Dancing with the nuclear djinn

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto promises to review India’s nuclear doctrine. What does this portend?

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:05 pm IST

Published - April 12, 2014 12:44 am IST

He saw the signs of the approaching doomsday all around him: in moral degradation, in casual sex, in the rise of western power, in space travel, in our high-tech age. God, wrote Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons guru Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood in Mechanics of the Doomsday... , had not privileged man to know when it would come, but “the promised Hour is not a far off event now.” It would come as a “great blast,” perhaps “initiated by some catastrophic man-made devices, such as sudden detonation of a large number of nuclear bombs.”

Long mocked by his colleagues for his crazed beliefs — the physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy records him as saying, “djinns, being fiery creatures, ought to be tapped as a free source of energy” — and condemned to obscurity after his arrest on charges of aiding the Taliban, Mr. Mahmood may yet be remembered as a prophet.

The doctrine debate

India’s next government will, without dispute, find itself dancing with the nuclear djinn Mr. Mahmood helped unleash. In its election manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party has promised to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it to make it relevant to [the] challenges of current times.” Mr. Seshadri Chari, a member of the group that formulated this section of the party’s manifesto said: “why should we tie our hands into accepting a global no-first-use policy, as has been proposed by the Prime Minister recently?”

The debate will come in dangerous times. Pakistan has been growing its arsenal low-yield plutonium nuclear weapons, also called tactical or theatre nuclear weapons. Estimates suggest some 10-12 new nuclear warheads are being added to the country’s 90-110 strong arsenal, and new reactors going critical at Khushab will likely boost that number even further. New Delhi must respond — but the seeds of a nuclear apocalypse could sprout if it gets that response wrong.

Mr. Chari’s grasp of fact doesn’t give much reason to hope for much else: India’s no-first-use commitment was made by a government his party led, not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In 1998, battling to contain the international fallout from the Pokhran II nuclear tests, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee promised Parliament that “India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons.” Later, in August 1999, the National Security Advisory Board’s draft nuclear doctrine stated that India would only “retaliate with sufficient nuclear weapons to inflict destruction and punishment that the aggressor will find unacceptable if nuclear weapons are used against India and its forces.”

The no-first-use posture, scholar Ashley Tellis has noted in his magisterial book, India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture , was founded on a pragmatic judgment of India’s strategic circumstances. Even if India needed to fight shallow cross-border wars, Dr. Tellis argued, its “nominal military superiority over Pakistan and its local military superiority, allow such operations to be conducted by conventional means alone.”

For more than a decade-and-a-half, the commitment has held, but there have been signs it is fraying at the edges. In 2003, India announced it reserved the right to deliver a nuclear-weapons response to a chemical or biological attack, a significant caveat to the no-first-use promise. Then, in a speech delivered at the National Defence College, National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, appeared to add a caveat to India’s nuclear doctrine, saying in passing that it committed to “no first use against non-nuclear weapon states.” This was interpreted by some observers to mean India might consider first strikes against nuclear-weapons states.

Dr. Singh reiterated Mr. Vajpayee’s formulation early this month — but there is at least some reason to believe the caveats reflect ongoing debates at the highest levels of the strategic community.

From its genesis, questions have hung over India’s no-first-use commitment. How would India react to credible intelligence that an imminent Pakistani first-strike against its own nuclear arsenal, would degrade its ability to retaliate? How might India deal with an attack that came from an insurgent group operating from within Pakistani territory, which seized control of a nuclear weapon? In addition, as the scholar Vipin Narang has argued, India has not committed against using its superior air power against Pakistani missile launchers armed with nuclear warheads — confronting its western adversary in a “use-it-or-lose-it” dilemma.

Bharat Karnad, a strategic affairs commentator who will likely influence a future BJP-led government’s nuclear thinking, thus described no-first-use as something of a pious fiction: “one of those restrictions which countries are willing to abide by except in war.”

Dangerous future

This much, we do know: the next government, whoever forms it, will command a more lethal nuclear arsenal than ever before. Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris have noted that while India’s nuclear arsenal, at some 80-100 warheads, is smaller than that of Pakistan, it is set to expand. India is introducing new missiles and is inducting almost-impossible-to-target nuclear-powered submarines. The experts estimate that India already has a weapons-grade plutonium stockpile of 520 kilograms, enough for 100-130 warheads, but will need more from the prototype fast-breeder reactor at Kalpakkam to meet the needs of its growing arsenal.

India’s strategic establishment seems certain it needs these weapons — but remains less than clear on just how and under what circumstances they might be used.

The threat from the east is relatively predictable. For years now, India has periodically suffered from dragon-under-the-bed nightmares — the prospect that a more aggressively nationalist China, whose conventional forces are expanding and modernising dramatically, could initiate a war to settle the two countries’ unresolved conflicts. China is bound by a no-first-use pledge, but some experts fear India’s conventional forces might be overwhelmed. It is improbable, though, that these losses would pose an existential threat to India.

“Ironically,” Dr. Narang has written, “China doubts India’s no-first-use pledge for the same reasons the United States doubts China’s: that in a crisis, no rhetorical pledge physically prevents the state from using nuclear weapons first.” For India’s nuclear strategists, this is a good thing: China’s fears should deter it from a large-scale war.

The TNW challenge

From the east, though, the threat is more complex. In the wake of the 2001-2002 India-Pakistan crisis, the Indian Army began acquiring the resources to fight limited conflicts at short notice — in essence, wars of punishment for acts of terrorism. Pakistan responded by growing its Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW) arsenal, for use against advancing Indian formations inside its own territory. Last year, eminent diplomat Shyam Saran lucidly explained the thinking. Pakistan hopes “to dissuade India from contemplating conventional punitive retaliation to sub-conventional but highly destructive and disruptive cross-border terrorist strikes.”

From Cold War experience, Pakistan likely knows its nuclear-weapons strategy makes no sense. In 1955, historian David Smith has recorded, a NATO exercise code-named Carte Blanche concluded that a war using TNWs would leave two million dead in the north German plains. Exercise Sagebrush later concluded that all participating military formations would also end up being annihilated. Exercise Oregon Trail, conducted from 1963-1965, showed that when forces concentrated to fight conventionally, they “offered lucrative nuclear targets” — but if they “dispersed to avoid nuclear strikes, the units could be defeated by conventional tactics.”

Pakistan’s generals know expert studies, like that of A.H. Nayyar and Zia Mian, demonstrate that TNWs would be near-useless in stopping an Indian armoured thrust into Pakistan. The generals know that TNWs have to be dispersed, vastly increasing the risks of miscalculation by local commanders, accidental use, or even theft. Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani strategic commentator, has bluntly stated that the confused state of the Pakistan’s TNW doctrine “essentially means we don’t know what the hell to do with them.”

India doesn’t either. Purely symbolic gestures like revoking the no-first-use policy will yield no dividends, though. If Pakistan is desperate enough to use TNWs, thus inviting an Indian second strike, it certainly won’t be deterred by a threat to unleash Armageddon first. Backing down on no-first-use will, moreover, deny India the fruits of being seen as a responsible nuclear-weapons state, one of the reasons Mr. Vajpayee made his call in the first place.

It isn’t clear, though, that reason will prevail: Mr. Mahmood, after all, isn’t the only crazed South Asian in shouting distance of a nuclear bomb. In 1999, as war raged in Kargil, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh journal organiser had these words for Mr. Vajpayee: “Arise, Atal Behari! Who knows if fate has destined you to be the author of the final chapter of this long story. For what have we manufactured bombs? For what have we exercised the nuclear option?”

It is critical that voices like these be nowhere near the ears of the leaders whose hands hover over our nuclear button.


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