A show of determination and toughness on non-nuclear fronts such as terrorism is more important than stockpiling nuclear weapons

Although the 42-page-long BJP election manifesto had only one short paragraph addressing strategic nuclear policy, that presumably does not reflect the priority that the newly elected government will attach to the subject. It is well-known that the BJP lays great importance on national security, of which nuclear policy forms an important component. Indeed, one of the first tasks undertaken by the Modi government was the appointment of a National Security Advisor.

Sooner or later the new government will undertake, perhaps quietly, a review of our nuclear doctrine. Now is an appropriate time to offer suggestions on what needs to be revised and what can be left as is.

The current official nuclear doctrine, released by the Cabinet Committee on Security on January 4, 2003, summarises our nuclear policy in eight succinct points. Of these, only a few of them really call for significant modification, because in recent years things have been relatively stable on the South Asian nuclear front.

This is despite the fact that both India and Pakistan continue to produce weapons-usable Plutonium at the Dhruva reactor and the Khushab reactors respectively. Pakistan may also be continuing to produce some weapons-grade Uranium at its centrifuge plants, despite its overall Uranium ore constraints. All this fissile material is presumably being assembled into warheads. So both arsenals have been growing, as have all the attendant dangers of maintaining a nuclear force. Nevertheless the situation has, by and large, just been “more of the same.” Therefore there is no call for any radical change of our nuclear doctrine. But a few features do need to be clarified and others underlined.

No First Use

During the election campaign, the only brief reference to nuclear issues was a statement attributed to Narendra Modi that he would retain the principle of No First Use (NFU). His statement is very welcome, particularly since simplistic expectations were that Mr. Modi would bring a more hawkish approach to nuclear issues. Maintaining a doctrine of NFU, apart from being generally in tune with India’s non-aggressive ethos, has considerable diplomatic value. After our 1998 nuclear tests elicited the anticipated international opprobrium, the inclusion of NFU thereafter in the 1999 Draft Nuclear Doctrine helped soften the criticism, especially in comparison to Pakistan, which till today retains the option of a first strike.

However, although NFU has moral and diplomatic value, there should be no illusions about its impact on hard strategic decision makers on the other side. What matters to them is not any statement of intentions (like NFU) but the actual capabilities of the adversary. Pakistani colleagues one meets in Track II invariably say they set little store in our NFU. It makes no operational difference in their nuclear plans.

What matters more for nuclear confidence building is the actual state of alert. India has been sensibly following a system of keeping its warheads de-mated from their missiles and delivery aircraft. This introduces a minimum built-in delay in launching an attack after the decision to do so has been made. It greatly reduces the risk of an accidental or hastily decided launch. The new government should continue our policy of a de-mated de-alerted posture.

One clause currently in the Doctrine merits some revision. It states that “ ....[our] nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere...retaliation to a first strike will be massive.” Now, threatening retaliation “against a nuclear attack on Indian territory” is one matter. It is the basic component of nuclear deterrence and should apply whether the attack on our territory is small or big, as long as it is nuclear.

But adding on the phrase “or on Indian forces anywhere” is a different matter. The rationale behind it was presumably to deter a nuclear attack on our forces should they enter alien territory or the high seas in combat. Such an eventuality is not implausible after Pakistan developed the Nasr — a nuclear capable battlefield missile which could be used on Indian forces if they march deep into Pakistani territory. However, threatening retaliation against that with a massive nuclear attack from our side can boomerang on our credibility. Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear attack is likely to be small (by nuclear standards). They would not want to spread much radioactivity on their own soil. It is also unclear whether they can develop a sufficiently miniaturised warhead to fit the Nasr, and how much damage such a warhead could do. It may achieve at most a few hundred fatalities. This is still a terrible loss of Indian soldiers and armoury. But it would be far from being “mass destruction.”

However, such a battlefield nuclear attack will place India in a dilemma. Having threatened in our Doctrine to inflict a “massive” nuclear retaliation, can we really go ahead and kill lakhs of their civilians in response to a much smaller attack, that too on their own soil? It would be a disproportionate response, which would go against our national sensibilities and attract widespread criticism from around the world. Surely, there are more proportionate non-nuclear ways of inflicting punitive retaliation.

Yet, if we do not counter attack after having threatened to do so, that would invite derision that we are “a soft state” incapable of hard nuclear decisions and would erode the credibility of our future deterrence, not only against Pakistan, but also against China.

It may therefore be better to limit massive nuclear retaliation only against nuclear attacks on our country and say nothing in the Doctrine, one way or the other, about attacks “on Indian forces anywhere.” Should the latter take place, we always have the option of some appropriate, measured retaliation.

What deterrence needs

Next, consider the characterisation in our Doctrine of our nuclear force as a “credible minimum deterrent (CMD)”, where the requirement of “minimum” has been spelt out as what is needed to “inflict unacceptable damage” to the adversary. These represent a very judicious choice of words selected, in fact, by the last BJP administration. It is designed in part to temper over-zealous weapon enthusiasts from going on an endless spree of building nuclear bombs. It recognises the dangers of possessing an unnecessarily large arsenal of nuclear weapons, beyond what is essential for deterrence. The new government must ensure that the agencies concerned respect CMD in spirit and substance.

Unfortunately, our arsenal of nuclear bombs has already gone way over the minimum required to “inflict unacceptable damage” on any rational government, be it Pakistan or China. (Should Pakistan someday be taken over by irrational extremists to whom death of lakhs of civilians is “acceptable”, then no arsenal, however large, will deter them anyway. With respect to China, what deterrence needs is not more bombs than what we already have, but longer range missiles capable of reaching major Chinese cities.)

As to credibility, large arsenals, beyond a point, do not enhance it. What does is a show of determination and toughness on other non-nuclear fronts, such as terrorism or border incidents.

(R. Rajaraman is professor emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

More In: Comment | Opinion