India — Nuclear neighbourhood: Challenges for India

An excel­lent civil­ian per­spec­tive on the aspect of Lim­it­ed wars against a Nuclear back­drop. India is per­haps the only coun­try that faces the chal­lenges aris­ing from hav­ing two nuclear neigh­bours, who close­ly coop­er­ate with each oth­ers’ nuclear pro­grammes and who main­tain adver­sar­i­al rela­tions with her. A nuclear-weapon enabled ter­ror­ist threat is sup­port­ed by strong and con­sis­tent denials of cul­pa­bil­i­ty for any such ‘non-state’ attack and a reliance on its ‘pro­tec­tor’ and men­tor, Chi­na, to han­dle the inevitable diplo­mat­ic furore that is bound to rise if the taboo on nuclear weapons is bro­ken with how­ev­er lim­it­ed an appli­ca­tion. It would appear that Pak­istan has adopt­ed a pol­i­cy of bat­tle­field use of its nuclear weapons, a like­ly esca­la­tion of a con­ven­tion­al con­fronta­tion to a nuclear lev­el, arrange­ments for rapid deploy­ment which could entail pre-del­e­ga­tion to unit com­man­ders in the event of a loss of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, (which is what appar­ent­ly hap­pened at Salala recent­ly when 24 Pak­istani sol­diers were killed in an ISAF air attack on two bor­der posts). She asserts that there is a need to slight­ly tweak our nuclear doc­trine; the objec­tive would be not to change our No First Use pol­i­cy, but to revert to the lan­guage of the Draft doc­trine on the ques­tion of retal­ia­to­ry strikes — these should be ‘puni­tive’ rather than ‘mas­sive’ as now exists. Last­ly, she makes the very bold asser­tion that in order to dis­il­lu­sion the adver­sary of our intent to retal­i­ate, the con­trol of the weapons should be placed square­ly with the Strate­gic Forces Com­mand.

This arti­cle is pub­lished with the kind per­mis­sion of “Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA) Mag­a­zine” New Del­hi-India

Defence and Security Alert (DSA

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Recent devel­op­ments in India’s neigh­bour­hood have led to an increase in the insta­bil­i­ty in the region with par­tic­u­lar impli­ca­tions for India’s secu­ri­ty. Pakistan’s fool­har­di­ness — or as the Pak­ista­nis view it, their bold­ness — in chal­leng­ing the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty by decid­ing to not attend — and to not allow its sur­ro­gates, the Tal­iban — to attend the just con­clud­ed Bonn Con­fer­ence on Afghanistan, in tak­ing actions which could see a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with the US and the ISAF forces on its west­ern bor­der and when it is such a par­lous sit­u­a­tion at home, can only arise from their assur­ance that at least polit­i­cal­ly and diplo­mat­i­cal­ly, if not mil­i­tar­i­ly, they can depend on the sup­port of Chi­na. Despite India’s own efforts to man­age her prick­ly rela­tions with Chi­na, such unqual­i­fied sup­port of Pak­istan, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the mil­i­tary and nuclear areas, must inevitably raise con­cerns in India.

India is per­haps the only coun­try that faces — or has ever faced — the chal­lenges aris­ing from hav­ing two nuclear neigh­bours, who close­ly coop­er­ate with each oth­ers’ nuclear pro­grammes and who main­tain adver­sar­i­al rela­tions with her. To be sure, dur­ing the Cold War, the Sovi­et Union faced sev­er­al hos­tile nuclear neigh­bours, which were bound togeth­er in an alliance and from 1971, anoth­er nuclear neigh­bour that formed a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge to its secu­ri­ty. Chi­na, too, till 1971 and for about a decade before that, faced both the Unit­ed States and the Sovi­et Union in adver­sar­i­al posi­tions. It was in the con­text of the Cold War that the­o­ries of lim­it­ed con­ven­tion­al wars under a nuclear over­hang — usu­al­ly on dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents — has been devel­oped by schol­ars, main­ly in the West. Whether such the­o­ries are applic­a­ble to the dual chal­lenge fac­ing India is a ques­tion that needs to be care­ful­ly con­sid­ered.

Unique sce­nario

The sit­u­a­tion that India faces today is unique; first­ly, it shares com­mon and dis­put­ed bor­ders with both hos­tile neigh­bours; Chi­na has, accord­ing to sev­er­al knowl­edge­able com­men­ta­tors and intel­li­gence sources (of the West) built-up Pakistan’s nuclear arse­nal almost from scratch — pro­vid­ing designs, mate­r­i­al, includ­ing fis­sile mate­r­i­al, tech­nol­o­gy, deliv­ery vehi­cles (either direct­ly or through North Korea) and even con­duct­ed a weapons test in 1990 on its Lop Nor Test site, for Pak­istan. Today it is sup­ply­ing reac­tors, which it claims will be under IAEA safe­guards; but giv­en the short shrift it has giv­en the Nuclear Sup­pli­ers’ Group, not to men­tion its oblig­a­tions under the NPT in arriv­ing at the agree­ment to do so, it is unlike­ly that the mate­r­i­al from these reac­tors will remain for civil­ian pur­pos­es only. Third­ly and most dan­ger­ous­ly, Pak­istan has been using its grow­ing nuclear arse­nal as an umbrel­la under which it appears to feel that it can use sub-con­ven­tion­al attacks against India with lit­tle or no dan­ger of (con­ven­tion­al) retal­i­a­tion.

None of the above has been seri­ous­ly dis­put­ed by either par­ty; nor has the vague but omi­nous ‘red lines’ that Pak­istan seems to have evolved regard­ing its stat­ed doc­trine of first use of nuclear weapons. It appears to have in mind the esca­la­tion of any con­ven­tion­al response from India to even an armed attack on Indi­an soil by its nation­als, to a nuclear counter-response. The the­o­ries of deter­rence would seem to not be applic­a­ble in a sit­u­a­tion if there is a ‘fail­ure of ratio­nal­i­ty’ on one side. Of course, it could very well be that the inten­tion is to indeed give an impres­sion of irra­tional­i­ty, to act as a deter­rent to any action on India’s part for fear that Pak­istan would react ‘irra­tional­ly’. This stand, of what has been termed ‘a nuclear-weapon enabled ter­ror­ist threat’ is sup­port­ed by strong and con­sis­tent denials of cul­pa­bil­i­ty for any such ‘non-state’ attack and a reliance on its ‘pro­tec­tor’ and men­tor, Chi­na, to han­dle the inevitable diplo­mat­ic furore that is bound to rise if the taboo on nuclear weapons is bro­ken with how­ev­er lim­it­ed an appli­ca­tion. India’s doc­trine calls for ‘mas­sive retal­i­a­tion’ in the event of a nuclear first strike; that would entail attack­ing counter-val­ue tar­gets, which could include cities and oth­er pop­u­la­tion cen­tres. There would inevitably be calls for restraint on India’s part, despite the enor­mi­ty of the action by Pak­istan and there is also like­ly to be some domes­tic resis­tance to attacks on cities or towns. In this, per­haps, worst-case but not improb­a­ble, sce­nario, what are India’s options?

There are some facts which are need­ed to be fac­tored in to any con­sid­er­a­tion of the issue.

Dif­fer­ence between a ‘declara­to­ry’ doc­trine and an oper­a­tional one; the lat­ter can only be deduced from the infor­ma­tion avail­able on acqui­si­tions and capa­bil­i­ties, state­ments of pol­i­cy by albeit retired senior mil­i­tary men from Pak­istan and such West­ern sources, pre­sum­ably from intel­li­gence inputs. On the basis of these, it would appear that Pak­istan has adopt­ed a pol­i­cy of bat­tle­field use of its nuclear weapons, a like­ly esca­la­tion of a con­ven­tion­al con­fronta­tion to a nuclear lev­el, arrange­ments for rapid deploy­ment which could entail pre­del­e­ga­tion to unit com­man­ders in the event of a loss of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, (which is what appar­ent­ly hap­pened at Salala recent­ly when 24 Pak­istani sol­diers were killed in an ISAF air attack on two bor­der posts)

Sino-Pak nexus

First­ly, we need to take China’s sup­port of Pak­istan for grant­ed, even the use by the lat­ter of non-state groups as a part of their for­eign and secu­ri­ty pol­i­cy. This has been demon­strat­ed repeat­ed­ly and not only in the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, where Chi­na has blocked any for­ward move­ment on the nam­ing of spe­cif­ic Pak­istani nation­als and spon­sored groups as ter­ror­ists. Sec­ond­ly, while the state of the inter­nal insta­bil­i­ty in Pak­istan is prob­a­bly exag­ger­at­ed in the media, Indi­an, Pak­istani and the West­ern, there is no doubt that there is a con­sid­er­able rise in reli­gios­i­ty with strong sec­tar­i­an and intol­er­ant strains in Pak­istani soci­ety in gen­er­al; this would have an inevitable impact on all state insti­tu­tions, includ­ing the mil­i­tary. At the same time, the mil­i­tary has not yet abjured its sup­port for spe­cif­ic non-state groups as ‘assets’ in the fur­ther­ance of its for­eign pol­i­cy objec­tives. Some of the groups may well be out of con­trol of the mil­i­tary, though there is lit­tle appar­ent effort to con­trol them in any effec­tive way, though some oth­er groups, tar­get­ing the Pak­istani state, are being attacked or nego­ti­at­ed with, accord­ing to press reports. Third­ly, while like many oth­er devel­op­ing coun­tries, Pakistan’s econ­o­my is cur­rent­ly in a very frag­ile con­di­tion, the wors­en­ing of rela­tions with the US may adverse­ly affect the bud­getary sup­port that Pak­istan has been used to receive — Chi­na usu­al­ly restricts itself only to project and com­mod­i­ty aid and does not give bud­getary sup­port to any of its allies, how­ev­er close. Notwith­stand­ing these devel­op­ments, the ambi­tions of Pakistan’s mil­i­tary remain vault­ing. Giv­en these facts, it is clear that the sit­u­a­tion is such that in the event of any cri­sis, or with the inten­tion of cre­at­ing one, India could face nuclear threats at mul­ti­ple lev­els from Pak­istan — it is not unlike­ly that these would be sup­port­ed by Chi­na, which, how­ev­er, will ensure that it is not direct­ly involved.