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Sunday, July 19, 2009

#2565, 16 May 2008
Getting it Right: Rereading India's Nuclear Doctrine Firdaus AhmedFreelancere-mail: firdyahmed@yahoo.com
The draft nuclear doctrine of 1999, coming out as it did in the wake of the Kargil conflict, acquired certain notoriety through its unforgettable formulation: "any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor."
Having been brought out in the run up to the national elections that year, greater attention marked its release than that garnered during the adoption of the official nuclear doctrine four years later. Resultantly sane departures from the earlier draft have not been appreciated adequately since. The tenth anniversary of the Shakti tests provides an occasion of self congratulations for drawing up with a reasonably sustainable nuclear doctrine, albeit with some caveats.
The critical phrase in the official doctrine reads: '(N)uclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.' The intent of punitive retaliation to inflict 'unacceptable damage' from succeeding 'any nuclear attack on India and its forces' of the draft has been diluted to nuclear retaliation of that level only against a 'first strike'. This implies that clarity must attend the definition of 'first strike' as against 'first use'.
Nuclear first use, which is deemed to be Pakistan's nuclear doctrine by default in light of its non-articulation of a nuclear doctrine, would not be in the form of a 'first strike', particularly as Pakistan does not have a 'first strike' capability. Likewise, even if Chinese nuclear weapons, known to be deployed in Tibet, were to be used in any future conflict, their use would also not be of the order of 'first strike'. China has a declared no first use policy just as India. In addition, the territorial dispute with India does not warrant such levels of attack, even if nuclear weapons may prove useful for making operational level gains or warding of strategic losses. Thus, the official doctrine is more realistic and, on that account, an advance on its infamous forebear.
A 'first strike' by definition is one designed to take out the nuclear retaliatory capability of the adversary, thereby rendering it inert against nuclear coercion. Therefore, the level of destruction, to include collateral damage, would be of a very high order. This would warrant a response of the order of 'massive retaliation' in line with the original formulation. However, an opponent's 'first use' may not require a nuclear response at all, and definitely not on the higher level. India has sensibly not reiterated the position of the Draft that it 'will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.' Thus, since there is no promise of reflexive nuclear retaliation to nuclear use by the adversary, it frees Indian response options ranging from not retaliating at all to retaliating in kind. In this move away from the 'massive retaliation' policy, India can be deemed to have moved away from its philosophy of 'deterrence by punishment'. The implications for deterrence bear reflection.
India's ongoing pursuit of a tous azimuth capability is evident from the third test of the 3500 km Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) Agni, designed to provide it with an unambiguous second strike capability against China. The ATN project, on which is to be based India's 'triad', is also now out of the closet. Thus, while these developments are abhorrent to a nuclear abolitionist, their enabling of a second strike capability strengthens the Indian deterrent. This would deter 'first strike' and thereby reduce any compulsion towards using the second strike capability. Developments in accuracy in particular would also remove the premium on a counter-value retaliatory strategy, making populations safer and precluding a spasmic spiral. Political intervention, for all its worth, can then be contemplated to cease the exchange at the lowest levels possible.
The underside is that this does bring in by the back door the dangers of nuclear warfighting and limited nuclear war, taking India away from the stated 'fundamental purpose' of nuclear weapons of deterrence. This would entail future refinements in nuclear weaponry and delivery systems and also presage vertical proliferation. The earlier calculations of numbers at the lower end of the scale were predicated on a city and infrastructure busting retaliatory strategy. Thus the 'minimum' in the Minimum Nuclear Deterrent was to be furnished. Now a policy of 'parity' with China, would likely take the upper hand. The other mainstay of the doctrine, that of no first use, would also be threatened, one already questioned on its exit by the earlier National Security Advisory Board.
In summation, whether this has made India more secure is debatable. When viewed in conjunction with India's 'cold start' conventional doctrine, the current formulation seeks to disarm Pakistan's nuclear 'first use' option through the possibility of a nuclear exchange restricted to Pakistani soil. A conventional doctrine, reinforced by its nuclear doctrine, would make India more venturesome, egging nuclear weapons on to the forefront of Pakistani responses. Thus, the nuclear doctrine could do with continued scrutiny once the commemorative hysteria attending the tenth anniversary of attaining 'Shakti' blows over.

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