Deterrence is a mind game. Nuclear deterrence is even more psychologically weighted because at stake, quite literally, is a nation’s survival as a “social organism”, to use the words of the geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder.
What makes nuclear deterrence work is the ambiguity and opacity shrouding its every aspect. These range from weapons/warheads, delivery systems, their deployment pattern, command and control system to details about storage, reaction time, and physical, electronic and cyber security schemes, the weapons production processes, the personnel involved and policies relating to all these elements. The more anything remotely connected with nuclear hardware and software, strategy, policies, plans and posture is a black hole, the greater is the uncertainty in the adversary’s mind and the unpredictability attending on the deterrent. Moreover, pronouncements emanating from official quarters that obfuscate matters and generate unease, especially about India’s nuclear weapons-use initiation and nuclear response calculi, enhance the sense of dread in the minds of adversary governments. Dread is at the heart of successful nuclear deterrence.
It is the responsibility of the Indian government to make the ambiguity-opacity-uncertainty-unpredictability matrix denser, not make it easier for adversaries to plumb its political will and to read its strategic intentions by clarifying nuclear issues. The adversaries one needs to keep in mind are as much the obvious ones — China and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan — as the “friendly” countries, such as the US. The US, in particular, was at the forefront of preventing India from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold, failing in which enterprise, it has done everything to ensure India stays stuck at the low-end of the nuclear weapons technology development curve. It insisted that India does not resume underground nuclear testing, or depart from the US understanding of limited nuclear deterrence. It may also be recalled that, for geopolitical reasons of containing India to the subcontinent during the Cold War, Washington disregarded its own proliferation concerns and watched China nuclear missile-arm Pakistan even as it preached responsible behaviour to New Delhi.
In this context, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s wondering why no-first-use (NFU) is assumed to be a restraint on the Indian nuclear forces is just the monkey wrench that needed to be thrown into the Western considerations of this country’s nuclear security. American think-tanks help the US government to achieve its nuclear non-proliferation objectives, propagating, for instance, the hollow India-Pakistan “nuclear flashpoint” thesis that Washington has often used to pressure a usually diffident and malleable New Delhi. Pakistan naturally supports this thesis as a means of legitimating its fast-growing nuclear arsenal, as do many Indian analysts for their own reasons.
No surprise, then, that Parrikar’s stray thoughts on NFU have shocked the large community of flashpoint believers and acted as bait for George Perkovich, one of the stalwart proponents of this idea, to rise to it. He uses the morality card — the loss of India’s supposed “high ground” which has been sufficient by itself in the past to subdue the Indian government — and labels Parrikar’s statements as “superficial, perhaps, dangerously so” (see his “Impolitic musings”, The Indian Express, November 15). The truth, however, is that Perkovich — and by extension, Washington — is worried that Parrikar has upended the US-qua-Western nuclear construct for South Asia.
But NFU is less of an issue for Perkovich than his desire to get Parrikar to explain “whether and how” India means to enlarge its nuclear forces and infrastructure and “revise its operational plans” contingent on New Delhi’s apparent jettisoning of NFU. In this respect, it is pertinent to note that besides its intelligence agencies, Washington has always relied on American think-tankers and gullible Indians to help winkle out details of the Indian nuclear deterrent — Perkovich’s primary intent. I recall that at a 1.5 track meet held under the US government’s aegis in San Diego in December 1998 the hosts called in a surviving Manhattan Project biggie, Herbert York, to impress on the Indians there the dangers of the nuclear course India was embarked upon. They banked on an Indian patsy — the joint secretary (Americas), MEA — to repeatedly ask K. Subrahmanyam and me to speculate about what weapons strength constituted a “minimum” deterrent.
Indeed, far from being under any obligation to throw light on NFU or any other nuclear issue, Parrikar is almost duty-bound to air his “personal views” more frequently on the subject and thus keep confounding assessments regarding India’s deterrent.