An Indian Nuclear Doctrine Review: A Third Model

30 Apr, 2014    ·   4410

Ali Ahmed recommends looking beyond the two options of ‘massive’ and ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation in the event of a review

The reference in the BJP manifesto to a review of the Indian nuclear doctrine has had the salutary effect of keeping the nuclear issue in the public mind. It has also made the possibility of a review of the doctrine, even if the BJP does not come to power, more likely. The discussion the reference provoked suggests that there are two models of deterrence that would vie for adoption during the review.

While the ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation model is already the declaratory nuclear doctrine, the challenger model is ‘flexible’ nuclear retaliation. The debate between votaries of the two has had ‘flexible’ votaries pointing out that ‘massive’ is incredible. ‘Massive’ votaries have in turn critiqued the ‘flexible’ model for being weak on escalation control. While ‘massive’ pitches for strengthening deterrence by reinforcing capability and resolve to visit unacceptable damage on the enemy, ‘flexible’, wary of deterrence breakdown, caters for an appropriate response.

For ‘flexible’ votaries, ‘massive’ has the drawback of inviting an equal counter-strike from Pakistan since Pakistan now has the numbers. This would make for self deterrence for India. Consequently, India would water down its nuclear response. Doing so would impact India’s projection of resolve, effecting in-conflict deterrence. India should therefore go for a ‘flexible’ model whereby its response would be tailored to the manner of Pakistan’s nuclear first use and cognisant of in-conflict deterrence, escalation control and war termination compulsions.

‘Massive’ votaries argue that this would water down deterrence, making nuclear first use more likely. Also it is unmindful of the inexorable escalation that would inevitably ensue from nuclear first use and proportionate retaliation under the graduated deterrence concept. ‘Massive’ has global environmental consequences in light of recent studies that indicate that even a regional nuclear war can trigger nuclear winter. ‘Flexible’ has potential to go the ‘massive’ route.

A third model, the Sundarji nuclear doctrine eliminates the drawbacks mentioned. In Sundarji’s words, it states: ‘Terminate the nuclear exchange at lowest level with a view to negotiate a politically acceptable peace; riposte commensurate with strike received – quid pro quo option; a punitive element may call for response at a higher level than strike received – quid pro quo plus option; a need on occasion to degrade to maximum extent the adversary’s ability to continue with the exchange – spasmic response option; a need to minimise casualties among foreigners and innocents for post war rapprochement.’

By its focus on political negotiations for war termination, it caters for escalation control; thereby eliminating the problems posed by the other two models. However, the criticism this articulation may receive is that under the circumstance of nuclear use, the possibility of political and diplomatic engagement for nuclear exchange termination and for war termination will be severely negatively impacted. Since a nuclear exchange is the ultimate expression of distrust, making a two-way street of escalation control would be through the exercise of power to hurt and generating fear in the enemy of the power held in reserve in relation to potential targets yet to be addressed. Therefore, this is an almost wishful formulation.

The counter to such a critique is that instead of an emotive nuclear decision-making environment in which vengeance and in-conflict deterrence will be to fore, it is instead equally plausible that the first nuclear explosion will ensure a quick return to strategic sense since survival would be at stake. As this would be the case on both sides, there would be the necessary element of cooperation that can enable a negotiated end to the exchange in the first place and to the nuclear conflict next.

Effort to this end would also be greatly facilitated by the international community, energised by the fear of implications for escalation for the global environment. 
Clearly, this will call for mechanisms to be in place prior, forged in peace time. This implies not only doctrinal transparency and doctrinal exchanges, but also mechanisms of assured interface in the trying conditions of nuclear conflict outbreak or nuclear outbreak in a conventional conflict. This would entail creation of a nuclear risk reduction mechanism.

Currently, India and Pakistan have hotlines as part of CBMs (confidence building measures) between the two. Going beyond CBMs to NRRMs (Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures) is necessary for working the Sundarji doctrine. Since this cannot be done in crisis period or in war time, it is best to recognise the necessity for escalation control communication in conflict and emplace the mechanism.

A counter-point would be that to create such a body means to tacitly admit a lack of faith in deterrence. This should not hold up the initiative since when and if this faith is on the rocks, it may prove too late. However, in case of hesitance the two States as part of doctrinal exchange can cater for the contingency and materialise the mechanism in case a sub-conventional push comes to a conventional shove.
Any impending review must therefore cast its net wider and look beyond the two mainstream models – ‘massive’ and ‘flexible’ – at play. The Sundarji model is also a candidate for consideration in the review.