Indian Nuclear Thought: Doctrinal Confusion

31 Oct, 2012    ·   3745

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra builds a case arguing the need for a critical review of India's nuclear doctrine 

Ever since India released the draft nuclear doctrine in August 1999, it was subjected to vicious criticism from in and out. Largely, it reflected the knee jerk recalcitrance and over defensiveness of a country heavily censured and sanctioned, following the tests of 1998. The whole document was denuded of authority just three months later by foreign minister Jaswant Singh claiming, “The National Security Advisory Board is a group of non-official strategic experts and analysts. It was tasked by the National Security Council to prepare a number of papers, including one on a possible ‘Indian Nuclear Doctrine’. This it prepared and submitted to the National Security Adviser, also releasing it publicly for a larger debate. That debate is now under way. It is thus not a policy document of the Government of India”. Since then of course, momentous events have taken place such as 9/11, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a rapidly realigning and repolarising world order. In the wake of these however, the 2003 press release by the cabinet office was released. Since this has been the only official statement on the subject, it and not the 1998 document, is the authoritative doctrine. Yet within the space of a decade, even this document it seems is arcane needing a revisit of three critical issues.

First is the desperate need for Nuclear Autarchy – that is for the command chain to be simplified ad be made directly by the prime minister. As of now the mandatory inclusion of an advisory chain which may or may not be able to attain quorum at the time of deciding the attack, vastly complicates both the legality of an emergency launch order as well as the armed forces ability to execute such over without being threatened with consequences of such legal nebulousness later on. The pitfalls here are obvious. The second big issue with the 2003 document is the insistence that any strike order decided by the prime minister be launched through the National Security Advisor. Again at a moment of crisis there are doubts first of the NSA may or may not have survived a decapitation strike, him being an executive but not in the chain of command, meaning his survivability may not be guaranteed. Should indeed he not be available for whatever reason this again bring up operational issues of if a ground commander will accept orders that have not been issued by the due authorities. The command chain then has to be direct from the Prime Minster without having to mandatorily consult, to the operational commander, without any intermediaries. Our pointless obsession with collegiate decision-making and our hopeless love of bureaucracy while providing critical checks and balances, in this particular case actually severely erode national security – simply because the nuclear bomb – unlike any weapon before it is an exceptional case. Recognising this every other nuclear state, including democracies far more liberal, inclusive and advanced than us, have accepted nuclear autarchy as fait accompli.

The second is the introduction of the concept of Leadership Credibility. On being asked the specifics of the French deterrent, then President Francois Mitterrand retorted, “I am the deterrent”. The credibility of the deterrent is linked inherently to its leaderships’ resolve to press the button. Hence the reported remarks of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the effect, “nuclear weapons are unusable” irrespective of their accuracy reflect exceptionally bad advice and the lack of nuclear education of the chain of command.  In one sentence therefore, the leadership can completely destroy the force of dissuasion that the arsenal represents.

Lastly, a very curious schism emerges, one where civilians think that the extremely ill advised use of the word “massive response” actually forms the “meat” of the 2003 document. This is dangerous on several counts since Pakistan’s sense of security derives from its confidence in escalation dominance. If massive response becomes the standard option, then Pakistan has no interest in carefully calibrating and moderating its first strike, believing that even a signalling strike could draw massive retaliation. In a sense therefore, this phrasing encourages Pakistan to go in for a massive decapitation strike at the first shot, while taking away any security that escalation dominance conferred on them. This then forces on India the need for a pre-emptive first strike, precisely because of the deeply destabilising effect that “massive retaliation” carries. This first strike then by its very nature, either has to be massive or has to be a gradually escalated response forcing the deployment of battlefield and tactical nuclear weapons, in effect forcing the cyclic logic of either reconsidering “massive retaliation” or to go in more sensibly for flexible response.

Optimally what this would require is first the phasing out of the term massive retaliation if in fact the preservation of our population centres is a priority, as should be for any democracy. Second, curiously it involves diluting our NFU, to allow for precisely this kind of action. South Asia then, far from being representative of an instability-stability “paradox”, is representative of a case where strategic stability is fundamentally dependant on tactical instability.