From Technology Demonstration to Assured Retaliation:The Making of an Indian Nuclear Doctrine

Manoj Joshi, Senior Editor, India Today


On May 11-13, 1998, India conducted five underground nuclear explosions and declared itself to be "a nuclear weapons state." To underscore this, officials later took great pains to emphasise that the Indian tests constituted a manifestation of weaponisation. Several declaratory statements elucidated India's rationale for the tests but till now no one has spelt an authoritative doctrine for the employment of nuclear weapons. In the statements of Prime Minister Vajpayee and other officials there seems to be some confusion on what exactly nuclear weapons are all about. Are they weapons for self-defence or to deter nuclear coercion and attack or, are they a means of pushing the world to an eventual abolition of nuclear weapons? Senior officials of the government have spoken of India's determination to reject "Cold War doctrines" and avoid an arms race. A little over a month after the tests, Prime Minister Vajpayee declared that India would offer a "no first use" pledge. Recently, a senior Government official, (believed to be National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra) briefed a select group of journalists and outlined the new Indian doctrine. According to him, "The structure of India's nuclear forces and the operational doctrine guiding them will be rooted in the broad principles of minimum deterrence and nuclear no-first-use..."1 But the statements somehow seem to suggest that minimum deterrence did not require to have any visible deployments or command and control systems.

Possession is just one element of being a nuclear weapons state. Given their enormous destructive potential, there must also be a coherent and explicit doctrine which in turn must derive its credibility from the physical wherewithal--deployments, delivery systems and command and control arrangements. This paper seeks to examine the evolving Indian doctrine and suggest elements that are needed to make it credible. The aim of a doctrine is explicitness and as well as an unambiguous articulation. Writing in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, Henry Kissinger, then a professor at Harvard University declared: "The nuclear age demands above all a clarification of doctrine." According to Kissinger, doctrines allow a kind of routine response for most likely challenges. Improvisation is not the best method of handling crises in a nuclear age. It can result in confusion and panic. "Only a doctrine which defines the purpose of these weapons and the kind of war in which they are to be employed permits a rational choice."2 Most observers, believe that a minimum deterrence concept is difficult to pin down since declared nuclear powers like the United Kingdom and China, too, swear by it. But part of the reason for the confusion comes from the very nature of nuclear weapons. For years the Indian security establishment sought nuclear weapons both as a symbol of power and as a means of combating the perceived threat from China and, in recent years, Pakistan. The May 11-13 tests, somewhat predictably followed by the Pakistani tests, have confronted India with a conundrum: weapons of incredible power are now available, but they come with the knowledge that these weapons can perhaps never be used. Whether they are used first or in defensive retaliation, they create a holocaust whose consequences are too horrible to contemplate. This changed paradigm is particularly unsettling for a nation that long traversed the road less traveled by and tried for twenty-four years to not make nuclear weapons.

Till May 11, 1998, the Government of India's position was that the Indian nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes, even though it gave the country a capacity to make nuclear weapons. The position was somewhat more refined by the negotiations for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In a suo motu statement to Parliament Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral noted:

Our nuclear intimately linked with our national security concerns. We have never accepted the notion that it can be considered legitimate for some countries to rely on nuclear weapons for their security while denying this right to others.3

In this context, India's Pokhran tests should not have been a surprise. Yet the decision to cross the nuclear threshold and declare that India is a nuclear weapons state upset the conventional wisdom that India would content itself with and what Jasjit Singh termed "recessed deterrent" and American scholars like George Perkovitch called a "non-weaponised" deterrent.4

For this reason, perhaps, one of the more important elements of the official presentations following the tests has been to underscore "weaponisation" and India's nuclear weapons status as an accomplished fact rather than something India was moving towards. The official statement of May 11 delivered by the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra noted that "these tests have established that India has a proven capability for a weaponised nuclear programme."

Later statements were more equivocal. At a press conference in New York, the Prime Minister's Special Envoy, Jaswant Singh saw India's acquisition of nuclear weapons in orthodox balance of power terms. "From Vancouver to Vladivostock," Singh pointed out, there was a security system that depended on nuclear weapons. Only two areas were excluded--South Asia and parts of Africa. All that India had done "was to fill this vacuum." But this step was not directed against any element of this arrangement, but "the minimum necessary that India had to do."5 Mishra for his part, at a May 21 press conference clarified that India's weapons were not meant for warfighting, but for deterring war.6

In an interview to the Washington Post, Prime Minister Vajpayee repeated that India would not build a huge arsenal or get involved in an arms race as other nuclear weapons states have done "because their doctrines were predicated on nuclear war." In a seeming contradiction, Vajpayee declared that while India did not need to replicate the kind of command and control structures which they required, "our approach is to have a credible deterrent which should prevent the use of these weapons."7

The issue of command and control, another attribute of a deterrent, "minimum" or otherwise, appears to have been brushed aside. At the May 17, 1998 Joint Press Conference organised by the Department of Atomic Energy and the Defence Research and Development Organisation, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam declared that the command and control system was already in place. This was re-emphasised in November when Brajesh Mishra clarified that the new National Security Council would have no role in the command-and-control of nuclear weapons since "A system is already in place and the Prime Minister heads it."8 In his first considered statement, that to the Lok Sabha on May 27, 1998 Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee reiterated "India is now a nuclear weapon state." Elaborating on the Indian justification for the tests, the Prime Minister went on to add, that the "action involved was balanced in that it was the minimum necessary to maintain what is an irreducible component of our national security calculus." Then, to underscore India's minimalist approach to nuclear weapons status, Vajpayee declared that India would observe a voluntary moratorium and had indicated its willingness to move "towards a de-jure formalisation of this declaration," in other words, it would sign the CTBT.9

The government also tabled a paper titled "The Evolution of India's Nuclear Policy" elaborating the Prime Minister's statement. Outlined here were the first rudiments of the Indian nuclear weapons doctrine.

"India shall not use these weapons to commit aggression or to mount threats against any country; these are weapons of self-defence and to ensure that in turn, India is not subjected to nuclear threats and coercion."10

The statement then went on to recall that India had offered Pakistan an agreement not to be the first to use their nuclear capability against each other. The government stated its readiness to discuss a no-first-use agreement with Pakistan, as well as with other countries bilaterally, or in a collective forum. India would not, the statement went on to add, get involved in an arms race or "reinvent the doctrines of the Cold War." Indeed, despite its declaration of nuclear weapons status, India remained committed to the basic tenet that "global elimination of nuclear weapons will enhance its security as well as that of the rest of the world."11

Notwithstanding minimalist rhetoric and high moral tone, there was another element in the Indian rationale. This had been contained in the letter written by Mr. Vajpayee to President Bill Clinton of the US on May 11 and leaked to the New York Times on the same day. The language was compellingly direct. The rationale for the tests, Mr. Vajpayee noted was the deteriorating security environment faced by India:

"We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962...that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state."12

In an interview to a weekly in late July, Prime Minister Vajpayee reiterated: "Our intention in carrying out the tests was only to ensure a credible deterrent for self-defence."13

On May 28-30, Pakistan, too, came out of the closet, confirming India's worst two-front fears and confronting Indian policy planners with a complex security situation compounded by near-universal condemnation and sanctions. From the outset India had made it clear that its posture was a minimalist one and that not only would it observe a moratorium on further tests, but be willing through negotiations with its principal interlocutors, to convert this into a de jure obligation, in other words, sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

However, while going at great lengths to elaborate its disarmament position, India has not fleshed out the nature of its nuclear weapons force, the numbers it plans to induct and the circumstances in which it would use or not use the weapons. Taken together, statements of the Prime Minister and his senior officials seem to suggest that India was simultaneously embracing three contradictory nuclear doctrines--warfighting, deterrence and abolitionism.14

Looking for a Doctrine

So what are Indian nuclear weapons all about? How are we to take official statements on weaponisation and existence of adequate command and control structures? Are they an effort to appear blase or do they betray a touch of bravado? Or are they part of a carefully crafted strategy for a country that has decided to cross the nuclear threshold in what some call the sunset of the nuclear age? Looking for an Indian doctrine in these circumstances is not an easy task.

Notwithstanding statements and some ill-considered policy moves,15 India does not seem to be any where near refining its nuclear doctrine. Indeed K. Subrahmanyam now seems to suggest that "minimum deterrent is not a numerical but a strategic approach," a position which appears to be similar to the one being articulated by Brajesh Mishra.16 While India's offer to join any global scheme for the verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons is serious, there seems little chance that this will happen any time soon. For the present then, India's nuclear posture could be said to represent, a "temporary" adherence to the Cold War doctrine of deterrence. As Prime Minister Vajpayee told the UN General Assembly in his address on September 24, 1998. "These tests were essential for ensuring a credible nuclear deterrent for India's national security in the foreseeable future."17 Such a situation would seem to suggest that India's historical ambivalence is coming in the way of the country fleshing out its deterrence posture.

This is being articulated in two ways. The first in statements that claim that India's deterrent will somehow be different from those of the established powers. In his May 18, 1998 meeting with the foreign press corps in New Delhi, Jaswant Singh decried the use of the word "arsenal" terming it as "a throwback to the years of the Cold War." The second is the position taken by analysts like K. Subrahmanyam who are now arguing against the need to "flaunt one's weapons to exercise credible deterrence." The only tenet that is valid, Subrahmanyam noted in an article for an economic daily is that "unacceptable punishment is bound to be inflicted on both parties in a conflict, so it is prudent to avoid war."18

The Indian leadership, having conducted nuclear tests and indicated that they possess nuclear weapons must go beyond slogans and declarations. While they have clearly articulated their desire to establish a minimal deterrence, they must now flesh this out with the explicit means of maintaining it as well as an unambiguous doctrine that provides it credibility. Mere verbal declarations or over-sophisticated articulation in the face of established arsenals of our potential adversaries could actually induce a grave danger to the country's national security. Brahma Chellaney has pointed out that India's claim of possessing a nuclear deterrent without providing it "necessary military underpinning has created an inherently dangerous situation in which a potential adversary could be tempted to try to call India's bluff."19

Past Doctrines

In the 1950s, the USA, the first nuclear power came up with the concept of massive retaliation which promised retaliation against any Soviet attempt to advance into Western Europe. This was the era of the manned bomber and a limited Soviet nuclear weapons capability. Till the era of missiles, the Soviets probably had no real strike capability against the United States.

With the development of missiles, there was a paradigm shift. First came the concept of Assured Destruction which paradoxically came because Defence Secretary Robert N. McNamara set to end the 'city busting' (counter-value targetting) strategy prevalent, and replace it with a more refined policy. However, in posing the question "how much is enough" to stop the Soviet war machine, McNamara touched off a massive vertical escalation of the arms race and gave birth to the idea of "Mutual Assured Destruction." During the 1970s, the then Secretary of Defence James Schlesinger shifted the emphasis to a strategy of Flexible or Selective Response whose assumption would be that the US would only target military centres. But given the nature of nuclear weapons and the size of the US and Soviet arsenals, the chance of a war being limited to military or "counterforce" targets was zero.

Then, on the eve of the 1980s came the PD-59 or Presidential Directive 59 that charged US forces with developing the ability to fight a prolonged nuclear war. The idea was to persuade the Soviets that there was no level of aggression at which they could succeed. Taken up in the first few years of the Reagan era, it became a strategy of actually winning such a war through the use of third generation nuclear weapons capable of being deployed to generate X-Ray lasers to knock out Soviet ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles). This was, however, soon replaced by the current doctrine, though not elaborated, which seems to suggest that there is sufficient understanding that a nuclear war is unfightable and unwinnable. This position was first adopted at the Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Yet, as a recent US-German controversy indicated, the US is not willing to offer a 'no- first-use" pledge.

The task of shaping any doctrine is novel and complicated, especially for a country that has decided to become a nuclear weapons state in 1998. Having decided not to respond immediately to the Chinese test, India got frozen out of the nuclear weapons cartel which decreed that only those who had conducted an explosive test before January 1, 1967, could be accepted as a nuclear weapons' state.

India actively participated in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) negotiations. Its stand then as it is now--is that the world cannot have double standards. Obligations and privileges should be the same for nuclear weapons powers and the non-nuclear weapons states. Several months before the Chinese test, in May 1964, the Indian negotiators called for an "undertaking through the United Nations to safeguard the security of countries which may be threatened by Powers having a nuclear weapons capability or about to have a nuclear weapons capability."20 None were forthcoming. India's position began to shift as a consequence of its disappointment at the failure of the evolving NPT to provide a comprehensive arms limitation or security regime.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told the Lok Sabha on April 5, 1968 that India would not sign the unequal treaty and that the Indian position would be, as, "guided entirely by our self-enlightenment and the considerations of national security."21 India did not sign the NPT and in May 1974 conducted its first nuclear explosive test, which was however, termed a "peaceful nuclear explosion."

Between May 1974 and 1998, the Indian position was that its programme was related to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, even though it retained the option to make nuclear weapons. Through the 1980s, even though confronted with unambiguous evidence of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, all that India did was to threaten to review its position. The shift came only in 1990 when the US, too, signaled that Pakistan had indeed crossed the nuclear threshold and India was confronted with a serious security threat arising from the Kashmir rebellion.

Despite indications that India was planning to resume nuclear tests in 1995, India was considered to be a non-nuclear state without a credible arsenal. George Perkovitch pointed out that neither India nor Pakistan had "coherent, detailed doctrines to guide the use of nuclear weapons." This resulted in a situation of "virtual deterrence" where the two countries can radiate menace "without building the actual hardware."22 But with the May 1998 events that situation is at an end.

Roots of an Indian Doctrine

Any Indian nuclear doctrine must be written upon the palimpset of Indian history, but more specifically of the experience of the past nearly 52 years of independent India which more-or-less coincide with the nuclear age. One of its most important elements is a reluctance to play the power game and a profound ambivalence towards nuclear weapons. This was evident in Lal Bahadur Shashtri's reluctance to move ahead with a response to the Chinese test in October 1964 as well as in Indira Gandhi's decision not to follow up the Pokhran I test. In the 1980s, this was once again visible in Rajiv Gandhi's refusal to respond to the Pakistani nuclear developments till the last minute. Some of the elements of this ambivalence could be seen in P.V. Narasimha Rao's decision not to go ahead with the test in December 1995 and in the Congress Party's confusing response to the Pokhran II tests.

India's regional military interventions have been limited and controlled. Indian forces were out of Bangladesh within months of its liberation in 1971. The Indian intervention in Sri Lanka, despite hype to the contrary, was not unwelcome. Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding it, Indian forces pulled out of the island, more or less on the schedule demanded by the then Sri Lankan President R. Premadasa. The intervention in Maldives in 1988 was even shorter. In all these cases, the Indian Army acted on behalf of the established authorities with the important exception of Bangladesh where its action had a legitimacy of another sort in view of what had preceded the uprising.

A nuclear doctrine will naturally be rooted in the experience of conventional war. Two features stand out in our 1947, 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan--war was limited, and there was no conscious targetting of civilians. India's responses were retaliatory rather than pre-emptive. The 1965 war gave further evidence of this. India's response to Operation Gibraltar, or the Pakistani guerrilla campaign in Kashmir was limited. But when this faltering operation was bolstered by a conventional armoured attack in Operation Grand Slam, Indian forces reacted in an attack across towards Lahore. Till Indian forces were launched across the international border, the Indian response to fighting in Kashmir had been confined to the borders of the state. Pakistan may have somewhat foolishly gambled on India restricting the fighting to Jammu & Kashmir, as indeed it had done in 1947-1948. No Indian doctrine had been articulated. Had it been done so, arguably Pakistan may have thought twice before undertaking its gamble.

Any Indian doctrine in 1998 has to take into account the reality of the proxy war in Kashmir, subversion across the country and insurgency in the North-east. In the past decade or so, India has not undertaken "hot pursuit" of terrorists and militants across the Line of Control into Pakistan as it did in the initial days of Operation Gibraltar. There can be no doubt that this is motivated by the belief that such an action could result in escalation which could touch off nuclear war. One recent manifestation of this is the Indian restraint in Kargil. In 1965, faced with sustained Pakistani efforts to cut India's line of communications to Leh, India had attacked twice and captured Pakistani posts across the LoC. In 1997-98, Pakistani forces have bombarded Kargil and seriously affected traffic on National Highway IA to Leh, but India has chosen to react defensively and retaliate only with counter-bombardment. Given their very nature it becomes difficult to see how nuclear weapons will help resolve India's "mutinies" just as indeed they were unable to help the US out of its Vietnam problem or the Soviets from their Afghan quagmire. But here is where the danger lies. Unless clarified by doctrine India could, when confronted with lesser threats, react with disproportionate force or be confronted by a paralysis of policy. The current operational directives given by the government to the Indian armed forces are of 1983 vintage and they call on them to maintain a posture of "dissuasive deterrence" vis-a-vis Pakistan and one of "defensive deterrence" with China. In simple terms this means that Indian forces implement a strategy of "deterrence by denial" which could involve deep strikes into Pakistan, while the posture with regard to China is somewhat more difficult to characterise since it involves punishment by attrition in combat which is to be conducted largely in Indian territory. These plans must obviously give way to another kind of strategy.23 They could well take a hint from one of America's leading nuclear strategist Bernard Brodie who declared in 1946: "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."24

Relations with the United States are a major influence in shaping a new doctrine. The relationship with the United States occupies a special place because it is the world's sole superpower and its attitude towards India's nuclear weapons capability will play a key role in India's nuclear capabilities. As of now the US is behaving like the leader of the counter-proliferation camp that it is. But after many false starts India and the United States are also involved in a deep dialogue of strategic import where they are seeking to reconcile India's decision to become a nuclear weapons state with the US non-proliferation goals. As of now there are no indications that the US is willing to make a decisive break from the existing paradigm where Pakistan is viewed as an equal actor in South Asia, and China as the US' primary interlocutor in world affairs.

But at the bottom of it all, the Indian doctrine has to be rooted in an assessment of its potential adversaries. The issue is not merely of numbers, which are not unimportant in the context of China's sophisticated arsenal, but of political assessments of the nature of our potential adversaries. Is China a "potential threat number one" as Defence Minister George Fernandes termed it,25 is it straining to destroy us? What about Pakistan? Given its record of attacks on India and its current covert war against India directed not just to "liberate" Kashmir, but to break up India, how would one deter the use of the now overt Pakistani nuclear capability?

India's nuclear doctrine must be rooted in an abandonment of posturing and a realistic assessment of our situation. Do we want, as indeed official policy demands, the return of Aksai Chin and Azad Kashmir or, merely to ensure there will be no more Aksai Chins and Azad Kashmirs? All this has to be melded into a doctrine of the nuclear age whose heart must be a strategy of war avoidance since an escalation of a conventional conflict could be the most likely in which nuclear weapons could be used in South Asia.

The Minimum Deterrence Doctrine

Indian leaders have spoken about the minimal nature of the Indian action and the need for a "credible minimum deterrent." But, the notion of minimal deterrence is something that is difficult to flesh out. Indian officials say their posture of no visible command and control and undeployed weapons is minimum deterrence. But this does not take into account the attitude of our adversaries, nor does it indicate a realistic assessment of what the Chinese and Pakistani nuclear plans are. In the not-so-distant future, Chinese aid to Pakistan could alter today's minimum deterrence posture. Minimum or sufficient deterrence is therefore critically dependent not only on subjective assessments but also on the behaviour of potential adversaries and developments in defence technology such as ballistic missile defence.

Another problem with the idea goes into the heart of the concept of deterrence. Simply put, deterrence is a threat of use of force to prevent someone from carrying out his intentions. This can take the form of a threat of inflicting severe punishment in case an act is carried out (deterrence by punishment) or a threat to prevent by force, even preemptively, the implementation of the action (deterrence by denial).

However, the possession of nuclear weapons and their vast destructive potential, whether in defence of offense, changes the very concept of deterrence, whether by punishment or denial. As a UN report points out, "the very cornerstone of what is projected as defence is offensive capability, while defensive capabilities--in the true sense of the word are very limited."26

The concept of deterrence rests on a certain threshold beyond which states would consider the damage unacceptable. But this "deterring level of destruction" varies from state to state and society to society. This is not just a matter of cultural relativism, but of geography and demography. But India cannot afford to ignore the issue.27

Given India's difficulties in defining what it means by "minimal nuclear deterrent" the United States has been making a set of proposals in the negotiations being carried out by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and the Prime Minister's Special Envoy and currently External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh. These proposals would have India sign the CTBT, halt the production of fissile material and desist from deployment of missiles and aircraft capable of carrying of nuclear weapons. According to one Indian critic, this is tantamount to a demand that India practice "recessed deterrence," in other words maintain a latent rather than an active capability.28 Another has charged that given the "extent and sophistication" of the Chinese nuclear weapons arsenal, the current Indian actions, including the recent tests are insufficient to provide a credible "minimum deterrence."29

Towards a Doctrine of Assured Retaliation

If, however, we define minimum deterrence as a strategy of keeping a minimum number of weapons necessary for inflicting unacceptable damage on an adversary even after sustaining a nuclear attack, we cannot avoid factoring the possibility of nuclear war fighting. This seems to be something that the Indian political-bureaucratic leadership that wrought the Shakti tests appears unwilling to confront.

Prudence demands that having decided to exercise the nuclear option and having accepted the doctrine of deterrence, minimal or otherwise, India must also plan for the eventuality, howsoever improbable it may appear, of its failure. In what circumstances can it fail? Deterrence is achieved when the other side does not perceive any gain from an action we seek to prevent; naturally, what is perceived as gain has to be determined by his criteria, not ours. What is it that the adversary values as a gain or a loss? There is another element that cannot be discounted--misjudgment. But most analysts see escalation from a conventional war as the most likely scenario for a nuclear war. This means the creation of a credible force structure and command and control system that can survive a first strike and deliver retribution. Only in such circumstances would a doctrine of minimum deterrence work. Any other posture would provide illusory security and open the country to unacceptable danger.

The first doctrinal element in this force posture flows from India's commitment to a "minimum deterrent." The first determination would have to be as to whether India should aim for a capability that will provide certainty of retaliation or merely the possibility. The second would emerge from India's commitment to a "no-first-use". In essence a force capable of surviving a first strike and retaliating.

Any such force would have to involve the armed forces. But as of now there appears to be a reluctance to involve the armed forces in any aspect of nuclear issues.30 A laid back approach has also led to India's ability to field a long range missile system. The Agni programme has been re-started but almost all experts believe that a deployed system capable of delivering warheads 2500-4000 kms. away is still about a decade away. Nonchalant comments that India has a command and control system already in place do not appear credible since there is no publicly stated line of succession, backed by Parliamentary statute. Bruce Blair, an authoritative American specialist has shown in his two influential books, Strategic Command and Control and Logic of Accidental Nuclear War how in the case of the US and the Soviet Union the idea that they could "rideout" a nuclear attack and retaliate was a fantasy and "not as viable option in the real world."31

In an article in 1994, Subrahmanyam had argued against an elaborate command and control structure. But, this was on the basis of a number of questionable assumptions, primarily that India's principal threat lay in demonstration strikes and blackmail attempts rather than an actual decapitating strike.32 In a more recent argument, Subrahmanyam has said that decapitating strikes come from another era and today all states have to worry about the "costs and benefits of legitimising a first nuclear strike."33 It is true that Pakistan must worry about Lahore and China about Shanghai, but this depends on how crises are initiated and how the escalatory situation develops. We may find that Pakistan poses its choices to us in a less than clear-cut manner while compelling us to react in an all-out manner, resulting in our initiation of nuclear war or surrender. It is such issues that an Indian doctrine must provide guidance for.

There is another element flowing from the no-first use pledge that India must not ignore--the maintenance of adequate conventional capability. In 1997 Eric Arnett argued that India's acquisition of 315 Paveway II guidance kits to be used on 2000 lb bombs as well as an unknown number of similar smart weapons from Russia could with the help of its Air Force degrade the Pakistani nuclear strike potential compelling that nation into the "use of or lose it" dilemma and go in for an early or first use of its nuclear potential.34 This scenario could be rewritten in a situation where the modernised People's Liberation Army Air Force could likewise erode India's nuclear retaliatory capacity in a purely conventional war.

Examinining options arising out of the failure of deterrence also compels India to align its diplomacy with its nuclear strategy. The clearest example of this is India's offer of a no-first use pledge to Pakistan, even while suggesting the extension of the agreement not to attack each other's nuclear facilities to cover population centres and economic targets. If both agreements come into effect, two major drawbacks appear from India's point of view. First, both countries would in effect be committed to a "counterforce" strategy viz a strategy of attacking each other's armed forces and establishments. But, almost all authorities today are agreed that such a strategy is unworkable since there is no way to prevent escalation to an all-out nuclear war. The second major problem would be the unworkability of India's "minimum deterrent" strategy. With first use and "city busting" options ruled out, India appears to be adding so many restraints to its capacity to retaliate that the whole thing appears incredulous.35

An Indian doctrine of "assured retaliation" must therefore not shy away from declaring what would come under the threat of retaliatory destruction--a city, a military centre, a cantonment or economic target like a power-house or dam. Another factor that needs to be confronted is the belief that India's retaliatory strike is not "highly time critical."36 But to declare it so is to invite trouble. An "assured retaliation" posture would not only spell out the certainty of retaliation, but also give some indication of the time element. This is essential not only from the point of view of deterring potential adversaries, but also the morale of the armed forces. Nuclear deterrence, after all, involves both psychological and military elements.

All this means the working out of a doctrine that outlines the circumstances in which India would fight a war, paradoxically for the purpose of preventing nuclear war. That is the logic of deterrence.



1. C. Raja Mohan "India committed to minimum n-deterrence," The Hindu, December 7, 1998.

2. Kissinger gives the example of how the Romans panicked and broke the first time they confronted elephants. But subsequently they developed a battle doctrine to deal with it and defeated the Carthaginians. In 1940, the French broke before the Panzers tank attack because their doctrine had rejected the idea of massed use of armour. Henry A. Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969) Abridged version of the 1957 classic, p. 225.

3. Suo Motu statement of Shri I.K. Gujral, Minister for External Affairs, in the Parliament regarding CTBT on July 15, 1996.

4. Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1998) p. 97.

5. Text of Press Conference on 9.6.98 by Mr. Jaswant Singh, Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission at the UN on Nuclear Tests by India released by the Permanent Mission of India at the UN.

6. "Moratorium on nuclear tests by New Delhi," Times of India, May 22, 1998.

7. Washington Post, June 17, 1998, p. A21.

8. Arati R. Jerath, "No NSC role in N-command: Mishra" Indian Express, November 25, 1998.

9. See statement in Parliament, May 27, 1998.

10. "Evolution of India's nuclear policy," document tabled in Parliament on May 27, 1998.

11. Ibid.

12. Text of the letter of Prime Minister Vajpayee to President Clinton released by the Press Trust of India on May 13, 1998.

13. See "No tension between India, Pak because of n-tests," in The Week, August 2, 1998, p. 45.

14. The plethora of statements and declaration have, not surprisingly, created sufficient confusion as to raise doubts about their credibility in Pakistan. See Rifaat Hussain "India's Evolving Doctrine" in the News, November 15, 1998 cited in Pakistan Opinion and Trends (New Delhi, December 4, 1998) pp. 3863-4.

15. The clearest example of this is India's offer of a no-first use pledge to Pakistan, even while suggesting the extension of the agreement not to attack each other's nuclear facilities to cover population centres and economic targets. If both agreements come into effect, both countries would in effect be committed to a "counterforce" strategy viz a strategy of attacking each other's armed forces and establishments. But, almost all authorities today are agreed that such a strategy is unworkable since there is no way to prevent escalation to an all-out nuclear war.

16. K. Subrahmanyam, "Not a Numbers Game: Minimum Cost of N-Deterrence," Times of India, December 7, 1998, see also Rajamohan, n. 1.

17. This is in paragraph 15 of the speech whose text can be obtained in the Ministry of External Affairs website

18. K. Subrahmanyam, "Blast off into deterrence orbit," Economic Times, May 19, 1998.

19. International Herald Tribune (Singapore), October 23, 1998.

20. Rodney W. Jones, "India," in Jozef Rotblat ed., Non Proliferation: The Why and the Wherefore (London: SIPRI, 1985), pp. 102-103.

21. Reference in "Evolution of India's Nuclear Policy" document tabled in the Lok Sabha on May 27, 1998. MEA website:

22. Schell, n. 4, p. 98. Perkovitch approvingly talks of this amorphous situation which could, in his opinion be a model that the other nuclear powers could also pursue.

23. To its credit, the Army is already on the job. The Army's Training Command headquartered in Shimla is already well advanced in writing its new battle doctrine which will incorporate the new developments. See India Today, July 20, 1998.

24. Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon (New York: 1946).

25. Cover Story India Today, May 18, 1998.

26. Nuclear Weapons: Report of the Secretary General of the United Nations (London: Frances Pinter, 1981) p. 110.

27. The difference in size between India and Pakistan often comes up in discussions with Pakistani scholars who argue that the lack of strategic depth compels them to reject Indian offers of "no first use" of nuclear capability. Mao Zedong famously described nuclear weapons as a "paper tiger" and urged the Chinese to fight a "people's war" against hostile forces.

28. See Strobe Talbott's address to the Brookings Institution on November 12, 1998 titled "US Diplomacy in South Asia: A Progress Report," Official Text released by the United States Information Service, New Delhi; the critique is that of analyst Brahma Chellaney "Is India barking up the wrong tree," Hindustan Times, September 28, 1998.

29. A. Gopalakrishnan, "How credible is our deterrence," The Hindu, November 18, 1998, Gopalakrishnan is a distinguished nuclear scientist who served as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. He has called the Indian tests ill-planned and of dubious utility.

30. Ibid.

31. Cited in Schell, n. 4, pp. 73-74.

32. K. Subrahmanyam, "Nuclear Force Design and Minimum Deterrence Strategy for India," in Bharat Karnad ed., Future Imperiled: India's Security in 1990s and Beyond (New Delhi: Viking, 1994) p. 192.

33. K. Subrahmanyam, "Not a Numbers Game: Minimum Cost of N-Deterrence," Times of India, December 7, 1998.

34. Eric Arnett, "Nuclear Stability and Arms Sales to India: Implications for US Policy," Arms Control Today, August 1997, pp. 7-11.

35. Indeed this was pointed out to me by Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz in a meeting I had with him in Islamabad in October 1998.

36. Subrahmanyam in Karnad ed., n. 32, p. 192.