Home > News > Columnists > Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)
Playing the nuclear game
February 23, 2003
In 1998, when both India and Pakistan decided to exercise their nuclear options, they also opted to take on the additional responsibilities which nuclear powers are required to accept. It is necessary to play the nuclear game by a set of rules to demonstrate to the world that these weapons of mass destruction are in safe and responsible hands and that there would be more than adequate command and control over their deployment and use.
In 1999, the National Security Council Advisory Board brought forth a draft nuclear doctrine. As is the case with most such documents in India, it was not made public but enough of the key elements in the paper have been leaked out to give us a pretty good idea of what the rules entail. To this day the government has not officially promulgated its official nuclear doctrine but again it is understood that the NSC paper of 1999 forms the basis of the Indian rules of the game. As against India, Pakistan also has not adopted or promulgated an official version of their nuclear doctrine but again there is little ambiguity about their thinking in these matters.
Shorn of all the jargon, the basic principles of the Indian nuclear doctrine are quite clear. First, India will develop and stockpile nuclear weapons to provide a 'minimum deterrent.' Second, India will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear nations. Third, India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons against an adversary -- a 'No first strike' policy. Finally, India will continue its efforts for a nuclear weapon free world.
Pakistan on the other hand has clearly stated that their nuclear arsenal will be specifically against India in order to counterbalance their disadvantage in conventional forces. They have also declined to adopt the 'No first use' policy. On the face of it the Indian nuclear doctrine appears to be very reasonable while the unspoken Pakistani doctrine appears very strident. But if one goes deeper both doctrines are very similar.
India says it will not use the weapons against non-nuclear states. It is inconceivable, at least at present, that India will target the superpowers or France or UK. That leaves only Pakistan and China. In the case of Pakistan, China is her ally which leaves only India for her to target.
India's 'no first strike' rule is also not under any and all circumstances. It has a lot of ifs and buts attached to it. We have declared that in case of an attack against us by chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction we will not hesitate to reply with nuclear weapons. Even in conventional warfare, in the extreme circumstances where say the enemy makes spectacular progress on ground we will surely use nuclear weapons, at least the tactical variety, to halt his progress. Pakistan has said it will use the nukes only if it is attacked. Again basically both sides are saying the same thing.
As in any document in which one does not want to be tied down, nuclear doctrines the world over have a lot of holes in them. Take 'minimum deterrent' for example. No one has ever defined or put in numbers what minimum deterrent means. Many years ago when some Indian defence experts were trying to get the government to go nuclear they put forward a figure of 50 or 60 bombs. Now nobody knows. India, taking into account China, will want to have x number of warheads. Then certainly Pakistan will not be happy until it has x+10 and so the arms race will go on until both sides have enough the wipe out each other many times over. The term 'minimum deterrent,' as indeed all terms in the nuclear lexicon, was coined by the Americans in the 1950s. They have amassed over 12,000 war heads and still call it minimum deterrent.
The Indian nuclear doctrine is based on the principle of massive retaliation. This principle, again first enunciated by the Americans many decades back, known as Mutual Assured Destruction (aptly acronym as MAD) is based on the theory that the fear of attracting a massive nuclear attack in retaliation will act as a deterrent to its first use. The term has been long ditched or modified by the US over the years. To start with, each country will target the other's cities and population centres, in effect holding the citizens and people to ransom, not a particularly ethical way to prevent war. More important, the threat of massive retaliation may have prevented a nuclear exchange between the Cold War adversaries but did not prevent a number of conventional wars sprouting all over the world.
In our own case it did not prevent Kargil.
The MAD theory relies heavily on each side playing the game according to rules. Like a chess game it expects each side to make the correct moves. No government in its right senses wants to see its cities flattened, its population decimated and its economy destroyed. If then it believes that the other side is capable of launching a massive counter attack it will think twice about using nuclear weapons. The theory makes sense provided both sides have a lot to lose. It has certainly prevented a nuclear war for over 50 years. But what if the other side happens to be irrational, does not really care for its people or has little to lose. In short, what if your adversary happens to be a Taliban ruled Afghanistan or a fundamentalist ruled country? We will have to rethink all our doctrines if in the future some WMDs fall in the hands of militants.
To ensure that we will be able to deliver a counter punch under all circumstances, the Indian policy is to spread retaliation by means of a triad, delivery from the air, by land and from the sea. Even if any one or even two of these methods are neutralised in a first strike by the enemy the third, it is hoped, will be able to retaliate massively. In theory one cannot find fault with this. The only problem is the enormous cost and the problems of command and control.
During the Cold War the United States (and presumably also the USSR) went to enormous trouble to perfect the triad method of nuclear delivery. The delivery systems got bigger and more sophisticated. Large nuclear submarines, some capable of delivering over 20 sea launched missiles, each missile capable of targeting up to 10 targets, were built. Underground silos capable of withstanding direct nuclear attacks and aircraft capable of carrying weapons deep into enemy territory all added up to costs, which only a country like the US could meet. The Soviet Union went broke trying to keep up.
The problems of command and control in case of a sea launched missiles are enormous. It requires a really fool proof system. It has now been revealed that during the Cuban missile crisis a Soviet nuclear submarine very nearly launched a nuclear missile against the US. It was lucky that out of three members which were required to agree, one demurred. In a country like India with so many train accidents, it is difficult to have confidence in a fool proof command and control system.
India is understood to have taken the first steps towards the nuclear triad by acquiring two Akula class nuclear submarines capable of launching nuclear tipped missiles. Pakistan cannot be far behind. Pakistan already possesses submarines capable of launching underwater Harpoon missiles. It will be only a matter of time before it is nuclear tipped. Within the next few years both countries will have nuclear submarines off each other's coasts with cities like Karachi and Mumbai within their sights.
The triad may avoid a nuclear war but it will be an uneasy peace.
Are the people of both countries destined to live under a nuclear threat throughout this century? Given our present state of relations it is unrealistic to hope for the elimination of these weapons from the subcontinent. But it is still not late for both countries to initiate a dialogue to eliminate them from the sea. In the seventies we talked of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. Let us now put our money where our mouth is and try to make this sea, our own sea, a peaceful area.
Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)