Lim­it­ing a Sub­con­ti­nen­tal Nu­clear War

In­dia’s con­ven­tional ad­van­tage stands faced with a stale­mate brought about by in­tro­duc­tion of Hatf IX or Nasr (mis­sile) by Pak­istan. This im­plies that In­dia must also have limited nu­clear op­tions up its sleeve.

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In­dia’s con­ven­tional ad­van­tage stands faced with a stale­mate brought about by in­tro­duc­tion of Hatf IX or Nasr (mis­sile) by Pak­istan

PAK­ISTAN BY IN­TRO­DUC­ING TAC­TI­CAL nu­clear weapons into its ar­moury has at­tempted to check­mate In­dia’s con­ven­tional war doc­trine of proac­tive of­fen­sive from a ‘cold start’. Since In­dia’s mil­i­tary has been pre­par­ing to fight in a nu­clear en­vi­ron­ment since its Ex­er­cise To­tal Vic­tory in 2001, it is not at the con­ven­tional level that In­dia is seek­ing an an­swer to Pak­istan’s nu­clear chal­lenge. From the re­cent flurry in strate­gic cir­cles brought on by BJP’s ref­er­ence to nu­clear doc­trine in its man­i­festo has emerged con­tend­ing views on what In­dia must do, firstly to de­ter Pak­istan and se­condly, to re­spond ef­fec­tively.

Nu­clear or­tho­doxy would lie in be­liev­ing that en­sur­ing the cred­i­bil­ity of ‘ mas­sive’ re­tal­i­a­tion as­sures de­ter­rence. Faced by cred­i­ble In­dian ac­tions to en­sure fol­low through with its doc­trine will stay Pak­istan’s nu­clear hand. In­dia by not recog­nis­ing any dis­tinc­tion between tac­ti­cal and strate­gic nu­clear weapons and be­liev­ing that limited nu­clear war is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms will ap­pear im­pla­ca­ble to Pak­istan. Pak­istan will then de­sist from nu­clear first use.

Ques­tion­ing the Sta­tus Quo

Some have ques­tioned the cred­i­bil­ity of an intention to go ‘mas­sive’, short hand for counter value tar­get­ing. Even if counter value tar­get­ing is ab­jured, in or­der to pre­serve own value tar­gets from be­ing the ob­ject of the en­emy’s counter re­tal­i­a­tion, then ‘mas­sive’ would im­ply higher or­der counter mil­i­tary tar­get­ing. This im­plies con­sid­er­able col­lat­eral dam­age of an or­der as to make counter value tar­get­ing in­dis­tin­guish­able from higher or­der counter mil­i­tary tar­get­ing.

Given the mag­ni­tude of such a strike, it can plau­si­bly be ar­gued that Pak­istan would be ‘fin­ished’. But would the war end at that? Pak­istan has taken care to get into the lower three dig­its in terms of war­head num­bers. Th­ese it has been cau­tious enough to spread across six to ten or more sites. There­fore, it has po­ten­tial for counter strike, or a sec­ond strike ca­pa­bil­ity. It is un­likely that In­dia’s mis­sile de­fences, cur­rently in in­fancy and likely to be of limited cred­i­bil­ity when ma­ture, would be able to ward off the counter strike en­tirely. Even if such a counter is bro­ken-backed, it would be con­sid­er­ably dam­ag­ing and likely of ‘un­ac­cept­able dam­age’ lev­els if not more. In­dia would then, as part of its ‘mas­sive’ strike, have to en­sure a counter force at­tack to set back this resid­ual abil­ity of counter strike of Pak­istan.

A counter force at­tack tar­get­ing Pak­istan’s nu­clear as­sets would of ne­ces­sity have to be con­sid­er­ably large. In­dia would be faced with a large tar­get set and widely spread with Pak­istan’s ‘crown jew­els’ be­ing with the strate­gic forces com­mands of all three ser­vices across Pak­istan and in­deed if on diesel sub­marines, also at sea. Some would be pos­tured for­ward to give cred­i­bil­ity to the low nu­clear thresh­old it pro­jects. Some may be held back as re­serve in or­der to pro­vide for a sec­ond strike ca­pa­bil­ity.

In­dia can de­crease the nu­clear ord­nance used by en­sur­ing degra­da­tion through con­ven­tional means as also by se­lec­tive tar­get­ing, such as of Pak­istan’s com­mand and con­trol sys­tems. At places even Spe­cial Forces could be em­ployed. It can make the nu­clear degra­da­tion task eas­ier by re­ly­ing on in­tel­li­gence, both tech­no­log­i­cal and hu­man and on for­eign sources of sup­port on this score, in­clud­ing per­haps Is­rael and at a pinch even the US.

A de­graded arse­nal would im­ply re­duc­tion by about a third, which means tak­ing out about 40 war­heads. Even if con­ven­tional at­tacks take care of a fourth of this amount, there are still 30 re­main­ing. To take out 30 weapons that are mil­i­tar­ily ready to use, would re­quire at least an equiv­a­lent num­ber to be launched. More likely, a nu­clear degra­da­tion strike would in­volve a min­i­mum 50 nu­clear ex­plo­sions in Pak­istan.

As men­tioned if Pak­istan was to launch a bedrag­gled counter strike, com­pris­ing, say, a sixth of its num­bers left, this num­ber in­creases to 60 ex­plo­sions. Even if In­dia takes care to con­fig­ure most of its re­tal­ia­tory strike to en­sure against fall­out, Pak­istan is un­likely to be so in­clined. There­fore, there can be ex­pected to be at least 30 mush­room clouds formed by about 60 ex­plo­sions across the sub­con­ti­nent.

Pak­istan with its ten nu­clear bombs lobbed can­not be ex­pected to take out more than per­haps three cities. Even if we are to here as­sume that Mum­bai and Delhi are not among th­ese and In­dia can cope with three cities less, vi­su­al­is­ing 30 fall­out hotspots, in­clud­ing ur­ban cen­tres, may give a bet­ter idea of the post­nu­clear ex­change en­vi­ron­ment for the re­gion. A re­port late last year by the Physi­cians for So­cial Re­spon­si­bil­ity and the In­ter­na­tional Physi­cians for the Pre­ven­tion of Nu­clear War, ‘Nu­clear Famine: Two Bil­lion Peo­ple at Risk?’, is on ef­fects on cli­mate and in turn im­pact on agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion. Its hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nario is of a limited nu­clear war between In­dia and Pak­istan in­volv­ing 100 det­o­na­tions. Since in our sce­nario only 60 weapons have been used, it would im­ply that th­ese fig­ures can be re­duced by about a third. Even so, they are bad enough.

Surely then, such a pos­si­bil­ity should de­ter Pak­istan from nu­clear first use. There­fore, at first blush, ‘mas­sive’ seems to be a plau­si­ble doc­trine. How­ever, the prob­lem is that since the ma­jor por­tion of the nu­clear win­ter would be brought on by In­dia’s do­ing - its go­ing ‘mas­sive’ - In­dia too would be self-de­terred. This would in­crease Pak­istan’s propen­sity for nu­clear first use, es­pe­cially in a low-thresh­old, early-use mode com­pris­ing low op­pro­brium lev­els of at­tack with limited nu­clear ord­nance.

Look­ing for An­swers

If first use pos­si­bil­ity is height­ened for want of cred­i­bil­ity of the ‘mas­sive’ for­mu­la­tion, an­tic­i­pat­ing the na­ture of Pak­istani nu­clear first use and having an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse is in or­der. This owes to In­dia want­ing to work its con­ven­tional ad­van­tage in case nec­es­sary. The con­ven­tional ad­van­tage stands faced with a stale­mate brought about by in­tro­duc­tion of Nasr by Pak­istan. This im­plies that In­dia must also have limited nu­clear op­tions up its sleeve.

It is also ev­i­dent that nei­ther coun­try can pos­si­bly think of tak­ing fur­ther step up the nu­clear lad­der than the very lower rungs. Re­ceiv­ing ‘un­ac­cept­able dam­age’ from Pak­istan may set In­dia back with re­spect to its main long-term chal­lenge on the east­ern front. It is here that a ‘flex­i­ble’ nu­clear re­tal­i­a­tion doc­trine makes more sense than ‘mas­sive’. The ap­pre­hen­sion among ad­vo­cates of ‘mas­sive’ is that in case ‘mas­sive’ is aban­doned in favour of ‘flex­i­ble’ then there is a threat of go­ing down the Cold War nu­clear war wag­ing doc­tri­nal route of hy­per alert­ness, aban­don­ment of ‘min­i­mum’ in the doc­trine and an op­er­a­tional readi­ness en­abling the mil­i­tary greater say at the strate­gic and op­er­a­tional lev­els. There is also the need to think about es­ca­la­tion con­trol and war termination.

This de­bate between ‘mas­sive’ and ‘flex­i­ble’ cur­rently on­go­ing means a ‘third model’ is nec­es­sary. The third model has not found men­tion in the re­cent de­bate though it has been around since the early 1990s in the writ­ings of Gen­eral Sun­darji. His con­ven­tional war think­ing, re­cently re­vised by the move to­wards Cold Start, eclipsed his nu­clear doc­tri­nal rec­om­men­da­tion. His sage ad­vice of the early 1990s can help pull In­dia out of its strate­gic cul de sac.

The Sun­darji doc­trine has it that ad­ver­sar­ial nu­clear states must work out a modus vivendi to end a nu­clear con­fronta­tion at the low­est thresh­old of nu­clear use, if nec­es­sary by mu­tual po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic con­ces­sions. The sense in the Sun­darji doc­trine is that it elim­i­nates ‘mas­sive’ as op­tion and caters for the short­falls of ‘flex­i­ble’ doc­trine.

It is pred­i­cated on the co­op­er­a­tion pos­si­ble between both nu­clear bel­liger­ents mu­tu­ally in­ter­ested to avoid a worse out­come. This would en­tail cre­at­ing the nec­es­sary nu­clear risk re­duc­tion mea­sures prior and work­ing th­ese with the help of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in case con­ven­tional push comes to nu­clear shove. The op­por­tu­nity for a re­view can help bring Sun­darji’s nu­clear sense back to the sub­con­ti­nent.

Con­tours of the Doc­trine Re­view

It is pos­si­ble that this is al­ready present in am­ple mea­sure in that even as In­dia main­tains the ‘mas­sive’ declara­tory doc­trine for de­ter­rence; it may well have an op­er­a­tional doc­trine that en­vis­ages limited nu­clear op­er­a­tions for the con­tin­gency of break­down of de­ter­rence. There­fore the op­er­a­tional nu­clear doc­trine may al­ready be dif­fer­ent and pred­i­cated on ‘flex­i­ble’ doc­trine. In this case, the im­pend­ing doc­trine re­view pro­vides In­dia an op­por­tu­nity to, firstly, to match the declara­tory and op­er­a­tional nu­clear doc­trines, and, se­condly, cater for es­ca­la­tion con­trol through nu­clear risk re­duc­tion mea­sures.

That a con­ver­gence between declara­tory and op­er­a­tional nu­clear doc­trines is nec­es­sary stems from the need for cred­i­bil­ity. A nu­clear state must say what it means and means what it says. The fear may be that ad­mit­ting to ‘flex­i­ble’ doc­trine in­volv­ing limited nu­clear op­er­a­tions may be to ad­mit in­cred­i­bil­ity of the ‘mas­sive’ for­mu­la­tion. It may be thought to re­duce In­dia’s sta­tus as a re­spon­si­ble and ma­ture nu­clear power that ab­stains from nu­clear war-fight­ing think­ing, be­liev­ing that nu­clear weapons are a class apart as weapons. Also, there may be skep­ti­cism on Pak­istan’s cred­i­bil­ity as an co­op­er­a­tive in­ter­locu­tor in a nu­clear risk re­duc­tion mech­a­nism such as a nu­clear risk re­duc­tion cen­tre.

How­ever, a con­ver­gence between the two – declara­tory and op­er­a­tional—would en­able lim­it­ing nu­clear war in case it does break out. Given that po­ten­tial trig­gers re­main ac­tive; this is not a non-triv­ial con­sid­er­a­tion, es­pe­cially when both states con­tinue to be proac­tive on the sub­con­ven­tional and con­ven­tional lev­els re­spec­tively.

But more im­por­tantly, any such shift must not de­grade de­ter­rence. While it is self­evi­dent that ‘mas­sive’ is in­cred­i­ble, it is ar­guable that ‘flex­i­ble’, with es­ca­la­tion con­trols of the ‘third model’, does not de­grade de­ter­rence. There­fore, while a shift is in­cum­bent to make to ‘flex­i­ble’, can it in­volve a move all the way to the ‘third (Sun­darji) model’ is the ques­tion.

Since ‘flex­i­ble’ does not an­swer to the cri­tique of the ‘mas­sive’ votaries that es­ca­la­tion is ‘in­ex­orable’, the third model can be used to sup­ple­ment the ‘flex­i­ble’ model to en­able es­ca­la­tion con­trol and con­flict termination. Clearly, war be­ing an act of pol­i­tics, lim­it­ing nu­clear war is a must and only con­duct­ing limited nu­clear op­er­a­tions aimed at ex­change(s) termination and con­flict termination can bring this about.

There­fore, think­ing on how the com­bined po­lit­i­cal-diplo­matic-in­for­ma­tion-mil­i­tary-nu­clear op­er­a­tions will work out is what the doc­trine re­view must strive to­wards. This is ever more so if in­deed limited nu­clear op­er­a­tions are what the Strate­gic Forces Com­mand is al­ready seized with. It can­not be solely a mil­i­tary ex­er­cise nor be mil­i­tary led. Doc­tri­nal clar­ity to­wards this end will bring about the ‘all of gov­ern­ment ap­proach’ nec­es­sary to limit nu­clear war.

The writer is au­thor of In­dia’s Doc­trine Puzzle: Lim­it­ing War in South Asia (Rout­ledge). He blogs at: www.ali-writ­ings.blogspot.in.

Agni-V mis­sile

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