India's Nuclear Doctrine: The Calculus of Armageddon

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Is the possibility of India changing its nuclear doctrine more than an academic parlour game?

THE AIRCRAFT WERE at the peak of their climb when the bombs went off. Six were conventional; six were 500-kg fuel-air explosive warheads; two were tactical nuclear weapons. They exploded within 15 seconds of each other, sending out bursts of radiation. Contrary to common perceptions of the neutron bomb, the attack did not just kill soldiers and leave buildings intact. Everything within a 700-metre range was devastated beyond repair. Vehicles outside the range were left relatively unscathed, as were several tank crews who had managed to get into Nuclear Biological and Chemical (NBC) suits and seal up their armoured trundlers. But after that, many died of dehydration and heat, abandoned by both sides as irradiated beyond saving.

In this fictional account of a nuclear war in South Asia—written by journalist Humphrey Hawksley in his novel Dragon Fire— the Indian Army’s XXI Corps is destroyed near Rahim Yar Khan, a real city in Pakistan’s Southern Punjab. When the novel was published in 2000, it was excoriated by Indian critics as a product of wild fantasy: India would never manage to get that far into Pakistani territory, and Western powers, notably the US, would intervene and save the day for Pakistan.

Seventeen years on, that scenario can no longer be dismissed out of hand. While Hawksley’s has been the staple narrative since 2000 of how a nuclear war would break out between the Subcontinent’s two bitter rivals (if it were to), developments in recent months have brought the details of it into question. In a controversial interpretation of ‘facts’, some scholars now argue that even before Pakistan does something of the kind visualised in Dragon Fire, India may resort to a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Pakistan, thus ‘abandoning’ a nearly 18-year-old publicly declared nuclear doctrine that abjured using nuclear weapons first. No First Use (NFU), as it is called, has been the cornerstone of India’s nuclear deterrence. This is in marked contrast to what Pakistan has openly declared: nuclear weapons will be its first instrument of choice in case India ‘attacks’ it.

Much of the speculation on India ‘changing’ its nuclear posture—the Government has made no such announcement so far—rests on dots being connected by a scholar of Indian nuclear strategy, Vipin Narang of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is based on two pieces of writings—by a former commander of India’s strategic forces command, Lieutenant General BS Nagal, and former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon— and a public questioning of NFU by former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. Narang’s reading is plausible even if it has provoked a controversy. But is it just speculation? Or does India plan to change the way it looks at the use of nuclear weapons?

Some of this has to do with Pakistan developing and operationalising the use of battlefield—also known as ‘tactical’— nuclear weapons. These are low-yield devices that can easily be delivered by short-range missiles. Its Nasr missile is designed for this purpose. Pakistan claims these weapons are meant to prevent any Indian ‘misadventure’ that would allow the latter to use its superiority in conventional warfare. One seemingly plausible excuse for Islamabad to assume this is a potential Indian response to a terrorist strike originating from Pakistani soil. This is a complex issue: there have been plenty of examples of terror attacks on India—from the 2008 Mumbai carnage to the 2016 strike on an Army base in Uri. In each of these cases, India has behaved with exemplary restraint in spite of public anger. But with each passing attack, Indian patience with Pakistan grows thin, making a military response more likely. India’s cross-Line of Control (LoC) raid last year serves as a reminder of New Delhi’s toughened stance.

In its 2014 election manifesto, the BJP promised a ‘review’ of India’s nuclear doctrine keeping in mind the changes that had taken place in the neighbourhood

Soon after the Uri attack, (then) Defence Minister Parrikar said: “Why a lot of people say that India has No First Use (NFU) policy. Why should I bind myself to a… I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. This is my thinking. Some of them may immediately tomorrow flash that Parrikar says that nuclear doctrine has changed. It has not changed in any government policy but my concept, I am also an individual. And as an individual, I get a feeling sometime why do I say that I am not going to use it first. I am not saying that you have to use it first just because you don’t decide that you don’t use it first. The hoax can be called off.” This provoked furious comment all around, and within hours an official spokesperson clarified that what Parrikar had said was his ‘personal’ opinion.

What Parrikar said reflected a larger Indian concern: that Pakistan was using its nuclear ‘umbrella’ to terrorise India.

What could India do about it was the question. No one knows for sure just when Pakistan would decide to use these weapons. From its perspective, Islamabad has set the bar so low that even a stone being thrown in its direction can merit a nuclear response. This bluff was called—at least partially—after the cross-LoC raid by India.

While delivering a lecture in New Delhi recently, Narang said what India “was trying to do was to get rid of the nuclear overhang that would free its conventional capabilities against Pakistan”. He said this on the basis of Parrikar’s statement, but even more importantly what former NSA Menon wrote in his 2016 memoirs, Choice: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy. If Parrikar’s comment evoked alarm in some circles, Menon was perhaps even more explicit in making the case for an Indian nuclear strike on Pakistan:

‘If Pakistan were to use tactical nuclear weapons against India, even against Indian forces in Pakistan, it would effectively be opening the door to a massive Indian first strike, having crossed India’s declared red lines. There would be little incentive, once Pakistan had taken hostilities to the nuclear level, for India to limit its response, since that would only invite further escalation by Pakistan. India would hardly risk giving Pakistan the chance to carry out a massive nuclear strike after the Indian response to Pakistan using tactical nuclear weapons. In other words, Pakistani tactical nuclear weapon use would effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan.’ (emphasis added).

This is as close as India has come to changing its nuclear posture, and Narang says the “seductive appeal of this outlook” is understandable.

BUT IF THIS joining of dots seems appealing, is it plausible? “You should not rule out what Narang is saying. If you look at the draft nuclear doctrine of August 17th, 1999, it mentions the doctrine as being dynamic and flexible. There is plenty of leeway here for India to adapt to changing circumstances,” a former member of National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), who was involved in the discussion while the policy was being framed, tells Open.

Changing India’s nuclear posture looks a difficult proposition for now. The cost of an arms race can be debilitating, especially for a developing country like India that needs resources for other pressing endeavours

The draft doctrine was released just a month-and-a-half after the Kargil War—India’s first war under a nuclear shadow. The lesson was not lost on Indian and Pakistani planners even if the latter drew a wrong conclusion. At that time, tactical nuclear weapons were not on the horizon and India thought its idea of ‘massive retaliation’ in case Pakistan attacked it first with a nuclear weapon was sufficient as a deterrent signal. “Unfortunately, the Pakistan-China nexus and the emergence of tactical devices messed up the original idea behind the nuclear doctrine,” adds the former NSAB member.

The shift in circumstances did not go unnoticed. In its 2014 election manifesto, the BJP had promised a ‘review’ of India’s nuclear doctrine keeping in mind the changes that had taken place in the neighbourhood.

But if it is clear what needs to be done, can India push ahead with a revised doctrine? “At the moment, all this is in the realm of theory,” says the former NSAB member. “Indians are timid and do not take such decisions easily.” If political timidity is one issue, the changes on the ground will be far-reaching and may even propel South Asia into an arms race, something already being speculated upon by Western newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal of late.

Take the meaning of a ‘comprehensive first strike’ in its actual context. What it implies is alarming: India will ‘take out’ most of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. It is not clear if India even has enough warheads for this purpose. A January 2017 update by the Arms Control Association—a non-profit organisation that tracks the number of nuclear weapons worldwide—puts the number of nukes with Pakistan at 140 and India at 110. India appears to lag its rival on this count. There are three further complications. One, in case a war breaks out, it is certain that Pakistan will disperse its warheads, making their locations impossible to pinpoint. Two, India has another adversary to its east to watch for: China. India simply cannot use up all its nuclear devices against Pakistan without being prepared for possible Chinese aggression as well. Finally, India has no demonstrated Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle or MIRV—a missile that permits the launch of multiple warheads—for the task.

When these technical issues are combined with the political decisions that need to be taken, changing India’s nuclear posture looks a formidably difficult proposition for the time being. Over and above all this are the costs of making a shift. These are not just monetary. The cost of an arms race can be debilitating, especially for a developing country like India that needs resources for so many other pressing endeavours.

But in contrast to all these problems stands an existential threat to the west. Terrorist attacks, atavistic claims over Indian territory and a general sense of ill-will pervade Pakistan. When the two issues are weighed—what India can do on the nuclear front and what Pakistan has been doing for decades—the choice for India is obvious. And it need not take an apocalyptic clue from a dreary novel published 17 years ago.