Updated: March 30, 2010 12:54 IST

India's nuclear deterrence strategy

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In May this year, it will be 11 years since India crossed the nuclear Rubicon and became a de facto nuclear weapons power. The strategy of ambivalence, namely keeping the option open, was finally ended, shifting in a definitive manner towards weaponisation, the global opprobrium notwithstanding. Given India's distinctive nuclear profile marked by restraint and rectitude in husbanding this apocalyptic capability, an accommodation with the global community was reached in late 2008 when the NSG (nuclear suppliers group) accorded India an exceptional status, despite its being a non-signatory to the NPT.

What is the underlying strategy to harmonise India's complex and seemingly contradictory nuclear profile that encompasses credible nuclear deterrence, safe nuclear power, and an abiding commitment to disarmament? This book addressees these issues with a rare and commendable lucidity in a manner that is comprehensive and comprehensible, an elusive element in matters nuclear.


Sethi dwells, first, on the trends in prevailing nuclear thinking and discourse and, then, on the core elements of nuclear deterrence including doctrine, command and control, survivability, ballistic missile defence (BMD) and the challenges of fissile material control. In the third and last section, he takes the reader through India's post-2008 nuclear energy imperatives and concludes by making out a persuasive case for global nuclear disarmament.

Locating the Indian dilemma against the backdrop of the nuclear strategies of the major powers and their impact on India, Sethi examines the doctrinal underpinning and strategic orientation of China and Pakistan in some detail before elucidating the Indian posture. The core of the Indian nuclear strategy is the commitment to no-first-use (NFU) predicated upon assured retaliation leading to unacceptable damage. While this formulation is unexceptionable in terms of its conceptual validity, the devil is in the opaque detail of the nuclear domain.

As Sethi notes, “nuclear strategy must strike a balance between maintaining secrecy for enhancing deterrence while simultaneously allowing transparency, also for enhancing deterrence.” Deterrence itself is visualised as a ‘ three-legged stool' — the legs being: “capability, resolve to use that capability, and the communication of both – the capability and the resolve – to the adversary.”

Operational challenges

Acquiring a profile of sustainable and effective deterrence that is deemed to be credible by the external interlocutor is fraught with many operational challenges, and this is where the secrecy/transparency correlation becomes critical. India's national security apex will have to manage this dynamic in a regional context that stands no comparison with any other part of the world. China and its shrouded WMD cooperation with Pakistan and the latter's penchant for supporting terrorism constitutethe abiding politico-strategic nettle for India — and this aspect warrants greater attention. Sethi is right in saying that China's NFU “can provide little assurance to India.” He also argues that Beijing will seek to showcase itself as a responsible player — even while seeking “to influence the security environment to safeguard its national interests.” How responsible Beijing has been in its proliferation commitments and conduct is an area that calls for a more nuanced elucidation and assessment — for it will have a strong bearing on India's evolving nuclear strategy.

The section on ballistic missile defence is a useful introduction to a very complex technology, and Sethi highlights the operational challenges ahead of India and the armed forces in particular. The claim by the Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO) that Akash is superior to the United States' Patriot is meticulously recorded, with a citation, but the author refrains from delving further into the validity of this assertion.

Given the vast canvas that the book covers, it is a valuable addition to the existing literature on India's nuclear strategy. The publisher needs to be commended for the page layout and the use of a font that is easy on the eye, with the footnotes (provided at the bottom of each page, instead of the end-notes after each chapter) coming as a bonus.

NUCLEAR STRATEGY — India's March Towards Credible Deterrence: Manpreet Sethi; KW Publishers, 4676/21, I Floor, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 880.

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