Nuclear learning in South Asia: India’s case

Nuclear learning in South Asia: India’s case
Louis XIV of France had the phrase ultima ratio regum (literally: ‘the final argument of kings’) engraved on his cannons. The message was simple and clear: if all else, i.e., diplomacy and politics, fails, the issue would be settled by the cannon, a metaphor both for war and firepower.

He wasn’t wrong. Until the advent of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, weapons were invented and manufactured to fight and win wars. But on August 6, 1945, that changed with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. As Bernard Brodie, then a young associate professor at Yale, put it to his wife the next day, “All my work is obsolete.”

Within six months of that event, Brodie and his colleagues — what came to be called the Yale Group — had written The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order. That work became the basis for the burgeoning corpus of literature on nuclear strategy. Brodie made a name for himself by summarising the changed world as follows: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”

As a Washington Post article put it, the ‘almost’ in the last sentence became the first building block of the literature on nuclear strategy with MAD (mutually-assured destruction) strategists on one side and NUTS (nuclear use theorists) on the other. The former looked at how best to avoid a war under the nuclear overhang; the latter strategised about how best to fight such a war and win it. As the article put it: “It [was] not a debate between alternative strategies, but over where the emphasis in strategy and planning should be.”

That has not changed. As Philip Windsor put it in Strategic Thinking: An Introduction and Farewell, “The ultima ratio was now the avoidance of strategic nuclear exchange.” But, referring to NUTS, Windsor also pointed out that since nuclear weapons came into play, “within that [nuclear] context war was still a resort of policy.”

The thinking worked at two levels. Keeping war limited (more appropriately, controlled) even if nuclear weapons were used to take out specific targets, and fighting conventional and sub-conventional wars on the periphery while nuclear weapons kept the balance of terror at the centre, what came to be known as the instability-stability paradox.

The first level of analysis, despite the empirical evidence provided by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, argued that wars could be, and likely will be, fought directly between nuclear-weapons states. In the Cold War context that meant the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

The question which emerged then was: how could escalation to nuclear warfare be avoided? Lawrence Freedman noted in his essay ‘The First Two Generations of Nuclear Strategists’, that two schools of thought emerged — one led by Herman Kahn, the other by Thomas Schelling.

Kahn’s concept was centred on ‘escalation dominance’, a 44-rung ladder of nuclear and non-nuclear escalation. Kahn argued that political authority could control escalation right up to ‘spasm war,’ though he never claimed that “his ladder was predictive.”

Schelling, on the other hand, argued for avoidance by making the enemy fear that the process would get out of control. He drew on the “uncertainties inherent in the escalation process to achieve deterrence.” While Kahn’s strategy of escalation dominance argued for the process being controlled by the state dominating escalation, Schelling advocated “letting a situation intentionally degrade so an adversary would conclude that it would be better to turn away from the brink.”

In the end, neither theory got tested and as Freedman says with some irony, “The fundamental dilemma of nuclear strategy remained as intractable as ever.”

With India and Pakistan having joined the nuclear league, and conflict between the two an ever-present danger, how exactly have the two fared?

Brigadier Dr Naeem Salik, one of the finest officers produced by the Strategic Plans Division, studied Pakistan’s nuclear learning in his post-doc book, Learning to Live with the Bomb. He then got down to compiling a volume with input from other scholars about Pakistan’s nuclear learning. That volume has been followed up by the book on India’s nuclear learning, India’s Habituation with the Bomb: Nuclear Learning in South Asia. The volume, published by Oxford Pakistan, has contributions from four Indian and two Pakistani scholars, including by Dr Salik, who is also the editor of the volume.

The timing of this book could not have been better, given the currently heightened tension between India and Pakistan and the military round played between them last February. One of the most important chapters is penned by Ali Ahmed, a former Indian infantry officer and an international diplomat. The chapter titled, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Stasis or Dynamism,” details the growing difference between India’s declaratory policy of no-first-use (NFU) and its operational policy.

After the May 1998 nuclear tests, India’s National Security Advisory Board came up with a draft nuclear doctrine in August 1999. Later, in January 2003, India put out an official nuclear doctrine, which was adopted by the Cabinet Committee of National Security. The official doctrine largely picked up the salient features of the draft doctrine but also made some changes to it. A key feature of it was NFU. However, as Ahmed shows, India has moved from apparent transparency to ambiguity and while the declaratory policy still iterates the idea of NFU, there’s enough evidence that the operational doctrine does not stick to the declaratory policy. In fact, India might well be thinking of pre-emptive strikes to degrade Pakistan’s capability and also command, control and communications nodes.

For its part, Pakistan never believed in India’s NFU declaration because such declarations have no real significance in operational terms. When the Berlin Wall came down and NATO had access to Warsaw Pact’s war plans, they were surprised to find that Warsaw Pact forces were operationally wedded to first use.

Evidence emerging from statements and writings by India’s former National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the current Indian defence minister, Rajnath Singh, prove Ahmed’s assertion.

Ahmed says: “India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine is implausible. Acknowledging the shift in owning up to an operational nuclear doctrine at variance with its declaratory doctrine is the need of the hour. Persisting with the declaratory doctrine does nothing to add to Indian security under peacetime conditions when deterrence is in play or in nuclear conflict when nuclear use is contemplated.”

But Ahmed also realises in the same chapter that: “The brakes are applied at the political level. India wishes to be in the big league.” India’s balancing partners, the US and Japan, do not wish to “see India proactive on the nuclear front, doctrinally….The stasis depicted by the declaratory doctrine is to serve as a fig leaf for closed-domain doctrinal innovation.”

Another problem relates to India’s declaration of “massive response,” which only caters to higher order nuclear attacks and does not take into account lower order attacks. However, as Ahmed mentions, Menon’s book notes that India contemplated resort to first strike levels of attack in case of Pakistan’s use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons and even when readying to do so in a preemptive mode.

The problem for the Indian planners is whether they have the requisite intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to take out Pakistan’s arsenal. If not, how would India prevent a Pakistani counter-strike which can inflict unacceptable punishment on India, a strike damaging enough for India to exercise self-deterrence in a higher order nuclear strike and retaliation. On the other hand, if India acknowledges this logic and signals that it does not intend a massive response, that could allow Pakistan the window to go for first use with an assurance against escalation. That is obviously debilitating for Indian nuclear deterrence. Incidentally, while it is generally acknowledged that there’s not much technological gap between Indian and Pakistani missile capabilities, there was general thinking that India had an edge over Pakistan in terms of air delivery. That needs a re-think after the events of February 27.

The chapter by Sitakanta Mishra on “Nuclear Weapons Governance in India,” is sobering. On more than one occasion Mishra talks about near-total lack of information on the command lines, safety and security, personnel reliability, the procedures adopted by India for communicating with and delegating authority to submarine commanders (now that it claims a SSBN capability) et cetera.

Mishra thinks that India’s NFU posture demands “opacity and ambiguity.” But as Dr Salik points out in his concluding chapter, “In the realm of command and control, India’s learning appears to have been stymied by continued jostling for control over nuclear assets between the military and the civilian establishment and perpetual inter-services rivalries…. Sufficient information about the safety and security arrangements is also not available in the public domain and no specialised institutional structures are known to exist.”

This assessment is in keeping with Mishra’s assertions in his governance chapter, including references to a cumbersome command structure and lobbies jockeying for control. It is important to note that in the event of a conflict, opacity and uncertainty in this area could be highly destabilising.

To this scenario is added India’s quest for ballistic and cruise missile defence systems. Dr Salik’s chapter details the history of India’s missilery and its attempts to create defensive shields against ballistic and cruise missiles, essentially what some scholars have referred to as the Maginot Line in the sky. While India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation claims to have developed an effective BMD system, both exo- and endo-atmospheric interceptors, the fact that India paid top dollar to purchase the Russian-made S-400 A2-AD system shows that the DRDO systems are found wanting. Also, there are a number of ways for Pakistan to overwhelm such defences. Yet, there are two problems with BMD/CMD systems: they are highly destabilising because they can tempt a state into going for preemptive strikes and second, they force the dyad into a nuclear arms race: more accurate delivery systems like MIRVs, MRVs, more numbers etc.

During the Cold War, Pugwash conferences provided the US and the Soviet Union with an unofficial platform to whisper things into each other’s ears. Later, SALT and START talks allowed the two sides official space for assurances. The current dispensation in India and the disengagement means that no further CBMs can be worked out (and also means that it is unclear whether the existing CBMs will work). The Indian writers in the volume also mention the change in the security culture of India that is directly traceable to the rise of a Hindutva, fascist ideology. That is a recipe for commitment traps and miscalculations.

The volume’s central finding is that India’s learning curve has been experiential, not complex. As Dr Salik puts it, “It appears that India’s experience of habituating with the bomb over the last two decades has been a mixed one, with useful lessons learned in some areas — especially in its approach towards the non-proliferation regime — while limited learning appears to have taken place in others such as doctrine, command and control, safety and security and regulatory regimes.”

This is not good news. As I noted above, it contributes to instability at a time when Pakistan is confronted with an fascist and belligerent Hindu-Hindutva government in India and where the potential for conflict over Kashmir is fairly high.

Overall, the book is objective, avoids propagandist postures and sticks to facts with authors citing works from other scholars and statements by top Indian political and military leadership. The second edition could do with better proofreading. A plus point is that the book explains technicalities and is helpful for an informed generalist.

The writer is former news editor of The Friday Times. This article is extracted from his discussion of the book. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider 

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.