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OpinionsIndia’s nuclear policy: Keep the enemy guessing

India’s nuclear policy: Keep the enemy guessing


's nuclear policy: Keep the enemy guessing

Sushant Sareen

IS the Indian strategic thinking at the highest levels of policy making really so naive? Could it be the case that there is a difference between India's actual nuclear doctrine, policy and posture, and what India states publicly for the consumption of the community?

One of the pitfalls of adopting a responsible posture to bring strategic stability in an unstable strategic and against an unreasonable, irredentist, fanatical and prone-to-misadventure enemy country (read Islamic State of Pakistan) is that it puts the responsible country at a disadvantage against its adversary. In the case of India, its stated position of No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons has allowed Pakistan to jig the nuclear equation in a way that India's nuke capability is treated as a constant which comes into play only as a result of use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan. The result is that Pakistani leaders behave like monkeys with machine guns and threaten a nuclear holocaust at the drop of a hat, and the Pakistan army has made use of nuclear weapons an integral part of its war fighting doctrine. This has degraded the credibility and effectiveness of India's nuclear deterrent and consequently allowed Pakistan to indulge in brazen nuclear blackmail.

Clearly, apart from being strategically indefensible, there is also something very morally reprehensible in not only allowing an enemy to indulge in nuclear blackmail but also letting him incinerate millions of your own citizens before you respond to his crazy and jihad-infused way of waging war. But is the Indian strategic thinking at the highest levels of policy making really so naive? Could it be the case that there is a difference between India's actual nuclear doctrine, policy and posture, and what India states publicly for the consumption of the international community? If the recent debate initiated by an Indian-origin academic in the US is anything to go by, it would appear that the Indian strategic thinking on nuclear weapons is lot more robust than what is suggested by the constant parroting of NFU as an article of faith carved in stone.

During a recent conference in Washington, Prof. Vipin Narang asserted that there is evidence to show that India is unlikely to allow Pakistan to strike first with nuclear weapons. According to Narang, India's “opening salvo” could be “a full ‘comprehensive counterforce strike' that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons so that India does not have to engage in iterative tit-for-tat exchanges and expose its own cities to nuclear destruction”. He has based his assessment of India's nuclear policy on three statements by three people who have held pivotal positions in the Indian security establishment – former Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, former chief of the Strategic Force Command Lt. Gen. B.S Nagal and former defence minister Manohar Parrikar. While Narang says that Gen Nagal has questioned the morality of accepting casualties if the government knew that use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan was imminent, he quotes from Menon's excellent book Choices where the former NSA not only talks about “circumstances… conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first… against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary's launch was imminent”, but also writes that Pakistan's use of tactical nukes against India would “effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan.” Narang also quotes the former defence minister Manohar Parrikar who had last year questioned the utility of the NFU posture of India and had said in clear terms that “a written defence strategy doesn't mean you have to follow it…..if there is some danger to the country I will not open the book first”.

Although Narang's presentation has set the cat among the pigeons, and has suddenly introduced the element of ambiguity of India's nuclear policy in the minds of the Pakistanis, the fact of the matter is that pre-emption of Pakistan's first use of nuclear weapons is something that has long been on the table of India's policy makers, preceding even the formal enunciation of the nuclear doctrine. In February 2000, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had hinted as much during a public rally in Jalandhar. Even as he committed himself to not using nuclear weapons first, he undermined his own commitment by declaring “we are being threatened with a nuclear attack. Do they (Pakistanis) understand what it means? If they think we would wait for them to drop a bomb and face destruction, they are mistaken (emphasis by the author).” Admittedly, this statement was made much before the formal nuclear doctrine was enunciated and it is possible that India's official policy could have changed since Vajpayee's Jalandhar speech, the fact that almost a decade and a half later, top officials continue to think of pre-emption suggests either a rethink or even an unannounced tweaking of the nuclear policy. More tantalising is the possibility that perhaps pre-emption was always part of the doctrine there but now is being brought out of the closet to introduce an element of ambiguity and uncertainty in the minds of the enemy so as to make him second-guess India's policy as well as to undermine the enemy's doctrine of using tactical nukes to forestall any Indian offensive against Pakistan.

Even so, Prof Narang has raised doubts on India's capabilities to operationalise a policy of what he calls ‘comprehensive nuclear counterforce'. While India does appear to be working in that direction, it isn't quite there yet. Asides of the need to build the necessary intelligence and technical capabilities required to pre-empt any nuclear misadventure by Pakistan, there are also some questions about both India's publicly declared policy as well as its pre-emption policy. Although Prof Narang has, perhaps inadvertently, done India a favour by sowing doubts in the minds of the Pakistanis of India's nuclear policy, will the strategic ambiguity that has been introduced in the nuclear equation between India and Pakistan by India's undeclared policy of pre-emption suffice to deter Pakistan, or is there a case to be made for openly declaring pre-emption as a policy? Second, while India is believed to have replaced its doctrine of massive retaliation (commonly understood to be countervalue or against big cities) by counterforce targeting (i.e. against Pakistani military targets) the fact of the matter is that in case of Pakistan counter-force significantly overlaps with counter-force targets.

Most Pakistani cantonments, and almost all Corps HQs are in the middle of bustling cities (for eg. Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad/Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta, Gujranwala, Multan) where presumably the command and control centres of Pakistani nukes would be placed, any counter-force targeting will effectively become countervalue targeting. Of course, just like a declared NFU wins points in the international community, so too will counterforce targeting get India some brownie points. But we should be clear that the net effect will be the same. And of course, once Pakistanis start to factor in possible first use by India, they will not only try to ensure the survivability of their nuclear arsenal but also change their own nuclear policy to factor in India's new policy, which in turn means both countries will be closer to a hair-trigger situation than they have been until now.

For the Pakistanis this means that it is not so much about their nuclear bluff being called, but more about a situation where their nuclear bluff could be taken so seriously by India that it could prompt a pre-emptive strike by India. On the other hand, if this leads to the Pakistanis piping down on their rhetoric and stops them from behaving like nuclear weapons are some sort of aphrodisiac that pumps up their testosterone levels, then strategic stability could be restored in South Asia.


The author is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation. Views expressed are personal.

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.


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