That the BJP government will carry out a nuclear doctrine review as it stated in its manifesto is certain. This is not least because credibility, taken as central to nuclear deterrence, can be bolstered by demonstration of the government’s resolve to follow through on promises. Since nuclear doctrine is about the promise of nuclear retribution, the ‘will’ to do so needs to be in evidence. Doctrinal revisions are opportunities to show this.
Therefore the nature of retribution assumes importance. Currently, the doctrine has it that India will go ‘massive’ in retaliation to Pakistani nuclear first use. Since Pakistan now has an arsenal numbering in the lower three digits, it will have enough left over for a counter strike of equal proportions. This means that the age of MAD, mutual assured destruction, is here. Any new doctrine must take this into account.
Whereas the doctrine in the nineties promised ‘unacceptable damage’, in 2003 this was upped to ‘massive’, implying perhaps intent to set back Pakistan’s retaliatory capability alongside. With Pakistan’s numbers going up, this can no longer be guaranteed. Some, believing that India can withstand such punishment while Pakistan cannot, may plug for retaining the promise.
They argue that India’s missile shield will prevent loss of Delhi and Mumbai and India can sustain nuclear punishment elsewhere. Firstly, as with Reagan’s Star Wars program, the missile shield may be more hype than reality. And secondly, even if India is not ‘wiped off the map’ as Pakistan, it would be set back enough to give up any dreams of catching up with China, other than in population numbers of course. In any case, India as we know it would disappear as it has several times through the millennia. This wishful assumption cannot be allowed to inform the new doctrine.
Since India cannot any longer punish Pakistan for the temerity for nuclear first use the way it might like to, it may have to settle for less. To be sure, this may not deter well enough, but then, Pakistan’s resort to the Nasr missile, that is suggestive of a lowering of the nuclear threshold, implies that our threat of going ‘massive’ does not either. Since even a bunch of jihadis can spark off the regional tinderbox, India has to move beyond the Cold War logic of deterrence, a position it has paid only lip service to so far.
Currently, the debate is only between defenders of ‘massive’ and challengers in favour of ‘flexible’. The latter want a step back from ‘massive’ but are willing to settle for ‘unacceptable damage’. The former believe that a limited nuclear war is an oxymoron; the latter while allowing for limited nuclear operations do not dwell on escalation control and exchange termination. Votaries of ‘massive’ therefore win out since the ‘flexible’ camp does not have an argument to counter the ‘inexorable’ inevitability of escalation in nuclear exchanges.
That nuclear outbreak is not impossible is clear. Mr. Modi has built an image of being strong on defence and of decisiveness. When and if challenged by terrorist provocation, he may give the military a go-ahead to teach Pakistan a lesson. This may not involve a release of India’s armoured might and air power in line with the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine of proactive offensive. It will likely be more nuanced than that since Pakistan has unveiled the Nasr, a battlefield nuclear missile system.
Pakistan, suitably deterred and reasonably mature, is also unlikely to go nuclear straight off. Nevertheless, nuclear dangers persist, particularly those stemming from misperception and autonomous action by commanders in the heat and fog of war.
The new nuclear doctrine must therefore also have answers for this albeit remote, but most likely circumstance of nuclear outbreak. There is one formulation, best articulated by General Sundarji, catering for this. He had wanted any nuclear exchange terminated at the lowest threshold by political and diplomatic engagement for conflict termination earliest.
This is counter-intuitive and therefore has not received the attention it deserves. His argument is that even though at war, both states will have enough reason to cooperate to ensure respective survival. Nuclear war will also focus minds in a manner no other circumstance can, enabling the mutual concessions for ending the war and on the original disagreement that led up to it. The international community, alarmed by possible environmental consequences of a regional nuclear war, will surely help ease any such engagement.
Saner models need to figure in the discussion in the run up to doctrine review. Leaving it to the ‘experts’ will only give us ‘more of the same’. One such expert is arguing for numbers in the middle three digits! In combating the hawks, the hands-off posture of nuclear activists to the nuclear doctrine review is hardly helpful.
While they are right that the best way is to get rid of nuclear weapons, it is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely that the review will recommend that the government abandon nuclear weapons. Obama acknowledged the degree of difficulty best in accepting that he cannot envisage nuclear weapons free world in his lifetime. The fastest the world will get rid of nuclear weapons is when these have been used and found counter-productive, if not downright useless. That may be too late for India and the region.
Ideas on ensuring that such use will be least damaging for India, only possible in case it inflicts least damage on its nuclear adversary, need airing now. In circumstance in which the No First Use dictum is itself under threat, it will be uphill but a battle worth it.