Gurmeet Kanwal, one of India's foremost military analysts, has been thinking and writing about India's nuclear policy for over two decades. Nuclear escalation itself is an overblown concern: the type of nuclear forces that India and Pakistan have do not carry the same risk of the kind of automatic escalation that was feared in the US-Soviet context cold war dyad. There, the possibility of rapid escalation was a real concern because of the fear that political leaders could not possibly halt the process once it started because of time and other pressures.
Gurmeet Kanwal, one of India’s foremost military analysts, has been thinking and writing about India’s nuclear policy for over two decades. That makes his voice one of the most authoritative on the subject, outside of the government. His latest offering can be seen as a continuation of his previous book on India’s nuclear policy, Shaping the Arsenal. This is a thoughtful and excellent contribution to the ongoing debate about India’s nuclear doctrine that hopefully India’s decision-makers would take note of. Here, Kanwal covers all the key issues and debates around India’s nuclear arsenal, outlining India’s current status and its options on a whole host of key issues.
Kanwal comes out of the K. Subrahmanyam/Jasjit Singh school of nuclear policy which strongly advocates a limited nuclear force mated to a No First Use doctrine under tight control, monitored and commanded by the civilian leadership, even if operationally under the control of the military. Nevertheless, even those who advocate a limited nuclear arsenal cannot but be concerned by the glacial pace of the development of India’s strategic capabilities.
More than three decades after the Indian ballistic missile programme was initiated, India still does not have a missile with sufficient range to cover all of China, its principal adversary. Considering that the distance from the southern tip of India to the farthest point in China is about 6800 kilometres, and that the effective range of ballistic missiles is 70-90 percent of their total range, India would need a missile with a range of about 8000 kilometres for effective deterrence coverage of China, which it does not have yet. It is unclear whether this is the consequence of a political decision to keep the Indian capability limited, or of India’s technical insufficiency, though the latter seems a bit hard to believe. The US and the Soviet Union took just about a decade to develop their intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability, with far lesser technological base in the 1950s. China took only a bit longer to develop its first ICBM, the DF-4. Even North Korea seems well on its way to developing its ICBM capability. Whatever the reason for India’s very slow development of its capabilities, India’s nuclear deterrence capability clearly suffers. Kanwal’s frustration on this count is perfectly understandable.
Kanwal argues that Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) are destabilising and ineffective. There is considerable concern in India, obviously, about Pakistan’s TNWs, with some opinions even suggesting that India should develop its own TNWs. Kanwal vehemently opposes this, in my opinion, correctly. However, Pakistan’s development of TNWs is perfectly understandable from a deterrence perspective. As the smaller, weaker conventional power, Pakistan has little choice but to adopt riskier strategies to keep the stronger side, that is India, off balance. They have succeeded in doing this partly because India seems to have bought the Pakistani bluff that it will use TNWs. It is difficult to imagine Pakistan using any nuclear weapon, including TNWs, unless its very survival is at threat. It certainly makes little sense for Pakistan to use TNWs simply to stop an Indian military incursion a few dozen kilometres into Pakistani territory. The threat has definitely been effective because it has deterred India, even though I seriously doubt that Pakistan will actually follow through if such contingency arises.
As Kanwal suggests, India should be prepared to call this bluff. On the other hand, the likelihood of India following through on its own promise of massive retaliation is also somewhat suspect, especially in a context where Pakistan only conducts a limited strike on its own territory, against an intruding Indian military force. Kanwal is hopeful that India will stick to its doctrine. But India may need to develop more flexible options between not responding at all and a full-scale massive attack on Pakistani cities. This does not require India to build TNWs: Kanwal is correct to emphasise all the problems that TNWs have with regard to safety, security, command and control.
However, India can consider tactical nuclear response without building TNWs, by using air-delivered nuclear gravity bombs of sufficiently low yield. This would eliminate all the problems associated with TNWs and at the same time provide India with the means to respond other than letting loose with its entire nuclear arsenal. India could reduce the risk of escalation even further, by refocusing its Cold Start doctrine. Instead of attempting multiple armoured attacks along the plains, India could attempt to seize territory in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. This would be both, a significant punishment, more justifiable (since this is disputed territory that India does not have to give back) and less risky because Pakistan may be more reluctant to use nuclear weapons on Kashmir, considering its possible effect on its own claims on Kashmir.
Kanwal also considers possible Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to further reduce the risk of nuclear escalation. Nuclear escalation itself is an overblown concern: the type of nuclear forces that India and Pakistan have do not carry the same risk of the kind of automatic escalation that was feared in the US-Soviet context cold war dyad. There, the possibility of rapid escalation was a real concern because of the fear that political leaders could not possibly halt the process once it started because of time and other pressures. In other words, there was a strong possibility that escalation could be undeliberated and nearly automatic (though even this was probably an exaggeration). But in the case of small nuclear forces such as those of India and Pakistan, escalation will necessarily have to be deliberate – and therefore, politically controllable. Still, there is little wrong in considering CBMs if they work to reduce the nuclear danger. However, one cannot be sure that Pakistan will necessarily accept CBMs such as de-mating, partly because their deterrence strategy is based on the risk of escalation. Removing the escalation risk will reduce their deterrence capacity by making it safer for India to use its conventional military strength. Pakistan has little interest in that. Moreover, the issue of verification of any such CBM raises a host of problems.
Finally, Kanwal correctly identifies India’s problem of lack of credibility. This remains one of the most serious problems that India faces, one that is not confined to the nuclear arena.