Watch | Have Nuclear Weapons Made India More Secure?

On the 20th anniversary of India’s nuclear weapon tests, Happymon Jacob discusses India’s nuclear policy with Manpreet Sethi, an expert on nuclear issues.



A summary transcript of the conversation between Happymon Jacob and Manpreet Sethi–

Happymon Jacob: Welcome to National Security Conversation. The year 2018 marks 20 years of India’s nuclear tests in May 1998. There have been a lot of developments over the last 20 years. There is also a school which says that India may have been a nuclear weapon path well before 1998 – at least a year before India started its nuclear weapon pursuits. But 1998 makes a difference simply because it was when India declared its nuclear weapon capability, tested its and devices and came out in the open and sought the acceptance of the international nuclear order.

So, the question we must ask is, have nuclear weapons made India safer and more secure today? What is the state of India’s nuclear policy and India’s nuclear doctrine? What is the state of deterrence stability in the south Asian region which includes three nuclear weapon states – China, India and Pakistan?

To discuss these questions, we have with us today Manpreet Sethi, senior fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, a think-tank that is associated with the Indian Air force. Mandeep Sethi was an research fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, a defence ministry think-tank based in New Delhi. She is one of the leading experts in India on nuclear issues. She has written extensively on nuclear stability, Indian nuclear policy and doctrine and related issues. Dr. Sethi, welcome to national security conversations. Let me begin by asking you this.

Have nuclear weapons made India safer and more secure after 20 years of going nuclear?

Manpreet Sethi: There cannot be a yes or no response to this question. India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was inspired by the nuclear capabilities of two of its neighbouring states – China and Pakistan – with whom India has territorial conflicts. Nuclear weapons for India meant deterring the physical and psychological threats from nuclear weapons by way of use or nuclear blackmail and coercion. Reputation or prestige became a collateral benefit for India with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, However, security concerns were the prime reason for India to acquire nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons, unfortunately, provide a window to revisionist powers to engage in lower-level conflicts, like Kargil which turned out to be a lesson that a conventional war of a different nature is still possible in the nuclear shadow. Nuclear weapons have lent more security to India in the sense that they have not been actually used – neither physically, nor psychologically – leading to strategic-level deterrence and stability. On the contrary, it has also made India less secure, as Pakistan can get away with terrorist activities against India because of their nuclear weapons, implying for India the limitations of nuclear deterrence at the tactical level.

‘No dire need to revise the nuclear doctrine’

A doctrine presents the broader contours and guidelines for policy and strategy. It can be far more abiding and timeless than strategies or postures. So, even if the capabilities of other countries are changing with their nuclear modernisation programmes, those can be met with modernisations in one’s own capabilities within the guidelines of the doctrine. So, credible minimum deterrence as propounded in the Indian nuclear doctrine allows adjustment in the ‘credible’ and ‘minimum’ characteristics of nuclear arsenals.

Deterrence is about perception management. Over a period of time, reiteration of the guidelines might be a good idea for the purpose of signalling. India has not revised its doctrine for a long time because the policy of credible minimum deterrence still remains plausible for three reasons:
1) Nukes are very different from conventional weapons; even the nature of lethality caused is different. Limited nuclear wars too would cause unacceptable damage.
2) Radiation damages are across space, time and generations, so nukes are weapons of deterrence by punishment.
3) Nature of the nuclear weapon curtails the need for a huge number of arsenals as long as unacceptable damage can be guaranteed.

The lacuna in the doctrine is that it does not offer any pointers for the kind of strategy that could be adopted in case of the use of a radioactive or crude nuclear device by the non-state actors against India. That addition would put pressure on Pakistan to ensure the safe and secure management of its nuclear arsenal and prevent their acquisition by non-state actors.

‘No-first use makes for a good strategy’

NFU has deep military logic and stability benefits. It is better to leave the onus of use of nuclear weapons on the adversary. Breaching the taboo against use of nuclear weapons is a great psychological burden on one’s shoulders. When your adversaries have a secure and credible second-strike capability, your first strike won’t be decapitating. First use of nukes in such case would only invite retaliatory damage.

The NFU should be unqualified. The clause pertaining to nuclear retaliation in response to a chemical or biological attack against India is a dilution of the NFU and can be revised. India, China and Pakistan are signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and should not have stockpiles of these weapons. Under the CWC, countries can be inspected and their claims verified. Therefore, state use of such weapons is unlikely. Although their use by the non-state actors (NSAs) is possible, they would not undeterred by nuclear weapons.

On massive retaliation

Massive retaliation (MR) as a credible strategy makes sense in the case of classic deterrence against state adversaries. Unless a state is complicit with the NSAs and this linkage is widely known, nuclear deterrence through MR won’t be an effective strategy. In case of India-Pakistan, Pakistan’s link with non-state actors will have to be first established in order to deter the state-sponsored terrorist activities against India through the MR strategy.

India does not make a distinction between tactical and strategic nuclear strikes. Either way, India will respond through massive retaliation even if a tactical weapon use (by Pakistan) does a limited amount of damage. There is no need for India to develop tactical weapons of its own. That would put us into the trap of war-fighting, which will undermine stability and threaten brinkmanship. India should avoid falling into this trap by Pakistan and not resort to the brinkmanship at a tactical level.

Also, the idea of Pakistan using tactical nukes is not a credible one, there are no viable gains from it. International response would not be to accommodate a limited tactical use which breaks the taboo and encourages war-fighting with nuclear weapons. Our double-guessing the commitment towards massive retaliation, in case of a tactical strike would only undermine our deterrence and that is what Pakistan is trying to do.

‘Massive’ here refers to the magnitude of damage to be so huge so as to be unacceptable for the adversary; it does not refer to the number of missiles or warheads launched.

‘Numbers do not matter in the nuclear game’

We don’t need to have parity in the number of nuclear weapons for deterrence to work; we need the capability to inflict unacceptable damage. If the other side, however, deploys anti-ballistic missile system and therefore its capability changes significantly, then our numbers of arsenals would go up. Reliability and accuracy of missiles, i.e. the delivery capability also determines the credibility of one’s arsenals.

‘Nuclear disarmament as a long-term aspiration’

India has been serious about nuclear disarmament. India’s nuclear weapons have been a result of compulsions arising out of a nuclearised and hostile neighbourhood. In the long-term, a nuclear weapons-free world would best serve the Indian national security interests, keeping aside moral considerations. A nuclear weapons-free region including China can happen only if there is movement toward nuclear disarmament.

Arms race in South Asia

India is not necessarily in an arms race in the region. Both China and Pakistan are individually undertaking modernisation programmes according to their idea of credible deterrence. The multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) can complicate the situation. India has shown the capability through space launchers but no official commitment has been made toward MIRVs. We do not need to deploy MIRVs.

Ballisitc Missile Defence (BMD) coupled with no-first use, adds to the survivability of one’s nuclear arsenals, so a little useful there but then it opens up the possibility of attack in other areas. BMD is based on deterrence through defence which does not seem more credible than deterrence through punishment or MR. And BMD can be countered through other capabilities like cruise missiles and others. BMDs, MIRVs, tactical nuclear weapons and so on look lucrative because others are trying to master those. Keeping R&D open, options open, is a good idea but no need to create pre-emptive and unnecessary noises about it.

More women in the strategic discourse

National security, particularly nuclear security, has been a male-dominated area. Women bring different sensibilities to the table. The discipline needs more young experts with a sharpness of mind, whether man or woman.