IPCS Discussion

India’s Nuclear Strategy

10 Apr, 2017    ·   5264

Niharika Tagotra reports on the proceedings of the discussion held on 31 March 2017

An overview of the remarks made at 'India's Nuclear Strategy', the second discussion in IPCS' 2017 series, 'Evolving Discourses of Security in International Politics'.

Dr Vipin Narang
Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor of Political Science, MIT

There has been no change in the declaratory Indian nuclear doctrine, and there will not be any foreseeable change in it. However, Indian nuclear strategy may evolve and there are hints at a very important potential evolution in Shivshankar Menon’s book, Choices: Inside the making of India’s Foreign Policy, which are illustrated in some key paragraphs under the chapter on ‘No first Use’. What is important to understand is that there is a very important distinction between a declaratory doctrine and nuclear strategy. Strategy is about the employment of a doctrine and there are a lot of strategies in use currently that are consistent with India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine.

The declaratory doctrine has its roots in the 1999 draft which is a meandering, very long set of ideas. It is the only actual fleshing out of what India’s declaratory doctrine might have looked like. The official release in January 2003, however, comprised of only eight bullet points; the much detailed official doctrine being classified. The declaratory doctrine has several key pillars, the primary pillar being the no first use (NFU) clause.

Under the NFU clause, India declares that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. There is also a "no use against non-nuclear weapons state" clause. However, the NFU pillar is already qualified in the official doctrine, which also mentions a potential nuclear retaliation against chemical or biological weapons. Thus, is the event of the use of chemical or biological weapons by an adversary, India reserves to right to retaliate with nuclear weapons.

The other key doctrinal pillar is associated with the idea of 'massive retaliation'. While the draft doctrine used the phrase "punitive retaliation," the official doctrine frames it as "nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage." It has long been presumed that this phrase meant counter-value targeting. India did not have the necessary forces or the accuracy to do anything but counter-value targeting. And in any case, India is trying to deter nuclear use against it. It doesn't need nuclear weapons to deter a conventional attack against it, like Pakistan does. In this scenario, therefore, India’s massive retaliation, counter-value strategy made a lot of sense.

However, the evolution of the South Asian security dynamic effectively neutralised India’s mainstay conventional doctrine, also known as the Sundarji Doctrine. The events leading up to Operation Parakram forced a rethink of India’s conventional options to a more usable form that could enable India to retaliate against perceived Pakistani provocations. The usable option, which eventually took the shape of the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine, formed a part of the action-reaction cycle, in which, as a response, Pakistan took to developing tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). While the development of TNWs by Pakistan may not necessarily have been triggered by Cold Start, the doctrine did add fuel to the fire. The myth of Cold Start was even worse for India because while there was no real development of a more usable option on India’s side, the doctrine was used by Pakistan to justify the development of TNWs.

The development of TNWs created a new dilemma for Indian nuclear strategists. The threat to retaliate massively in the event of a demonstration shot by Pakistan on its own soil, on Indian forces or on logistics or bridgeheads behind it, created credibility problems for India’s strategy. This basically left India with three options - of which one was an option of no-response. The second option, which probably developed in the late 2000s, was the idea of a tit-for-tat or proportional or a tit-for-tat-plus retaliation, where India would still respond through a counter-value strike but against a military base or perhaps smaller population centres. While the advantage of this strategy is credibility, the significant disadvantage is that India would then give the nuclear initiative back to Pakistan, exposing its own cities and strategic centres to Pakistani strategic retaliation. The third option in theory is counter-force, where India moves to eliminate Pakistan’s strategic nuclear forces and removes the nuclear overhang. This was thought to be an impossible option for India because of the strategy’s destabilising effect and also the fact that it would require a massive build-up of arms and forces, which is a difficult option for regional powers with limited resources.

One of the corollaries associated with a counter-force strategy is whether a country can afford to go second with such a strategy. Counter-force has always been associated with pre-emptive use. The counter-value strategy on the other hand gives more space for a relaxed and absolute NFU policy. With counter-force, however, it becomes imperative to go first.

In India’s case, the real change in thinking has been on the grounds of this shift in strategy, which is made evident in Menon’s book. In one of his operative paragraphs, Menon uses the term "comprehensive first strike" against Pakistan. Comprehensive first strike in nuclear vocabulary means strategic counter-force. The natural corollary for that is an exemption for pre-emptive use. The statements made by Indian officials over the years, including Manohar Parrikar, BS Nagal and Shivshankar Menon, indicate that there has been at least some thinking at the highest levels of the Indian nuclear strategic community that pre-emption is consistent with NFU. Nagal talks about pre-emption as one of the four options within his recommended strategy of ambiguity. Pre-emption is in fact the operative concept in his strategy. Menon, in his book, has very clearly identified an area where the declared doctrine would not constrain India in declaring a pre-emptive strike.

Menon’s chapter on NFU is probably the most authoritative writing on the issue that has emerged since India tested nuclear weapons in 1998. It is still not known as to how far India got in moving towards strategic counter-force, or if this is just wishful thinking on Menon’s part. But, there is some evidence on the capability side that is suggestive of this shift. The development of MIRVs and BMD that have assured retaliatory logic, operative towards China, can also be used for a counter-force strike against Pakistan. This can be used as tantalising evidence of a decoupling of strategies against China and Pakistan. These are still however unconfirmed theories.

In terms of the implications, the primary question that arises is if India can do this. For India, disarming Pakistan’s sea-based leg will be far easier than eliminating its land-based strategic forces. The other question is if it is a good idea. A counter-force strategy is destabilising because of the inherent first strike instability, and therefore these elements need to be debated. While the doctrine is not expected to undergo any change, there has been authoritative thinking on the issue which cannot be easily discounted. 

Col (Retd) Ajai Shukla
Columnist, Business Standard

There are some elements in India’s nuclear doctrine that lack credibility in important quarters, specifically the doctrinal threat of 'massive retaliation'. According to conventional understanding in India, the unfolding of any nuclear crisis between India and Pakistan follows a very short and reassuring narrative. This includes: a terror attack from Pakistan, Indian conventional retaliation featuring perhaps a 'Cold Start' offensive strike that makes rapid headway into Pakistani territory, Pakistan evaluating its declared option of a TNW demonstration strike on Indian military spearheads, and then being deterred by India’s doctrinal commitment of massive retaliation. In the worst case scenario, in the event of TNW use by Pakistan, India retaliates by taking out a couple of Pakistani cities, after which Pakistan folds. The discussion however fails to go beyond this. Pakistan, as per the Indian narrative, is just cultivating irrationality. In the Indian narrative, Pakistani restraint would remain in play despite huge territorial losses, large-scale destruction of its war-fighting machinery and the discrediting of the Pakistan military.

The Pakistani version is unsurprisingly a different narrative that includes: Pakistani terror attack (of course, denied), Indian conventional retaliation across the India-Pakistan border, Pakistan blocking the cold strike with its sectoral and strategic reserves without crossing the conventional threshold. In the event of Pakistani failure to halt Indian troops with conventional forces, the use of a single demonstration TNW strike in an area where damage could be limited both in terms of the civilian infrastructure and people as well as Indian forces to prevent causing undue provocation. The cautiousness of Indian decision-makers enhanced by international pressure at that stage and coupled with the moral aspect of counter-value retaliation would force India to forego that option.

Therefore, the threat of “massive counter-value retaliation” is not a credible doctrine for India against Pakistan. Menon’s interpretation however offers a different narrative. Menon provides more usable options to Indian planners in the form of comprehensive counter-force strikes; even first strikes, in a situation where the adversary’s use of nuclear weapons appears inevitable.

The crucial question however is whether India has the wherewithal, the information systems, or the capabilities to actually execute a comprehensive counter-force strike against Pakistan. The short answer to this would be 'no', the accurate answer would be ‘not yet’.

India’s doctrine and strategy have always been ahead of capability in both the conventional and strategic realms. But India is also playing catch up slowly. To turn Menon’s proposed strategy of comprehensive counterforce strikes into executionable capabilities will take more time. With Pakistan racing to put in place a nuclear triad, the possibility of a disarming first strike is receding, made more difficult by the diversification of Pakistan’s delivery means that include the MIRV trials, proliferation of TNW launchers, the Babur ground launch cruise missile, and the Ra’ad air launch cruise missile. Due to this increase in nuclear delivery platforms, taking out strategic ground launch platforms will still leave India open to a potential third strike.

Given that many Pakistani nuclear strike assets are located in the vicinity of major towns, there is difficulty in differentiating between counter-force and counter-value strikes, with one containing elements of the other. India’s ISR capabilities, missile accuracy, MIRV capability and anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capabilities are picking up. But even so, India still lacks the capability to undertake a “splendid first strike” that disarms Pakistan completely. However, Pakistan's second and third strike capabilities would be seriously eroded if an India strike were complemented by US and Israeli capabilities. As of now, this would be a pre-requisite for any viable first strike against Pakistan.

Even so, there is still merit in choosing an option of a disarming first strike against Pakistan over the option of a massive counter-value strike. Even an unsuccessful and incomplete counter-force strike would reduce the number of warheads being fired at India in the inevitable third strike, and at least some of these would be neutralised by India’s growing ABM capability.

While all of this could be debated, with valid arguments to be made from both sides, Shivshankar Menon should be given credit for enriching the moribund debate on India’s nuclear strategy by presenting a number of additional workable options. What is significant about Menon’s book is that his words reflect upon a potential marriage of the NFU doctrine with a pre-emptive counter-force strategy, such that the latter appears to be consistent with the doctrine. Menon’s new strategy represents the first indications of a remarkable shift in thinking amongst policy-makers at the highest level.

Rapporteured by Niharika Tagotra, Researcher, IPCS