Tellis examines the persistent claim of prominent Indian strategic theorists that India will adopt an indigenous nuclear doctrine that seeks to avoid the pitfalls of the dominant strategic solutions incarnated during the Cold War and whether it would be reasonable to suggest that India would develop its own indigenous approach to nuclear strategy and end up with a force posture that actually exemplifies its stated commitment to developing only a minimum credible nuclear deterrent. According to Ashley Tellis, proponents of alternative argue that a "Recessed deterrent", which would allow India to constitute a nuclear arsenal within a few months, ought to suffice for Indian security, especially if New Delhi can utilise the threat to overtly deploy nuclear weapons as leverage to both accelerate the pace of global nuclear arms reductions and secure preferential economic and political gains for India.
After India’s Pokhran II nuclear test in May 1998, a surfeit of books intending to explore, understand and explain the country’s nuclear policy and doctrine hit the stands in quick succession. The more notable ones are Raj Chengappa’s Weapons of Peace, Raja Menon’s A Nuclear Strategy for India and George Perkovich’s India’s Nuclear Bomb. The newest book in this genre is India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (Santa Monica, California, 2001) by Ashley Tellis, now the security advisor to the United States ambassador at New Delhi. Dr Tellis critically researched analysis presents an insightful assessment of India’s emerging nuclear posture in the light of India’s national security strategy, organisational structures for nuclear command and control and technological capabilities.
Most Indian observers of the strategic scene believe that the 1998 Pokhran explosions catapulted India to world power status as a nuclear weapons state. Only a few perceptive analysts realise that testing nuclear warheads is less than half the story. Having demonstrated a technological capability, India has to decide on the nature and type of nuclear deterrence that it wishes to institute and take a series of inter-related actions to put its “minimum credible deterrent” into place. Tellis has looked closely at the options available to India’s political leadership and has put forward his own hypothesis regarding India’s most likely course of action.
As an emerging nuclear power, India is locked in a triangular security competition with China and Pakistan. Tellis examines the persistent claim of prominent Indian strategic theorists that India will adopt an indigenous nuclear doctrine that seeks to avoid the pitfalls of the dominant strategic solutions incarnated during the Cold War and whether it would be reasonable to suggest that India would develop its own indigenous approach to nuclear strategy and, consequently, end up with a force posture that actually exemplifies its stated commitment to developing only a minimum credible nuclear deterrent.
Tellis argues that India’s emerging nuclear doctrine is “fundamentally conservative in orientation and exemplifies a systematic internationalisation of the lessons of the nuclear revolution”. He judges this doctrine to be appropriate for India’s strategic circumstances in South Asia, and India’s leaning towards a status quo course. India’s nuclear weapons, he writes, “are primarily pure deterrents intended to ward off political blackmail that might be mounted by local adversaries in some remote circumstances while simultaneously providing strategic reassurance to India’s political leaders if the country were to face truly dire threats to its security”. He explains that India’s retaliatory nuclear strike “is likely to be slow but sure in coming, with the absence of alacrity here being entirely a function of India’s desire to simultaneously: maintain its traditionally strict system of civilian control over all strategic assets; minimise the costs of maintaining a nuclear deterrent at high levels of operational readiness routinely; and maximise the survivability of its relatively modest nuclear assets by an operational posture that emphasises extensive, but opaque, distribution of its many constituent components”.
Tellis is of the view that the 1998 tests only reopened the strategic debate within India and once again focused attention on the five choices that the country has debated for long: (1) renounce the nuclear option; (2) maintain a South Asian nuclear free zone; (3) persist with simply Maintaining the nuclear option; (4) acquire a “recessed deterrent”; and, finally, (5) develop a robust and ready arsenal immediately.
The first two alternatives were supported by the international community alter the Pokhran tests of May 1998. However, Indian policy makers and analysts focussed mainly on the last three alternatives, sending a clear signal to the world that denuclearisation was no longer an option. A few analysts did continue to insist that India should not acquire a nuclear force for both moral and strategic reasons, despite having proved its technological capability. However, they were heavily outnumbered.
According to Ashley Tellis, proponents of alternative (4) argue that a “recessed deterrent”, which would allow India to constitute a nuclear arsenal within a few months, ought to suffice for Indian security, especially if New Delhi can utilise the threat to overtly deploy nuclear weapons as leverage to both accelerate the pace of global nuclear arms reductions and secure preferential economic and political gains for India.
Those supporting alternative (5) express the view that India has already crossed the Rubicon by resuming nuclear testing and, consequently, should not halt its nuclearisation until it acquires a large, diverse, and ready nuclear arsenal that will bequeath New Delhi both security and status vis-a-vis the most important entities in the international system.
Ashley Tellis has deduced that the Indian government has chosen to adopt a nuclear posture somewhere between alternatives (3) and (4). “The Indian nuclear force will he configured neither as a recessed deterrent nor as a ready arsenal but as a force-in-being — that is, a deterrent consisting of available, but dispersed, components that are constituted into a usable weapon system primarily during a supreme emergency. The force-in-being will thus routinely consist of unassembled nuclear warheads… under civilian control, while the delivery systems will be maintained without their nuclear payloads by the military either on low alert or in storage away from operational areas… or at their standard levels of readiness… The size, location, and status of this force writ large will be highly opaque along multiple dimensions, and it will be masked by extensive deception and denial operations in order to increase its survivability against any threats that may be mounted by India’s adversaries.
Tellis attributes this compromise choice to acquire a nuclear deterrent configured as a force-in-being, rather than as a robust and ready arsenal, to the strategic advantages that accrue to India. He feels that the presence of nuclear weapons in some form will suffice to prevent blatant blackmail by China and Pakistan. The force-in-being “bequeaths New Delhi with diplomatic benefits as it exemplifies ‘restraint’, particularly in comparison with an overt arsenal, and — in so doing — holds the promise of attenuating US non-proliferation pressures on India.
It offers psycho-political reassurance as it bolsters the confidence of India’s national leadership, enhances their resolve in crises, with local adversaries, and simultaneously provides the country with status as a nuclear weapons power. It buttresses existing domestic political structures by enabling India’s civilian security managers to institutionally exclude the military from the day-to-day control and custody over the most critical components of India’s strategic capability. And, finally, it portends budgetary relief as the relatively quiescent force posture represented by a force-in-being avoids all the high costs. usually associated with the procurement, deployment, and operational of a ready arsenal.”
While the arguments favouring an Indian nuclear posture between a recessed deterrent and a ready arsenal are no doubt compelling, the continued testing of Agni IRBMs and media reports regarding the imminent raising of an Agni missile regiment point more to an Indian move towards a small ready arsenal, but one with adequate safety and security safeguards built in. Even for Strategic reasons it would be logical for India to constitute a visible nuclear force as such a step would enhance the quality of its deterrence by aiding credibility and eventually force India’s nuclear adversaries to negotiate mutual confidence building and risk reduction measures visa-vis an ambiguous recessed deterrent.
In his magnum opus of over 900 pages, Tellis has painstakingly and methodically covered a great deal of ground, most of it new and, therefore, even more stimulating. He has assessed the logic and structure of the evolving force-in-being and concluded that it would be limited in size, separated in disposition and centralised in control.
He has analysed the availability of fissile material to India, the country’s technological capability to produce nuclear warheads and delivery systems, the supporting infrastructure that it has not the procedural systems that it has instituted. The book should be essential reading for the country’s policy makers, the national security establishment, strategic analysts and academics.