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.
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)