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Tit for Tat: A Nuclear Retaliation Alternative

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 03, 2011

    Since the infliction of unacceptable damage may not deter Pakistan from breaking the nuclear taboo, a ‘tit for tat’ strategy in case of lower order nuclear use is worth considering.

    India’s deterrent posture is based on an assurance of inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ as punitive retaliation in case of a Pakistani nuclear first use of any sort – either on Indian territory or on Indian forces ‘anywhere’. The declaratory nuclear doctrine of 2003 has it that such a retaliation would be ‘massive’. That the term carries some significance can be discerned from the use of the word ‘very heavy’ by the former Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee to describe India’s likely nuclear reaction. It echoes General Padmanabhan’s warning during Operation Parakram that: ‘The perpetrator of that particular outrage shall be punished, shall be punished so severely that the continuation of any form of fray will be doubtful.’

    The option of ‘unacceptable damage’ commands a consensus in India for understandable reasons. India’s nuclear doctrine is for deterrence and not warfighting. However, there is one contingency that the doctrine does not address adequately well, namely, Pakistan’s defensive use of a nuclear weapon on its own territory. Such an eventuality of lower order nuclear first use does trigger the Indian doctrine since it covers Indian forces ‘anywhere’. The meting out of unacceptable damage for such a transgression or breaking of the nuclear taboo may seem disproportionate by Pakistan. In light of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the lower triple digits, an Indian response along the expounded lines may trigger a counter strike that inflicts ‘unacceptable damage’ on India. This may in turn lead to a further Indian response and ensuing escalation. Such a dénouement may not be in Indian interests, even if in the event Pakistan is ‘finished’.

    Therefore, there is a case for revisiting the nuclear doctrine to address this contingency. Currently, there are two prominent nuclear retaliation options. One is as per the official doctrine of ‘massive’ punitive retaliation; and the second is inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ which does not necessarily involve a ‘massive’ counter strike. There is also a possible third option – non-retaliation. Since India’s doctrine is one of ‘assured retaliation’, the last is not discussed any further. This commentary, however, brings out a fourth alternative: ‘tit for tat’ nuclear retaliation.

    India’s nuclear doctrine is certainly credible in case the Pakistani first use is of first strike proportions or a counter value, counter command and control, counter force or decapitation strike. In such cases, India would be politically, legally and morally empowered to return the strike with interest. Given the high credibility of such deterrence, this manner of nuclear first use may be less likely. Lower order nuclear first use as in the contingency discussed is not impossible to visualize since Pakistan would be banking on the low level ‘opprobrium quotient’ for such a strike. It would be counting on the strike to help focus war termination efforts particularly of the international community. It may wish to run the risk of a disproportionate counter by India as per its doctrine for the purpose. The moot question then is: ‘How credible is such intent of nuclear retaliation against first use not of such levels?’

    Analysts who privilege deterrence rightly note that in such cases India ought to show resolve by inflicting unacceptable damage irrespective of the type of first use. To them, this would ensure deterrence of even lower order nuclear first use. Assured of India’s punitive retaliation which would exact an unacceptable price, Pakistan would rationally choose against first use – rationality being in an easily made costs-gains calculation. However, deterrence based on the threat of ‘unacceptable damage’ may not credibly cover this lower level of nuclear first use since India would be open to a like counter strike. In case this is to be degraded, then a ‘massive’ punitive strike is called for. This is as per India’s nuclear doctrine that analysts themselves argue against. Leaving Pakistan the means to strike back would imply opening India to a similar strike. In case India destroys 5-10 Pakistani cities or value targets, Pakistan would for proportionate vengeance attempt to take out more than 10 Indian targets. Unwillingness to sustain such a strike may self-deter India. That is not to say there should be no retaliation, but that the non-punitive option suggests itself in such a case, i.e. the tit for tat option. The operational translation of this option is of a quid pro quo or a quid pro quo plus response.

    The advantage in terms of deterrence of this option is in its higher credibility for the contingency. It counters Pakistani attempts at projection of a low nuclear threshold by innovative measures such as the demonstration of the ‘Nasr’ tactical missile recently. Pakistan ends up being struck twice over by its resort to nuclear first use, one being its own weapon on its territory and the second the retaliatory one by India. It does away with the issue of disproportionate response. It enables the cornering of Pakistani decision makers in the court of international opinion, thus staying their nuclear hand further. It conveys India’s resolve adequately.

    At the political level, it helps capture the moral high ground. It caters for the understandable operation of self-deterrence in political level nuclear decision making. The decision maker has an additional option as an alternative to escalation. It does not discount the other two options on the table – ‘massive’ and ‘assured retaliation’. The ‘threat that leaves something to chance’ continues. Pakistani targets remain as hostages for further attacks, thus heightening in-conflict deterrence. In sparing Pakistan, India would itself be spared ‘unacceptable damage’. Discontinuing the exchange(s) would be easier at the lower level, conflict termination easier and the environment more amenable for post conflict peace than in the case of higher order nuclear exchanges.

    First use would unmistakably change the war into a nuclear one. Since a conflict that has gone nuclear has the potential to turn into a Total War, with undesirable consequences also for India, strategic prudence dictates attempts to restrict the cost. This can be done through two ways. One is damage limitation strikes or a massive punitive retaliation to degrade Pakistan’s retaliatory capability, which will considerably disarm Pakistan though at great environmental cost. Pakistan is reported to have about 100 weapons located at over 10 sites. Camouflage, deception and other passive and active protection measures would cumulatively deny India a first strike capability. In effect, Pakistan would have a second strike capability which would be enough to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’, even if not of ‘assured destruction’ levels. In the light of India’s declaratory doctrine Pakistan would have taken measures for pre-delegation to meet such a contingency, including a ‘dead hand’ discharge of weapons in a ‘use them-lose them’ mode.

    The second way lies in incentivising limitation even in a nuclear war. This can be done by following a ‘tit for tat’ strategy at lower levels of nuclear use. It would involve imitative strikes that would leave the onus to escalate on Pakistan, as also denying it any intended gains. India’s variegated capability, increasing numbers of nuclear weapons over time and second strike capability would ensure escalation dominance thus deterring Pakistan from upping-the-ante.

    In effect, India’s doctrine would be assured but flexible retaliation. It would amount to deterrence by denial at lower levels of nuclear first use and to deterrence by punishment for higher order nuclear use.