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Numbers Do Matter

Dr. Rajesh Kumar Mishra was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 28, 2006

    The fast breeding domestic debate on the size of the nuclear deterrent is taking place in the light of India's separation plan of nuclear facilities for civilian and military purposes. The scope of the debate related to India's credible minimum deterrence is complex with reference to the continuing relevance of the role of nuclear weapons in military strategies worldwide both at the conceptual and operational levels.

    India is committed to accelerating the pace of civil nuclear energy production and increasing the share of civilian nuclear power in country's energy mix. Independent of international support to its civilian nuclear needs, India's quest for credible minimum deterrence would continue. At the same time, periodical review of strength of the strategic forces would remain relevant for defence preparedness.

    How willing is the international community to integrate India into the prevailing nuclear trade arrangements would be seen in the implementation of the US-India nuclear deal. However, the international community cannot overlook India's position vis-à-vis the security realities of the international environment.

    For almost five decades, the Cold War world witnessed a race for development and deployment of nuclear weapons under a grand dilemma - the possibility of 'use' or 'non-use' of nuclear weapons in any eventual military crisis. Had there been no review by major nuclear weapon states on the doctrines simply based on 'mutual assured destruction', the search for alternatives like limited, flexible or proportionate deterrent capabilities would not have started.

    The process of review in diversifying the role of nuclear weapons itself led to changes in the size and nature of nuclear arsenals worldwide. The task of the military strategists also became complicated in terms of 'what type' and 'how many' numbers should be considered as sufficient for deterrence. The emphasis on numbers thus became significant.

    Though the phase of bipolar rivalry between the Warsaw Pact and NATO has ended, stocks, albeit reduced, of their nuclear arsenals still exist. The efforts of N-5 states (nuclear weapon states as defined by the NPT) are now being channelised to develop cutting edge technologies. The emphasis is on enhancing the credibility of individual deterrent capabilities.

    The continuing rationality for possession of nuclear weapons is still premised on the unpredictability of threat vulnerabilities. In the realm of realism, threat perceptions and force projections still remain as significant dimensions to validate the existence of deterrence. The complexity in conceptualizing nuclear deterrence arises due to the changing nature of security perceptions of states with nuclear weapons in the context of their own force capabilities.

    While contesting about theoretical constructs on deterrence, in practice each country attempts to take adequate measures to ensure survivability of its existing arsenal. The survivability factor becomes more important for a country like India, which follows a doctrine of no-first-use (NFU). In addition to targeting strategies, therefore, numbers do matter in creating deterrence.

    India faces security challenges primarily from two nuclear neighbours - Pakistan and China. In addition to an active fissile material production programme, Pakistan has not yet officially defined its doctrinal position and maintains ambiguity about its nuclear first-strike option. On the other hand, China holds a reserve of sufficient fissile stock to expand the size of its arsenal two to three times of its existing stockpile. As far as its deterrence strategy is concerned, Beijing maintains a qualified doctrine of NFU with 'limited deterrence'.

    To uphold NFU and withstand a potential first-strike, India needs to address appropriately the number calculations, including for worst-case scenarios. At present India may have a slight edge over Pakistan's stock of weapons, but the Chinese fissile stockpile is estimated by nuclear experts to be many times that of India's. Military strategists can hardy afford to underrate the potential contingencies in terms of the survivability, which makes numbers matter.

    In the international security calculus, the potential nuclear strategies of the N-5 seem at odds with their commitments for nuclear disarmament. The Bush Administration is determined to pursue a new deterrence policy. Its new nuclear posture envisages force preparedness against perceived threats at asymmetric levels of deterrence. Russia intends to develop and deploy new ICBMs, a new class of submarines and cruise missiles. Even France and UK are on advancement modes. France is currently engaged in the development of new nuclear powered submarines and the UK seems to be in need of replenishing its Trident systems. In the given scenario, it is pertinent for India to gauge the temperature in China as well. China's continuing efforts to modernize its missile forces will have long term security implications for India.

    To establish even credible minimum deterrence against China, India needs to closely follow the dynamism attached to the notions of deterrence elsewhere in the world, which in turn affects China. Here again, numbers have a role to play.

    At the operational level, the credibility of nuclear deterrence is viewed mainly through three aspects - weapons-grade fissile stock, delivery systems, and command and control mechanisms. Throughout the cold war, the five nuclear weapon states produced tons of weapons-grade fissile material and developed a wide range of missiles and bombers to meet any eventuality. The deployment strategies of the rival blocks in potential war theatres necessitated the installation of elaborate command and control systems.

    Despite their deployments in own security conditions, countries like China and India can hardly afford to ignore the importance of reliable command and control systems.

    Under these given complexities, India needs to go a long way in creating a credible minimum nuclear deterrent capability. The task ahead also includes, therefore, appropriately addressing the issue of number of nuclear weapons and fissile stock.