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Deliberations on 'strategic restraint'

With Modi at the helm, inclination on ‘no first use’ is changing.

Deliberations on strategic restraint
In these times of hyper-nationalism, the army men get lionised when returning from peacekeeping operations of the United Nations for which they get top dollars that become their life savings. This is also the time when the trolls on the internet make one a target if one says on twitter that why do missiles – ballistic or cruise – look like a man's organ for urination. Of course, it is often used as a weapon for rapes. Thus, are these weapons symbols of deep misogyny? And is war uniquely patriarchal in nature?

Outside of the arcana of nuclear weapons, similar patriotic fervour is witnessed as it gets coupled with complete ignorance of the complexities of the weapons and their use – the philosophy, doctrine, deployment, and employment. While the ones who master this apparently arcane areas of knowledge, consider themselves – in a clear contradiction in terms - 'pundits.'

Let's delve a little more deeply – only as much as this writer can do – into this architecture of the nuclear weapons policy. First, a little history. Though India weaponised their missiles, essentially first generation Prithvis, with nuclear weapons and have nuclear bombs aboard Mirage-2000s and Jaguars for delivery (to make it seem heavier, more authoritative sounding) systems. Anything systemic gives an impression of being integral – thus, existential, a philosophical term of the late-19th and early 20th century. The weaponisation was done with Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister, permitting it.

A former Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh had talked about India becoming a declared nuclear weapon state (NWS) and thus entering some of the exclusive science and technology clubs that had as members Nuclear-Five (N-5). He had explained rhetorically what the motivations were of the country to lift the veil of ambiguity, thus sharpening the deterrence element, as 'Let us enter these clubs of N-5 and then close the door behind us.' He probably thought such conceit was his Rajput badge of honour.

One should remember that while Jawaharlal Nehru had asked Homi J Bhabha to begin research on nuclear weapons, on the other to argue with N-4 – China was to explode its first nuclear weapon a year after Nehru's death – for what became a Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT).

That was high Statecraft. But it was also an outline of a philosophy – India's nuclear weapons programme was based on restraint and reticence.

One look at the declared part of the Indian nuclear weapon doctrine, these two principles leap out to any careful reader. The three bedrocks of that doctrine are: 'no first use (NFU) and non-use of nuclear weapons against NNWS,' 'credible minimum deterrence', and 'an adherence to non-proliferation of nuclear weapon technology.'

If the doctrine is the base on which the superstructure of nuclear weapon usage is based; then the three elements of it are strategy, tactics, and operations. Indian genius populates all the three strata of the nuclear weapons' application. But there has been a potential game-changer in the sub-continent that threatens to destabilise the strategic equilibrium of the region. That is, Pakistan's introduction of 'tactical nuclear weapons' (TNWs) for battlefield usage have brought out the genie of the nuclear weapon back from out of the deterrence bottle.

And along with that have come the carrion birds who feast on morbid sentiments such as uncertainty, confusion, or disequilibrium. Some of them are now pushing India for its own arsenal of TNWs. They want that the basis of India's strategy changed. Their prescription: India's strategy of counter-city, counter-value attacks in response to counter-force usage of TNW is passé. What it needs is a whole range of TNWs, they say, which can be used in response to Pakistan's nuke launch.

In other words, we should fall into the trap of a nuclear weapons race: as technological development and the men in olive-green can seemingly satiate their insatiable appetite for control of nuclear weapons in India. The civilian control of the Indian nuclear weapons thus get eroded as the instantaneous nature of developments in the battlefield while being under a fog of war, leave no options to the National Command Authority (NCA) but to create a system by which the battlefield commanders need to have launch codes that can trigger the TNWs.

Indeed, with the development and commissioning of SSBNs (nuclear weapon bearing nuclear-powered subs) the NCA will have to cede some control on the launch of nuclear weapons, as the Permissive Action Link systems (PALs) that put a lid on nuke usage by unauthorised persons, to submarine commander/s, who of course will have to be communicated by the NCA with the launch command. But that system is at best tenuous in case of full-scale nuclear war, for obvious reasons.

But the man who first demanded that India should take a relook at its NFU position, was the controversial chief of army staff, Gen Deepak Kapoor, now retired. There was a general quiet that prevailed after that for some time as the kleptocratic UPA II government remained embroiled in various scams.

Now, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm, the drumbeat has picked up in favour junking NFU; concurrent development of tactical nukes (TNWs); a proportionate counter-force strategy; and integrating all these into nuclear warfighting.

All of these factors being propounded by the various armchair hawks, in this country and in self-interested 'strategic partner,' the USA. But the fundamental problem lay in the fact that all these militate against strategic philosophy. The foremost prominent strategist of this country, the late Dr K Subramanyam and the father of the nuclear weapon doctrine of this country, had specifically detested a nuclear arms race, a la Cold War superpower arms race.

Most importantly, an apparent pacifist Nehru had laid the philosophy of 'strategic restraint' in the nuclear realm and was exceedingly reticent even in terms of nuclear weapons manufacture. These principles together were sanctified in the nuclear doctrine itself in its conclusion, "Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament." Larger sections of the country are not ready yet to change these principles.

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)
Pinaki Bhattacharya

Pinaki Bhattacharya

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