Come out of the nuclear closet - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

Home Top Ad


Monday 14 April 2014

Come out of the nuclear closet

Scrap "no first use". Scrap "automatic massive retaliation". Create realistic options for handling nuclear crises (photo: Agni-4 missile)

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Apr 14

The BJP, many presumed, would reverse India’s pledge of “No First Use” (NFU) of nuclear weapons, which allows nukes to be used only against entities that have struck Indian targets with weapons of mass destruction. This assumption was based on the BJP’s April 7 election manifesto, which undertook to “Study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” This boilerplate formulation, which says absolutely nothing about reversing NFU, was inserted into the manifesto without any serious discussion within the BJP on nuclear policy. Yet party spokespersons like Seshadri Chari, Nirmala Sitharaman and Ravi Shankar Prasad, all unschooled in nuclear policy, responded in gung-ho fashion to media questions about an NFU review. The clarification on Monday by BJP president, Rajnath Singh, that no review of NFU was planned is a disappointment to many who touted the muscularity of the BJP’s security policy.

Yet India’s nuclear doctrine badly needs a review. While the NFU pledge must quickly be scrapped, the ill-conceived commitment to “massive retaliation” is even more damaging to our nuclear credibility. Fifteen years ago, facing tight international sanctions, we needed a restrained doctrine. Today, with the security environment more challenging than ever, India’s nuclear doctrine must complicate the calculus of opponents, not simplify it as the single-minded focus on massive retaliation does.

The existing nuclear doctrine --- initially issued as a “draft nuclear doctrine” in August 1999, and solidified (in slightly changed form) through a gazette notification on January 4, 2003 --- pledges that India “will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with massive retaliation should deterrence fail. India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against states which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapons powers.”

In simple terms this means that India will wait to get nuked before it fires nukes. Once nuked --- even by a small, tactical nuclear weapon fired by, say, Pakistan on its own soil against an Indian armoured offensive, that destroys one squadron of 14 tanks and kills 45 Indian soldiers --- New Delhi’s response will be automatic. India’s massive retaliation will unleash most of its 80-100 nuclear weapons against Pakistani towns and cities, that are termed “counter-value targets.”

Since Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is currently larger than India’s, and is dispersed and sheltered across that country, New Delhi will be visited by retaliation from the smoking ruins of Pakistan. In what is termed a “second strike”, that country’s nuclear command authority, safe in underground command posts, will fire its surviving nukes --- and there will be many --- at New Delhi, Mumbai and other Indian cities within the 2500-kilometre range of Pakistan’s Shaheen-II ballistic missiles. In this chain of events, most of Pakistan and large swathes of India will be transformed into radioactive wastelands and hundreds of millions of people killed. Remember, this level of destruction follows from a single tactical nuclear weapon, fired by Pakistan at its own territory. Most rational people would find this scenario incredible.

Indeed, New Delhi’s massive retaliation strategy rests on the belief that Pakistani policymakers are rational actors, who will avoid this cataclysm. Yet even rational actors behave irrationally when under enormous stress, such as an existential threat to one’s country. While New Delhi’s nuclear theologians bet our lives on the rationality of Pakistani generals, is that generous assessment corroborated by Pakistan’s heedless plunge into the abyss of radicalism and jihad?

Should India’s leaders have no choice but “suicide or surrender”? Remember that New Delhi, under BJP rule in 1999 (Kargil) and 2001-02 (Parliament attack), and under Congress rule in 2008 (Mumbai attack) shrank from employing even conventional military force against Pakistan. Will New Delhi sanction massive nuclear retaliation that could lead to the aptly-termed MAD ---mutual assured destruction? Probably not, which is why the misconceived massive retaliation strategy must be revisited even before NFU.

There are lessons here from the United States’ experience in the 1950s. President Dwight D Eisenhower, who was elected in 1953, and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles adopted a “massive retaliation” strategy against the Soviet Union, based on clear US nuclear superiority in an era when Russian delivery systems could not cross the Atlantic. In October 1953, the seminal National Security Council Paper 162/2 first used the term “massive retaliation.” In January 1954, Dulles threatened that America would “depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our own choosing.”

Yet Dulles could see that massive retaliation was not a credible threat, especially as Soviet retaliatory power grew. Writing in Foreign Affairs in April 1954, Dulles shifted towards a so-called “flexible response.” Suggesting that massive retaliation was one of many options, Dulles wrote, “It should not be stated in advance precisely what would be the scope of military action if new aggression occurred… That is a matter as to which the aggressor had best remain ignorant. But he can know… that the choice in this respect is ours and not his.”

In the early 1960s, President John F Kennedy’s no-nonsense secretary of defence, Robert McNamara, could see that Kennedy needed usable options. Threatening the deaths of 360-450 million people in the Sino-Soviet block might deter a Soviet nuclear strike, but was hardly executable if deterrence failed. That led to a formal “flexible response” doctrine, in which assured destruction was only the apex of a long escalation ladder.

India’s doctrine must create similar options, allowing policymakers every possibility in a crisis --- pre-emptive strike, counter-force and counter-value targeting, even assured destruction through massive retaliation. Furthermore, the exclusive focus on massive retaliation has entirely demilitarised nuclear planning, with the agents who must deliver nuclear weapons --- the missile forces, the air force and submarines --- playing little or no role in planning and rehearsing. This must change.


  1. please elaborate which missile is shown in above picture and its new properties

  2. @Ajai sir

    as you have scrutinized NDA defense policy, i wish you the same for UPA

    regarding this topic, a few points

    1. NFU must stay

    2. automatic massive retaliation should go and be replaced by retaliatory precision strike of equal measure

    3. But that depends on few things,

    a. though Pak has 60 km Nasr does it really have the TNWs for them

    b. retaliatory strike of any type will need absolute precise intelligence (so there is need to develop techint/humint/satimage)

    c. quick realization of India's nuke traid with SFC under full control of nuke material and delivery system

    4. Once and for all remove the ambiguity about India's ability in thermo nuclear devices

    5. Most of all prepare a proper chain of command to handle and manage nuke equipped SSBNs (the most potent 2nd strike delivery system)

    6. Draft nuke policy should be replaced with a proper doctrine


    Joydeep Ghosh

  3. No First Use was enshrined as a policy by some Seminarists under Mr. K Subramanyam. The cold start was blown away during Kargil by Musharaff that Indian elite especially the ruling elite will not cross the rubicon without american nod. Now we know from Sanjay baru's book PM was indeed serving American interests. My views on the nuclear policy is below posted after the Kargil war.

  4. TheNonMineralWater16 April 2014 at 22:05


    1. What makes you think that Pak would be foolish enough to use its tactical nukes for destroying just an armored column, when it knows perfectly well that its small nuclear cracker will be served by Indians with a massive banquet of Nuke treats. The job of killing tanks can be done by conventional weapons as well. The only time Pak would want to use nukes against India is when it's truly desperate, those tact nukes are just toys which would not be of any major use. So massive retaliatory strike is perfectly fine in my opinion.

    2. It no first "use" which could also mean no first "launch" if you look at it closely. India does not have to wait for the missiles to
    HIT it, it can launch its counter as soon as its satellites and other intel sources confirm there has been a nuke launch form pak. And India can also deploy its BMD well in time to protect itself.

    3. Massive retaliation could be achieved with higher KT warheads rather than using up all its warheads. So as good chance is there that Pak may have a second strike, same can be said for India.

    I hope there is no nuke war ever but I think the NFU policy still stands good and few amendments would make it more robust. BJP Govt. is thus welcome to review it and strengthen it by discussing it with the NSA and Military planners .
    Well that was another point I would want to counter you, why would you want a party to discuss the nuke policies. It should be done by a govt. using its security machinery, thus disallowing any biased/predetermined mindsets from influencing the policies. The intent from the Party is good enough.

  5. Do you really think a country like India will have less WMDs than Pakistan..

  6. Excellent article apart from the usual indian journalistic jingoism wrt Jihad. Reality is with CSD india pushed Pakistan into a corner, similar to what WARSAW did to NATO. What did NATO do? -->TNW. Well pakistan isnt re-inventing the wheel. It is also currently deploying TNWs, the pak docorine has been tested agaian and again and again. Indians thought pakistan didn't have the technical capability to do it but boy did they get a shock and now they are trying to do the same. CSD was such a great idea, no body had thought through its consequences.


Recent Posts

Page 1 of 10412345...104Next >>Last