Sanjana Gogna is Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
September 11, 2017
For long, the international literature on the nuclear dynamics in South Asia has disregarded the role of China. Indian scholars have consistently highlighted this lacuna in the past. Many experts continue to ignore the Chinese factor in their analyses and advance clichéd assessments and raise alarmist concerns about the nuclear situation in the region.
Lately, there has been a renewed debate in Western academic circles about India’s growing predilection for an offensive nuclear posture. This supposed shift in India’s position is often interpreted as a response to Pakistan’s acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons or even to India’s inability to deter Pakistan from employing cross-border terrorism. Whatever may be the reason that is attributed, analysts alleging such a shift in India’s nuclear posture warn about the consequent heightening of nuclear risks and recommend that India demonstrate responsible nuclear behaviour.
Frank O’Donnell’s recent article, ‘Reconsidering Minimum Deterrence in South Asia: India’s Responses to Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons’ published in Contemporary Security Policy (2017), falls in this category. It strivesi to place in perspective the Indian responses generated by the introduction of the Nasr missile by Pakistan. O’Donnell delineates two ‘official’ (military and the civilian policy-makers), along with three streams of ‘strategic elite’ responses’.
O’Donnell begins by analysing Pakistan’s launch of the ‘Nasr’ and its concept of the full-spectrum deterrence. However, he seems to give credence to Pakistan’s argument that it developed tactical nuclear weapons and conceived of the concept of full spectrum deterrence in response to India’s ‘new pro-active’ military approach in the form of the so-called ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. Needless to assert that there is nothing called a Cold Start doctrine or a new ‘pro-active’ conventional war fighting approach. Each country has the right to retaliate when a war is waged against it, including a proxy war. This is certainly not a ‘new stage of regional nuclear competition’, as O’Donnell puts it.
O’Donnell has meticulously summarised the assessments of the three streams of non-governmental ‘strategic elite’ responses to the challenges and security risks Pakistan poses for India through its tactical nuclear weapons as well engagement in cross border terrorism. The three streams have been ‘labelled according to the degree of their emphasis on the minimum or maximalist logic in their policy recommendation’. The first two streams — ‘minimum deterrence with deepened conventional provocative strike planning’ and ‘minimum deterrence with new arms control commitments, make a strong case for continuing the minimum deterrence posture but differ in their approaches.
While the first stream places emphasis on improving nuclear readiness, those in the second stream argue for new arms control measures for nuclear de-escalation. The third stream of responses (‘adopting maximalist nuclear logic’) urges for an expanded role for nuclear weapons in Indian defence planning but without abandoning the posture of ‘credible minimum deterrence’.
O’Donnell has also skilfully examined various policy options for India to deter an escalation instigated by Pakistan such as ensuring an ‘assured’ rather than ‘massive’ retaliation while retaining the minimum deterrence concept, advancement of new arms control initiatives, and a reformulation of the minimum deterrence concept to include ‘conventional and un-conventional approaches’.
O’Donnell is right in drawing the conclusion that no one is questioning the Indian nuclear doctrine of credible minimum deterrence. However, his fear that India may have begun a policy shift, which is based on National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval’s omission of the term ‘minimum’ in remarks at an event in October 2014, is rather farfetched. In most likelihood, the omission may have been unintentional.
O’Donnell is also right in arguing that a more holistic view of the concept of minimum deterrence is required that categorically specifies India’s approach in conventional and sub-conventional domains. Pakistan has been projecting its nuclear weapons as those required for war fighting. It has not learnt lessons from the United States which has shifted its nuclear war-fighting doctrine to a deterrence doctrine in 2010. The ‘sole purpose’ doctrine that defines the US posture now indicates that the sole purpose of American nuclear weapons is merely to deter, not to initiate, a nuclear war. In fact, this nuclear war fighting posture of Pakistan pronounced through the Nasr is basically meant to provide a shield for its terror activities if India were at any point to try and take a corrective military measure.
His assessment of India’s commitment to the principles of restraint and responsibility in its defence practices remains inadequate. He also seems to postulate his assessment of India’s shift towards a proactive and offensive nuclear posture on rather obscure premises and mistaken assumptions. O’Donnell’s use of the phrase — ‘development of offensive conventional concepts’ for India’s conventional preparedness, is rather inappropriate and misleading.
So far, there is no official indication that India intends to keep its nuclear forces at a ‘higher readiness level’. Even the overwhelming view within the strategic community does not appear to favour this kind of readiness. India is a responsible nuclear weapons country. However, a responsible country cannot be irresponsible towards its citizens. It has to protect them. It has to stand up to nuclear blackmail. This requires appropriate preparedness. And this is what India, rather its strategic community, is discussing. O’Donnell acknowledges this reality when he writes that vis-à-vis Nasr, ‘… greater clarity and public assurance is needed from Indian nuclear policy makers …’
India’s nuclear strategy builds on the principle of restraint, and despite being a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), its policies have been greatly consistent with the key provisions of NPT that apply to nuclear-weapon states. India’s declared nuclear doctrine of 2003, which stands by principles such as credible minimum deterrence, No-First-Use (NFU), non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states, remains a fundamental document till date. The Indian government has not shown any indication that it is attempting to deviate from these declared norms. India’s record when it comes to observable and measurable benchmarks of responsible nuclear behaviour is a largely positive one.
Pakistan, on the other hand, continues to expand the size of its nuclear arsenal, including with the Nasr platform. This expansion will take place notwithstanding India’s policy or posture. Pakistan’s aggressive military strategy combined with an expanding nuclear weapons arsenal should be a matter of deep concern for the whole world, not merely for India. Pakistan has refused to adopt the NFU policy, and takes undue advantage of its nuclear shield to support and sponsor terrorist attacks in India without any fear of retaliation.
Frank O’Donnell has also ignored the deep-rooted Sino-Pak nuclear axis that operates within the region. China has extensively assisted Pakistan in building nuclear delivery capabilities, often violating the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Pakistan’s medium range ballistic missiles Shaheen I and II also closely correspond to China’s ‘M’ series of ballistic missiles.
The Nasr platform, as O’Donnell has rightly mentioned, is still in ‘very early stages of deployment’. The Indian government has not issued any official response to its launch. When former Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) Shyam Saran addressed the issue of Nasr and India’s massive retaliation threat in a speech in 2013, he was only holding a consultative position. To ascertain the seriousness of the Nasr challenge based on certain views prevailing within Indian non-official circles and think tanks would be a serious mistake. Frank O’Donnel also argues that Nasr threatens India’s ability to deter Pakistan and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. While Pakistan’s aggressive strategies raise serious concerns for India, and the rest of the world, its Nasr programme certainly is not a threat to India’s security and survival.
The suggestions that come from different quarters, including in the article of Frank O’Donnell, that India should replace the policy of massive retaliation with that of assured retaliation or flexible response, may fail to send the fitting signal to Pakistani aggressive posturing and terror acts and undermine the logic of credible minimum deterrence.
Frank O’Donnell’s proposal that India can take initiatives ‘unilaterally’ to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons, like it did by signing the Hague Code of Conduct, may be inconceivable. India has done its best to launch a global campaign for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, but nuclear weapons countries do not appear very enthusiastic about it. O’Donnell’s alternative option for an India-Pakistan agreement for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons could be a non-starter considering Pakistan’s policies of first use.
The ‘proactive conventional concept’ that O’Donnell claims to have been adopted by India has no substantive basis. India’s security needs differ in a great deal from Pakistan’s, as India has to deal with a greater security challenge from China. Pakistan has a reactionary history of nuclear and missile development and it continues to challenge India’s security through proxy wars and state-sponsored terrorism. The nuclear escalation risk cannot be contained by the revision of India’s minimum deterrence policy —as Frank O’Donnell recommends, but with a change in Pakistan’s behaviour. Regional stability is possible only if Pakistan starts to practice restraint, act responsibly, and include the principle of NFU in its nuclear doctrine.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.