The report that Pakistan could possess as many as 350 nuclear weapons in the next 10 years to have the world’s third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons has received a lot of attention in India. This projection is from a US think-tank, but a statement from a senior Pakistani official around the same time should concern us more. Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry said that his country has “low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons” (TNWs) to deal with India’s so-called Cold Start doctrine.
India has officially denied the existence of a “Cold Start” doctrine, although the army does have a proactive strategy. If provoked by a massive terror attack from Pakistani soil, India can launch a quick conventional military assault across the border to capture valuable territory before international pressure leads to a ceasefire. The Indian army hopes to fight this short, limited war under the nuclear threshold. By announcing its TNWs, Pakistan is threatening to bring the nuclear threshold down to foil Indian designs.
In theory, a TNW, unlike a strategic nuclear weapon, is short-range and low-yield, meant to be used in battlefield combat. In practice, that difference is academic. A nuclear weapon is a weapon of mass destruction, not a weapon of war. India’s nuclear doctrine also doesn’t differentiate between types of nukes — it assures a “no first use”, but promises a “massive retaliation” in response to any nuclear strike.
After the official Pakistani declaration of TNWs, many analysts have asked for a change in India’s nuclear doctrine. Their arguments are twofold: One, a massive retaliatory strike would still leave India vulnerable to a Pakistani nuclear response; and two, it will be tough for India to generate the political will to launch the nuclear strikes delivering “massive retaliation”.
The premise of to-and-fro massive retaliatory strikes is based on a fundamental misreading of the nature of nuclear weapons and the results of an inevitable escalation. There are no war aims being met by using a nuclear weapon. There are no winners in a nuclear exchange. Once the first nuke — TNW or not — has been fired, to quote game theorist Henry S. Rowen, “all the options [lead] to the same dead end of escalation, strategic retaliation and catastrophe”.
India’s nuclear weapons are for deterrence. If the idea of a graduated response or a limited response to a TNW were to be considered, it would render the basis of deterrence meaningless. India’s deterrence is based on a massive second-strike capability, for which it has created capacities, assets and structures. These systems and processes have since matured, and continue to be refined. India’s is a responsible doctrine and has earned New Delhi global acceptance as a mature nuclear power. Why would India wish to alter that?
Caricatures of Indian pusillanimity apart, there are enough examples to show that when the need rises, Indian political leaders can act boldly. Taking the decision to launch a massive retaliatory nuclear strike is contingent not only on India’s capacities but also on the country internalising its nuclear doctrine. Further strengthening our systems will add to the credibility of our doctrine. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran put it right when he said, “To say that our current doctrine is not credible to Pakistan is to fall into the trap of having our strategies and structure of forces being determined in Islamabad and not in Delhi.”
If India has a problem of strategic culture — though this claim can be contested — a change in doctrine won’t solve the problem. Changing the nuclear doctrine to fix the strategic culture is akin to looking for your keys not where you lost them, but under the street light because it is brightly lit there.
There are a few other problems with reacting to Pakistani claims. First, top Indian nuclear scientists remain sceptical of Pakistani claims of possessing functional TNWs. Second, if Pakistani nuclear weapons are for deterrence and the TNWs are weapons of war, does it not weaken Pakistani deterrence and betray Rawalpindi’s lack of confidence in its strategic nuclear capabilities? Third, in Pakistan’s envisaged scenario of usage, it will fire a TNW on its own soil — in populated areas of Punjab — to stop India’s armoured formations. Finally, the distribution of a TNW to local military commanders carries the risk of a nuclear weapon falling into the wrong hands.
India’s nuclear doctrine has evolved from bipartisan political thinking and its own strategic imperatives. There’s no reason to jettison it, least of all for unverifiable Pakistani claims of TNWs.