Reviewing India's nuclear doctrine?

May 23, 2014
Sheel Kant Sharma
The purpose behind India’s nuclear tests in 1998 was to demonstrate weapons capability and to remove any doubts about its determination to be a state armed with nuclear weapons. Attempts persisted even after 1998 to compel or persuade the government in New Delhi to roll back and to accept several restraints as a non-nuclear weapon state. 
The document brought out in August 1999, therefore, was yet another definitive step to assert India’s status without ambiguity. This was in the form of the Draft Report of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) on “Indian Nuclear Doctrine”. It articulated, in some detail, the considerations of the eminent strategic thinkers who formed the NSAB at that time. 
This was followed up, as is well known, by a brief Press Release in January 2003, entitled, “The Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews Operationalization of India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” which contained an official and concise statement of the Doctrine. This put an official imprimatur on the NSAB document.
Present context
Since it was the BJP-led NDA government that took the actions described in previous paragraph it is important to recall this background in the present context. The BJP in its manifesto promises to
“Study in detail India's nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.”
One must see this promise in the manifesto in terms of the language used in the two existing documents. The word “review” in the title of 2003 Press Release can be traced to a process described in the 1999 document in the following terms:
“This document outlines the broad principles for the development, deployment and employment of India's nuclear forces. Details of policy and strategy concerning force structures, deployment and employment of nuclear forces will flow from this framework and will be laid down separately and kept under constant review.”( para. 1.6).
The promise in the BJP manifesto would seem thus to follow up on the previous work when the party was in power. That the successor UPA government maintained the position is a mark of the objective factors underlying continuity. This is discernible in the statements of PM, the NSA and the present Chairman of the NSAB in recent years which conform to the crux of the Doctrine developed by the previous government, namely, no-first-use. Therefore, clear statements made by the BJP President and Mr Narendra Modi disavowing any intention to depart from the posture of no-first-use (NFU) should ideally let matters rest. However, since the manifesto has sparked commentaries it may be useful to recap the basic features of the Doctrine.
Minimum deterrence
The pursuit of a doctrine of credible minimum deterrence (para. 2.3 of the 1999 document) has a defensive orientation in its policy of “retaliation only”. The 2003 Press Release, reinforces the deterrent by qualifying retaliation as “massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage” ( para. 2(iii)). The flexibility implied in these terms can be seen when read in conjunction with para. 3.1 of the 1999 document which spells out the requirements from India’s nuclear forces as “..effective, enduring, diverse, flexible, and responsive to the requirements in accordance with the concept of credible minimum deterrence.”
These precise words should suffice to dispel doubts voiced in some commentaries about the nature of massive retaliation, particularly in a scenario of tactical weapons’ use by Pakistan. Nor should the maintenance of a triad of airborne, land and sea base deterrent, as envisaged in 1999 document, imply any departure from the defensive posture that the NFU entails. In fact, the Doctrine as developed during the first five years after the Shakti tests charts out a wise and careful path for safeguarding India’s security by addressing the characteristics of its particular security environment. The Doctrine was transparent enough in contrast with the opacity that characterised this security environment.
Credibility of deterrence comprises not only sufficiency, survivability and commensurate systems of command, control, communication and intelligence but also credibility of the country in today’s world. The world has moved far ahead from the early phase of nuclear age which was, to say the least, marked by lack of restraint on the utterances of the powers that had the weapon. These weapons over the past seven decades have assumed a different character and image. Since their use will endanger all life in the planet, nuclear weapons cannot be accepted as weapons of war. So long as they exist, their only role in security can be as a deterrent against use by an adversary.
The Doctrine as it stands today is in keeping with this contemporary perspective and is responsive to the realities of a globalised world. India is the only nuclear weapon state that has a doctrinal commitment to the abolition of these weapons as a security objective. The Doctrine comprises elements which are inherently time-dependent; particularly those in the key paragraph 2 of the 2003 Press Release which pertain to building and maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent, non use against non-nuclear weapon states, continuation of strict export controls and engagement with global efforts in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament in general. The NFU is a constant, whereas the other elements of the Doctrine may change over time. Therefore, to revisit the doctrine in tune with the current times makes ample sense.
Unwritten taboo
A reality check on the nuclear age today reveals two fundamental features: First, there is an unwritten taboo that has endured since 1945 and a plausible hope that use of the nuclear weapon may never be repeated, especially since that has not happened over the past seven decades. At the same time it is also recognised that global nuclear disarmament, while highly desirable, may not be practicable in the foreseeable future. However, US, UK and France, whose doctrine of flexible response differs from NFU, have been under considerable pressure to modify it to a posture of “deterrence only”; as witnessed, for example, in the debates about recent nuclear posture reviews in US and within NATO. One factor which has possibly inveighed against such a pressure is the requirement of extended deterrence for their allies like Japan and South Korea.
For deterrence only
For India it is wiser to retain nuclear weapons for “deterrence only” because of the manifold and futile increase in risks involved in adopting any more aggressive option for their use. India has no obligations to worry about extended deterrence. Alternative strategic postures involving a first use of nuclear weapons require, in order to be credible, a much more expensive and elaborate preparedness in terms of number, diversity, yield and deployment of arsenal. Even then the risk of retaliation is never ruled out. Each side during the cold war contemplated first use in terms of a disarming or decapitating first strike but failed to arrive at any guarantee against survival of adversary’s capacity and risks of retaliation. All the first-use posture implied was a runaway arms race and attendant peril of deterrence failure. These fears disappeared after the Soviet collapse.
Stupendous operational demands of a first-use posture make the deterrent neither “minimum” nor “credible”. NFU, in contrast, allows for credibility without requirements to build an all-consuming retaliatory capacity. Pakistan’s insistence on keeping a first-use posture as the equaliser against conventional asymmetry and related rush for tactical or battlefield nukes, is an expensive and perilous illusion, long discarded by even the cold warriors who realised the inevitability of escalation to a full nuclear exchange. Geographical contiguity and wide disparity in size should work to negate any gains, if at all imaginable, from a first strike and resulting nuclear exchange. India need not be drawn in to this trap since regardless of whether tactical or strategic the use of any nuclear weapon against India or its forces would trigger its massive and assured retaliation.
The technological possibilities about ballistic and cruise missile defence and attainment of survivable systems may be consistent with NFU as they should discourage, and increase the cost of, adversary’s first-use folly. The analysis here shows that the promised review or re-look may re-establish the validity of the main tenets of the Nuclear Doctrine in the context of changed perspective of the role and effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. However, the review of the doctrine in this perspective and dissemination of its outcome will serve the purpose of public outreach.
— The writer was a former Indian Ambassador to Austria & Permanent Representative to the UN office in Vienna & IAEA
Highlights of the 2003 doctrine
Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent
  • A posture of "No First Use" nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.
  • Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.
  • Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority
  • Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states;
  • However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.
  • Continuance of strict controls on export of nuclear and missile related materials and technologies, participation in the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty negotiations, and continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests.
  • Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament

The Tribune, 28 April 2014

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