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The Need For Clarity In India’s Nuclear Doctrine

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 11, 2008

    While the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of August 1999 was an elaborate document, the press release of the Cabinet Committee on Security on India’s operationalisation of its nuclear doctrine of January 4, 2003 was, on the other hand, very succinct. While reflexively it may be said that India’s doctrine is predicated on a nuclear retaliation of sufficient magnitude to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’ against nuclear use by an adversary against India or its forces anywhere, it is contended here that there has been a shift in the doctrine as explicated in the press release to potentially countenance ‘flexible response’. Since transparency in the nuclear doctrine is important for communication of nuclear intent to potential adversaries, there is a requirement of spelling out the nuclear doctrine in greater measure. This article brings to the fore the need for clarity by challenging the commonly held position that India’s doctrine is one of ‘assured destruction’ by making the case that it can equally be interpreted as ‘graduated deterrence’. In doing so, it highlights an area of potential confusion and recommends that this be addressed.

    The understanding widely held is that India’s nuclear doctrine is one of assured retaliation of a massive order or ‘assured destruction’ – defined as a strategy based on a high order counter value threat. This is explicable as it is in keeping with India’s philosophy regarding nuclear weapons as being ‘political weapons’ not meant for nuclear use. Their only utility is to deter the threat or use of nuclear weapons by adversaries against India. Since these are not meant for war fighting, they have a role in operationalising India’s philosophy of ‘deterrence by punishment’. This is in keeping with the other pillars of India’s nuclear doctrine, namely, No First Use, minimum credible deterrent, unilateral moratorium on testing and amenability to universal nuclear disarmament.

    The National Security Advisory Board came up with a Draft Nuclear Doctrine (Draft) positing ‘massive retaliation’ for consideration by the government in August 1999 after the Kargil conflict of that summer. In the Draft, the relevant portion has been articulated thus: “Any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor” {Para 2.3 (b)}.1In the wake of Operation Parakram of 2001-02, the government, through a press release from the Cabinet Committee on Security on January 4, 2003, confirmed the adoption of the nuclear doctrine that was explicated in a press release. The appropriate portion is extracted below:

    “(ii) A posture of “No First Use”: Nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere;

    (iii) Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”2(Italics added)

    The doctrine is now one of ‘assured retaliation’ to nuclear use by an adversary with the proviso that this would be massive in the case of first strike. In other words, retaliation in face of sub ‘first strike’ levels or usage could be of a lower order. In effect, India’s nuclear doctrine has moved away from one of assuredly inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’ posited in the Draft to one that potentially includes ‘flexible’ or ‘graduated’ response. This shift from ‘assured destruction’ to ‘graduated deterrence’ has not been adequately registered in strategic commentaries, with most commentators continuing to believe that India’s nuclear doctrine continues to be one of retaliation of a massive order.

    In case the sub para (ii) of the press release (reproduced above) is being over-interpreted and meanings not meant to be derived are being arrived at here, then it points to the element of confusion induced by the press release - referred to in the introductory paragraph of this article. There is, therefore, a need to clarify to the strategic community, the interested public and indeed, more importantly, to potential adversaries, exactly what is intended. In case India’s nuclear deterrence is in accord with the popularly subscribed view in the strategic community, then the words ‘first strike’ would require to be substituted by ‘first use’ in a review of the doctrine. In such a case, the official doctrine requires to reiterate the Draft’s wordings that “India can and will retaliate with sufficient nuclear weapons to inflict destruction and punishment that the aggressor will find unacceptable” (Para 4.1) for any form of nuclear ‘first use’.

    Such a critique is not mere hair-splitting for these terms have specific definitions and are not inter-changeable. For the distinction, a resort to noted nuclear pundit Lawrence Freedman’s Evolution of Nuclear Strategy is in order. ‘First strike’ is the opening volley directed against largely counter-force targets with the intent of crippling the adversary’s means of nuclear retaliation.3 This would amount to nuclear first use of a high order against which massive retaliation would be rational, politically acceptable and legitimate.

    First strike is, however, not necessarily the only manner of nuclear first use. A sub-first strike level of nuclear first use is feasible and may even be rational and legally and politically sustainable in the circumstance of the conflict. Against such a form of nuclear first use, such as against military forces that threaten the nuclear threshold of a belligerent, ‘assured retaliation’, may not be the best response option and most certainly should not be the sole response option. On receipt of a nuclear first use by the enemy not amounting to ‘first strike’, several factors would impact nuclear decision making. These include the aspect of self-deterrence; the need for proportionality and discrimination in keeping with the laws of armed conflict; escalatory potential of response options; international pressures; economy of force considerations; need for equivalence between the crime and punishment; and the need to win subsequent peace. Therefore, ‘flexible response’ has much to recommend it. If this is the nuclear doctrine India has apparently moved to, it requires acknowledging this explicitly.

    It needs to be highlighted that the possibility of a shift away from ‘assured destruction’ through ‘massive retaliation’ was already thoughtfully worked into the Draft (Para 2.4) in the following manner:

    “India's peace time (Italics added) posture aims at convincing any potential aggressor that:

    (a) any threat of use of nuclear weapons against India shall invoke measures to counter the threat; and

    (b) any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.”

    Interestingly, the term ‘massive’ has not been used in the Draft but finds mention in the press release. That it has not been used in the Draft indicates that retaliation need not have ‘massive’ connotations, so long as its quantum would make it ‘unacceptable’ to the aggressor. ‘Punitive retaliation’ to inflict ‘unacceptable’ damage does not necessarily require massive retaliation. Therefore, the quantum of retaliation was left as a matter of political and operational choice to be dictated by the circumstance. The decision maker is thus not constrained in the options available for nuclear retaliation, which could be massive while not being necessarily so.

    This is evident from the fact that the Draft does not mention the nature of the retaliation during war time, restricted as it is to the projection of the posture in peace time. For in-conflict deterrence posture to be different from a peace time posture is sensible and has been catered for in the Draft accordingly. Thus, the Draft has been a precursor for the officially adopted doctrine and there is an element of continuity between the two. The nature of the deterrent posture in war time not having been reflected on indicates that other options have not been ruled out. The Draft, in not overly restricting the government’s nuclear options, had potentially ruled in ‘flexible response’, which the official nuclear doctrine has virtually accepted. In case this is an incorrect impression, then there is no reason for the word ‘peace time’ to have figured in the Draft. It has evidently been used advisedly and calls for an interpretation along the line contended here.

    Such options could include a quid pro quo, quid pro quo plus or a spasmic strike, as posited by General Sundarji.4 While the peace time posture would appear to rule these out, the nature of the in-conflict deterrent posture – not having been explicated – cannot be said, ipso facto, to have ruled these out. India’s response is to be dictated by the guiding philosophy given in the Draft as: “India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.” Action, informed by such intent, while ruling out quid pro quo, could still countenance a quid pro quo plus response. Since the press release explicitly mentions ‘massive’ retaliation only in case of first strike, it rules in the quid pro quo option also. In effect, India has now a nuclear deterrent posture that potentially rules in ‘flexible response’. This marked shift has not drawn any strategic comment and, on that account, requires deliberation by the strategic community and even perhaps, an elaboration by the National Security Coulcil.

    The Draft puts its function to serve only as a guide thus: “Details of policy and strategy concerning force structures, deployment and employment (Italics added) of nuclear forces will flow from this framework and will be laid down separately and kept under constant review (Para 1.6).” That this has been done has been communicated through the press release and, therefore, the same can be taken as authoritative. Since this is the critical source document informing thinking on India’s nuclear deterrence posture, there is a need to clarify exactly what is India’s nuclear posture. Is it ‘assured destruction’? Or, does it rule in ‘flexible response’?

    Here it must be acknowledged that the Draft was not to be taken as the government’s position, even though it was released for discussion by the then National Security Advisor and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Shri B Mishra. That it was not the official position was clarified after its release by a senior minister in the NDA government, Shri Jaswant Singh. The Draft can, however, be taken as informing the doctrine officially adopted and explicated in the press release. There are elements of continuities and discontinuities between the two. However, the press release is the authoritative statement and is very clear. That it has, however, given rise to an interpretation at variance with the commonly held notion of Indian deterrence, there is a case for clarifying the issue. To this author, the official doctrine is indeed one positing ‘flexible response’ as evident from its use of ‘first strike’ as against ‘first use’ in the relevant sentence. That this fact has not been registered by the wider strategic community is why the point being raised here for wider debate.

    The only fallout from acknowledging the shift would be on India’s position that nuclear weapons are only for deterring. This is not affected in a major way by the shift to ‘flexible response’ since having a menu of options does not degrade deterrence. Instead, an ‘assured destruction’ posture is not credible against enemy nuclear first use of a lower order, such as a counter force attack on invading forces on his own territory. Therefore, there is a case for the shift and acknowledging the shift openly. The strategic commentaries that have largely missed the shift should also reflect on its implications. In this manner the public - that has a right to know in a democratic system - and the enemy - that needs to know as per deterrence theory – would be in a better position to appreciate the nuclear doctrine in the correct perspective.

    • 1. The Draft Report of the National Security Advisory Board on India’s Nuclear Doctrine is available at:
    • 2. Press release on India’s nuclear doctrine is available at:
    • 3. Freedman, L., Evolution of Nuclear Strategy; London, MacMillan Press, 1989 (2nd Edition), p. 135.
    • 4. Sundarji, K., Vision 2100: A Strategy for the Twenty First Century; New Delhi, Konark Publishers, 2003, pp. 146-153.