Opinion » Comment

Updated: January 22, 2014 00:29 IST

A mismatch of nuclear doctrines

Raja Menon
Comment (23)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
VITAL QUESTIONS: The ‘massive’ retaliation promised in the Indian nuclear doctrine is being increasingly questioned by scholars and analysts. This handout photograph released by the Defence Research and Development Organisation shows the launch of Agni V intercontinental ballistic missile at Wheeler Island, Odisha, on September 15, 2013.
Special Arrangement
VITAL QUESTIONS: The ‘massive’ retaliation promised in the Indian nuclear doctrine is being increasingly questioned by scholars and analysts. This handout photograph released by the Defence Research and Development Organisation shows the launch of Agni V intercontinental ballistic missile at Wheeler Island, Odisha, on September 15, 2013.

India intends to deter nuclear use by Pakistan while Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are meant to compensate for conventional arms asymmetry.

Manufacturing a nuclear weapon does not, as a senior Indian Minister in 1998 claimed, create credible deterrence. Deterrence is entirely a matter of perceptions, a mental effect that is created on the adversary that nuclear use will entail assured retaliatory holocaust. The possibility of nuclear use is thereby pre-empted. The Indian nuclear doctrine, in that sense, is well articulated — on paper. Since 1998, more than 15 years have passed and in the Indian sub-continent, nuclear arsenals have grown far beyond the small nuclear ambitions that were articulated then. Yet there is an increasing fund of world literature being published, pointing to structural and operational weaknesses in the Indian nuclear arsenal. The question is not whether India has built enough nuclear bombs. Hardly anyone questions this basic fact, but the ideational systems that will ensure the ‘massive’ retaliation promised in the doctrine are being increasingly questioned by scholars and analysts worldwide. Pakistani observers cannot help but be swayed and dangerously influenced by such literature, thereby inducing them to think the unthinkable. What does not help in encouraging sober thinking is the fact that since the end of the Second World War, South Asia has seen the largest number of shooting wars in the world. So the questions of nuclear use will not arise in the quiet peace of neighbourly relations, but in the stress of combat over the Line of Control or the international border.

The 1998 test

Critics of the credibility of India’s nuclear arsenal begin with their doubts on the success of the thermo-nuclear test of 1998, which they claim was a ‘fizzle.’ There has been much toing-and-froing in technical journals, of the veracity, accuracy and interpretation of seismic readings. There has also been an occasional closed door briefing by select bomb makers — but surprisingly there has not been, to date, a clear unambiguous public statement from the right source about the country’s thermo-nuclear capacity being fielded in India’s nuclear arsenal. This is a matter of some negligence, considering that the only members of the scientific community who have spoken on this issue are deeply sceptical of the success of the thermo-nuclear test.

The command and control of nuclear forces are another area of criticism, and not surprisingly so, since India is the only nuclear weapon country without a Chief of Defence Staff to act as the interface between the Prime Minister, the National Command Authority and the military who ‘own’ the weapons — at least most of it. In the guise of safety, India’s nuclear weapons are not only ‘de-mated’ and the core and ignition device separated from the warhead, but the separate components are under different departmental control. The actual reason for this bizarre arrangement is quite obvious. There is a petty turf war, and neither the Department of Atomic Energy nor the DRDO is willing to let go of the controlling part of the bomb, even if it means a cumbersome and unnecessary loss of control. Needless to say, between the military, the DAE and the DRDO, none of them has any hierarchical control over the other two.

Other critics have written to say that having opted for road or rail mobile launching arrangements, India does not have the robust transport, road and rail infrastructure to move the missiles, warheads and cores from safe storage to launch hideouts and dispersal points with confidence and alacrity.

These weaknesses have led to critics stating that India’s nuclear capability is disaggregated and with weak institutional features. In the case of China, it is conceded that India feels more threatened by Chinese nuclear delivery than vice-versa. Yet, in the absence of the Agni long-range missiles, it is vaguely surmised that the Indian retaliatory capacity is based on air delivery weapons, which could mean anything — Mirages, Jaguars, Su 30s. The absence of the CDS results in even knowledgeable Indians conjecturing that the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) will completely bypass the military chain of command and operate directly under the PMO. This, of course, raises other more serious problems.

In the case of deterrence with Pakistan, it is accepted that the doctrines of the two countries are mismatched. India intends to deter nuclear use by Pakistan while Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are meant to compensate for conventional arms asymmetry. At the same time, Pakistan relies on 20,000 LeT cadres as an extension of its armed forces to create terror strikes, to which the Indian answer is to punish the Pakistani state with conventional war. Thus arises the vague and elastic concept of a nuclear threshold. Yet, the Indian National Command Authority is ill designed to manage the inevitable South Asian transition from conventional war to a possible nuclear exchange — or the frantic strategic signalling that is bound to occur as the threshold approaches.

If, for instance, the threshold was to materialise as a result of an armoured incursion, the Indian NCA by its location, composition and infrastructure would be entirely unaware of the impending catastrophe. Hanging untethered to any commanding authority, civilian or military, would be the Integrated Defence Staff, a well-staffed organisation designed for the civilian-military interface, but currently without a head, nor with any links to the SFC.

After much persuasion, there now exists a skeleton nuclear staff under the NSA, normally headed by the retired SFC. But while its Pakistani counterpart, the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), is highly active both on the domestic and international conference circuit, its Indian counterpart seems to be totally tongue tied, non-participatory and holed up at its desk. Foreign critics have noted the introduction of battlefield nuclear weapons in Pakistan’s arsenal and raised doubts of the likelihood of ‘massive’ retaliation in response to a small ‘warning’ shot by Islamabad. This is what the Indian doctrine promises. Life for the leaders of the strategic community would be easy if a doctrine, once written on paper, could be left unchanged for decades without reinforcement, to prove its validity.

That unfortunately is not the case in a dynamic field where the stakes are the survival of nations. Even K. Subramanyam had warned that ‘massive’ retaliation was an outmoded concept and difficult to enforce without periodic reinforcement. So this article is inspired not because India is not continuing to arm itself with bombs and missiles. This piece is inspired by the increasing clamour in international literature that India’s penchant for secrecy is ill-suited to conveying the stabilising threat of nuclear deterrence. Against China where our capabilities are undeveloped, a certain amount of ambiguity is sensible, but against a country which is openly wedded to first use, and is introducing battlefield weapons, an untended 10-year-old piece of paper is inadequate.

Signalling, overdue

Something needs to be done to reassure both the domestic and international audience that with high pressure terrorism lurking across the border, it is not just India’s strategic restraint that will keep the peace — as it did after Mumbai and the attack on Parliament. Nuclear signalling from the Indian government is hugely overdue, so much so that it will take some effort to restore stability to South Asian deterrence. The first target should be the Indian strategic community and there are enough discussions and conferences where officers from the SFC and nuclear staff could provide discrete assurances that things are not anarchic with India’s nuclear command and control.

The strategic community in turn will carry the message abroad or to foreign observers that in the face of Indian official silence, they need not imagine the worst. The establishment needs to do more than arrogantly refer to the doctrine as being the sole answer to all questions. In deterrence, only perceptions matter and there is a disturbing build-up of literature indicating that the disbelief of others in our nuclear command and control is in urgent need of correction.

(Raja Menon is a strategic analyst)


For a clear nuclear doctrineMay 6, 2014

A ‘longer view’ no longerMay 15, 2014

More In: Comment | Opinion

It will be highly dangerous and irresponsible for India not to make its
strategic capability and resolve for 'massive 2nd strike' doctrine clear
to its adversaries. This may cause miscalculations on the part of
Pakistani trigger happy generals and tempt them to use tactical nukes
even in a border skirmish following a major terrorist attack against
India. As usual this govt is proved itself lazy and indecisive even in
matters of vital national security and survival as a nation.

from:  Suvojit Dutta
Posted on: Jan 23, 2014 at 16:14 IST

Both have legitimate objectives for developing their nuclear weaons,there
is no ambiguity that both states have made atom bomb for their
However, both have potential to deter each other.

from:  Nikki
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 22:05 IST

When all is said and done it must be the concern of both India and
Pakistan to avoid a future armed conflict. The possession of nuclear
weapons should be used to prevent war and bring peace to the region.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan is committed to reducing tension in
Indo-Pak relations and solving all disputes with India by peaceful
means. India has taken a step forward in the Bus diplomacy which must
be reciprocated in full measure for the benefit of the people of South

from:  Aadesh
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 21:01 IST

With Pakistan's atomic tests her nuclear weapons capability was overtly
demonstrated for all to see: friends and foes alike. It was surprising
to note that India's aggressive tone based on her military muscle
immediately changed for the better. There was now talk of peace and
negotiations. The war hysteria seemed to have subsided.

from:  Nasir
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 20:55 IST

There was no military justification whatsoever for India to have
detonated a series of nuclear devices in May 1998. There was no threat
to India's security from her small neighbours. In any case nothing had
changed on her borders to cause any alarm.

from:  Mahabahu
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 20:54 IST

Unfortunately in South Asia a balance of power cannot be maintained
by conventional means alone. Owing primarily to India's sheet size
and ample resources. India is larger than all her neighbours
combined, in South Asia by a wide margin. Add to this India's
ambitions across her frontiers in the region and beyond and you have
a situation fraught with long-term defence and security implications
for Pakistan. India's recent large scale military manoeuvres on land
at Sea and in the air often close to the Indo-Pak border and her
acquisition of 1.6 Billion dollars worth of modern arms from Russia
is certainly a cause of some concern in Pakistan.

from:  Zoe
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 20:51 IST

Before we discuss the nuclear doctrine of Pakistan it would be
appropriate to dilate somewhat on the factors that have conceived the
concept which has formulated the nuclear doctrine. PakistanÂ’s main
concern has been with her security and territorial integrity which
has been threatened and violated by India many times since 1947 when
both countries became independent. Pakistan has fought three wars and
two border conflicts short of war with India. In 1971 Pakistan was
dismembered by Indian military intervention. Today troops of both
countries are in an eyeball-to-eyeball deployment on either side of
the Line of Control in Kashmir and along the Siachin Glacier in the
northern areas. These facts have a great bearing on Pakistan's
concern for a viable security parameter.

from:  Nelson
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 20:48 IST

India rejected the NPT and tested nuclear weapons — but still managed
to be treated well under the nonproliferation regime, with the Nuclear
Suppliers Group granting it a waiver to trade in nuclear materials in
2008. Meanwhile, Pakistan — which has gone to great lengths to support
the global nuclear nonproliferation regime — has been denied membership
in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a decision that greatly hampers
Islamabad’s efforts to develop a commercial nuclear energy program.

from:  George
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 20:45 IST

There will always be more world literature on all Indo-Pak issues
because the world loves to play monkey to the two cats called India and
Pakistan. We fight and they profit.

from:  B. Gopi Krishna
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 15:31 IST

Can you please define the meaning of the word "ideational" in sentence 19 in the first pragraph.

I am sure you will not .

from:  Robert
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 15:12 IST

India must develop tactical nuclear weapons since the threat of a strategic response
("massive retaliation") is not credible against a Pakistani use of tactical weapons in the
battlefield. To deter the use of tactical weapons, a defender must possess tactical
weapons as well.

However, given the military balance in the subcontinent, a Pakistani attack on Indian
positions is extremely unlikely. On the other hand, India's northwest remains exposed
to a Chinese invasion. Since New Delhi will not risk thermonuclear war for the
Northeast, India's strategic nuclear arsenal is unlikely to deter localized Chinese
aggression. This reinforces the military necessity to develop tactical nuclear weapons.
To wit, India is in the same position vis-à-vis China, as Pakistan is vis-à-vis India.
from:  Anusar
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 15:07 IST

The objective of our nuclear doctrine and for that matter our foreign
policy appears to be to be gaining international accolades rather than
catering to our national interests. This appears to be more or less a
legacy of Nehruvian doctrines of non-alignment etc. which were more of a
romantic nature rather than of any practical value.

from:  Ramakrishnan K
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 14:57 IST

It is well known that India lacks the credible means to follow through on a "no first use" policy ever since it announced it. Much of India's strategic and indigenous weaponization comprises of incredible and premature announcements that cannot be taken seriously. It is also known that India's rulers have neither the stomach nor the kidney for war of any kind.

from:  S. Suchindranath Aiyer
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 13:21 IST

It is very well reflected that nuclear weapons are handled in a much
cautious manner at the domains of South Asia by India and Pakistan.
The long series of wars have been halted after the possession of
nuclear weapons by both sides although conflicts are still there.
Viewing each other at the face of developments, it is evident that
asymmetry has been well addressed by nuclear weapons on the part of
Pakistan. In the book “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons More May Be
Better or Worse” by Kenneth Waltz and Scott D Sagan have well
addressed the nuclear deterrence and possibility of nuclear war. Sagan
talked organizational perspective and emphasized a lot of the
organizational build up in order to avoid any lapse of communication
and misperception of threat. These lines should be followed by our
country India because different channels between the decision makers
and military personals are not much interactive and speedy as they
should be.

from:  meesha
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 13:10 IST

We find an interesting combination of states India and Pakistan at the
soil of South Asia. This is interesting and ironic at the same time
that these two countries can’t change their neighborhood despite of
long history of hostile wars and conflicts. The introductions of
nuclear weapons along with wide ranges of missiles go in a speedy
manner in the region in order to counter the emanating threats.
Besides the many reasons of proliferation and heavy military build,
the obvious factor is this that the utmost priority is to protect the
statehood. The rapid and continued Indian military buildup created the
seeds of threats and security dilemma for the states. Recently, it’s
been reported that Pakistan has improved the most for nuclear security
and voluntarily without any pressures established a comprehensive
command and control structure. Deterrence has different meanings but
in South Asia it entails as nuclear deterrence, the absence of major
war despite of many triggering stimulus.

from:  monika
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 12:55 IST

Pakistan and the India are the potential rivals of each other in the
South Asian region. They follow the action reaction phenomenon. The
author has very rightly pointed out the underlying or hidden realities
about the India's defense sector and also the disparity between the
nuclear doctrines of both states. Pakistan is a state which is
conventionally inferior to India that's why it compensated its
weakness by increasing its nuclear weapons which are being introduced
mainly for the deterrence purpose. Indian government is least bothered
about the institutionalization of its defensive posture and keep on
seeking for its military buildup, which is depicting that India is
diverting from its so called "Credible Minimum deterrence" posture. No
doubt Pakistan has established its regulatory board and a command and
control structure so that to defend its nuclear posture. India's
defense policy and nuclear doctrine should be reviewed.

from:  Kamaya Chauhan
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 12:41 IST

Strategic Forces Command (SFC) headed by an Indian Air Force officer
had been established as the custodian and manager of the nuclear
assets. At the moment one cannot be sure if an effective communication
system exists such that real time decisions in our SFC? Do the
channels of communications with clearly articulated roles and
responsibilities and real time feedback been developed for a decision
at a single point or time? But, in the process of building and
maintaining nuclear deterrent, has India evolved the tools of
projecting its areas of strength in its true perspective? New Delhi is
expected to show more transparency in its existing credible nuclear
forces strength. At the domestic front, with more transparency in
national military strength, the government will receive better
feedback in terms of national mandate in nuclear weapons development
programme. The cost involved in nuclear development programmes will be
better justifiable if the capability of emerging nuclear triad rema

from:  Rajiv Sharma
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 12:09 IST

There is no doubt that Indian nuclear program has several institutional
weakness. These weaknesses exist in command and control structure,
institutional barriers and maneuvering systems. Besides that the
doctrinal issues also questions the credibility of Indian nuclear
program. In addition to that International concerns growing more and
more on command and control structure. In case of Pakistan, its
security and operational system has already acknowledged by US think
tank. India has ranked below in many areas.

from:  Arun kumar
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 12:07 IST

The writer raised important points. In a region with people and organizations who employ suicide as a fighting strategy, a group driving a stolen device across the border could trigger a sequence of globally devastating events. Hence, besides all the command control and strategic doctrinal issues discussed well by the writer, the safety of devices has to be ensured. India should work with international communities to address this issue.
In case of a catastrophic event actually occurring, life for the surviving victims would be miserable. International community might develop an insurance policy to assist such victimized communities in various ways. An international force might have to swing into action to make the perpetrator pay its last bit of earth and breath.

from:  Som Karamchetty
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 10:35 IST

The author has written an excellent op-ed on a topic that is not much discussed except in certain circles. One has to certainly agree with him on the immediate imperative of a CDS and dismantling the controls of DAE and DRDO. While one agrees that not much is known about Indian weapons, the ambiguity may be intentional. The author himself admits that such an ambiguity against China is needed because of our inferior stock of weapons and delivery mechanisms but he opines that such should not be the case against Pakistan. The trap in this is that when we reveal our hand against Pakistan, we also reveal it against China by implication. In the history of nuclear deterrence, no country, except India, has faced a two-pronged nuclear threat and hence India has to formulate its own policies and strategies to manage the two nuclear weapon enemies simultaneously who also intensely collaborate between themselves against us. That said, a little more revelation of details is certainly called for.

from:  Subramanyam Sridharan
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 09:20 IST

The author makes some very good points. Two in particular are
noteworthy. First, the poor rail and road infrastructure in the
country is likely to negate any gains made in the development of
ballistic missile technology. The country's defense planning is
like making sambhar without adding the requisite spices. Second,
Pakistan and China have organized their strategic forces with a
well-defined command structure and a great deal of integration and
coordination with their regular armed forces. In contrast, India
lacks a well-defined command structure of its strategic nuclear
forces. In addition, its army, air force, navy and coast guards
operate as separate units instead of one integrated force. I fear
that the country is ill-suited to fight the next war with either
China or Pakistan in its present state and a humiliating repeat of
the tragic outcome of 1962. I hope India will never see armed
conflict with any country in this century but being strategically
prepared is its best defense.

from:  Sam
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 08:30 IST

"it is not just India’s strategic restraint that will keep the peace — as it did after Mumbai and the attack on Parliament"

The author is correct, India's strategic restraint alone will not keep the peace, nor has it kept the peace. Luckily India's strategic restraint has a helper now, Pakistan's strategic deterrence.

from:  Tipu Qaimkhani
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 06:08 IST

There is a reason Hindu is the premier newspaper of India and it is
because of such urgent and thought provoking articles such as the one
by Raja Menon. It is highly dangerous that India has to failed to
reinforce its doctrine of massive 2nd strike capability with any
credibility thus far, this is not to be jingoistic but rather to
ensure the unthinkable i.e., Pakistan miscalculates into a nuclear 1st
strike against India. Every now and then we hear from Pakistan nuclear
posture whereby the threshold is further lowered with the signal that
it is prepared to use a nuclear strike even in a cross border
skirmish. In other words if Pakistan feels that it can get away with
using a battle field nuke it will resort to it since it thinks that
India won't retaliate 'massively' even as it mentioned in its
doctrine. This is room for dangerous miscalculation and just goes to
show one more instance of the GoI failing to get its act together even
in crucial national survivability issues.

from:  Suvojit Dutta
Posted on: Jan 22, 2014 at 02:04 IST
Show all comments
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Home Minister G.L. Nanda says cases of corruption at the political level would be entrusted to an independent agency.

Read more »



Recent Article in Comment

AN APOCALYPSE: “Some people said the earthquake was the most frightening event of their lives.” Picture shows Nepalese policemen clearing the debris at Basantapur Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was damaged in the earthquake, in Kathmandu.

Watching a city crumble

A first person account of the earthquake and its aftershocks in Kathmandu. »