The Strategist

A Covenant Sans Sword

11 Aug, 2014    ·   4600

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar weighs in on India’s nuclear doctrine

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

Power and Self-Preservation
Hobbes underscored the need to establish an aura of awe and visible power in order that men do not degenerate to their natural anarchic passions. He said, “And covenants without the sword are but words and are of no strength to secure a man at all.” Yet, India forges a nuclear ‘Sword’ whose utility lies in its non-use. However, intrinsic to the logic is a three-fold endowment – the Sword’s unprecedented destructive promise, its influence, and its ability to deter conflict beyond the conventional.

Evolution of a Nuclear Doctrine
India’s nuclear programme was driven by a techno-politico-bureaucratic nexus to the exclusion of the military. Whether this strategic orientation was by default or a deep-seated trepidation of the military is not germane; what it did was to create a muddled approach to the process of operationalising the deterrent. But to its acclaim go the separation of the nuclear from the conventional and distinction between the Controller of nuclear weapons and its Custodian.

Discerning that nuclear multilateralism introduces dynamics that are vastly dissimilar to the two-state confrontation of the past; exceptional faith was placed on a calculus where intentions rather than capability alone, weighed in with greater sway. Convinced that the use of nuclear weapons sets into motion an uncontrollable chain of mass destruction, response-proportionality and controlled escalation were rejected.

India’s nuclear doctrine is rooted in three principles: no first use (NFU); massive retaliation to a first strike; and credible deterrence. There was a fourth unwritten faith; nuclear weapons would not be conventionalised, a principle that remained divorced from the belief that a nuclear war could be fought and won. The nuclear doctrine was made public on 04 January 2003. The first part deals with ‘form’; nuclear war avoidance is the leit motif and NFU the canon. The logic of self-preservation demanded the arsenal be credible and response-ready. The second part of the doctrine deals with ‘substance’, operationalising the deterrent and command and control are the main themes.

China: Proliferation Policy
China beginning in the 1970s promoted an aggressive policy of transfer of nuclear weapon technology and missiles to reprobate States using North Korea as a clearing house. The policy has been continued unrelentingly. Reasons for such profligate leanings are a matter of conjecture. They may have originally reflected balance of power logic. However, proliferation in the Islamic world has implications that are sinister particularly since AQ Khan made known that nuclear chastity is a fable. Radical Islam perceives nuclear weapons as a means to destroy an order that has wilfully kept the Ummah under subjugation. In this frame of reference the singling out of the US, India and Israel for retribution attains new meaning. It also gives to China a heft up the power ladder.

The Unhinged Tri-Polar Deterrent Relationship
A deterrent relationship is founded on rationality. For the ‘deterree’ there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks; and for the deterrer rationality in confirming the reality of risks. The exceptional feature is that roles are reversible provided the common interest is stability.

Unique to the deterrent relationship in the region is the tri-polar nature of linkages and an abiding symptom is Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. Conceived, designed and tested by Beijing, the programme has also rapidly created the means to stockpile fissile material. Under these circumstances any scheme to stabilise the situation must first address the duality of the Sino-Pak programme. Persistent collaboration and a breakneck build-up of nuclear infrastructure suggests doctrinal co-relation which any deterrent relationship overlooks at its peril.

Making Sense of Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy: The Nuclear Nightmare
The opacity of Pakistan’s strategic nuclear underpinnings, descent to tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) and duplicity of policies has made it prickly for India to either understand nuclear thinking in Islamabad or to find coherence in the mania for parity, the rush for fissile material, and the loosening of controls over nuclear weapons. More puzzling is the strategic notion that the conventional imbalance between the two countries may be offset by “either an assured second-strike capability or, a hair-trigger-arsenal" and as Feroz Khan’s bizarre argument goes, "TNWs provide another layer of deterrence designed to apply brakes on India’s conventional superiority” (ala NATO’s discredited formulation). On a perplexing note Khan concludes that likelihood of inadvertence is high, tenability of central control low, and the probability of Indian pre-emptive conventional attack a near certainty.

No scrutiny of the sub-continental situation can avoid looking at the internals of Pakistan. The country today is in perilous pass caused by the Establishment nurturing terrorist organisations as instruments of their misshapen policies. Pakistan’s radical links makes the status-quo unacceptable for the nuclear nightmare as a hair trigger, opaque deterrent embracing tactical use under military control steered by an ambiguous doctrine and guided by a military strategy that finds unity with terrorists is upon us.

The unbiased examiner is left bewildered that if imbalance in the power equation with India is so substantial and internals so anaemic, then why does Pakistan not seek rapprochement as a priority for policies?

In declaring her nuclear doctrine, India struck a covenant not just with her own citizens but with the global community. At its core was the renunciation of the first use of nuclear weapons. On the face of it such a disavowal defied conventional wisdom. To deliberately temper a sword and then to abjure its first use would appear to contradict sovereign morality, after all if the first duty of the State is to protect its citizens, then to open itself to the first strike would  be a failing. And yet if there is belief in the changed nature of warfare that nuclear weapons have ushered, then humanity’s moral weight would be on the side of the covenant sans sword. Fatefully, till that moral weight finds strategic expression, it is the destructive promise of the NFU policy backed by pre-emptive conventional capabilities that will rein in a nuclear misadventure.