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#4607, 18 August 2014

Strategic Space

A Strategic Review for India
Manpreet Sethi
ICSSR Senior Fellow affiliated with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

All major nuclear weapon states periodically issue official statements in the form of a Review or a White Paper to provide a peep into their threat assessments and response priorities. The US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is well known. Russia too periodically announces a military doctrine and has used it to signal change in the circumstances of the use of nuclear weapons. Since 1998, China has been bringing out a White Paper on National Defence (WPND) mostly every two years to indicate how it conceptualises its national defence, threat perceptions and security goals, including in the nuclear domain. So do the UK and France. 

Most such documents provide general indications on the nation’s assessment of its threat environment and the kind of capability that it wishes to build. For instance, the US NPR of 2010 identified nuclear terrorism and proliferation as the topmost threats facing the country. Accordingly, Washington put its focus on global efforts aimed at securing nuclear materials. It also articulated that countries found guilty of sponsoring terrorists could face US military strikes. Since the threat from near nuclear peers was found of a second order, the US downgraded its nuclear readiness posture by removing its nuclear bombers from 24 hour alert and also de-MIRVing its missiles. 

Similarly, the Chinese WPND explains the country’s threat perceptions and national security goals. It provides generic references to the growing advancements in national ability to conduct joint operations with precision, informationised strikes etc. Over the last three White Papers, China has devoted complete sub-sections to explaining the role and capabilities of its nuclear force or the Second Artillery Corps (SAC). While the 2008 Paper had called upon the SAC to “build a streamlined and effective strategic force by raising the informationaisation of its weaponry and equipment systems, build an agile and efficient operational command and control and increase capabilities of land-based strategic nuclear counter-strikes and precision strikes with conventional missiles,” the 2010 Paper stressed modernisation of “capabilities in rapid reaction, penetration, precision strike, damage infliction, protection and survivability.”

Given that the SAC has the responsibility for both conventional and nuclear missiles, the Paper also reveals how China continues to “improve the conditions of on-base, simulated and networked training” including in conduct of “trans-regional manoeuvres” and in “complex electromagnetic environments.” Such disclosures on posture are meant to buttress deterrence. 

Crafted along similar lines, an Indian Strategic Review - ISR (or whatever else it may be called: Strategic Policy Review, or a White Paper) - would be particularly helpful in addressing some of the concerns that have been raised in recent times on the credibility of the Indian nuclear deterrent. Of course, the ISR would traverse a range of security issues. But in the nuclear dimension, besides a reiteration of the basic doctrinal attributes of India’s nuclear deterrence, it could highlight some specific issues. Two examples by way of an illustration could be mentioned. 

The first could be an articulation of the role of ballistic missile defence (BMD) in India’s nuclear strategy. Going by the recent technological developments, India seems to be surely and steadily moving towards the development and eventual deployment of some kind of a BMD capability. However, if India is to ensure that this capability does not destabilise nuclear deterrence equations with Pakistan and China, it is imperative that certain clarity be brought to the nature and type of BMD that India plans to have. It is evident that perceiving it as eroding its deterrence, Islamabad has begun investing in cruise missiles and other counter-measures to defeat an Indian BMD. In case India is to escape being pulled into an offence-defence spiral, it is necessary that the logic and scope of the Indian BMD is explained as a measure for enhancing survivability of its retaliatory capability (warheads, delivery systems and C2) in view of India’s no first use (NFU). Given India’s missile threat environment, it is virtually impossible to protect its cities unless the BMD is technologically of a very high order and that obviously means expending large amounts of money. But, by explaining the rationale of the BMD for protecting India’s counter-strike capability, its destabilising effects can be arrested. And, the ISR could be one means of such communication.

Yet another issue that could do with some clarity is India’s response to an act of nuclear terrorism. Given India’s experience of Pak-sponsored terrorism, this is a threat that looms large. It would be worthwhile for New Delhi to express its assessment of such a threat and its likely responses. This would showcase resolve that no such act would go unpunished. Doing so through the ISR would enhance deterrence.

Opacity and ambiguity in nuclear numbers and postures has been an attribute of the Indian nuclear strategy. However, an ISR can perform the crucial task of clearing misperceptions through a certain amount of transparency without going into specifics of the arsenal. This is critical given that misperceptions and miscalculations can result in an inadvertent nuclear escalation especially between nuclear neighbours that share border disputes and are prone to border skirmishes.  

Such a document would actually be of immense value for two reasons. One, it would aid strategy formulation and action prioritisation within the country while providing assurance to the domestic public. Simultaneously, it would communicate with the adversary, and its content and tenor could create the atmospherics to help stabilise nuclear equations.

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