Closer to Nuclear MADness

As nuclear taboos of various kinds get weakened and violated the world over, India and Pakistan are drawing each other into the vortex of a potentially ruinous nuclear and missile arms race. They are transiting from a posture of demonstrating an assured capability to cause mass destruction, to one of deterring each other with nuclear weapons that are deployed and ready to go at short notice.

This is India’s and Pakistan’s own version of MAD, the doctrine of seeking security through mutually assured destruction, which both the United States and the former USSR adopted for long years during the Cold War. South Asia’s MAD may be even more fallible and prone to grave risks and breakdowns than the US-USSR deterrent equation. It is likely to bring a nuclear catastrophe more squarely with the realm of possibility.

Recent developments have lowered South Asia’s nuclear threshold even further.

As in the past, with all matters nuclear, it is India that is taking the lead today. Early this month, it officially declared that it has established a two-tiered Nuclear Command Authority and also released a summary highlighting the main features of its nuclear strategic doctrine. It has since set up a Strategic Forces Command headed by an Air Marshal, to manage India’s nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles.

The NCA will be comprised of a Political Council, headed by the Prime Minister, and an Executive Council, headed by the National Security Adviser, a recently created post. The Political Council alone will have the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. The Executive Council will provide it intelligence and expert advice, and implement its decisions.

Pakistan had set up its own nuclear command-and-control structure way back in February 2001. Last week, it made it clear that this would be headed not by a civilian Prime Minister, as earlier indicated, but by the President and army chief General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan is believed to be somewhat more advanced than India in matching nuclear warheads with missiles and aircraft.

Both India and Pakistan are testing and readying a variety of ballistic missiles for induction into their armed forces. Pakistan announced on January 9 that the medium-range Hatf-V-Ghauri missile has been handed over to the army for induction. The very next day, India tested the new Pakistan-specific Agni-I, with a range of about 800 kilometres.

India is expected to deploy Agni-I within about a year. It has already deployed the nuclear-capable short-range (150 to 250 km) Prithvi missile. India has also announced it will test a 3,500 km-range missile Agni-III.

Even more important than the nuclear and missile preparations are changes in strategic thinking. Private briefings by India’s military personnel provided to select journalists suggest that the government has drawn a number of inferences and conclusions from the recently ended 10 months-long border confrontation with Pakistan. This ended in a draw, or more accurately, a failure on New Delhi’s part to achieve any of the stated objectives of this massive mobilisation – of a total of one million troops.

These conclusions are quite simply that New Delhi has lost its conventional superiority or edge over Islamabad. Even a repeat of a "limited conventional war" – of the kind India and Pakistan fought at Kargil in Kashmir a year after the May 1998 nuclear tests – is also ruled out because Pakistan will brandish the nuclear sword at a relatively early stage of a military conflict with India (Musharraf held out this very threat in his December 30 speech, discussed in the last column here).

Yet, Indian strategists think that there is an urgent "need" to punish Pakistan for its continued support to "terrorism" and militant infiltration into India, especially Kashmir, and also to "call its nuclear bluff" and prevent it from practising "nuclear blackmail".

Such a strategy would require a high level of preparation and readiness to use nuclear weapons – i.e. to make India’s threat of "massive retaliation" to nuclear strike more and more demonstrable and realisable. A Defence Ministry official has been quoted as saying: "While we still do not envisage a nuclear exchange … we do not want to be found wanting in such an event."

This clearly implies a high level not just of deployment, but of readiness to use nuclear weapons – and hence a high level of alert.

One "lesson" that Indian generals seem to have drawn from the recent mobilisation, codenamed "Operation Parakram", is that though India has larger armed forces than Pakistan, they are not large enough to overwhelm the adversary. In conventional terms, the ratio of Indian and Pakistani deployable army divisions is of the order of 1.2 to 1, not the 3 to 1 normally considered necessary.

This changes the armed forces’ earlier assessment that Pakistan will resort to a nuclear first strike primarily to counter India’s superiority in conventional military forces, especially in the event of a crushing military defeat, or the virtual overrunning of Pakistan by Indian forces.

This new "realisation" is the Indian government’s belated, but distorted, and partial, recognition of the elementary truth which the peace movement has all along underscored: nuclear weapons impose major additional constraints upon a country’s military options; they don’t usually enlarge or extend them, nor furnish greater space for diplomatic and military manoeuvre. In South Asia, nuclear weapons can only have a profoundly destabilising impact.

The post-"Parakram" thinking is generating enormous pressure in favour of further lowering the threshold for a nuclear conflict in South Asia. It means India will move away from the "minimum" part of its stated doctrine of creating a "credible minimum nuclear deterrent". The term "minimum" was always vague and ill-defined. But conceptually, it suggested doing with less, rather than more.

MAD assumes a high level of preparedness and a broad range of mass-destruction capability to inflict "massive" and "unacceptable" damage upon the adversary. India is already committed to building a "triadic" nuclear arsenal (with land, air and sea-based components).

It is planning to build a nuclear-powered submarine of its own, and in the meanwhile, to lease one from Russia. Many Indian nuclear strategists believe that a submarine alone can provide an assured second strike capability – crucial given India’s No-First-Use (NFU) doctrine.

This doctrine is coming under pressure and has already been diluted. When India crossed the nuclear threshold in 1998, it pledged it would never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapons state, and won’t be the first to use them against even nuclear powers.

Then, in August 1999, the Draft Nuclear Doctrine prepared by the National Security Advisory Board modified the first commitment to say it would not apply to states which are allied to nuclear powers. Thus Draft was officially neither adopted nor rejected. The United States frowned on its original formulations which were considered highly ambitious and open-ended.

There is yet more, and major, dilution in the latest version released by the Cabinet Committee on Security on January 4: India will now retaliate with nuclear weapons "in the event of a major attack against India or Indian forces anywhere" – an attack made not just with nuclear weapons, but with "biological or chemical weapons" too.

In this, India emulates the US’s December 2002 "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction": massive nuclear retaliation killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatant civilians, in response to chemical or biological weapons which usually kill on a smaller scale, e.g. hundreds of soldiers. This disproportion makes NFU’s dilution especially obnoxious.

Even worse, there is pressure on the government from the 15-member NSAB (now in its third avatar) to rescind No-First-Use altogether. In a classified report – quoted by the weekly "India Abroad", published from the US – submitted to National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra on December 20, the NSAB recommends: "India may consider withdrawing from this commitment as the other nuclear weapons states have not accepted this policy."

The Board also asks India to lift its voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing should the US ever do so. It is widely believed that India’s claimed "hydrogen bomb" test of 1998 was a dud. Some Indian nuclear scientists, including former Atomic Energy Commission chairman and the chief physicist responsible for the 1974 nuclear test, P.K. Iyengar, have called for further tests.

Defence Minister George Fernandes has for the moment reaffirmed the NFU commitment. But many military personnel prefer its revision. Some believe it won’t practically mean much given that there is no strategic distance worth the name between the two South Asian rivals.

Recent experience has vindicated the peace movement’s position that no stable nuclear deterrent equation exists, and can exist, between India and Pakistan. The two frequently indulge in reckless nuclear threat-making. During the Kargil conflict, they exchanged nuclear threats with each other 13 times. During the recent "Operation Parakram" too, they resorted to loose nuclear talk.

It is widely believed that twice last year, in January and at the end of May/early June, India called off advanced preparations for a conventional strike on Pakistan – largely as a result of US pressure. However, Indian leaders, in particular, its just-retired army chief Gen S. Padmanabhan, deny that India was deterred by Pakistan’s nuclear threat or capability. Padmanabhan said that India had a full assessment of Pakistan’s nuclear capability and was "not deterred". "We were ready to cope with [that capability]". This "coping" could only have been a retaliatory nuclear strike.

One is left aghast wondering whether Indian policy-makers think that nuclear weapons only deter one adversary, not both, in a two-way confrontation: that India’s weapons will successfully deter Pakistan, but Pakistani weapons will not stop India from doing what it wants to do!

This is a dangerously mistaken, profoundly irrational, insane proposition, which self-confessedly makes utter nonsense of relying on nuclear weapons for security! Deterrence assumes and requires high levels of rationality and symmetrical perceptions of what constitutes "unacceptable damage".

This simply does not obtain in the India-Pakistan case, with its history of strategic miscalculation as well as misassessment of each other’s capabilities. Some Indian policy-makers believe that India can lose a few cities and still survive in some normal or "acceptable" way. For Pakistani generals, the threshold may be even higher. Indeed, some have been quoted as saying Pakistan can lose all its major cities and still survive as a nation.

All this bodes ill future of this troubled, unhappy and strife-torn region.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.