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Why India needs nuclear weapons

September 25, 2009 20:32 IST
In the first part of his column, Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) said India's indifference to strategic and defence requirements can cost it dear.

In the final part, he explains why India must move from minimum deterrence to a policy of flexible response.

The concept of deterrence or prevention of conflict as opposed to defence that implies actual conflict, was born in 1950s and 1960s when the world woke up to the fact of radiation damage caused by nuclear weapons and the super powers weapon stockpiles reached the level where there was 500 tonnes of TNT explosive for every living human being. The Mumbai carnage of 1993 and 2006 needed a less than 200 kg.

Deterrence as a concept is not new to warfare. Countries created and maintained armed forces of sufficient strength so that a would-be adversary should think twice before aggressing.

In the nuclear era it became a central concept as failure of deterrence meant nuclear war, a war that all agreed would be catastrophic. Deterrence is a combination of 'capability' and 'credibility'.

Capability depends on the size and effectiveness of arsenal while credibility is dependent on the kind of delivery systems, missiles/aircraft/submarines et al, their range, accuracy and reliability. But in addition credibility is also a 'political' factor and a matter of perception.

A nation's past behaviour, its societal cohesion, efficiency of its government and the 'will' of the nation to strike back!

When the sum total of capability and credibility of two nations more or less equals and cancels out each other, the deterrence becomes mutual and is a factor of stability and leads to peace. This is what happened during most of the Cold War era.

But deterrence or nuclear deterrence is not omnipotent. Even during the Cold War era, when it worked, proxy conflicts between the two superpowers continued -- be it in Korea, Vietnam or in Afghanistan. Thus nuclear deterrence is issue specific -- it prevents a direct nuclear war between adversaries and possibly a direct conventional conflict at best.

But it is also country specific -- what may deter say Sri Lanka may not deter Bangladesh.

Second strike capability and minimum deterrence

The concept of second strike capability was a 'situation' that was born out of the technological progress in making nuclear delivery vehicles, missiles, immune to a surprise first strike. The land-based missiles were placed in concrete silos, put on an aircraft and on nuclear submarines. This was also contributed by the inter-services rivalry.

The fact that a country was capable of absorbing a first strike and still able to inflict retaliatory damage is sufficient to deter the attack in the first place, made the nuclear 'balance' stable and led to armed peace between the two superpowers during the Cold War.

Out of the nuclear powers only France propagated the concept of exclusively 'second strike' based strategy and 'minimum deterrence'. The French Force de Frappe was structured in such a way that it could inflict limited damage on the likely adversary -- the erstwhile Soviet Union. President Charles de Gaulle often described his 'independent' nuclear force as force of 'dissuasion', to dissuade the enemy; not deter him.

This then got the misleading nomenclature of 'minimum deterrence', a contradiction in terms. Deterrence and especially nuclear deterrence, is an 'absolute' concept and there is nothing like partial or minimum deterrence (as there is no partial pregnancy or partial rape!).

There is only one kind of deterrence -- adequate deterrence that succeeds.

Given the close strategic relations between France and the US, there is every reason to speculate that the creation of 'independent' French force was an American ploy to enhance credibility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation doctrine of 'use' of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

Throughout the Cold War, the US was worried that its own threat was not credible since the Soviet's felt that the US would not risk itself for the sake of defence of Europe.

In addition, the French 'minimum' deterrence seemed attractive and successful since it was thought to be a 'tipping' force in balance of terror.

Neither of these conditions exist today in case of India and aping the French concept and relying on no first use and second strike capability to deter is a recipe for disaster in waiting.

Pakistan that is an economic basket case with rudimentary industry, a crumbling society and torn by internal strife ought not to have been a threat to a nation of one billion plus with the world's second fastest growing economy, sound industrial base and functioning democracy.

The Pakistani threat is essentially a proxy Chinese threat and consequence of insensitive American policies.

Dealing with Pakistan without dealing with the 'source' of this threat is like applying band-aid to counter AIDS. Today China is successfully using Pakistan and North Korea as proxies against India and Japan respectively.

From defunct minimum deterrence to 'flexible response'

India has to fashion a policy to stop the Americans from bolstering Pakistani capabilities as a pay-off for help in Afghanistan. India will need to use its diplomacy and economic clout as well as its position as the only counterweight to China to make sure that the Americans do not repeat their folly of the first Afghan war when it turned blind eye to Pakistan's nuclearisation and also helped build conventional forces.

Pakistan is not 'core' US interest and the influential Indian lobby in the US ought to bring in moderation in American military help. Currently, the US is oblivious to Indian concerns as it feels that India is in a 'Tina' (There is no alternative) situation.

Our diplomacy ought to create alternative alliance possibilities to counter this.

In addition a more assertive, not aggressive, posture vis-a-vis China would help the US listen to us as only that would convince it that India would indeed be a strategic asset in future when the US has to battle Chinese hegemony. Much greater co-ordination with Japan, which faces a similar threat is the need of the hour.P>

Dealing with China is more problematic. The present Chinese posture of using the Pakistani proxy against India is a no risk-high pay-off strategy. Without specifically targeting China in the Cold War era mode, India must develop 'force de dissuasion '. The logic used by France is appropriate in this context.

India has already taken the first step towards this by launching its nuclear submarine. Let there be no mistake, the nuclear submarine-based weapons are of no relevance for Pakistan. The only conceivable target for these would be the Chinese Pacific coast -- the heart of the Chinese industrial area.

Side by side with this India must create a force of close to at least 10 IRBMs (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles) capable of reaching major Chinese cities. Giving them rail/road mobility would enhance their 'second strike' credibility.

The current Indian nuclear posture vis-a-vis Pakistan is 'passive, rigid and all or nothing' strategy. To wean away Pakistan from playing the cat's paw to outside powers, India has to create a force that would threaten total assured destruction of the Pakistani heartland.

Once it sinks into the Pakistani heads the cost of that playing the game of others is its own survival, we may see a change in their mindset.

Indian strategic thinking has been reduced to chanting of the mantra of 'no first use' and second strike capability. But we have an enemy that has not given a 'no first use' pledge and relies on calculated irrationality (the mad mullah image) as a strategy. We have to factor in these asymmetries in our approach to nuclear strategy.

It ought to be made clear to Pakistan that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but also not be second!

Let me explain. Let us imagine a scenario of a repeat of 26/11 like attack. Our satellites detect Pakistan moving its F-16s to forward bases and begin arming of its missiles! Are we then to wait for the first nuclear bomb to fall on Delhi before we retaliate?

This strike in response to Pakistani provocations should be based on Force A -- Prithvi missiles and Bofors 155 mm guns. These should have tactical nuclear weapons or ERWs (Enhanced Radiation Weapons or so-called Neutron Bombs).

Force B -- The air force component and Agni/Brahmos missiles should target the likely locations of the Pakistani nuclear forces. These could have boosted fission devices in the range of 40 kilotons or more.

The primary target for Force A would be the 150 km narrow strip along our border that is the Pakistani heartland in terms of population. Force B should target distant cities, airfields and missile sites as well as nuclear establishments.

To sum up, India should shift to a 'flexible response' from the current no first use and minimum deterrence posture. Against China it would be a strategy of dissuasion based on a survivable second strike force that could threaten Chinese high value targets.

In the case of Pakistan, the flexible response strategy would be based on ambiguous no first or second use and a 1,000 point targeting with the aim of annihilation of that entity.

It is obvious that in the case of Pakistan at least we have to have a nuclear war fighting and winning capability -- it may sound bizarre and completely heartless to think of it for we must expect that a few Pakistani nuclear weapons will survive and reach our cities.

But given the state of that country and its self image as well as our own folly of passivity, reality is far worse and being unprepared is a sin that future generations will not forgive us.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is the Chhattrapati Shivaji Fellow at the United Services Institution and coordinator of the Pune-based think-tank Inpad.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)