IPCS Debate

India, Nuclear Weapons and ‘Massive Retaliation’: The Impossibility of Limitation?

08 Oct, 2013    ·   4135

Ali Ahmed responds to Amb Shyam Saran’s comments on India's nuclear doctrine

Shyam Saran speaking in his personal capacity, rather than as the current head of the National Security Advisory Board, relies on his association with the evolution of India’s nuclear doctrine to make the case that India would do well to stick with the doctrine of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation. He has succeeded in setting the terms of the debate, but more importantly in getting a debate going. This article contests his position in suggesting that there is need for further evolution of India’s nuclear doctrine in light of developments this century.

Saran’s case is that nuclear war cannot be kept ‘limited’. India would therefore require firing off at least a proportion of its nuclear arsenal to inflict ‘massive’ punitive damage on the adversary should it mistakenly choose to ‘go first’. A commitment to this alone will deter the adversary from this first step. Since it is a doctrine for deterrence, this makes sense.

However, in case the adversary does introduce nuclear weapons into a conflict, despite the deterrence in place, then the situation is one of responding to the nuclear attack and in doing so also deterring any future nuclear use by the enemy. Therefore, it is partially one of deterrence, and of nuclear use. This implies that the nuclear deterrence doctrine needs supplementing with a nuclear use or operational nuclear doctrine.

Saran would like the operational doctrine to reflect if not be identical with the declaratory nuclear doctrine. India must respond with punitive retaliation, if necessary of ‘massive’ levels, in case of nuclear first use by the enemy, whatever the manner of such first use. The advantage of doing so would be to reinforce credibility and thereby in-conflict deterrence. This will bring the enemy to his strategic senses in double quick time. Such a setback for the adversary would have limiting effects in knocking out the enemy’s ability to continue with the exchanges and, at one remove, the conflict. In any case, it is not possible to get off the nuclear escalator; nuclear limitation being, to Saran, a contradiction in terms. 

Saran gets it right on deterrence. Deterrence doctrine reiterates to a potential nuclear adversary the inevitable - not merely possible - consequence of its nuclear first use. However, an adversary’s nuclear decision is one that can at best be influenced, not dictated. Alongside, nuclear use has to be articulated in an operational doctrine.
A punitive strike, particularly one of higher order proportions in a situation of nuclear plenty, as currently obtains, invites a potent counter retaliation, even if it is a broken-backed one. This is especially so in case the nuclear first use instance is of a lower order level. Incensed by what in its perception would be a disproportionate response, the adversary will try and get even; exacting a price that arguably can prove unaffordable.

While the adversary may be ‘finished’ as a result, India would receive a setback. While for deterrence posturing it is necessary to be cavalier over the possible loss of a ‘couple of cities’, decision-makers who require facing the political, social and environmental aftermath, have more sober considerations.

Secondly, as has been pointed out by critics such as, among others, Ashley Tellis, promising ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation will incentivise first use of first strike levels of attack. The enemy taking India’s nuclear doctrine seriously would, to in Patton’s tradition, be ‘firstest with the mostest’. In the aftermath of such a strike, seeking to respond massively may itself be a contradiction in terms.

Therefore, if higher order nuclear retaliation is not necessarily the only or best way, what are the options? Against Saran’s belief in the inevitability of escalation, the view to the contrary is that only escalatory possibilities will invariably kick-in. Nuclear use decisions informed by the operational doctrine are the manner in which escalation can be managed. As with the tango, escalation management requires both players to ‘cooperate’.  An operational doctrine that enables cooperation towards the common end of nuclear conflict termination is best. Counter-intuitively then, the moot question is: Which responses facilitate cooperation under the prohibitive conditions?

Early on in the nuclear debate, General Sundarji had provided an answer: to end nuclear exchange(s) at the lowest possible level of nuclear use. The opposite view of K Subrahmanyam, echoed by Saran, on the impossibility of nuclear limitation, has instead dominated since. What makes the situation this century different that it is time to hark Sundarji?

Nuclear first use can occur, given the intimate coupling between the sub-conventional and conventional levels sought by India and between the conventional and nuclear levels worked towards by Pakistan. India needs to think equally of limiting the consequences of nuclear use to itself as much as punishing the enemy. The operational doctrine must emphasise nuclear limitation; with nuclear cooperation enabled by a ‘tit for tat’ strategy and structural innovations as joint nuclear risk management. 

It is possible that Saran, apprehending a shift, calls for transparency and re-dedication. While transparency is seconded, a coming out in favour of the shift is called for.