After a Pakistani TNW strike, India can go for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal: Former NSA Shivshankar Menon - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

Home Top Ad


Friday 17 March 2017

After a Pakistani TNW strike, India can go for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal: Former NSA Shivshankar Menon

Former NSA says “massive response” provides counter force option (Above: an Indian Agni-4 IRBM)

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 18th March 17

Former national security advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon has shed new light on an especially worrying aspect of India’s nuclear doctrine --- New Delhi’s barely credible promise of automatic, “massive” nuclear retaliation against any adversary that targets India, or Indian forces anywhere, with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

The credibility gap in this strategy of “massive retaliation”, as pointed out by critics worldwide, is that it would cause carnage in the adversary’s towns and cities but leave intact much of his nuclear arsenal. With those surviving nukes (second-strike capability), the adversary would then wreak havoc on Indian towns and cities.

It is hard for New Delhi, globally regarded as a restrained power, to convince analysts and adversaries that it would knowingly trigger the catastrophic deaths of millions of civilians on both sides by responding “massively” to a far smaller attack --- even, a single Pakistani Tactical Nuclear Weapon (TNW) that killed perhaps a hundred Indian soldiers deep inside Pakistani territory.

Yet, India’s nuclear doctrine, promulgated on January 4, 2003, undertakes that “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike [by an adversary] will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”

Now Menon, in his recent book entitled “Choices: Inside the making of Indian foreign policy”, indicates that India’s threat of “massive retaliation” need not involve nuclear strikes against Pakistani urban centres (“counter-value”, or CV strikes). Instead, India’s “massive response” could take the form of targeting Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal (“counter-force”, or CF strikes), leaving that adversary with a greatly diminished capability of striking back at India.

In a key paragraph in his book, Menon --- who, as NSA, oversaw nuclear targeting policy --- analyses the meaning of a “massive” strike. He says: “There would be little incentive, once Pakistan had taken hostilities to the nuclear level, for India to limit its response, since that would only invite further escalation by Pakistan. India would hardly risk giving Pakistan the chance to carry out a massive nuclear strike after the Indian response to Pakistan using tactical nuclear weapons. In other worlds, Pakistani tactical nuclear weapon use would effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan.”

Menon carefully differentiates between “first use” (which Indian nuclear doctrine forbids) and “first strike”, which --- in widely-accepted nuclear vocabulary --- refers to a disarming CF strike aimed at leaving an adversary without nuclear recourse.

Menon clearly enunciates the logic of a disarming CF strike: “India would hardly risk giving Pakistan the chance to carry out a massive nuclear strike after the Indian response…” In other words, India’s “second strike” (in response to a TNW against its forces) must leave Pakistan with little or no “third strike” capability.

But does a disarming counter-force strike (which Menon terms a “comprehensive first strike”) amount to a “massive” response, which Indian doctrine mandates? A senior Indian official asks: “Who says a “massive” response must necessarily be directed at CV targets?

Menon’s insights extend the focus of India’s second-strike well beyond counter-value targets to counter-force targets.

Contacted by Business Standard, Menon declined to elaborate, stating only: “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for.”

Menon’s book has been in print since November, but only now has this nuance been noted by Vipin Narang, a highly regarded nuclear strategist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This week, Narang tweeted: “Indian strategy following Pak tacnuke (tactical nuclear) use is neither proportional response nor massive retaliation. But [rather, it is a] disarming counterforce strike.”

Even so, serious question marks remain over how effectively, or whether at all, India can actually execute a disarming CF strike that takes out most of Pakistan’s nukes. Partly because of the possibility of Indian attack, Pakistan is building up its nuclear arsenal faster than any other country, running its Khushab nuclear reactor at full tilt to produce plutonium. It is currently estimated to have 120-130 nuclear warheads.

Especially difficult for India to target are Pakistan’s small, highly mobile TNWs that are basically truck-mounted, tube-launched artillery.

Furthermore, any impression in Pakistan of Indian counterforce strikes, or the fear that the nukes might soon be lost, would incentivize their early use --- the “use them or lose them” dilemma.

Indian public debate has traditionally focused on another aspect of our doctrine --- the commitment of “No First Use” (NFU) of nuclear weapons. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) questioned NFU in its pre-2014 election manifesto, before backing off quickly. Then, last year, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar raised questions over the need for NFU, before the BJP dismissed that as his “personal view”.

However, given Pakistan’s conventional military weakness in the face of a sudden Indian offensive under the “Cold Start” doctrine, Rawalpindi’s operationalization of TNWs, and its declared plan to use them early in a conflict, make India’s response a matter of life and death for millions.


  1. Pakistan TNVs must be trip wire , response must include China . The Chinese want Indian response restricted to Pakistan . Zongnanhai must be a target at start .

  2. Over the past 10 years Pakistan has dug miles & miles of tunnels in mountains for this very reason - they are very focused & committed.

  3. We all agree that a country like Pakistan which can't even make its own motorcycles simply doesn't have the capability to make nukes and missiles and that any nuke that hits India will essentially be a Chinese nuke. Unless we acknowledge this reality with a stated policy to nuke China no matter where the 1st nuke comes from, they have already won. The same holds true for North Korea. China has masterfully created two attack dog proxies which are designed to be unstable, unreasoning and overtly aggressive, to pin down every adversary and keep them unbalanced, now even the US, behind which it can hide and deny any strike. They must not be allowed to do so.

  4. Shivshanker menon showing sympathy towards Pakistanis after their first strike on Indian soil or soldiers,this means he is using the same word what Pakistanis say that is no BMDS in SOUTH ASIA REGION.International community don't care about what you lost & they can't stop Pakistan to use NUKE on India. Menon is now jobless,it's better for him to become spokesperson of Pakistani foreign ministry so that he can address Pakistani concerns..

  5. Amazing how even seriously smart indians live in a cloud cuckoo land. pakistan has india in a bind, its holding indian bull's nose to the ground. Its making otherwise smart indians put out irrational comments. Strategically pakistan has the upper hand, because they have clearly defined their red lines and they don't give a monkey about what internationals think. They have always pursued their aims and won. Look what they did to USSR and now USA + Nato. Would any indian PM ever have the balls to do what they did to USA + NATO combine?

    Pakistanis do not care about how many indians they kill. Because many indians will find this hard to believe they do not hate the indians the way indians hate them. Surprise!!! But once you poke them, its a matter of honor for them and they will strike. They ball is in india's court. It will be india that will be forced to strike pakistan first, after some sort of terrorist attack.


  6. Targetting Pak's nukes should have been in the minds of the Indian army since the formation of the Nuke strike force. But the 1st question that comes to mind is how to take out Pak's hardened nuclear bunkers, whether India can burrow deep enough to reach their nukes. Secondly, the fall out. It's bad enough with one nuclear strike, now there is going to be one nuke used on another nuke, good grief!

  7. Arjun Subramanian P14 June 2017 at 13:13

    Seriously??!!! Do we have the weapons with the necessary yield and number and delivery systems with such accuracy to do a nuke counter force strike? Mr.Menon should hv consulted experts... These vague statements shows he isn't one...


Recent Posts

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