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Shyam Saran: The dangers of nuclear revisionism

Arguments to abandon India's 'no first use' policy for nuclear weapons are fallacious

Shyam Saran
More Columns by Shyam Saran

The Bharatiya Janata Party's election triggered a major controversy over its references to the intent of a BJP-led government to "revise and update" India's doctrine in order "to make it relevant to challenges of current times". While no details were given, sources are said to have hinted at the abandonment of the "no first use" and retaliation-only commitment that lies at the heart of the current doctrine. It is, therefore, reassuring that, subsequently, the BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has categorically denied any such intent, saying: "No was a great initiative of - there is no compromise on that. We are very clear. No first use is a reflection of our cultural inheritance."

are serious business; responsible governments, political parties, scholars and analysts should make declarations and statements about their purpose and use with extreme discretion and deliberation. These are not weapons of war in any meaningful sense. These are weapons of mass destruction - and the keyword here is "mass". Their use would render any credible war aim irrelevant. Some analysts have tried to cast doubt on the credibility of massive that the Indian doctrine envisages in response to an attack by so-called tactical nuclear weapons on military targets by an adversary. Why, it is argued, should one retaliate with all of one's nuclear assets if a tank brigade or some military installations are destroyed in a tactical nuclear attack, and thereby ensure the incineration of most of our cities and populace in a further and inevitable counter-attack using strategic nuclear weapons?

This is a fallacious argument for two reasons. One, the very distinction between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons is untenable, precisely because these are weapons of mass destruction. As pointed out by a US nuclear analyst, Richard Weitz: "Nuclear weapons have an inherent potential for rapid and dramatic destruction, shock and death, regardless of whether they yield one megatonne or 20 kilotonnes. Distinguishing between 'strategic' and 'tactical' in that sense is more or less academic."

Two, even if there is use of a tactical nuclear weapon with a relatively low yield to begin with, escalation to a strategic nuclear exchange is virtually inevitable. To quote another analyst familiar with war gaming, Henry S Rowen, any use of nuclear weapons at any level in multiple scenarios inevitably escalated to an all-out strategic exchange resulting in massive destruction and loss of life, making any notion of victory or loss a meaningless vulgarity. He points out: "All the options led to the same dead end of escalation, strategic retaliation and catastrophe."

It is true that, during the Cold War, strategists of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) did wrestle with the uncomfortable paradoxes with which nuclear deterrence confronts any state with nuclear weapons. The theory of "flexible response" or "graduated response" posited the possibility of matching retaliation at each level of armed hostility, from a conventional threshold all the way up through the use of tactical weapons to an all-out strategic exchange. While neat and seemingly credible in theory, it was never implemented in operational terms precisely because of the contradictions involved.

For example, in archives now available, President John F Kennedy and even his defence secretary, Robert McNamara, interpreted flexible response to require greater investment in conventional forces, so as to postpone as far as possible the threshold of the use of nuclear weapons in response to a Soviet conventional attack. In other documents, it appears that allies initially wanted the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on their soil precisely in order to have a trigger that would lower the threshold of nuclear use and ensure escalation to the strategic level and through this achieve more effective deterrence against a Soviet attack. In the 1980s, perceptions changed when the frontline Nato states realised that use of tactical weapons against advancing Soviet forces in their territories would leave them devastated even if the expected escalation could somehow be contained. In 1987, the Warsaw Pact and Nato concluded the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which banned all US and Soviet ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres. It is ironic that Pakistani and now some Indian analysts, oblivious of this history, should be trotting out a bankrupt concept to lend an illusory muscularity to India's nuclear deterrent.

has been well served by a doctrine that acknowledges that nuclear weapons are not weapons of war but can only serve as a deterrent. It is nevertheless true that the credibility of the nuclear deterrent demands the creation of tangible assets that are required by the doctrine that governs the use of these weapons. In the case of India, "no first use" and retaliation-only require the development and deployment of a strategic triad, including land-based, air-delivered and submarine-based nuclear assets. The last mentioned capability is the most significant in ensuring a second strike capability even after suffering extensive damage in a first strike.

The credibility of our deterrent is, therefore, linked to whether or not we have in place the capabilities and assets that are aligned with our doctrine. That has to be the main endeavour on the part of our political leadership rather than falling prey to the temptation, encouraged by ill-informed analysts, to make declaratory statements not backed by the capabilities and assets they require. The infrastructure required for a first use or flexible response doctrine would be very different from what we have so far invested in, and would require different command and control mechanisms. We should be mindful of the significant implications of any departure from the existing doctrine quite apart from what it would signal to both our friends and adversaries.

The possession of nuclear weapons provides a potent instrument for deterrence against powerful and inimical adversaries. They also impose immense responsibility and demand prudence and sobriety in how we conduct ourselves in the community of nations. A Pakistani display of suicidal tendencies - real or feigned - must be met with a consistent and mature posture on our part, rejecting the notion that a nuclear war could be fought and won or that a limited nuclear war is at all credible. To say that our current doctrine is not credible to Pakistan is to fall into the trap of having our strategies and structure of forces being determined in Islamabad and not in Delhi.

First and foremost, our doctrine must carry credibility with our own people. We should constantly review and update our nuclear posture, but the objective of this exercise should be to strengthen the credibility of our existing doctrine rather than to seek its abandonment. The BJP prime minister who endorsed the current doctrine was a wise and sagacious leader. The party would do well not to tinker thoughtlessly with his legacy in this critical area of national security. Fortunately for us, has made swift amends for his party's wobble on this score.



The writer, a former foreign secretary, is chairman of the National Security Advisory Board and of RIS as well as a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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