Breaking the N-silence

Breaking the N-silence

Parrikar has broken a tradition of sphinx-like silence, wherein his two UPA predecessors rarely acknowledged the existence of India’s nuclear deterrent or even mentioned the ‘N’ word.

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Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar comes out of Rajya Sabha on the opening day of the winter session of Parliament in New Delhi on Wednesday. (PTI Photo)

Raksha Mantri (RM) Manohar Parrikar’s seemingly wayward remarks about India’s nuclear posture may have stirred a hornet’s nest in the media, but if they are indicative of a new-found interest in security matters amongst decision-makers, this occurrence needs to be lauded. Given their preoccupation with electoral politics, it is worrying to see how little time and mental space our political leaders devote to national security. Nowhere is this neglect more worrisome than in the area of higher defence management and the existential complexities of our nuclear deterrent. Even if he was expressing personal views, which may or may not be in consonance with state policy or media perceptions, Parrikar has broken a tradition of sphinx-like silence, wherein his two UPA predecessors rarely acknowledged the existence of India’s nuclear deterrent or even mentioned the ‘N’ word. The RM’s off-the-cuff remarks will serve a useful purpose if they trigger a debate on nuclear issues that include India’s hastily made commitments to no-first-use (NFU), a “minimal” arsenal and the self-imposed moratorium on testing. After all, the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto had promised to”study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times”.

India’s hesitant journey to nuclear weaponisation was shaped, on the one hand, by a utopian vision of a nuclear-free world and, on the other, by the persistent urging of scientists like Homi Bhabha. Janus-faced, India embarked on this programme in which the task of charting the nation’s path in the fields of nuclear and missile technology was entrusted, in entirety, to the country’s scientific enclave. While enabling “plausible deniability” on the part of the politician, this paradigm perpetuated two flaws which persist till today: The omission of any independent oversight for evaluation of, often unrealistic, scientific plans and claims; and the exclusion of the armed forces from all aspects of our strategic programmes.

Come Pokharan II, in which the only military involvement related to site excavation work, a draft nuclear doctrine was released in mid-1999, which promised “punitive” retaliation against a nuclear attack, and made a pledge of “no-first-use”, in respect of states which were non-nuclear and had no nuclear umbrella. Four years later, in the finalised nuclear doctrine, the term “punitive retaliation” was replaced by the somewhat implausible “massive retaliation” and the principle of NFU applied to all nations except those posing chemical or biological weapon threats. India’s espousal of a credible “minimum” deterrent conveyed the impression that it would be content with a small number of nuclear devices, and politicians, unfamiliar with the subject, spoke of “a few” nuclear weapons as sufficient to deter a nuclear adversary.

However, a simple calculation would have revealed such beliefs to be delusional and even dangerous. The restraint imposed by NFU would require India to suffer the loss of a substantive number of its warheads to an enemy first-strike and then be in a position to retaliate (using the surviving warheads) with a strike that would inflict “unacceptable damage”. This clearly shows that a state pledged to NFU must always have more warheads than our enemies can launch in a first strike. Given that China has a large stockpile and Pakistan is racing ahead with production of plutonium warheads, the concept of “minimum” becomes irrelevant.
If the enemy comes to believe that India cannot launch a massive retaliatory strike — for want of enough warheads or other reasons — our deterrent will lose its credibility. But “deterrence breakdown” is a scenario never contemplated by our strategists. Pakistan is now brandishing low-yield short-range missiles — termed tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) — with the intention of lowering the nuclear threshold and, thus, deterring India’s putative “Cold Start” doctrine. So far, India’s stance has been that no matter what label Pakistan puts on its nukes, India will persist with its doctrine of massive retaliation. This posture should provoke thought firstly, because the destruction of a densely populated Pakistani metropolis in response to a TNW attack on a small Indian military unit (possibly on Pakistani soil or even at sea) will flout the principle of proportional response as well international opinion. Secondly, a nuclear first-strike will not only inflict casualties and mayhem, but the accompanying electro-magnetic pulse would also “fry” computer systems and jam communications. Given the entropy in our cities, political authorisation and launching of a retaliatory strike may become problematic.

So, when Parrikar asks rhetorically, “Why should I bind myself to NFU. Why say that I am not going to use it?”, he is implying that ambiguity may have a role in deterrence. India has a well-deserved reputation for responsible conduct in the nuclear domain. Do we need to provide a cast-iron guarantee to potential adversaries that they are immune from attack, even if seen to be preparing for a first strike? The NFU option is best left open-ended or unstated.


Two other observations of the RM call for brief comments. Firstly, while doctrinal “unpredictability” may be a virtue as far as adversaries are concerned, the total absence of white papers, defence reviews and, above all, a security doctrine, constitutes a huge void in India’s strategic domain. Secondly, the one factor that detracts from the credibility of India’s deterrent posture is the stark absence of a chief of defence staff. India’s adversaries, no doubt, reason that a country that permits a part-time rotational military functionary to preside over its nuclear arsenal could not be serious about nuclear deterrence. There is absolutely no need for the PM or RM to seek a consensus from the service chiefs to install a CDS. If the government considers it necessary in the national interest, they must appoint a CDS by fiat without further delay.