Deterrence in Asymmetries
Air Marshal Rajesh Kumar (Retd)

Ashley Tellis’s book – ‘Striking Asymmetries- Nuclear Transitions in South Asia’ has caught some media attention with commentators calling for a review of India’s nuclear doctrine and posture in view of an assessed build up of nuclear arsenals by both China and Pakistan. The report argues that India has shown remarkable self restraint despite Pakistan steadily building up warheads that exceed India’s numbers as on date. Similarly, China is expected to ramp up its nuclear arsenal sharply to deter the US as it emerges as a strategic competitor to the superpower. These trends, it is argued, need a new strategic discourse in India lest it be exposed to nuclear bullying by China or nuclear blackmail by Pakistan.

So what is the central thesis of the argument being made out? It is being postulated that India’s nuclear arsenal is too small and made up with small warheads that are unreliable and have safety issues. Our delivery systems are inaccurate and prone to technical issues. Even our nuclear submarines are of vintage design and poorly manufactured leading to a state wherein our capability fails to match our doctrine. By contrast an almost tripling of China’s arsenal and the expansion of warheads in Pakistan along with development of tactical nuclear weapons places India in a disadvantageous position. Pakistan could for example be tempted to – in a hypothetical scenario – deter India’s conventional armed thrust with tactical nuclear weapons without fear of massive retaliation by India. It would thus control the escalation ladder in any conventional scenario by resorting to nuclear blackmail. Indeed some Pakistani spokesmen have declared that this version of “flexible response” is most suited to deter India from any conventional misadventure. Also that the Indian doctrine of massive retaliation is “unrealistic” and “not well thought out” since Pakistan will always have enough nuclear weapons to launch a “third strike” and cause unacceptable damage to India. Similarly China would not be deterred in a conventional conflict with India as India would not be able to do unacceptable harm with its nuclear arsenal especially if the Chinese were to launch a counterforce strike.

India’s nuclear deterrence rests on the three principles of No First Use, maintaining Credible Minimum Deterrence and Massive Retaliation if attacked by nuclear weapons. By questioning the ability to retaliate massively the credibility of our nuclear deterrence falls apart. Therefore varied solutions have been offered by various experts on the issue that include review of no first use, development of tactical nuclear weapons, collaboration with other nations such as Japan, up gradation of our nuclear arsenal along with a strategic partner such as France under a benign US umbrella in a construct termed INFRUS. This it is suggested would have a twin benefit of increasing the yield of our nuclear weapons as well as improving the quality of our nuclear submarines by making them quieter.

While any solution that achieves the objective of deterrence is welcome, partnerships such as INFRUS are not to be leapt at without considering the future and second order consequences of such actions. The Indian nuclear programme and delivery systems have been hitherto totally indigenous. Up gradation with foreign inputs will definitely come with strings attached that may not allow us to follow an independent foreign policy in the future. It could also lead to additional restrictions like conditions in the 123 agreement with the US that requires a presidential waver in case of further nuclear testing. Restrictions like these have brought about a state where our capability being questioned in the first place. Our neighbourhood is a unique one where a nuclear triad exists and even though the India- Pakistan Dyad has different dynamics from the India – China dyad the increasing cooperation in the nuclear field between China and Pakistan could alter the dynamics considerably. Therefore, the flexibility of our independent response to such situations is necessary in order to avoid a major situation on our borders.

Development of tactical nuclear weapons would entail a large deviation from our doctrine of credible minimum deterrence and transform our nuclear policy from the threat of massive retaliation i.e. counter value to a policy of nuclear war fighting i.e. counterforce. This policy shift requires developing a wider variety of warheads along with more delivery systems and an updated command and control structure. This is a wildly expensive proposition that could theoretically develop into a nuclear arms race with uncertain benefits as the adversary develops better methods to hide their assets. Doing so just because Pakistan has been threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons is a waste of resources. There are better options available.

The doctrine of no first use has also been vociferously criticized in recent times with critics calling for a review in order to deter both Pakistan and China. Forsaking a doctrine that has stood us in good stead is not wise. No first use has been used successfully by China for over half a century and even as they expand their arsenal as well as get into a strategic competition with the US there are no indications that they will change their doctrine. The Chinese may upgrade the readiness status of their nuclear arsenal to be able to ‘Launch on Attack’ or maybe even ‘Launch on Warning’ but there are no indications of first use. In the sub continental context, the moment the first nuclear weapon is fired – whether tactical or not -- all deterrence has been lost and the doctrine has failed. The purpose of our doctrine is to deter and not aid nuclear war fighting. First use will not deter if it is not credible, doesn’t cause unacceptable damage and leaves enough weapons with the adversary to cause unacceptable damage to us. Therefore, it is more important to make our arsenal more credible to be survivable and cause massive retaliation.

The reason that we find analysts questioning our capabilities is that our arsenal is kept de-mated with different control over warheads and delivery systems during peacetime. The warheads are under non-military control (as distinct from civilian control which may imply political control) and the delivery systems are under military control. Both work under the directions of political control that regulates their readiness status, mating orders and indeed their fire control should such a situation arise. Of late, discourse has sometimes got confused because there has been a tendency to speak freely on nuclear issues especially after the 123 agreement due to the extensive public debate that preceded the signing of the agreement. Some of the utterings and comments have not met the “standards of conceptual exactitude” that analysts expect in clear enunciation of policy perhaps due to the context of specialisation areas of the concerned spokesmen. This leads to muddled strategic signalling leading to a loss of credibility. It is then imperative that other than academia all statements of policy are made to give a clear picture of the credibility of our nuclear arsenal as well as our capability for massive retaliation. That our warheads have the capability of destroying cities in a single strike must be conveyed in the strongest terms. The capacity of our SSBNs to remain undetected must be demonstrated by continuous deterrence patrols in order to underline the credibility of our deterrence with a Capital C. It would be a pity if under a misconception; use of tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistan causes a full scale nuclear war to erupt.

How then should our arsenal evolve? Obviously there is a need to adjust the numbers and our doctrine allows us the flexibility to do that. The delivery systems must also evolve with a focus on cruise missiles both air launched and sea launched. Development of an Air Launched Ballistic Missile will ensure that an airstrike could respond from any part of the country in a short time frame. Development of MIRV delivery systems should be hastened and deployed. This will close out the warhead argument for good. The nuclear arsenal future development and expansion must remain firmly focussed on the doctrine of deterrence and cater for counter value targets. Most importantly it should be demonstrated that after a nuclear exchange with Pakistan that we will retain the capacity to deter China though on a smaller scale. If counter force targets are to be engaged at all, the weapon of choice should be conventional cruise missiles or accurate short range conventional ballistic missiles that have the capability to take out vectors once they are out of hardened shelters. These could be ground, air or ship launched depending upon the situation. To enable success in the short time frame that the strategic weapons expose themselves an increased investment in ISR resources is needed. Finally, we should develop conventional force capability that allows us a decisive edge over Pakistan and reduce the asymmetry with China so that we are less vulnerable to any nuclear bullying.

There are other developments that the strategic community in India must keep track of such as development and deployment of BMD by China as well as intelligence and cyber capability on both fronts. A large asymmetry in such capabilities would lead to increased temptation to flash the nuclear card. The Ukraine war has shown that the international rules based order is increasingly fraying at its edges and the desire for risk-taking by certain states may cause fatal miscalculations. A nuclear exchange between any nations will affect the food security of the entire world due to the following nuclear winter, hence positions of threats of firing tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional war must be viewed seriously by the international community and diplomacy has a role to play in that.

In conclusion the developing asymmetries in the number of warheads do not need to be countered warhead for warhead. Deterrence is achieved by credibility of use. In case of our no first use policy it is the credibility of our response that will provide deterrence. Our strategic signalling should therefore by direct and unambiguous.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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