Nuclear Doctrine: Good Aim, But Missed

1999

It would be churlish to criticize what must be the most clearly articulated national security document to come from the government of India in fifty years. What a pleasure it is to read a paper that has the cerebral input of genuine staff training, as opposed to the waffle of the Mussorie academy. It goes to show that when a multi disciplinary body sits together, in the capital of the country, it can cobble together a document that reads coherently, even if sparks flew while it was being written. Perhaps clear sighted policy papers have been issued from the other branches of government, in the realm of industry or telecom or commerce, that the author is unaware of, but the 'Indian Nuclear Doctrine', is a milestone in the national security field. It will be a benchmark for future policy documents, and will encourage chairmen of fractions multi-disciplinary bodies to put down a minimum number of commonly agreed objectives, ever if the mental gulf between participating members appears unbridgeable.

Having said tha,t there is little doubt that the apparent 'need' to issue it just now has removed from the paper , the stamp of rigorous intellectual scrutiny. The price for this haste may yet turn out to be more than the country is willing to pay. A strategic audit of the 'doctrine' would readily indicate that there is a serious dysfunction between ' minimum deterrence' and a tri-service arsenal. The two cannot go together, and is akin to yoking a horse and a camel together. It is possible that between the widely divergent views in the board, it was not possible to arrive at a narrower meaning of the word minimum, as in deterrent. A minimum deterrent, has more to do with attaining deterrence stability with 'as few' nuclear weapons as possible. The numbers constituting 'a minimum' is subordinate to the requirement of stability. Without going into deterrence mathematics, a minimum deterrent arsenal can be shown to consist of only second strike weapons. This alas, is not the Indian arsenal that is articulated in the doctrine.

Take the example of aircraft dropped weapons. Threat analysis requires a strategist to construct the threat chain and attempt to disrupt any one link, to break the whole chain. A simple example of the aircraft dropped bomb chain runs thus: Nuclear weapons storage site - nuclear weapon in transit, air- field, aircraft on the ground, aircraft in the air: The weakest link in this chain is the air field. In South Asia, when combat readiness levels are increased and the Pakistan and Indian airforces move to operational bases, the number of air fields are about 18 and 25 on either side. One 45 kiloton weapon dropped at 300 metres above an air field will make it un-useable to a probability of 90%. Two bombs would raise the probability to 99%. With opposing airfields separated by barely 20 minutes flying time it would be a case of use-them-or-lose them for Pakistan, a fear reinforced by the threat of capture by armoured forces, in a country handicapped by lack of strategic depth. An air dropped bomb is perhaps the farthest from a second strike weapon on the subcontinent. It contributes nothing to deterrence stability, and if at all the weapon is discussed in a worsening crisis, it can only be in reference to a first strike.

Similarly to even consider the role of the army in nuclear deterrence, minimum at that, is truly distressing. The document probably refers to the Prithvi, with a nuclear warhead, or the sub-kiloton weapon which the scientists would like to donate to the 155 mm. Bofors gun, or, in the other words a tactical nuclear weapon (TNW). If the minimum deterrence and the aircraft dropped bomb are truly an incompatible couple, a no-first-use doctrine with a TNW is truly like a tart in Sunday school. By concept, definition and doctrine, a TNW has relevance only to compensate for conventional inferiority. If the NSAB could have agreed on the status-quo-reactionary power scenario with China and Pakistan, it would have become clear that TNW use would always be first use. The case of the Prithvi needs elaboration, for this missile more than any other, was responsible for increasing South Asian animosities. A truly Pakistan specific missile, it was the first weapon India made, because it was technologically convenient, not strategically necessary. It threw into the waste basket, the entire edifice of Indian logic that the Chinese nuclear arsenal is the dangerous one, in the long run. At its range of 150 kms (80 miles) the army is in no position to obtain the tactical picture to aim the missile. A triad is not a strategic derivative. It was the legacy that McNamara inherited from incompetent predecessors in the DOD who were unable to rein in a rampaging chiefs of staff committee for 15 years. At one stroke, the NSAB has set in motion, an arsenal , the visible portions of which (Prithvi, Bofors, aircraft) all contribute to first strike and first use.

Mercifully, the government press statement says that the document is up for debate. If the debate is to take in a wider forum and some hard - headed deterrence calculations, the NSAB will have to throw open its doors to fresh thinking. Much of the dispute on the minimum deterrent could have been avoided by a more lucid piece of scenario writing- a necessary prelude to threat analysis. The Indo- Pak scenario must be contained urgently, for there is no issue on which the national security interests of the two countries coincide so closely as their mutual need for minimum deterrence. India is in a rare position. It has two nuclear- armed neighbours against whom a deterrence has to be crafted without busting the bank. To 'Lower the Height of the Hill' with Pakistan must be our first task, a not too difficult a job if strategists from both countries sit down to talk. Rubin's outburst need not panic New Delhi for he has advisers who know nuclear strategy. We have to muster ours who also know nuclear strategy to talk to them. These are the peripherals that we have to get out of the way before we sit down with P-Peking-the originator of all our South Asian travails.But all these difficulties should not detract, from what for India is a momentous step forward in transparency and multi-disciplinary work.

- Rear Admiral K. Raja Menon (Retd.) in New Delhi

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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