India’s nuclear logic

The former Indian foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, gave a revealing speech on India’s nuclear deterrent on April 24th. The speech was titled, somewhat vaguely, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?”

But it more usefully updated India’s nuclear weapons status in a way that hasn’t happened since the release of the draft nuclear doctrine back in the early 2000s.

The most striking part of the speech doctrinally responded to Pakistan’s supposed move to develop tactical nuclear capability. Saran made it clear that India wouldn’t distinguish between a kiloton weapon aimed at tanks or a megatonner aimed at a city. “The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective. A limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms. Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level. Pakistan would be prudent not to assume otherwise as it sometimes appears to do, most recently by developing and perhaps deploying theatre nuclear weapons.”

The speech also fitted in place missing bits of India’s nuclear puzzle.

He confirmed that two legs of India’s nuclear triad — airborne weapons and rail and mobile land-based nuclear warheads — have been completed. And he laid out a timetable for the completion of the third submarine-based leg.

He also confirmed that an official nuclear doctrine has been approved, and bemoaned the face it has not been made public.

“Since January 4, 2003, when India adopted its nuclear doctrine formally at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), it has moved to put in place, at a measured pace, a triad of land-based, air-delivered and submarine-based nuclear forces and delivery assets to conform to its declared doctrine of no-first use and retaliation only. It has had to create a command and control infrastructure that can survive a first strike and a fully secure communication system that is reliable and hardened against radiation or electronic interference.” Saran argues that if the doctrine cannot be revealed, then India should at least release an annual Strategic Posture Review.

I feel Saran pulled his punches on arguing for the doctrine to be made public. Deterrent works only by being transparent about intent and capability. Otherwise, an opponent may conclude the deterrent is a bluff. At a time when Pakistan is slowly losing its political marbles, the logic of such transparency is stronger than ever.

The speech also lays out a potted history of India’s nuclear posture. One of the more forceful parts of the speech refutes the argument that India went nuclear largely for reasons of prestige. It was China, China and China, Saran makes clear.

“I find somewhat puzzling assertions by some respected security analysts, both Indian and foreign, that India’s nuclear weapons programme has been driven by notions of prestige or global standing rather than by considerations of national security.”

He also makes the argument that India’s nuclear environment with its three-nation minuet makes a lot of the strategy that evolved in the West irrelevant. “It is because of this complexity that notions of flexible response and counter-force targeting, which appeared to have a certain logic in a binary US-Soviet context, lose their relevance in the multi-dimensional threat scenario which prevails certainly in our region.” This is an interesting argument but needs a lot more explaining than this speech was able to.

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