The nuclear doctrine review, which will likely be initiated soon by the new government in accordance with its promises in its manifesto, is an opportunity. India’s nuclear doctrine promises ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation in case of enemy nuclear first use against India or its forces anywhere.  What exactly is ‘massive’ is not spelt out.

There are three versions of ‘massive’. One is the Cold War version which meant ‘assured destruction’ of the enemy, defined in terms of damage and casualties. The second is counter-value targeting, counter value being an euphemism for city busting. In this case, even a single bomb on an urban centre can be considered a disaster of ‘massive’ proportions. The third is brought on by the need to preserve oneself from counter retaliation in kind. This would entail reducing the enemy’s capability for nuclear retaliation.

Since India’s doctrine does not indicate what India has in mind, it could mean any of these three. This article attempts to show the obvious, that all three are irrational on strategic grounds. Therefore, the very concept of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation needs to be abandoned.

The difficulty with this is that the alternatives offered make it appear as though nuclear war is fightable. Therefore, such alternatives do not find discussion in peace literature, which in turn restricts itself unduly to discussion of the abolition of nuclear weapons. While that is undoubtedly a useful thrust, abolition may be distant yet and there could well be radioactive mushrooms sprouting prior to that happening.

It is another matter that once the mushroom clouds blot out the sun, the dream of nuclear weapons abolition will be brought considerably closer. However, it may be too late then. Therefore, there is a need for the peace movement to also engage with nuclear doctrines that states think up.

Since India is now poised to think its doctrine afresh, peaceniks must vet the doctrine even if their instincts tell them that getting rid of the weapons is the best direction to go. It is in this spirit that this article discusses nuclear doctrine. There are rational alternatives.

Will India's new nuclear doctrine raise the possibility of mushroom clouds blotting out the sun? Pic: Firdaus Ahmed

Let’s begin with the Cold War interpretation of ‘massive’. Thinking on these lines, best voiced by George Fernandes when he was defence minister, has it that Pakistan would be ‘finished’ in case it used nuclear weapons. His army chief said that it would no longer be in a position to continue in the fight. Hardliners talk of obliterating Pakistani recovery capability as a state and society. A calculation has it that reducing six to ten cities to dust will be enough.

The second interpretation is city busting. In this a city or two less will surely put rationality back into the minds of Pakistani nuclear decision makers. Knowing that there are more cities that India could take out and that it has the means to do so, Pakistanis may throw in the nuclear towel. This risks Pakistani counter retaliation in like mode, a city for a city in light with the literalist Quranic interpretation that surely is not lost on Pakistan’s army controlling the nuclear trigger: a tooth for a tooth.   

In most scenarios of nuclear use, Pakistan is depicted as relying on its tactical nuclear weapon, the Nasr, for achieving a strategic purpose. It could use this against advancing Indian military columns on its own territory with an aim of ‘asymmetric escalation’ (Vipin Narang) of the conflict, in part to catalyse conflict termination by intervention of the alarmed international community. In this case, if India was to take out a Pakistani city or two, with the aim of in-conflict deterrence and to avenge itself, it would constitute escalation in itself, a move from military to civilian targets.

It cannot be guaranteed that even as Pakistan proves responsive to the international community’s intervention, it does not alongside lob a bomb or two on India’s urban centres to get even for what it would consider disproportionate Indian reaction.

This would put the two on a slope or up the proverbial escalatory ladder, if you will. This is in keeping with the expectation of ‘inexorable escalation’ that votaries of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation trot out to justify going ‘massive’ in first place. In other words, votaries of ‘massive’ have a circular argument that since escalation is inevitable, we must go ‘massive’ at the outset itself.

The third interpretation of ‘massive’ is to remain unscathed while delivering a massive nuclear blow to the enemy. This will involve reducing his nuclear retaliatory capability by hitting his command and control systems, delivery capability and arsenal. Since Pakistan has over 100 weapons which it will likely stash away over ten secret locations, a counter-force attack would require over 30 detonations across Pakistan at a minimum.

To be sure, a few more sites may require being hit taking this number to 50 or so. A few Pakistani bombs can be expected to survive and be lobbed back, broken-backed, at India. Adding these, perhaps 10-15 in number, on India’s heartland cities, takes the detonations to over three score. This dust and smoke will surely blot out the sun.

As is evident none of the three interpretations of ‘massive’ leaves India unscathed. Therefore, to go ‘massive’ is foolish. There are alternatives.

One alternative that has a constituency in the strategic community is ‘unacceptable damage’.  Since this is close to the second interpretation of ‘massive’ discussed above, being an euphemism for counter city targeting, it too makes little sense. It is better from the deterrence point of view: conveying that cities may not be spared may prevent Pakistan from going nuclear in the first place. But to surely follow through in case of Pakistani nuclear first use would be to provoke unsustainable consequences for the regional and global climate.  

A third model has been aired, too: that of ending an exchange at the lowest level of nuclear use. In case of the popular scenario of Pakistani tactical nuclear first use, India could likewise hit back at a lower order level and alongside, proceed with efforts at ending the exchange(s). This may require cooperation with Pakistan in the midst of conflict. Since both states have an interest to prevent escalation, such cooperation is not unthinkable and will doubtless be facilitated by the concerned international community.

Even so, this model is somewhat overly reliant on conflict diplomacy that may actually be overtaken by events. Suggesting a nuclear risk reduction centre would set alarm bells ringing, be seen as a vote against the efficacy of the deterrent in place, and as wishful at this stage of confidence-building engagement between the two states.    

The case for non-retaliation

Seen in the light of the above, there is a case for non-retaliation. When India is confronted with the favourite scenario of strategists,  that is of lower order first use by Pakistan, it could choose not to retaliate with nuclear means. It could instead fight back with conventional means, including conventional degradation of Pakistani nuclear assets.

Since Pakistan will be in the nuclear dog house and India on the moral high ground, there would unlikely be a repeat of Pakistani nuclear temerity. In any case in-conflict deterrence will continue in place with India likely to hit back harder in case Pakistan makes the same mistake twice over.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart, Mr. Nawaz Sharif in New Delhi on 27 May 2014. Pic:

A ‘no’ to nuclear retaliation at the crux has the advantage of keeping  the politics of the conflict at the centre. Otherwise, as Clausewitz reminded all, conflict will have a tendency to spiral into what he called ‘Absolute War’. While in his time this was taken as the ‘ideal type’, in the nuclear age it is very much a possibility. Therefore, more needs to be done to avoid this, including formulation of sensible doctrines. That is a lesson of the Cold War that all nuclear states need to be held accountable to. This will also help preserve the ‘minimum’ against the onslaught of ‘credible’ in the doctrine of ‘credible minimum deterrence’.

India’s nuclear strategists that will likely get into a huddle soon must take care to think this option - nuclear non-retaliation - through. It could be facilitated by adoption of a ‘flexible’ nuclear doctrine that leaves the manner of retaliation to be decided depending on the circumstance of nuclear first use by ruling in conventional retribution. That India may not join Pakistan in breaking the nuclear taboo may lead Pakistan to check its nuclear finger.

The important point here is that it is not only nuclear deterrence as traditionally conceived that can produce nuclear reticence. How to prevent nuclear outbreak and limit it must guide the doctrine-  making process. Traditional blinkers that the ‘usual suspects’ have on may require  to be abandoned.