Nuclear Use: Need for Thinking on Political-Level Considerations

05 Aug, 2014    ·   4596

Ali Ahmed explores how a deterrence doctrine can at best inform, but not determine, nuclear weapons employment decisions

In a recent op-ed, 'Counter Pak Nuke Tactics', nuclear strategy expert Manpreet Sethi rightly states in the conclusion that “The purpose of the Indian nuclear weapon is narrow and limited to safeguarding the country against nuclear coercion, blackmail or its possible use.”

Sethi, a long time Pakistan military-watcher, is spot-on in her understanding that Pakistan’s military is using the Nasr nuclear missile system to deter India from exercising its conventional advantage in case push comes to shove in the form of a mass terror attack, a’la Mumbai II. It would like to use this to catalyse foreign intervention into moderating India’s nuclear response.

Many analysts advocate that, faced with this challenge, India needs to reinforce its existing nuclear doctrine. The existing nuclear doctrine calls for inflicting unacceptable damage in retribution for Pakistani nuclear first use, even if this in the form of a lower order tactical nuclear strike. While many want to strengthen its credibility, a few, such as professors Basrur and Rajaraman, want a shift in thinking on what deters.

There is a consensus among the competing schools that nuclear retaliation must greet nuclear first use. The difference is in the nature of the nuclear retaliation. If Pakistan resorts to ‘asymmetric escalation’, to use Vipin Narang’s phrase for escalation across the nuclear firebreak between conventional and nuclear levels of war, the former school argues for holding out the threat of escalation. The argument goes that India can withstand the loss of a couple of cities; Pakistan having just a few, cannot. This will stay Pakistan’s nuclear finger, the objective of deterrence. All India needs to do is to ensure that it unmistakably conveys to Pakistan its implacable intention, even if it is at the risk of a few Indian cities.

However, with nuclear warheads in the lower three digits, Pakistan may venture bold to get even. Taking this seriously, the ‘flexible’ response school does not rule out consideration of proportionate response. They believe that the credibility of disproportionate response is questionable. But a proportionate response can be assured and serves to deter equally. 

As can be seen, both sides base their arguments on strategic level considerations focused on deterrence. Strategists dealing with deterrence are at a level lower than the political, at which the political decision-maker functions. For a political decision-maker, theirs’ is an important input to inform the nuclear decision but not to determine it. At the political level there are also other considerations over and beyond deterrence. These must override input from the strategic level on the nature of nuclear response. 

First are political consequences. The Indian way of life and India as we know it cannot be endangered inordinately. Losing a few cities can perhaps be absorbed, but the communities that have lost cities lose out on life chances. This is particularly so in relation to relatively unscathed neighbours. Perceiving that India has let them down, sub-nationalisms may come to fore.

Next are social consequences. These will be long-term from the perspective of environmental effects. The number of nuclear mushrooms that need to sprout across Pakistan to deprive it of a retaliatory capability, stashed away at locations numbering in two digits, will be at least 30. Since Pakistan has second strike capability, the ability to fire back even after receiving a debilitating nuclear strike, it would be able to lob back at least 20. Fifty bombs going off is half the total of the 100 that formed the basis for 2013 estimate by environmental scientists of two billion casualties from nuclear winter induced famine. The price will be paid at the cost of inter-generational equity.

Finally are strategic consequences. Winning the war is seldom as important as winning the peace. Though Pakistan will not be on the map, it will remain as a piece of land with severely disadvantaged people. India will have to bear the additional burden of its recuperation for its own stability. It will consequently have to abandon its dream of parity with China for at least half a century.

Given these political level considerations, the political decision-maker will have to outthink his strategic advisers. Strategists have a role to play. Their discharging this role is good for deterrence. They keep nuclear dangers at the fore, lest the adversary take these as bluff. However, political level considerations trump strategic level input.

Nuclear doctrine is primarily meant for deterrence. The ‘massive’ retaliation school emphasising the dreadful possibilities helps deter, since inexorable escalation can well occur. However, for an NFU abiding power such as India, nuclear employment will be when deterrence has failed. Therefore, a deterrence doctrine can at best inform, but not determine, nuclear weapons employment decisions.

Eschewing Cold War thinking helps in sealing off a particular direction, but does not tell which direction to go. While deterrence relevant considerations have found reflection in the discourse, missing is thinking on what the content and checklist political level considerations needs to be for India.