For a credible deterrent, constancy of doctrine in its core essentials has definite merit

For India, nuclear deterrence is defensive and a means to secure its sovereignty and security. Its strategy of assured retaliation, combined with “no first use,” provides adequate guarantee for this purpose. The strategy was unveiled concurrently with its 1998 nuclear tests, which ended the determined U.S. bid to prevent India from acquiring nuclear deterrent. Ironically, India’s nuclear weapons tests, together with the rapid expansion of its economy, transformed its global outlook and relations with the U.S. and the world.

The Chinese nuclear weapons test of 1964, on the heels of the 1962 war, had always rankled in Indian minds. K. Subrahmanyam and K.R. Narayanan, at the time in the early years of their public service, advocated a matching Indian response. This did not then have resonance at the top, as India was facing the twin crises of food and finance.

The P-5 states treated non-proliferation as their default foreign and security policy objective, but this was invariably trumped by national interest. India’s restraint and decision not to weaponise its nuclear capacities after the 1974 test were well known. Yet, when Pakistan accelerated its nuclear proliferation, it was not stopped in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when U.S. President Jimmy Carter designated Pakistan a “frontline” state.

The Chinese transferred nuclear materials and technology to Pakistan, including the weapons design and the means to deliver them — the solid fuel 300-kilometre range M-11 ballistic missiles. In a paper published in 1972, Professor Wayne Wilcox of Colombia University, then working as cultural attaché in the U.S. Embassy in London, perceptively recognised that India’s policy concerning China and Pakistan “is to hedge all bets and cover all contingencies.” India was compelled to acquire nuclear weapons to deter nuclear blackmail in its contiguity.

Unlike Pakistan or Israel, India could not have a “recessed” deterrent or bomb in the basement, given India’s governance practices. Contingent factors delayed India’s nuclear weapons tests, such as the persistent external pressure on India, and arguments by internal agnostics who claimed that such testing would betray India’s long-held principles, diminish its international standing, and reduce future GDP growth rates by up to two per cent annually. In 1995 came the perpetual extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, without linking it to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The conditions attached to the 1996 Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, which could foreclose India’s nuclear weapons option, became the final point of conviction. From then on, the question was not whether to test but when.

For India today, the choice is clear, as it was in 1998: so long as nuclear weapons exist, India’s nuclear deterrence will have to be maintained. Until there is a global compact for creating a nuclear weapon-free world, India will have to persevere with this policy.

What is credible deterrence?

In delivering the message of credible deterrence, all nuclear weapons states, including those that have embraced no first use, face a conundrum. Nuclear weapons are weapons of the last resort, fundamentally different from conventional weapons. War is a traditional tool of statecraft, but the weapon to end all wars cannot be a standard instrument of an ordinary war — it can only be the final recourse for dissuasion. It cannot be chance, for then it will fail to deter. While embracing a declaratory policy to avoid nuclear war, the state concerned must simultaneously demonstrate that it has nuclear war fighting capacity — the resilience to take the pain of a first strike, and both the ability and resolve to inflict massive and intolerable destruction on the attacker.

For improving its punitive capacity, China is seeking a sea-based nuclear deterrent, deploying mobile solid-fuel missiles, and moving missiles below the surface in elaborate tunnels in mountainous terrain, undetectable from space, called the “Underground Great Wall.” The same motivation has led India to similar pursuits. India’s missile force, the weak link in its deterrence, is under rapid repair. Its transformation is enabling the shift toward strategic deterrence. In the past half-dozen years, India has invested in improving the command, control, communications, and intelligence systems and its second strike capacity, including the survival of the decision-making structure. The National Command Authority deserves credit for this. Simultaneously, the sea-based leg of the triad of delivery systems is taking shape — even if at a slower pace than the situation warrants. India might also have to do more to communicate effectively that its deterrent carries credibility.

In popular domestic imagination, India’s assurance of “credible minimum deterrence” is confused with minimum credible deterrence, as if it connotes an arbitrary limitation. The essential prerequisite for nuclear deterrence is as much the sufficiency of the retaliatory capacity as the surety of response. This hinges on the size and nature of the arsenal and delivery systems, their survivability in the event of a pre-emptive attack, and the realisation by a potential adversary that the costs of attack outweigh the gains.

All nuclear weapons states that have robust missile programmes retain their first strike capabilities, since conventional missiles of short and intermediate ranges can be mated equally with nuclear or non-nuclear warheads, and can be used to attack nuclear facilities. At times doubts arise about the “responsible” behaviour of certain states, such as when Chinese President Xi Jinping did not mention China’s no first use doctrine in a defence policy speech delivered in December 2012 to the Second Artillery Corps, or when the Chinese Defence White Paper, released in April 2013, did not contain the standard reiteration of this doctrine, thereby creating doubts about a shift in its nuclear policy.

While India remains watchful, most P-5 states appear to be settling into a more stable deterrence, discounting first strike weapons, despite holding a range of nuclear weaponry and delivery mechanisms. Under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the U.S. and USSR had agreed to eliminate their intermediate and shorter range missiles between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. Pakistan alone is going in the other direction.

Myth of flexible response

The U.S. and Russia did contemplate flexible response and limited use of nuclear weapons in specific theatres in the hope of containing damage to their homelands. A graduating use of nuclear weapons is not possible, except in theory books and planning exercises. Envisaging escalatory nuclear weapons exchanges is even more difficult in India’s security context: here, the space and time span between launch and delivery is non-existent. “Controlled” nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia is hard to imagine. Between India and China, or between India and Pakistan, it is impossible.

Admittedly, nuclear weapons can be used for coercion, but up to a point, and with some success only against a non-nuclear state. The experience of Kargil 15 years ago demonstrated how the leaders of the Pakistan Army took the wrong lesson from deterrence. They believed that with the advantage of stealth and shock, they could upset the conventional status-quo, without inviting an effective riposte for fear of a nuclear exchange. This was a serious miscalculation, as they discovered to their cost. Changing India’s defensive nuclear doctrine to complicate their calculus will be irresponsible. India can survive a first strike but Pakistan cannot. What incentive would Pakistan have to consider a second strike if it believed India could attack it first? As for the growing non-nuclear threats to security, India can meet them by augmented conventional preparedness, hardened defences, upgraded equipment and a strong indigenous armament industry.

Toward a more secure India

The foremost threat to Indian security today comes not from its nuclear posture or externally, but from social deprivation and anaemic economic growth. Unshackling its entrepreneurship, accelerating infrastructure development and regenerating growth will make India safer. There is a clear vision in India on what has to be done. The new government should focus on how best and quickly to do it.

As Shyam Saran, Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, has said, it would be best to put to rest any further speculation of a change in India’s nuclear weapons policy. For a credible deterrent, constancy of doctrine in its core essentials has definite merit. The Bharatiya Janata Party has embraced the national inheritance on no first use. India’s nuclear deterrent can be made more robust, meanwhile, by continuing the work to guarantee the efficacy of its retaliatory strike.

(Jayant Prasad was India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria, Nepal and the U.N. Conference on Disarmament.)

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