Nuclear Standoff-II

First use is not operationally necessary

The Statesman | Jan 25, 2002

The first is to clearly spell out that a nuclear strike on Indian soldiers, including those who may be within Pakistani territory during war, would be deemed to be a nuclear strike on India and would invite massive punitive nuclear retaliation. India's desire to develop a credible minimum nuclear deterrent against nuclear blackmail and the threat of use of nuclear weapons, is an eminently justifiable national security imperative.

It is now universally accepted that nuclear weapons are political weapons and not weapons of “warfighting”. However, there is undeniably a close link between nuclear weapons and a nations conventional military capabilities. If a nations conventional capability is extremely low vis-a-vis a nuclear-armed adversary, that nation may choose to adopt an in extremis first use strategy to thwart a conventional military offensive that may threaten to undermine Its territorial integrity and lead to its break up. This is the situation that Pakistan finds itself in.

Operational reality

While India may have no intentions of launching a major conventional offensive into Pakistan, given India’s conventional superiority (no matter how slender the edge may be), Pakistan has based its national security strategy on the first use of nuclear weapons to prevent its comprehensive military defeat like in 1971 and, consequently, its disintegration as a nation. It is for this reason that Pakistan does not accept India’s offer of a bilateral no first use treaty as a nuclear confidence building and risk reduction measure.

While nuclear doctrine must undoubtedly be based on sound theoretical underpinnings, it has to be ultimately tested in the crucible of operational reality. The proponents of a first use strategy for India need to ponder the threat scenarios. Starting at the lower end of conventional conflict with low intensity conflict and Pakistan’s ongoing proxy war with India, It is worth considering whether the use of a Stinger or Unza surface-to-air missiles by Pakistan-sponsored mercenary Islamists to bring down an Indian Airlines aircraft over Kashmir Valley justifies an Indian nuclear strike. Or, would a pro-active punitive response across the LoC with massive artillery and air power sustained over a few weeks be more desirable?

In another scenario, would a battalion or even a brigade-size attack by the Pakistan army across the LoC, or even Kargil-type intrusions on the Indian side of the LoC, that result in some gains for Pakistan, justify the first use of nuclear weapons by India when their retaliatory use by Pakistan would be a certainty? Or, would a punitive conventional response with ground and air forces across the LoC (and perhaps across the international boundary by the IAF) in another sector yield better dividends? It is well known that there are areas on the LoC where Indian forces could be heading for key value objectives in PoK within days of the outbreak of hostilities in J&K.

In case such exchanges across the LoC escalate to a larger conventional conflict, as they well might, Pakistan may launch its Offensive strike corps in the Sialkot-Jammu sector with a view to cutting off NH-1A, Kashmir’s lifeline, between Pathankot and Jammu. If Pakistan achieved initial success, such an offensive would undoubtedly pose a grave danger to the security of J&K. Would the first use of nuclear weapons be a rational choice for India under such circumstances? Or would it perhaps be more prudent to launch one or more counter-offensives with Indian strike corps across the international boundary in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, as General Harbaksh Singh had done in 1965, to make the Pakistanis recoil from their offensive in the Jammu sector? Surely, the launching of sizable counter-offensives into Pakistan’s heartland would be a better way to relieve pressure on J&K.

Unsound strategy

Another option favoured by military analysts is the concept of “zero warning” in which Pakistan is given the credible capability of launching what may be termed a “cold start” conventional war due to the proximity of its cantonments to the international boundary, or by concentrating strike formations under the garb of training exercises. There is some merit in the initial military viability of such an option but not if India strengthens its technological intelligence and human intelligence (humint) capabilities. However, careful consideration of the “day after” Impact of India’s counter moves to checkmate such a Pakistani offensive should pour cold water over such cold start options.

Inherent in an Indian nuclear first strike option, as advocated by the opponents of no first use, is the Pakistan nuclear retaliation that would inevitably follow on Indian cities and military targets. Cities like Jodhpur, Bikaner, Ahmedabad, Jalandhar, Ludhiana and perhaps even New Delhi and Mumbai would be the likely targets of a retaliatory Pakistani nuclear strike. In all the above scenarios, given the limited gains that an Indian first strike may achieve and the real possibility of successful Pakistani nuclear retaliation, with horrendous consequences, the only rational answer to a first use Indian nuclear option is to say no to it. An Indian nuclear first strike would not be justified as the costs of Pakistani retaliation would be prohibitive. Nor would it be operationally expedient. In none of the above scenarios India’s survival as a nation-state is likely to be seriously threatened. Various other even more pessimistic scenarios could be considered but the result would be the same.

It clearly emerges that across the entire spectrum of conventional conflict, the first use of nuclear weapons by India does not make sound strategic sense. Besides. a first use doctrine would invite international opprobrium, seriously undermine India’s efforts towards total nuclear disarmament and be prohibitively costly to implement. It is not generally well appreciated that a first use doctrine requires a massive investment in surveillance and target acquisition infrastructure by way of satellite and aerial reconnaissance and humint to execute “launch on warning” and “launch through attack” strategies, with the nuclear forces being maintained on permanent hair trigger alerts. A first use doctrine also requires quick political decision-making and decentralisation of the control of nuclear weapons to theatre commanders. Hence, such a doctrine is inherently more risky and likely to lead to accidental, even unauthorised, use of nuclear Weapons.

Punitive retaliation

It would, of course, be far better to mutually negotiate a no first use treaty with adversarial nuclear-armed states as that would be the best nuclear risk reduction measure. Russia and China have signed a mutual no first use treaty. In case India’s nuclear-armed adversaries continue to be recalcitrant in signing a binding no first use pact, it would be worthwhile for India to consider some essential qualifications to India’s unilateral no first use doctrine. The first is to clearly spell out that a nuclear strike on Indian soldiers, including those who may be within Pakistani territory during war, would be deemed to be a nuclear strike on India and would invite massive punitive nuclear retaliation.

The absence of this rider would negate India’s conventional edge over Pakistan as the army would be forced to restrict its plans to launching only shallow, limited objective, conventional offensives to avoid risking nuclear strikes on the mechanised spearheads leading India’s advance. As is well known in nuclear theology, Bernard Brodie had argued many decades ago that the advent of nuclear weapons had fundamentally altered the relationship between war and national policy and that nuclear weapons were so destructive that their only real purpose could be the avoidance of war itself. India’s declaration of its no first use doctrine has once again focussed international debate on the efficacy of no first use policies, even though India has repeatedly reiterated that it is willing to negotiate no first use treaties bilaterally or multilaterally with all nuclear weapons states including China and Pakistan.

India’s desire to develop a credible minimum nuclear deterrent against nuclear blackmail and the threat of use of nuclear weapons, is an eminently justifiable national security imperative. India’s no first use, retaliation-only nuclear doctrine is not only morally befitting and worthy of India’s civilisational heritage: it is also operationally sound strategy. It also gives India sufficient leeway to prosecute a conventional war to safeguard its national security interests, should it become necessary to do so.