Published daily by the Lowy Institute

India's nuclear doctrine should no longer be taken for granted

The threat to pre-empt and target Pakistan nuclear weapons is a false promise, and one that is fraught with serious risks.

Gateway of India lit up for Navy Day, 4 December 2016 (Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Getty Images)
Gateway of India lit up for Navy Day, 4 December 2016 (Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Getty Images)
Published 22 Mar 2017 

In recent years, a debate over India’s nuclear doctrine – how and when it plans to use nuclear weapons – has rekindled. The issue was raised in the BJP’s 2014 manifesto, then by a couple of former heads of India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC), and most recently by former defence minister Manohar Parrikar, all of whom urged changes to one or other aspect of India’s last published doctrine of 2003. In past weeks, attention has turned to former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s book Choices, which points to two important changes. 

One, which I discussed in a review of Menon’s book in India Today in December, is that India 'might find it useful to strike first' if, for instance, 'an adversary's launch was imminent'. Were Indian doctrine to embrace this possibility of pre-emption, it would mark the end of the country’s ‘no first use’ (NFU) pledge. But Menon’s second point, highlighted by MIT professor Vipin Narang in recent days, is even more important.

'The logical response at first was counter-value targeting', writes Menon, referring to a strategy of directing nuclear strikes at an enemy’s population in towns and cities, 'rather than counter-force targeting', which refers to aiming at their nuclear forces. Menon implies that, as time has passed, India’s position has changed:

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.

A comprehensive first strike typically refers to a nuclear strike aimed at eliminating the other side’s nuclear weapons, with the aim of limiting the damage they can inflict on you. In Cold War jargon, this is known as a 'splendid' first strike.

Now, consider a scenario where Pakistan seeks to use tactical nuclear weapons against an invading Indian army, as per its own stated doctrine. If we take Menon’s two points together, the implication is that India would not only aim to pre-empt Pakistan’s use with its own nuclear weapons, but also that, whether or not this pre-emption succeeded, India would look to inflict a massive strike to take out every available Pakistani weapon. If Pakistan goes first, and India goes second, why should India leave Pakistan with the ability to go third? Indeed, if Pakistan is trying to go first, why doesn’t India simply slip in first? These twin ideas, striking first and aiming at the enemy’s nuclear weapons rather than his cities, are intuitive and alluring. But they also carry three types of serious risk.

One is that first use doctrines are highly destabilising, giving each side an incentive to pre-empt the other lest they be disarmed entirely. If India waits too long, it risks allowing Pakistan not only to destroy Indian tanks but, more worryingly, to disperse and conceal the longer-range weapons aimed at Indian cities. But if Pakistan thinks India will move quickly, Pakistan has an incentive to go even quicker, and to escalate straight to the use of the longer-range weapons. One could argue that this is beneficial to India, since it deprives Pakistan of the opportunity to wage a limited nuclear war, and therefore renders its whole strategy less proportional and less credible. But given the short aircraft and missile flying times involved between India and Pakistan, this reciprocal fear of first use could pull each side in the direction of placing nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert. This risk is higher for Pakistan, given its smaller landmass and India’s long-term advantage in nuclear surveillance and targeting.

Second, an Indian counter-force doctrine – the threat to target Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, rather than its cities – incentivises Pakistan to undertake a massive nuclear build-up, in order to dispel any possibility of India disarming it entirely. Pakistan presently has an estimated stockpile of 130 to 140 nuclear warheads, around 20 to 30 more than India. In 2015, the former head of Pakistan’s influential Strategic Plans Division (SPD), Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, said that he was 'more or less okay' with the planned numbers for the next decade or so.

Pakistan has never taken India’s NFU pledge seriously, so any Indian shift there is probably priced into Pakistan’s numerical requirements. But a perceived shift to counterforce could prompt Pakistan to upgrade its numbers of delivery systems, dramatically. This in turn would increase the number of targets for India, and so the required number of Indian warheads. The risks of an arms-race cycle, of the sort that both India and Pakistan have repeatedly disavowed, are self-evident. It would certainly mark the death of India’s doctrine of credible minimum deterrence, because there would be nothing minimum about it. Of course, India might argue that forcing Pakistan into a costly nuclear build-up will divert money from conventional arms an can ultimately bring Islamabad to its knees. But India’s nuclear burden would also spike, while China could bail out Pakistan.

The third problem with this doctrine would be that it turns what is the risk of losing Indian cities into a guarantee of losing Indian cities. India cannot now, or in the medium-term, eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Doing so would require extraordinary capabilities to locate and track a large number of concealed, dispersed, and mobile delivery systems across the landmass of Pakistan and – perhaps in the future – at sea.

However quickly Indian satellites may be maturing, this is a step too far. India can of course target some Pakistani weapons, while stopping others through missile defence, thereby limiting the potential damage to India. But some will survive. And if India takes the fatalistic approach of assuming that a nuclear exchange must be absolute, then Pakistan is left with no incentive to hold back either. Here, the optimist may retort that this bleak conclusion will stay Pakistan’s hand in the first place, deterring any nuclear use and allowing India to leverage its larger conventional numbers. But this would be to underestimate Pakistan’s existential view of the stakes in conventional war.

For nearly 15 years, India’s stated nuclear doctrine has been to shun first use, emphasise massive retaliation over flexible and limited nuclear responses, and look to counter-value rather than counterforce targets. The whirl of debate around each of these three precepts is indicative of the fluid, elusive nature of nuclear strategy, as well as a more uncertain security environment and growing confidence in Indian capabilities. In taking aim at each one of doctrinal pillars, albeit in language that is caveated and cautious, Menon is indicating that Indian nuclear doctrine should not be taken for granted, whether by Pakistan or China. His arguments are more likely a warning, than an indication of imminent shifts. But a threat to pre-empt and target Pakistani nuclear weapons is a false promise, and one that is fraught with serious risks. If it comes to be seen as India’s long-term objective, it could produce greater instability in a crisis, a more aggressive Pakistani arms build-up, and needless escalation once nuclear weapons have been used. 

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