"India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective,” Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary and the current chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board, said in a recent speech, the Times of India reported.
The key in Saran’s comments is the reference to tactical nuclear weapons. Pakistan is believed to be developing such weapons to counter India’s “Cold Start” military doctrine. In recent years, terrorist attacks on India originating from Pakistan—most notably the 2008 Mumbai attacks—have led many Indian policymakers to conclude that Islamabad, emboldened by its nuclear deterrent, is supporting certain terrorist groups based out of Pakistan who carry out attacks on the Indian homeland.
After the Mumbai attack Indian’s military leaders reportedly developed a new doctrine called Cold Start, which called for Indian troops to rapidly mobilize for limited conventional strikes on the Pakistani side of the border immediately following a terrorist attack. The rationale was that this would give Delhi the ability to retaliate against Islamabad without sparking a full-fledged nuclear exchange.
Lacking the conventional military power to confront India’s military, Pakistani military officials are believed to be building tactical nuclear weapons to deploy in the field for possible use against the invading Indian military forces.
Saran’s speech appears to be India’s response to Pakistan’s theatre nuclear weapons. As he explained it:
“Pakistani motivation is to dissuade India from contemplating conventional punitive retaliation to sub-conventional but highly destructive and disruptive cross-border terrorist strikes such as the horrific 26/11 attack on Mumbai. What Pakistan is signaling to India and to the world is that India should not contemplate retaliation even if there is another Mumbai because Pakistan has lowered the threshold of nuclear use to the theatre level. This is nothing short of nuclear blackmail, no different from the irresponsible behavior one witnesses in North Korea.”
Saran then shot down the notion that India would distinguish between theatre and strategic nuclear weapons usage.
"A limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms,” He said. “Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level. Pakistan would be prudent not to assume otherwise as it sometimes appears to do, most recently by developing and perhaps deploying theatre nuclear weapons."
Saran is a veteran diplomat with extensive experience dealing with nuclear issues. Before his current position, for instance, he served as the prime minister’s special envoy to the negotiations over the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal—where he was the counterpart to R. Nicholas Burns—and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. He stepped down from that post in 2010.
A proponent of India’s Look East Policy, Saran also has extensive experience dealing with China including over the border issue. Last year, he called on India’s foreign policy establishment to develop a deeper understanding of China’s strategic culture.
During his recent speech Saran took aim at China directly stating, “Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s strategic program continues apace,” according to Michael Krepon at Arms Control Wonk.
Krepon also reported that Saran had some harsh words for Pakistan’s military:
“Pakistan is the only country where nuclear assets are under the command and control of the military and it is the military’s perceptions and ambitions which govern the development, deployment and use of these weapons. This is a dangerous situation precisely because the military’s perceptions are not fully anchored in a larger national political and economic narrative…. There is an air of unreality about the often adulatory remarks about the Pakistani military’s stewardship of the country’s military assets.”