In Reshaping India's Nuclear Doctrine, Threats and Capabilities Must Take Centre Stage

India does not necessarily need to alter its nuclear doctrine per se, but upgrade its capabilities and technological breakthroughs.

India does not necessarily need to alter its nuclear doctrine per se, but upgrade its capabilities and technological breakthroughs.

A surface-to-surface Agni V missile is displayed during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, in this January 26, 2013 file photo. Credit: Reuters/B. Mathur/Files

A surface-to-surface Agni V missile is displayed during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, in this January 26, 2013 file photo. Credit: Reuters/B. Mathur/Files

“I shall proceed from the simple to the complex. But in War more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.”
∼ Carl Von Clausewitz

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s infamous statement questioning the need and desirability of the ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons policy has spurred a flurry of commentaries reviewing India’s nuclear doctrine, even though it does not reflect any change in India’s no first use commitment per se. The remodeling of the nuclear doctrine must, however, be shaped by the threats that emanate from the strategic environment and technological capabilities. But the guiding objectives of the doctrine must not be lost sight of, and the real value of it must be ascertained from its deterrent capability.

Massive formulation

The nuclear doctrine released by the Cabinet Committee on Security in 2003 introduced the term ‘massive’, which was different from the previous ‘punitive’ formulation of 1999. The concept of ‘massive retaliation’ has been the subject of analysis for many experts, some of whom have called for using ‘graduated retaliation’ or ‘flexible response’ instead of massive. The rationale behind this call has been to allow New Delhi more options in case of an eventual nuclear strike and lend it more credibility. 

Despite the introduction of the term ‘massive’, a clear break from simply ‘punitive’, it is important to note that massive is neither qualified nor quantified. The 2003 doctrine says: “nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage”. Neither ‘massive’ nor ‘unacceptable damage’ indicates or distinguishes a ‘disproportionate response’ from an ‘extremely disproportionate response’. Besides, there is sufficient ambiguity between the counter-value or counter-force nature of the response.

India’s conventional capabilities are significantly greater than its western counterpart and can be leveraged to good effect if the conflict does not escalate into the nuclear plane. On the other hand, the idea of ‘graduated retaliation’ allows for the conceptualisation of a ‘limited nuclear conflict’. The possibility of such a concept will incentivise Pakistan to deliberately escalate the conflict into the nuclear plane before India could use its full conventional prowess. A simple move of signalling (rather than actual escalation) of deploying operationally-activated tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) with a credible possibility of even a limited nuclear exchange could mobilise international opinion in favour of standing down. Essentially, the limited nuclear conflict concept will spawn at the expense of the conception of limited conventional conflict. The ‘massive’ formulation in fact lends more credibility to the Indian response because of its unqualified and unquantified nature, even as it deters deliberate escalation into the nuclear plane, in line with the balance of power in the conventional domain for India. In fact, this formulation can be held even in case of the emergence of an assured second strike or multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle capability on the western front.

No first use pledge

What is often missed is that India’s nuclear doctrine must also consider its eastern front and the maritime domain, where it faces a potent conventional adversary and simultaneously an increasing threat of submarine-based nuclear triads in the Indian Ocean. Although India does not face the risk of a first nuclear strike on this front, the clamour to give up the no first use pledge – which arose because of sub-conventional provocations (that are below the threshold of a full-blown conventional war and above that of peaceful co-existence of two states) on the western front and mismatch in conventional capabilities on the eastern front – may not necessarily enhance security. For one, it might lead adversaries to consider a more dispersed and loose command and control structure, which could increase the risk of a misperception-based strike. The only situation where India may consider reneging on the no first use pledge is if the ‘two-front scenario’ (where China and Pakistan tie-up to pose a military threat to India) becomes more plausible. This does not seem to be the case now. There are other considerations as well, like repercussions on India’s application to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Adversaries might also try to probe Indian red-lines more frequently, given Indian threats have less credibility than its culture of strategic restraint.

Keeping up with technology

General wisdom is that doctrines must incorporate revisions and keep up with the pace of technological developments. But doctrines can also dictate the need for certain technological capabilities. India’s no first use pledge combined with the  ‘massive formulation’ dictates the need for low-yield warheads. Rajesh Rajgopalan writes that this will expand India’s nuclear options, especially if air platforms that India has in its armoury can be adopted to deliver low-yield nuclear warheads. This is beneficial in two ways. First, low-yield warheads lend India more flexibility of response if the country gets into graduated escalation in the nuclear plane without legitimising the development of Pakistani TNWs. Second, India won’t face the command-and-control muddle that inevitably comes with a short-range missile delivering the warhead, which must necessarily be placed close to the battlefield yet be far enough to avoid any informational chaos and successfully be defended against any advancing enemy military column, so that they cannot be neutralised before use in the event of conflict. Additionally, the advancement made in the field of ballistic missile defence and long-range surface to air missile systems in India and elsewhere have potentially tectonic ramifications for doctrines world-over.

Amidst the clamour for change in India’s nuclear doctrine, the larger objective of leveraging India’s conventional strength, in-built flexibility in the current doctrine and preventing escalation in the nuclear plane is often missed out. Not to forget the pace of technological development, which is almost never in sync with the doctrine and the emerging threat spectrum. A future nuclear doctrine that must successfully deter nuclear aggression and afford flexibility against a conventionally-potent adversaries will not necessarily require alterations in India’s current doctrine per se, but upgrades in capabilities and technological breakthroughs. The current version of the doctrine does exactly that.

Joy Mitra is currently involved in research on deterrence stability issues at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi and was a 2015-16 foreign policy fellow at the Jindal School of International Affairs.