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Revisiting India’s Nuclear Doctrine

Dr. G. Balachandran was a Consulting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
Kapil Patil is an Intern at the Indian Pugwash Society, New Delhi.
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  • June 20, 2014

    Ever since the release of India’s nuclear doctrine in 2003, there have been occasional appeals for its review. Such appeals in the past were limited and went largely unnoticed without generating any meaningful discussion. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) 2014 election manifesto promising to “update and review” country’s decade-old nuclear weapons’ doctrine has triggered a serious debate.

    In principle there is nothing wrong in revisiting the doctrine. Since they are products of human mind and cannot, therefore, be held to be infallible and beyond review/revision. However, such revisions/reviews must be based on sound and valid reasons. These could include, for instance, (i) a legally or administratively mandated periodic review, for example, the congressionally mandated quadrennial defence review in US; (ii) major changes in the external environment such as, for example, the major arms limitation/control treaties between US and Russia; (iii) change in adversary’s capabilities; (iv) new threats viz. nuclear and WMD terrorism; v) failure of the doctrine under practical conditions, etc. Under which preceding category/categories the proposed Indian doctrinal review would fall?

    In the current Indian context, the only pressing reason could be the change in adversary’s capabilities namely the reported Pakistani acquisition of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs). Pakistan’s acquisition of a TNW such as Hatf IX missile with 60-km range and capable of carrying a nuclear warhead of an appropriate yield has attracted widespread attention in various Indian debates on strategic stability. It has been argued that Pakistan’s acquisition of TNWs has lowered the deterrence threshold thereby affected the overall strategic stability in the region.1 Emphasising this change in India’s strategic environment, the proponents of doctrinal review argue that India’s existing doctrine is ill-suited to deter Pakistan from using TNWs against India.2

    A word of caution is needed here. Neither the Pakistan government nor any of its major military or civil officials have ever admitted the possession of a TNW or enunciated the conditions under which such alleged TNMs will be used. However, the most commonly assumed usage of TNWs by Pakistan is its use against Indian troops on Pakistani soil. Even this is on the basis of reported discussions between Indian and Pakistani Track II participants at one or more of the numerous such dialogues between a limited group of Indian and Pakistanis at various venues across the globe, incidentally none of which are either in India or Pakistan. Nevertheless accepting such a use of TNW by Pakistan, what would be the appropriate Indian response? A word of caution – in none of these debates is there any explanation of the circumstances or the environment under which the Indian troops came to be on Pakistani soil. Fortunately, this is of no relevance to the issues under discussion.

    In the event of an alleged deterrence failure leading to use of TNWs by Pakistan against the Indian troops, what would be the appropriate Indian response? The Indian debate over possible response to Pakistan’s use of TNWs has been largely divided. As early as December 2012, former Foreign Secretary and the current head of National Security Advisory Board, Mr. Shyam Saran, categorically stated that, “For India, the label on the weapon, tactical or strategic, is irrelevant since the use of either would constitute a nuclear attack against India” and that “In terms of India’s stated nuclear doctrine, this would invite a massive retaliatory strike.” In addition, he had categorically rejected possible change in India’s nuclear doctrine and suggested that “Massive Retaliation” would be India’s response to Pakistan’s use of TNW’s.

    On the other hand, others have questioned the credibility of “massive retaliation” as a doctrinal response. The sceptics argue that since both India’s regional adversaries, Pakistan and China possess a robust second-strike capability, or a nuclear arsenal that would survive an all-out Indian attack, equal retaliation should be expected across India. Taking into consideration such all-out destruction, these experts have suggested that New Delhi should opt for a “flexible response” that would allow decision makers more credible options.3 This change is largely suggested along the lines of change in American doctrine from massive retaliation to flexible response in the 1950s and 1960s after realising the inherent credibility shortfall in a threat of massive retaliation.

    The aforementioned arguments appear to have largely misread or misinterpreted India’s existing nuclear doctrine in their innate enthusiasm in suggesting the ‘review and revision’. The essential purpose of any nuclear doctrine is to codify country’s beliefs and principles to guide action and ensure uniformity of “thought and action” during peace and war. In other words, the nuclear doctrine conveys the underlying conditions about nuclear weapons use to the adversary in an unambiguous manner.

    However, as McNamara stated in a landmark speech nearly half a century earlier in San Francisco in 1967, nuclear strategy is an exceptionally complex in its technical aspects and unless the terms are well defined and complexities well-understood, rational discussion and decision-making are simply not possible. Elaborating he said, “Now let us consider another term: “first-strike capability.” This, in itself, is an ambiguous term, since it could mean simply the ability of one nation to attack another nation with nuclear forces first. But as it is normally used, it connotes much more: the substantial elimination of the attacked nation’s retaliatory second-strike forces.4 This is the sense in which “first-strike capability”’ should be understood.” Subsequently the NPT recognized nuclear weapon states’ (NWS) between themselves met informally and codified some of the terms and definitions.4

    Again a word of caution – there is no universal law that all must agree to the definitions already in use. Each country is free to define its own meaning of the terms. However, in that case, the party should set out and state very clearly the definition and meanings of the terminology employed. Unfortunately neither India nor Pakistan have clearly defined anywhere definitions of terms used where their definitions differ from the commonly accepted meanings. Therefore, in the absence of such explicit definitions, it can be reasonably assumed that the meanings ascribed to these terms are the same as commonly accepted meanings. India’s nuclear doctrine too includes certain terminologies which have specific meanings. For example, two key features of India’s nuclear doctrine are:

    1. 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; and
    2. Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.5

    Now, in the commonly accepted definitions, a nuclear first strike means either (i) The launching of an initial nuclear attack before one’s opponent is able to use any strategic weapon. First strike is a nuclear attack carried out at such a devastatingly high level of destruction as to nullify an enemy’s capability to launch a major counterstrike or (ii) An initial attack on an opponent's strategic nuclear forces. Such an attack may be undertaken in an attempt to destroy an enemy's retaliatory (second-strike) capability. In either case the damage inflicted will be great and substantial. The Indian nuclear doctrine, not surprisingly, requires the Indian response to a first strike to be massive and unacceptable.

    However, use of TNW by Pakistan against Indian troops on Pakistan cannot under any circumstance be considered as anywhere being a first strike. It will have no effect on India’s second strike capabilities. Therefore, India’s current nuclear doctrine does not call for an automatic massive retaliation for Pakistan’s use of TNW against Indian troops on Pakistan soil.

    However, this does not mean that such an attack will go unanswered. The doctrine does state in unambiguous terms that “nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian Territory or on Indian forces anywhere.” It does not define the level of such retaliation; only that a nuclear attack, which is not a first-strike, will be met with nuclear retaliation. In short the apprehension that the Indian nuclear doctrine calls for an automatic reflexive massive retaliation for use of TNW by Pakistan on Pakistani soil is totally unjustified. Such use of TNW will be met with a nuclear response. The size and intensity of the response will be a political decision depending on the circumstances surrounding such use. In the absence of any Pakistani doctrine on the use of the TNW, it will not be possible for India to define its response to such attack.

    Pakistan’s use of TNW’s has long been presented as a compelling challenge before India’s nuclear doctrine. Such claims largely arise from incorrect reading of the Indian doctrine. While, Pakistan’s acquisition of TNW’s is certainly a dangerous potent for stability in South Asia, it is not a reason enough to argue for revising the doctrine. India’s existing nuclear doctrine includes suitable options to deal with various contingencies of small scale as well as massive nuclear attacks.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.