The recent brouhaha over the alleged reconsideration of India’s nuclear no first use policy by a potential Bharatiya Janata Party government was disappointing. One, it was unnerving to watch how paranoid politicians are of even a mischievous, unsubstantiated rumour. Two, it was distressing to realise that something as serious as a country’s nuclear posture could be so profoundly influenced – the prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi himself denied the rumours and swept NFU off the table – by a handful of editorials from those not acquainted with the details of India’s nuclear capabilities and threat matrix. And three, the country’s stated policy remains woefully ill-conceived and inadequate to counter the stated nuclear postures of its neighbours.
Modi’s promise to retain the nuclear NFU policy was not, all things considered, a bad decision even if his ostensible reason was. Though abandoning NFU might have given India’s strategic planners greater operational flexibility, there was little advantage to be gained by doing so either. India’s conventional superiority in the west and the untraversable terrain in the east provide enough of a buffer for Delhi to eschew nuclear first strike. The only advantage of an NFU, which Modi inadvertently secured, was the diplomatic and public relations benefit of India being viewed as a mature and restrained nuclear power.
The BJP’s resolution to reconsider the country’s nuclear doctrine, however, could not be more welcome. It has been over a decade since India’s nuclear policy was formulated and a nuclear posture review that considers the technological and political developments since 1998 is much needed. Delhi’s present nuclear deterrence policy of massive retaliation is comical and desperately requires a rethink.
The core promise of massive retaliation is that the use of even the smallest nuclear device will result in an immediate response of the full fury of India’s nuclear arsenal. In most situations, this would be catastrophic overreaction. For example, would a tactical nuclear strike on an Indian armoured column 20 kilometres outside Lahore be grounds for turning Pakistan into a radioactive parking lot? Would a warning detonation in India’s uninhabited desert? Furthermore, what incentive does massive retaliation give an adversary to hold back from total nuclear war once its red lines are crossed?
A more flexible response would involve the development of tactical nuclear weapons. Analysts frequently note the failure of of these smaller battlefield weapons to increase stability during the Cold War. As Thomas Schelling warns, a small conflict may not remain so and there is always the fear of nuclear escalation. In a game of nuclear one-upmanship between two powers close to nuclear parity, escalation dominance is near impossible to achieve. However, the South Asian case is different – neither side is operating with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads nor is there the unpalatable potential of having to use nuclear weapons on allied soil.
Another way of looking at battlefield nuclear warheads is that the quantum of damage is significantly reduced from city busters and gives warring parties a small chance to escape the suicidal nuclear spiral. Furthermore, the explicit targeting of civilians only escalates conflict, makes de-escalation psychologically difficult, morally unjustifiable, and serves no military purpose.
The catch-22 of the nuclear debate is that strategic nuclear weapons are considered unusable in war and tactical nuclear weapons run the risk of escalation and yet one sees few nuclear powers rushing to disarm. An arsenal that is composed more of tactical weapons and few strategic weapons offers greater flexibility in battle, gives some chance to avoid an all or nothing nuclear exchange, and reduces the possibility of senseless targeting of non-combatants.
Developing an entirely tactical arsenal – nothing stops one from lobbing several sub-kiloton warheads at a megapolis in a crunch – does not mean that control of nuclear weapons will be released to field commanders the moment full-scale conventional war breaks out. A system can be implemented wherein release of each warhead is sanctioned by a central command that has the advantage of real-time satellite imagery and fuller knowledge of the entire theatre of war.
Giving the military weapons it cannot use sounds more like a bureaucratic boondoggle more than a defence strategy. The military must educate, train, and familiarise itself with nuclear weapons and the implications of their use; bureaucrats and generals must strategise together on the political, tactical, and other implications of nuclear weapons use in various scenarios. These reports – tactical as well as strategic and political – must inform civilian politicians as they decide on the country’s nuclear doctrine. As it stands, India’s posture appears to be influenced far too much by abstract theories from a conflict too removed from the subcontinent’s realities.