India's Nuclear Doctrine and Strategy

10 Apr, 2017    ·   5263

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra weighs in on the recent debate on the possible evolution of Indian nuclear strategy

A brouhaha over India’s nuclear doctrine has once again been ignited because of certain comments made by Dr Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference 2017, an annual gathering of nuclear policy wonks from across the world. The point was simple – that there have been signs emanating from India for quite some time now that India’s nuclear no first use (NFU) was not quite what it was made out to be. While it did not question the soundness of India’s doctrine, the reaction in Delhi buttressed the point that while India’s doctrine may be very sound, India’s message management is a shambolic catastrophe.

Narang’s argument is that India, through an accumulation of official statements and induction of first strike weapons and systems (such as ballistic missile defence, multiple warheads on individual missiles, improvements in missile accuracy, and imminently, when India operationalises the naval leg of its triad - missiles that are fully mated with the warhead and ready to fire instantaneously), has verbally and tangibly watered down its NFU. The big lacuna he identifies in India not being able to carry out a pre-emptive nuclear strike is the lack of real time and persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) of Pakistani nuclear assets.

As Ajai Shukla however pointed out, these assets - sideward-looking radars, satellite persistent surveillance, etc - are exactly the focus areas of the DRDO at the moment. This means that despite having all the equipment to carry out a debilitating first strike against Pakistan, it may not have the time-sensitive information to do so as yet but is moving towards that capability. As any defence economist will agree, the lion’s share of the cost of a 'precision strike' - nuclear or conventional - is taken up not by the systems but by the vast ISR complex required to ensure 'precision'.

To be noted is that Narang’s criticism here is not moral, it is operational: that India needs to have all its chess pieces in play before verbally eroding its NFU, rather than the other way round, which seems to be the case. Yet the commentariat in Delhi bizarrely saw this as a moral argument portraying India as irrational and destabilising. Far from it - the tone of tenor of the argument implied that India has played its cards in a very sophisticated way, painting the Pakistanis as paranoid schizophrenics, but that certain choices had in fact been destabilising – inevitable with anything nuclear. Others questioned why statements by retired bureaucrats questioning the NFU were prioritised over official statements adhering to the NFU. The problem with this line is that every leadership statement that has come out has only strengthened the erosion of the NFU rather than reaffirmed it.

The publicly disowned draft doctrine of 1999 had committed to an absolute NFU, while the 2003 official doctrine offered a qualified NFU retaining the right to respond to chemical and biological attacks with nuclear weapons. Then in 2010 former NSA Shivshankar Menon said that India’s NFU only applied to countries that did not possess nuclear weapons; a deliberate absurdity – since countries without nuclear weapons cannot use them first, second or third.  This was a significant dilution and the only official statement to come out since then blandly stated that India stood by its NFU without clarifying if this was the absolute NFU of 1999, the qualified NFU of 2003, or the Shivshankar's Menon's NFU-is-a-joke NFU (his recent book suggests that his 2010 statement was not off-the-cuff). Similarly, when candidate Narendra Modi (before his victory in the 2014 general election) restated India’s commitment to the NFU, it was done without clarification of what the NFU implied – absolute, qualified, or none.

None of this is a bad thing from an Indian point of view. Ambiguity is essential in a doctrine – even if it is a double-edged sword, especially when it is one of many factors contributing to Pakistan’s diversion of precious resources to what are in effect inutile weapons. So the question is, why are Indian observers getting so apoplectic when an American says exactly what India's actions and statements have been conveying to the world?

The problem is that a large section of the Indian nuclear bureaucracy is still stuck in a time warp that sees all nuclear commentary on India as criticism of a nuclear India. This was certainly the case up until 2008. Since then Washington has seen a clear fracture with nuclear realists on one side and a marginalised brood of insufferable nuclear moralists on the other. As demonstrated by the first MTCR fiasco and the NSG debacle, Indian diplomats have a problem with listening to even basic messages and reading the battlefield, and an even bigger problem with their inability to play the divide-and-rule game.

Is it any surprise then that many of those opposing the nuclear deal with India were the same ones supporting the nuclear deal with Iran? Why is it that the unguided missiles Pakistan sends to nuclear conferences "buttress deterrence," as an Israeli diplomat told this author, while “measured” Indian official representatives do “nothing to engender confidence”? When Pakistan’s duplicity is seen as masterful ambiguity and Indian ambiguity as duplicity, the problem does not lie with the rest of the world, it lies within.