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Nuclear India at 19: keep focus right on deterrence

Manpreet Sethi May 25 2017, 23:40 IST
India completes 19 years as a nuclear armed state this month. This period is no more than an eye blink in the life of a nation, but India has made significant pro­gress towards operationalisation of its deterrence capability (it was on May 11 and 13, 1998 that India conducted nuclear tests at the Pokhran range in Rajasthan. India has since declared a moratorium on testing).

It has worked according to a plan in the form of a nuclear doctrine that it gave to itself in August 1999, and which was formalised, with largely the same attributes as mentioned in the draft, by the government of the day in January 2003.

The doctrine defined a narrow role for India’s nuclear weapons — only for deterrence against nuclear weapons of the adversary. It also provided pointers on the kind of capability that the country would build to fulfil its mandate of credible minimum deterrence in such a way as to promise unacceptable damage as retaliation in case of nuclear use against the country or its people.

India has eschewed the first use of nuclear weapons, leaving it to the adversary to take the difficult decision of making the first nuclear move. But it seeks to deter the adversary from making this move by holding up for him the prospect of massive retaliation which would negate any benefit of his action. This is a purely deterrence doctrine, and that really is the only purpose of nuclear weapons. Establishing deterrence, however, demands two kinds of requirements.

The first set, which is more tangible, may be referred to as the nuclear hardware that consists of nuclear warheads and delivery systems to impose punishment. According to widely known guesstimates, India now has about 110 nuclear warheads and it has deployed small and medium range ballistic missiles.

Agni V, which is the long range missile of 5,000 km, is still undergoing testing and a few years from operational induction. INS Arihant, the first indigenous nuclear powered submarine, has reportedly become operational with 750 km range of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).

Testing for longer range SLBMs continues. Longer range land-based and sea-launched missiles are critical for furthering the credibility of deterrence. And this remains a work in progress.

Beyond these capabilities, India should prudently choose what more it needs in terms of nuclear hardware to buttress the kind of deterrent role that it has accorded to its nuclear weapons. The wish list of the military and the scientific establishment may be a long one, especially as one cannot ignore the ongoing modernisation across other nuclear weapon states.

But the choice of new capability inductions need not mirror these developments. As nuclear decision makers consider new requirements, they must keep the principles of nuclear doctrine as their guide to assess whether the capability would add to deterrence or encourage the idea of nuclear war-fighting, which is not the purpose of our nuclear weapons.

In fact, common sense and logic well establish the futility of nuclear weapons use for any political objectives. Yes, nuclear brinksmanship makes for a good strategy, as we have seen in the case of Pakistan. But even that country realises that any real use of the weapon would result in retaliation of the kind that would severely damage the society and polity as a functioning entity. This is where the second prerequisite of deterrence assumes significance.

The second set of requirements necessary to indicate credibility of deterrence is the indication of resolve to use the capability that has been built up. This is the more intangible part of deterrence and the one that is constantly under question at home and beyond.

Since exhibiting resolve by indulging in nuclear use would be a foolish way of showcasing it, its demonstration and assessment has always been a subjective issue. It may be recalled that during several of the tense episodes of the Cold War period, the US and USSR were constantly gauging the resolve of the other.

Nuclear forces
In fact, the handling of each crisis rested on each side convincing the other that it was willing to use nuclear weapons to defend its position. Even more important than the balance of nuclear forces was the balance of firmness of purpose and it was never clear who demonstrated greater resolve. However, two empirical dimensions can be identified to demystify this a bit.

One of this is the nuclear command and control structure and its political and military dimensions. The knowledge of its existence with a clear mandate and primary, secondary and tertiary chains of command, as well as occasional references to its implementation of necessary tasks or even sporadic glimpses of the prime minister with the nuclear suitcase, should suffice.

Even without mentioning the “N” word, the prime minister can indicate resolve through his/her actions that demonstrate the ability to take hard decisions. The acts of demonetisation and the conduct of surgical strikes are only two examples from recent times.

India has spent the last two decades with its focus on nuclear capability build-up. This was necessary and it now has the basic building blocks in place even as some more are on the anvil. It is now crucial that the second dimension of deterrence credibility be focussed on.

As it stands, India faces a unique set of nuclear challenges in two adversaries —both with different nuclear doctrines and capabilities. If deterrence to China must showcase capability, deterrence for Pakistan must highlight resolve. Communication of both is the key to nuclear deterrence. As India steps out of its nuclear teens into adulthood, it must keep its focus correct.

(The writer is Senior Fellow and Project Head [Nuclear Security], Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi)

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