The Debate Over Indian Nuclear Strategy is Heating Up

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Most debates on South Asian security strategy tend to not attract much attention amongst U.S. policymakers except during the occasional crisis. Warnings about arms racing, belligerence, and nuclear risks between India and Pakistan have become so commonplace that they elicit yawns or eye rolls. Some aspects of the rivalry (namely the border ceremony) have even been parodied in a sitcom. It is noteworthy then that this past weekend The New York Times andThe Wall Street Journal both felt compelled to write about potential changes in India’s nuclear strategy and doctrine.

The impetus for these articles emerged from the recent Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., where MIT professor Vipin Narang suggested that India might be rethinking its current nuclear strategy and considering “preemptive nuclear counterforce.” Other notable analysts, Ajai ShuklaShashank Joshi, andAnkit Panda, all lent support to this assessment. The status quo “retaliation only doctrine” is relatively uncontroversial and ostensibly defensive in nature because it proposes the use of nuclear weapons only in response to WMD use against India. However, Narang points out that recent statements from senior Indian government and defense officials suggest India could be shifting toward a counter-force strategy. Such a strategy would seek to target and disarm Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and related military infrastructure by destroying them with nuclear strikes. Whether in the form of a preemptive first strike or a massive second strike, this strategy is inherently more offensive than the current counter-value strategy, which targets Pakistani cities in response to a nuclear attack against India.

Many of the responses to Narang’s argument – including one at War on the Rocks – have been dismissive, with many questioning first, whether a shift is actually occurring; second, if India possesses the requisite capabilities to enact a counterforce doctrine; or third, if a shift would be inherently destabilizing. For example, critics suggest that discussions of flexible options are just part of the “constant process of churning of ideas” in India’s “vibrant democracy,” and “too much is being read into,” misinterpreted, or “cherry-picked” by U.S.-based analysts. Others have taken issue less with the merits of the argument than its potential use by both states to justify the expansion of their nuclear arsenals. In fact, both Indian and Pakistani analysts have already made this point.

Although there is something to these criticisms, one should not dismiss the significance of this potential shift in Indian nuclear strategy too quickly. The risks that growing capabilities and shifting strategic logics bring to the subcontinent are too dangerous not to warrant further consideration.

Take it Seriously

As others have pointed out, declaratory doctrine does not need to change in order for strategy to change. It is critical to remember that three major voices from the highest echelons of the military, the governing political party, and the civil service elite have all suggested a potential shift in nuclear strategy. These include Strategic Forces Commander Lt. Gen. B.S. Nagal, former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, and retired National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon. Again, it is important to remember that these officials rose to the very top of their field because of their experience with strategic issues and acute awareness that their words would be read and parsed for meaning. Those arguing Menon, Nagal, or Parrikar affirm declaratory doctrine one breath after challenging no first-use or counter-value targeting discount how these former officials might be suggesting the two positions are congruent. Other Indian scholars concur that the language of preemption or a “comprehensive first strike” is not out of context and reinforces India’s assured retaliation posture.

Only Parrikar’s remarks questioning no first-use could be construed as off-the-cuff, as they were delivered at a book launch. However, context is important: His comments were delivered during a discussion about India’s more aggressive response to cross-border terrorism with so-called “surgical strikes” so it seems likely he was quite intentional with his words. Nagal’s and Menon’s statements come from deliberative publications that likely went through some form of peer review with ample opportunity for revision. If they chose to invoke terms like “comprehensive first strike,” which is well understood in defense circles, it was not an unintentional choice.

Some dismiss these statements as cheap talk only meant to trigger uncertainty in Pakistan. However, such criticism ignores the quiet development of counter-force capabilities in India. Led principally by the scientific/technical community, India is building up some of the necessary capabilities to allow for a quick shift in strategy, technologically putting themselves in “a position to adopt a very different posture” if future political support materializes.

Quietly More Capable Than You Might Expect

In criticizing Narang’s argument, others have dismissed the prospects of preemptive counter-force on the basis of capability shortfalls that would complicate a shift in Indian strategy. In his own remarks, Narang himself was skeptical of India’s ability to do this at present. Critics have argued that since India does not have the platforms, the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity or the numbers to completely disarm Pakistan with a counterforce strike, analyzing a shift in strategy is a moot point. Still, the potential aspiration alone is worrisome and worthy of further consideration.

For almost a decade now, India has been slowly developing platforms and tools that extend beyond an assured retaliation posture. These include “canisterized” systems (warheads pre-mated to the delivery vehicle) for increased readiness, short-range missiles, hypersonic weapons, cruise missiles, multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), and ballistic missile defenses, which are all particularly useful for offensive counter-force missions like a “splendid” first strike, damage limitation, or even nuclear warfighting. Thus, going from counter-value to counter-force signals a potential shift from a strategy of deterrence through punishment to one of deterrence through denial.

India is also building up its ISR capabilities. It presently surveils the Line of Control with drones and is close to acquiring its first missile-armed drones from Israel. India has also tested an indigenous medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, launched a multi-media communications satellite “intended to augment its military’s network-centric warfare capabilities,” and will likely purchase two intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance aircraft from the United States. No doubt there remain considerable obstacles to the development of India’s ISR capabilities, including prohibitive costs and delays due to internal politics. Nevertheless, India’s recent technology purchases suggest it is moving towards generating real-time targeting information that could be used to track an adversary’s mobile missiles, a crucial factor for counter-force targeting.

Additionally, the numbers problem is not as insurmountable as one might expect. One scholar offers some back-of-the-envelope calculations to estimate the number of targets India would have to hit to be confident of a disarming or “splendid” first strike. While the numbers seem daunting, Indian leaders might try to convince themselves they only need between 15-30 specific strategic targets with nuclear missiles. The other targets, including the tactical nuclear weapon-laden Nasr missile batteries, could be targeted with precision conventional missiles and airstrikes. Even if some Nasr batteries survived, Indian planners might conclude they could be intercepted with Indian ballistic missile defenses or absorb tactical nuclear blows without strategic consequence. The Nasr’s short range of 60 kilometersensures that even if these batteries were moved to the border, they could not hit any major Indian cities except Amritsar. With the vast majority of India’s population therefore secure, a preemptive strike could be all the more enticing to India in a crisis. Reassurances that India would only use conventional platforms to hunt Pakistan’s nuclear assets does not mitigate but compounds fears because it suggests India might have numerous capabilities to employ in a disarming first strike.


Read the full article on War on the Rocks here

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