Deterrence theory has understandably been imported into South Asia with the onset of nuclearization in the late eighties. It, having contributed to keeping the Cold War ‘cold’, has much to offer on how the nuclear equation is to be managed. Simply put deterrence posits making a credible threat of nuclear retaliation to ensure that the enemy desists from using nuclear weapons in first place.
Official Indian nuclear doctrine has predicated deterrence on assured nuclear retaliation that promises to be ‘massive’ to enemy first use. This is a controversial extension of the promise of inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ that had been suggested by the earlier Draft Nuclear Doctrine. Unacceptable damage does not require ‘massive’ numbers, when ‘sufficient’ would do. Both, ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation and infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’ have been queried by this author in earlier contributions here (‘The illogic of massive punitive retaliation’ and ‘The illogic of ‘unacceptable damage’). It is only fair that an alternative be suggested. This article makes such an attempt.
The doctrinal options for India that practices No First Use are: ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation as currently posited; infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’ with ‘sufficient’ numbers as in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine; ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation depending on nature of enemy first use, desired effects and demands of in-conflict deterrence; and lastly, ending a nuclear exchange at the lowest possible level. As argued earlier, inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ on the enemy without also degrading his means of retaliation could result in receiving like ‘unacceptable damage’ in its counter strike.
In conflict, deterrence would have it that the power to destroy the enemy with the remainder of one’s arsenal would deter his infliction of unacceptable damage on us. Such self-deterrence in the enemy after receiving ‘unacceptable’ levels of damage is wishful. Since a counter of like proportions is virtually assured, and would be unacceptable to us also, it makes sense not to get into a position of receiving such a counter strike. This means our retaliatory strike should not be of the order as to provoke a counter that inflicts ‘unacceptable damage’.
‘Flexible’ nuclear retaliation, implying a measured retaliatory strike, suggests itself as a suitable option. It is permissive of a wider range of options than strikes causing ‘unacceptable’ levels of damage. The problem with this is that there is no guarantee against escalation and termination of exchange(s).
It is here that the less-discussed ‘Sundarji doctrine’ has advantages. This requires termination of the exchange(s) at the lowest levels of escalation. It explicitly states the intent not to escalate by promising to remain at the lowest level and promising to end the exchange earliest. This gives incentives to the enemy to stay at the lower end himself and not to go in for further exchanges, hoping to give us similar incentives. This is at variance with deterrence philosophy that is instead a competition in showing resolve and willingness to face even ‘unacceptable’ punishment.
Such a doctrine makes better sense for India. Firstly, India, just as its putative nuclear adversaries, has vulnerabilities that aggravate ‘unacceptable damage’. It would not be able to cope with the aftermath, even if emergency is invoked. It has repeatedly been demonstrated that India’s disaster response mechanisms are weak. While these will strengthen over time, Cold War experience indicates that protection through anti missile defences and shelters etcetera is an expensive chimera.
Secondly, the poor would suffer more, especially the long term impact. Unprecedented breakdown of order, in multiples of the Partition experience, would occur. India though powerful, is also a ‘weak’ state. The verities of national life, as we know it, will be challenged. The impact on polity could be a lurch towards the Right and authoritarianism. In case of Pakistan being the nuclear adversary, internal communal harmony may not withstand the strain of misplaced perceptions and those taking political advantage of the situation. Thus, even if the enemy is ‘finished’, ‘India’ as we know it, would also cease to exist. Receipt of ‘unacceptable damage’ would be equivalent to shocks administered by Timur, Nadir Shah and Abdali in history.
Lastly, provinces that have borne the impact of an ‘unacceptable damage’ in the form of loss of an urban centre would be miffed. The balance of ethnicities and communities that is India in reality would be upset. Appraisal of the changed local balance would be likely to make the groups effected disillusioned enough to reopen sovereignty issues.
In deterrence theory, self-deterrence occurs due to such negative prognostications. Therefore, theory has it that political ‘resolve’ has to be cultivated and demonstrated. Doing so reinforces deterrence. But consideration as to the response when deterrence for some reason or other has broken down, requires moving away from the promise of inflicting punishment to preserving oneself from unacceptable punishment.
In this light, the Sundarji doctrine recommends itself. It would help preserve India, even while sparing the nuclear opponent the temerity to break the nuclear taboo. Its expectation that nuclear escalation can be avoided needs debate. Measures that need to be instituted for its success, such strategic dialogue in a permanent nuclear risk reduction and management mechanism, can then be emplaced.