India’s Nuclear Strategy, Doctrine And Posture: Is The Global Order Comfortable with The Elephant’s Trumpet?

For years, India’s ‘recessed deterrence’ posture coupled with ‘no-first use’ doctrine has strengthened nuclear deterrence. However, India’s Agni-V missile is expected to be canister launched along with India’s progress with sea-based nuclear deterrence- both of which require India to move towards a ‘ready deterrence’ posture.

As soon as India tested its nuclear capability in May 1998, the international order levied sanctions against India. However, such sanctions did not deter India’s intentions and strong will power to become a nuclear power.  With time, and as India stood firm against these sanctions, states that imposed sanctions on India slowly lifted their sanctions off.

In addition, the India-US rapprochement process on nuclear matters commenced under the Jaswant Singh- Talbott dialogue. One of the reasons for this was a promising Indian economy that proved lucrative for the United States and later the U.S. allies and also that India was being viewed as a perfect counter to check China’s growth especially in the Indo-Pacific region and Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Sooner, the effort to cap or roll India’s nuclear program subsided and India progressed with its burgeoning nuclear capability. 

India’s Nuclear Doctrine, Strategy and Posture

India adopted a ‘no-first use’ doctrine, conditional though that in case of an attack from adversary with chemical and biological warheads, New Delhi would use its nuclear weapons. This condition could be well justified as chemical and biological weapons are also weapons of mass destruction (WMD) just like nuclear weapons. Hence, a WMD deterrence is only strengthened when India can resort to WMD attack against any WMD attack by adversary. However, New Delhi is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and hence cannot legally use chemical and biological weapons against such attacks. Hence, nuclear weapons are the only option it has against such attacks. 

There has been a hue and cry over revisiting the ‘no-first use’ doctrine and an many hawks have even suggested for a change in the doctrine that is more offensive. However, as Rajesh Rajagopalan, a veteran on nuclear strategy writes for the Observer Research Foundation, “India’s no-first use was a result of the lessons that Indian strategic thinkers learned in the long decades they spent thinking about the global experience with nuclear strategy and the implications of this for India’s nuclear policy. It was dictated not by passivity and idealism but a deep realism, an understanding of the limited purpose that nuclear weapons can play in the strategy of any nuclear weapon power, but particularly that of one such as India.” 

As I have argued in my piece with The Washington Quarterly in 2016, “Ultimately, nuclear weapons are political weapons and should solely be meant for deterrence purposes. Thus, we must reject any scope of their military utility. Under a recessed deterrence posture, coupled with a no-first-use doctrine, the military value of nuclear weapons further diminishes. Hypothetically, India would only use nukes if an adversary attacked it first with nukes (or with chemical or biological weapons), shifting to employ the strategy of ‘massive retaliation.’”

A ‘no-first use’ doctrine calls for a state to rely on retaliatory capabilities. These retaliatory capabilities would need to be survivable in order make adversaries believe that India’s nuclear deterrence is credible. In fact, India’s ‘credible minimum deterrence’ strategy calls for Indian nuclear forces to be survivable in order to escape enemy attack against its nuclear forces and be able to retaliate. Survivability does not just mean the survivability of nuclear arsenals, but it also means personnel that would handle operating the arsenal and also the nuclear command chain. Only then will adversaries refrain from launching an irrational nuclear first strike on India, thereby strengthening deterrence.

India has hence, worked towards building a survivable nuclear force. Road and rail mobile missiles which required a shift from liquid to solid propelled fuel, warheads de-mated from their nuclear delivery systems (a recessed deterrence posture, that is) that also results in de-targeting and de-alerting of nuclear forces. India is also working towards sea-based nuclear deterrence to strengthen its counter and second strike capability. India’s INS Arihant SSBN has already completed its deterrence patrol and INS Arighat SSBN is being developed. 

There is also work going on SSNs, nuclear attack submarines that is. Owing to the limitation of the range of the K-15 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), India is developing intermediate and intercontinental range SLBMs like the K-4, K-5 and the K-6 categories. There is likely chance of these long range SLBMs to be fitted with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) in order to evade enemy ballistic missile defence (BMD) system. India’s Agni-VI land base ballistic missile may also carry MIRVs, while Agni-V is confirmed to carry MIRVs once India masters the technology. Agni-VI is also reported could carry Maneuverable Re-entry Vehicles (MaRVs). MIRVs and MaRVs would enable Indian ballistic missile system to dodge enemy missile defence system and hence, enhance the survivability options of its ballistic missile system. A nuclear capable missile that can survive from being intercepted by enemy air and missile defence system automatically strengthens the survivability scope of the nuclear forces than a nuclear capable missile that is vulnerable to enemy air and missile defence system. 

Nuclear deterrence can be strengthened in two ways- ‘deterrence by punishment’ where a state develops offensive capabilities to deter its adversaries and the other ‘deterrence by denial’ where states develop defensive capability to nullify adversaries’ offensive advantage. New Delhi is also working on its BMD capability in order to protect counter value targets from being attacked by enemy missile system. However, there should also be a focus on developing defence capability to protect counter-force targets, especially nuclear forces, in order to enhance the scope of survivability of the nuclear forces. It must be well fathomed that a humble number of these counter-force targets comprise counter-strike capabilities. Moreover, India not only faces threat to its nuclear forces from ballistic missiles, but it also faces threats from cruise missiles. Pakistan possesses nuclear capable Ra’ad and Babur cruise missiles that could pose a threat to India’s nuclear forces. Hence, India would also need a sophisticated cruise missile defence system to counter this threat. 

For years, India’s ‘recessed deterrence’ posture coupled with ‘no-first use’ doctrine has strengthened nuclear deterrence by keeping the nuclear threshold high even as states like Pakistan continued to lower the nuclear threshold with the adoption of a ‘first-use’ doctrine and the introduction of the tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). However, India’s Agni-V missile is expected to be canister launched along with India’s progress with sea-based nuclear deterrence- both of which require India to move from a ‘recessed deterrence’ posture to a ‘ready deterrence’ posture. This would impose pressure on India’s nuclear command and control that would need to be more alert and robust. Moreover, India n military follows the concept of induction of weapon system- a process conducted during peace time, rather than deployment of weapon systems. Mated nuclear weapons might blur the distinction between induction and deployment of weapon systems leading to further confusion in the minds of the adversaries. 

Nevertheless, canister launched missiles are more survivable owing to the fact that they are easier to be maintained. They could dodge enemy radars and spy satellites and hence, survivability is enhanced leading to greater agility of the missile system.    India however, is testing missiles both in canister as well as in open configuration to maintain operational flexibility in launch mode. 

Canister launchers enable the missile to be stored for longer periods with the help of maraging steel. Carbon composite will prevent the missile from corrosion. The missile can be cold launched and the use of gas generators for ejecting the missile from the canisters enable the missile to be launched from any location without the need for any missile sites for launching them. One of the key components of a missile that must be launched under a policy of ‘no-first-use’ is fast reaction time of the missile with which a counter-strike can be launched. Canisters reduce the reaction time of the missile.

India has refrained from the deployment of TNWs despite Pakistan having done so. This has kept the nuclear threshold in the South Asian periphery high. India’s strategic nuclear weapon systems could perform tactical roles in case the need may arise and hence, the need for TNWs at least at the moment does not exist. Strategic weapon systems-whether they perform strategic roles or tactical roles, strengthen strategic stability more than TNWs which are inherently strategically destabilising. Also, TNWs would mean that India would require many of them in order to strengthen nuclear deterrence at battlefield level. This would seriously undermine India’s ‘credible minimum deterrence’ strategy. Also, any effort by Pakistan to destroy India’s TNWs on battlefield even with conventional weapons could wreath havoc for Indian troops. Moreover, in case TNWs are fitted with multi launch rocket systems (MLRS) as seen in the case of Pakistan, it would require greater air power support for close-in air support. This would mean that a humble number of aircraft would need to be deviated for supporting these MLRS coupled with sophisticated air and missile defence system to protect them. 

It cannot be denied that India’s image as a responsible nuclear weapons power has helped it to earn the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) waiver from the international community despite the country not being a member of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This responsible image has been developed through matured nuclear doctrine, posture and strategy that promote strategic stability. 

Nuclear Brinkmanship and India’s experience

The perfect example of nuclear brinkmanship was experienced in 1962 by the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis when both nuclear weapon states were almost on the verge of a nuclear fallout. However, no sooner, both the states realised the cataclysmic effect that a nuclear weapon could cause and refrained from using them. Nuclear deterrence relied on the basis of ‘mutual assured destruction’ and both the states knew that a nuclear war will end in lose-lose situation than a ‘win-win’ situation. India too has experienced a situation of nuclear brinkmanship right after it had become a nuclear power during 1999 Kargil conflict. Both India and Pakistan were on the verge of a nuclear war but refrained from escalating it due to international pressure. 

As Late Jasjit Singh, a nuclear veteran writes, “sheer existence of nuclear weapons with both adversaries imposes major limitations on the way force and violence can be used against each other without risking a nuclear exchange. This alters the very nature of war. The Kargil conflict was a testimony to this.

Towards disarmament

India has been strongly vocal on the idea of nuclear disarmament. In June 2018, India clarified its support for a “global, non-discriminatory, verifiable nuclear disarmament in a time-bound manner. However, in 2018, India refrained from participating in a UN conference on global nuclear weapons ban to negotiate a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. This would lead to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. India, along with China and Pakistan refrained from participating in the conference. India claimed that it was “not convinced” that proposed conference would be a holistic mode of achieving nuclear disarmament. 

India has taken a strong stand in promoting a global ‘no-first use’ treaty. India believes that ‘no-first use’ treaty is a way to delegitimise nuclear weapons and paving the way for their total elimination. 

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