of unacceptable damage caused by being at the receiving end of a nuclear attack that prevents either side from using them first. This is the essence of nuclear deterrence.

Following the recent proceedings of a conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think tank, journalists and scholars have begun to fall for the claim that India might have abandoned its NFU doctrine, and might launch a devastating first strike aimed at destroying Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in order to pre-empt a nuclear attack against us. The Pakistanis, rubbing their hands in glee, are saying we told you so!” and vested interests around the world that seek to keep India out of the nuclear mainstream are sharpening their pencils.

The problem is: the claim makes little sense. Nobody knows for sure how many nuclear warheads Pakistan has. Nobody knows for sure where they are all kept. Nobody knows for sure where the delivery mechanisms are. The estimate is that Pakistan has some 120 warheads. Nobody even knows exactly how many. So it is ridiculous to talk about a pre-emptive strike to destroy them all when we do not know what all” even means.

All it takes to destroy an Indian city and cause massive damage to our social stability and economic prospects is one bomb. Just one bomb, whatever its accuracy and yield.

The argument for a disarming first strike presumes that an Indian political leader will order wholesale destruction of Pakistan because there are hundreds of places where their bombs could be stored. In so doing, he will risk the destruction of a few Indian cities, because we might not destroy all of their warheads and a few might hit us. And he will do all this merely to avoid Pakistan dropping a bomb on Indian troops that have invaded its territory in response to a terrorist attack.

Now people are free to believe that an Indian leader thinks that it is okay to lose one or more cities, which means tens of millions of people, to avoid a few thousand of our troops being killed. That does not mean that the rest of us have to take them seriously. If it comes to that, and if the Pakistanis were indeed to drop a nuclear bomb on invading Indian forces, there are a number of options that New Delhi has that do not call for the use of nuclear weapons, and plenty of nuclear weapons if their use becomes necessary.

One problem I’ve noticed with strategic analysts is epistemological: they adopt conceptual frameworks and semantics that have their origins in the Cold War, where two distant superpowers fought over other countries’ territories that lay in between them. The geography and demographics were vastly different from the subcontinent.

So when I see words like counter-force” and counter-value” targeting being used in the three-cornered India-Pakistan-China setting, I can’t help but wonder if analysts think it is possible to separate the two in our context. Just look at the map. Look at the sprawl of our towns and cities. It is nearly impossible to store nuclear weapons far enough from populations. It is very hard for troops to be sufficiently distant from cities. It appears pedantic to try to distinguish attacks on troops (counter-force) from population centres (counter-value). Using those inappropriate frameworks can lead us to misleading conclusions.

Another bit of out-of-context thinking is this canard of there being such thing as a tactical” nuclear weapon. The decision to use a nuclear weapon is always political and hence strategic. India’s nuclear doctrine says that a nuclear attack is a nuclear attack and promises massive retaliation. It’s a good position to hold: if an adversary wants to risk that calling a nuclear attack tactical” will cause New Delhi to refrain from a nuclear retaliation, then the adversary should know that the price of that risk is total devastation. It is for the adversary to weigh this risk.

If the Pakistanis want to waste more money and build small nuclear warheads that they can put on cruise missiles, it’s their call. What is frustrating them is that New Delhi doesn’t seem to care. Rightly so.

India’s attitude should be the same: a promise of massive retaliation whether they. use big, old bombs dropped from aircraft, or small, new bombs placed on warheads. Regardless of the healthy debate in India’s strategic circles, regardless of off-hand remarks and personal opinions of political leaders, this actually is India’s position. Not because of unthinking devotion to doctrine, but because of a realist political appreciation of the utility of nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence in the subcontinent is about mutually unacceptable damage (MUD), not Cold War style mutually assured destruction, or MAD.

As we saw, Gabbar isn’t going to be convinced by Shakaal’s posters. So was there a point in putting them up at all? I’d say yes, but let you, dear reader, think about it.

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