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Thinking through the unthinkable

India has rightly been called the ‘reluctant nuclear power’. No other country in the world allowed twenty-four years to lapse...

Written by K. Subrahmanyam |
September 15, 2009 1:58:17 am

India has rightly been called the ‘reluctant nuclear power’. No other country in the world allowed twenty-four years to lapse between its first nuclear test and declaring itself a nuclear-weapons state. The Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) officially published the first study on the effects of nuclear explosions in the ’50s and it became a textbook for campaigners for the test ban treaty. No country campaigned as vigorously for nuclear disarmament as India,which was finally compelled to declare itself a nuclear weapons state because of the extremely delicate security situation in which it found itself. Two of its neighbours,with active disputes with India and who have fought wars with this country,are nuclear-weapons states with an ongoing proliferation relationship. Both of them have breached international norms on proliferation. Placed in this situation,India had to safeguard its security and yet found no reason to abandon its commitment to campaign for nuclear disarmament. India also had before it,the lessons of the irrational pursuit of a nuclear theology by major powers who built obscenely large arsenals at great cost ( subsequently were compelled to dismantle them at equally great cost). India has taken note of the joint declaration of President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev that a nuclear war cannot be won. After its first use in a situation of asymmetry,when it was dropped on a nation attempting to negotiate its surrender,nuclear weapons have not been used in the last sixty four years.

There is a near-universally shared perception that deterrence has worked and the Indian official nuclear doctrine is based on this premise. However there are,as is to be expected — especially in an argumentative country — different views on its interpretation and scope. That leads to espousals of differing strategies and policies.Therefore,a rigorous examination of the concept of deterrence is called for.

Most of the literature on nuclear deterrence has been produced by US strategists,and they relate to a two-player game between the US and USSR. In the initial stages of the Cold War,the US used the perceived Soviet conventional superiority in Europe as justification for developing tactical nuclear weapons. Then,the vulnerability of airborne forces to a totally disarming strike (the ‘delicate balance of terror’ thesis) led to the development of silo-based and submarine-based missiles. Very fanciful assertions of the punishment the Soviets were capable of accepting,in terms of population and industry loss,became the basis for hiking up the requirements of these silo and submarine-based missiles. Then came the technology of multiple warheads. The final result was an arsenal exceeding 20,000 warheads on each side. While the USSR,in the initial stages,was able to exercise deterrence vis a vis a vastly superior nuclear arsenal of the US with a fraction of that number,in subsequent years it expanded its arsenal to match and exceed that of the US — mostly to seek parity in terms of super-power status. Though the USSR espoused an aggressive ideology,a basic feature of that ideology was that the direction of history was inexorably in one direction; the USSR need not push it militarily in areas of vital interest to the West,but should take advantage of opportunities in the developing world. The result of this approach was that USSR behaved almost like a status-quoist power,very rarely threatening the US directly. The only crisis when the homelands of both powers came under threat was the Cuban missile crisis.

While the nuclear deterrence between the two super-powers operated without any external constraints,that was not the case in the game of deterrence between other powers — such as,for instance,between China and the USSR. The Chinese,following Soviet warnings of potential escalations in the border confrontation,decided to make a complete U-turn in their policy,respond to US overtures,and have a tacit alliance with them — thus enhancing uncertainty for the Soviets in any nuclear threat towards the very weak nuclear China of the ’70s and ’80s. The game of nuclear deterrence among the lower-rung nuclear nations must necessarily take into account the potential behaviour of the two foremost nuclear powers,which are in the case of India and Pakistan beyond the possibility of any realistic retaliation. There is not much,if at all any,literature on the game of deterrence among the second- and third-rung nuclear nations under such conditions of uncertainty. So we have to think for ourselves.

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Deterrence has been defined as discouraging someone from doing something by instilling in them the fear of consequences. In India’s case,it would mean that the ability of the country to retaliate against a nuclear attack on it by either of its two nuclear neighbours,should be credible to the potential adversary. In other words,the retaliation should result in unacceptable damage in terms of population and property. However,deterrence is not a function of the exchange ratio of the damages inflicted by both sides. It is directly related to the population and property damage which the aggressor will calculate he can accept in the inevitable retaliation that is bound to follow his initial nuclear attack,irrespective of its magnitude. In today’s context,when missile defence is still to become optimally effective,so long as India has a survivable retaliatory force,the punishment is certain. Even a fission warhead of 15 kilotons will cause more than 100,000 immediate fatal casualties in the densely populated cities of South Asia and China. It is immaterial if a 100 kiloton warhead flattens a major city or if that is done by three smaller 15-kiloton warheads. Deterrence depends on the adversary’s perception of the explosive yield that will be delivered on his cities by a retaliatory strike. There are both advantages and disadvantages in delivering the retaliation in big packages with fewer delivery systems,or with larger numbers in a distributed way. The crux of deterrence is survival of the retaliatory force and the adequacy of the survived force to inflict unacceptable punishment.

There can be all kinds of fanciful calculations on what would constitute unacceptable punishment,and what would be the survivability factor of one’s own force against the adversary’s first strike of different magnitudes. The adversary cannot disarm himself in his first strike and he should have enough warheads left after he is hit by retaliatory strikes. Then,allowances have to be made for failures of warheads and failures of delivery systems,and delivery vehicles missing the target by a large margin in the exchanges between both sides. Depending on the mental and emotional make-up of the calculator,the figure can vary over a large range. In the real world of today,will even 6-10 hits by fission warheads,let alone 100-kiloton thermonuclear warheads,be considered acceptable to attain a conceivable strategic,political,or economic objective? Exercise of a credible deterrence calls for sound judgement on this issue.

(To be concluded)

The writer is a senior defence analyst

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First published on: 15-09-2009 at 01:58:17 am
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