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No second thoughts

The Chief of the Army Staff,General Deepak Kapoor,is reported to have suggested that the country may have to revisit its “No First Use” (NFU) policy...

The Chief of the Army Staff,General Deepak Kapoor,is reported to have suggested that the country may have to revisit its “No First Use” (NFU) policy in the light of reports from some credible US sources that Pakistan may have an arsenal of 90 nuclear weapons and may be building up further stocks.

When NFU was formulated ( I was the convenor of the National Security Board that drafted it) there were no assumptions on the size of the Pakistani arsenal. The doctrine stands by itself irrespective of the size of the potential enemy’s arsenal. There is a second component of the nuclear doctrine: the credible minimum deterrent. It is that component that may call for some adjustments if the potential enemy’s arsenal were to increase. Even that is not a necessity from the point of view of deterrence,but a question of influencing the perception of the adversary. The crux of deterrence is the survivability of the retaliatory force and the aggressor’s calculation as to whether the casualties and damage likely to be inflicted by the survived retaliatory force on his population and cities can be justified by the strategic gain the unleashing of the nuclear attack will secure for the aggressor. Very rarely,if at all,can the answer to that question be in the affirmative. In such circumstances deterrence will prevail.

Deterrence is not a question of having the ability to inflict much larger casualties and damage on the adversary than,according to one’s own calculation,one is likely to suffer in retaliation. An aggressor’s attack can be counter-force or counter-value. If it is counter-force the aggressor can never be certain that he can destroy all the force of the other side and escape retaliation. In the early ’60s the United States planned a total disarming strike on the Soviet Union,when it had more than ten times the USSR’s number of warheads. When the president asked whether there could be certainty that no Soviet warhead would hit the US the answer was a clear negative. That was enough to deter the US from proceeding with its disarming strike in spite of a ten-fold superiority. Since then,surveillance methods and missile accuracies have improved. But so also the mobility of the weapon platforms,even on land; the submarine deterrent is of course exceedingly survivable. When India’s nuclear doctrine was published,many Westerners questioned the need for a sea-based deterrent; a senior NDA minister (a member of the cabinet committee on security) even called it an “academic exercise”. In our country,the learning process on nuclear issues has just begun.

The NFU doctrine was formulated in 1999 by the National Security Advisory Board and was officially adopted in 2003. Only after its official adoption were strategic force commanders appointed; we have had four,two from the air force,one from the navy and,presently,from the army. In the last six years,scientists of the Department of Atomic Energy and the Defence Research and Development Organisation have acquired valuable experience in operationalising the arsenal. So,certainly,there is a case to review our deterrent posture and policy six years after the National Command Authority was set up. The government will be well-advised to commission a taskforce,comprising the ex-strategic force commanders,senior officials of DAE and DRDO familiar with the deterrent force’s standard operational procedures and three-star representatives from the services — as well as an intelligence specialist with a background in nuclear strategic matters and one or two civilian experts — to carry out such a review. Committee members should be cleared for top-secret classification,and have full access to all data (except the current actual operational plan). They should be in a position to discuss alternative future operational strategies. As time goes by more and more people privy to nuclear secrets will retire from service. Therefore there should be a realistic approach to making data available to such a group of experts after they sign the Official Secrets Act pledge.

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There are a number of ways the increase in the Pakistani stockpile can be countered,besides responding to it with a similar increase in the size of our credible minimum deterrent. In India,the credible minimum deterrent was always envisaged in three-digit numbers; that itself gives sufficient flexibility.

The best short-term counter measures will be to improve our surveillance and warning capabilities,the mobility of our land-based missiles,and survivability of our airborne retaliatory force. As the potential adversary improves his technology these measures will be necessary and it will be prudent to start on such programmes straightaway. The new scientific adviser is a specialist in theatre missile defence and there are reports of India jointly developing missile defence systems with Israel. The missile defence further increases the uncertainty of the aggressor and reinforces deterrence.

The more robust the deterrence,the stronger the justification for the NFU strategy. It reflects greater confidence in the survivability of one’s arsenal and ability to retaliate punitively,according to the original wording of the doctrine in 1999. In 2003,this wording was changed from “punitive” to “massive”,a discredited term in the nuclear lexicon. Further — by copying the Americans and including largescale WMD attacks as justification for nuclear retaliation — the 2003 document diluted the NFU pledge. If today an increase in the Pakistani nuclear stockpile and the development of Babar cruise missile cause concern about a decapitating first strike,then the logical remedy is not to abandon our NFU but to provide for credible,visible succession for both political and military command,and to streamline the chain of command. It is a well-known joke that the camel is a horse designed by a committee. We know committee deliberations could not stop IC-814 from taking off from Amritsar. It is just incredible that committees are going to handle nuclear command and control. These are vital issues to be addressed to enhance our deterrence irrespective of the size of the potential enemy’s stockpile.


Giving up NFU will only increase nuclear tension without solving the problem of the risk of a possible decapitating strike by the potential enemy. There must be a better understanding of the national no-first-use policy among our armed forces and other decision- and

policy-makers,as well as a deeper grasp of the concept of deterrence.

The writer is a senior defence analyst

First published on: 08-09-2009 at 03:02 IST
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