A Holistic Approach to India’s Nuclear Doctrine

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A Holistic Approach to India’s Nuclear Doctrine

If India is considering a change to its nuclear doctrine, it will need to understand the non-military consequences.

The Indian Armed Forces released a new war-fighting doctrine in April this year, called “The Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces 2017.” The doctrine underlines the need for enhanced capabilities in space and cyberspace as well as a special emphasis on conducting special operations along the lines of surgical strikes (like the one conducted in September 2016) to combat cross-border terrorism. However, there was one tenet of the new doctrine that may have been overlooked. It is the paragraph that refers to the defining issues of India’s Nuclear Command Authority. While it reiterated India’s commitment to a no first use policy, it also called for a need to maintain “credible deterrence” as opposed to the “credible minimum deterrence” envisioned by the draft nuclear doctrine. If this statement is truly indicative of a shift in India’s nuclear posture, it may have far greater implications than the strictly military standpoint.

Recently, there has been much speculation about a shift in India’s nuclear doctrine. In March this year, Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT, had, after a close reading of Shivshankar Menon’s book, indicated that India might be inching toward a counter-force doctrine from its current counter-value-based doctrine. This assessment followed remarks a couple of months earlier by then-Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, who said, “Why should I bind myself [to no first use]? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it [nuclear weapons] irresponsibly.” The recent omission of the word “minimum” from the nuclear posture, could be a clear indication of such a shift, as this document is the official doctrine of the Indian military.

Minimal deterrence is the status wherein a nation maintains the minimum number of nuclear weapons to inflict unacceptable damage on an adversary even after suffering a nuclear attack. The main logic driving minimal deterrence is not how large of a nuclear attack one’s own country can suffer, but rather how much the adversary is willing to suffer. Hence an arsenal of this size would be maintained to deter nuclear conflict mainly through the threat of retaliation or punishment. While this would certainly cap India’s arsenal size and keep such an arsenal “minimal,” it is important to note that the arsenal size would also depend on an adversary’s ability to carry out a so-called decapitating first strike. Even under credible minimum deterrence, there is always a need to ensure the survivability of one’s arsenal in order to keep the ability to carry out counter strikes. Hence there have been calls for keeping India’s nuclear arsenal open-ended so as to properly address future scenarios. In light of this argument, one must note recent technological developments such as MIRV technology, Pakistan’s Babur III submarine-launched missile, and growing concern over Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal to achieve full-spectrum deterrence.

All this is likely to pray on the minds of policymakers and may even force them to drop the idea of maintaining a minimum force size. But does this indeed point to shift in India’s nuclear posture, from counter-value targeting to counter-force targeting? A counter-force doctrine would certainly require a greater force structure. Assuming that most Pakistani nuclear weapons are kept in hardened underground bunkers (and taking into account the inverse square law), accuracy would indeed have to be very high to adopt a credible first strike doctrine. The number of warheads required would depend directly on the accuracy of each individual warhead. As the reliability of Indian systems is not very high and their accuracy is quite questionable, India would require a very large force structure to ensure a credible counter-force doctrine. Hence the omission of “minimum” in the latest military doctrine may be truly be indicative of a shift in India’s doctrine.

While the recent developments in the neighborhood are of genuine concern, India’s nuclear posture cannot be seen in isolation — it has a direct bearing on both India’s economy and foreign policy. A minimum deterrent posture has the distinct advantage of avoiding large stockpiles of nuclear weapons, which can in turn lead to an arms race, imposing steep costs on a country that is barely able to find enough funds to procure modern weaponry for its conventional forces. By way of comparison, the U.S. nuclear program cost an estimated $5.821 trillion from 1940-1996. Of this, only 7 percent was spent on building the bomb while 70 percent was spent on deploying, targeting, controlling, and defending against the bomb. The estimated cost for an Indian nuclear program is anywhere between $2.5 billion to $40 billion. To put this in perspective, India’s total defense allocation in the Union Budget was around $53.5 billion for the fiscal year 2017-18.

However, the impact of a nuclear posture change on Indian foreign policy could be even worse. India has long been projecting itself as a responsible nuclear power and India’s current doctrine has a major role to play in this. It has helped India secure crucial international deals, such the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) waiver as part of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal in 2008. More recently, India signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan, which is quite surprising as Japan is known for its staunch anti-nuclear stance and India is not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India is currently also seeking to join the NSG as a permanent member; a doctrinal shift is only going to give China more reason to delay India’s entry. This posture would also play into the hands of Pakistan, which has long accused India of duplicity over its no first use policy and called India’s expanding arsenal a threat to the region’s stability.

An assessment must be carried out as to whether India does indeed posses the capability to truly adopt a counter-force doctrine. If tall claims that are made can’t be backed up by actions, this would only undermine Indian deterrence rather than enhance it.

Ever since the Pakistani establishment embraced tactical nuclear weapons, there has been a growing consensus that Islamabad has achieved escalation dominance. Possession of tactical nuclear weapons has given Pakistan the ability and freedom to conduct sub-conventional warfare without fear of escalation. A shift in India’s nuclear doctrine may be part of an overall strategy to deal with the threat of sub-conventional conflict in a nuclear environment. The doctrine does predict that future wars will be ambiguous, uncertain, short, swift, lethal, intense, precise, non-linear, unrestricted, unpredictable, and hybrid. From a military standpoint, the adoption of a counter-force doctrine may be an attempt to create space for conventional operations by integrated battle groups. This is backed by the decision earlier this year to reduce the War Wastage Reserves to a level of only 10 days of intense fighting.

Hence while India is seeing the space for large-scale conventional wars receding, the Indian Army may be making a new push for limited conventional operations in a nuclear environment. But it will be crucial to understand what economic constraints and international fallout such a doctrinal shift will face. Hence the government must undertake a holistic approach to any change in India’s nuclear posture, and not solely a military one.

Nishant Rajeev is a consultant based in India.