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India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine

A Critique

The Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) formulated by the National Security Advisory board (NSAB) and released in August 1999 marks a further hardening of India’s nuclear posture since Pokharan-II. Sixteen months after New Delhi first began talking about constructing a ‘minimum nuclear deterrent’, the DND is pushing India towards an open-ended, potentially huge, triadic (land, air and sea-based) nuclear force of enormous lethality. The DND’s publication marks a triumph of the maximalist or extreme standpoint and expresses the dominance of the classical Cold War mindset within the country’s nuclear lobby. It will, if implemented, ignite a nuclear arms race in Asia, as well as grievously damage the prospects of global disarmament. The DND is yet to be adopted by the National Security Council or the Union Cabinet, but it is clearly driven by the government’s need to legitimize the systematic development and deployment of a nuclear weapons system.

1. Political Expediency in the Timing of the DND Release

The curious timing of the DND’s release must be noted. It is hard to believe that its publication, over a year after the actual testing of Indian nuclear weapons, was so pressing an issue as to be completely unrelated to the elections at hand (September-October 1999), to the effectively caretaker status of the government at the time, or to the partisan desire to make political electoral capital out of nuclear jingoism. No such desire to inform the public in advance was evident at the time of the actual tests in May 1998. The only people in the know appear to have been the BJP’s ideological mentors in the RSS, since even the coalition partners in government were caught unawares. Indeed, the Indian people were told nothing at first except a bare statement of technical facts. It was only after writing (in a letter dated May 11, 1998) to the President of the USA giving reasons for the tests that the Vajpayee government felt it necessary to explain its rationale to the people of India. Clearly, the sudden discovery of the virtues of transparent public debate on the part of the BJP-led government hides ulterior motives.

2. Cosmetic Exercise in Nuclear Legitimisation

Apart from topical electoral concerns, a major ulterior motive is the attempted legitimisation of India’s nuclear weapons through the DND. One component of this attempt is the desire to divert public concern and discussion away from the issue of the rights and wrongs of ‘going nuclear’, that is, actually manufacturing and deploying such weapons. It is incredible that a first-ever national nuclear doctrine draft does not even attempt to discuss the relative merits and demerits of a non-nuclear weaponised stance in any depth. Instead, it assumes that India has to have nuclear weapons, and proceeds to lay out the kind of weapons systems it feels are required. This omission makes the DND part of the ongoing cosmetic cover-up to treat the Indian nuclear arsenal as a legitimate fait accompli. By focusing public awareness mainly on the ‘issue’ of what kind of weapons system India should have, the DND deliberately tries to make it more difficult for people to think of reversing India’s nuclear weapon-related direction at a time when this is very feasible, as well as desirable and necessary.
A second dimension of this attempt to achieve legitimisation is international. The political climate worldwide about nuclear weapons has changed during the decades-long gap in nuclear proliferation prior to May 1998. International opinion against nuclear weapons is now far stronger and more widespread than in the sixties, leaving India (and Pakistan) in considerable diplomatic-political isolation on the issue. In this context, releasing the DND in the name of ‘democratic debate’ and offering to discuss the DND with other nuclear weapons powers is a way of working around international pressure to further develop and eventually deploy nuclear weapons under the guise of a ‘responsible’, ‘open-minded’ and ‘consultative’ process. This symbolic value of the DND has nothing to do with its actual contents, which are far more adventurist than would have been expected from government spokespeople making so-called reasonable calls for ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’.

3. `The DND’s Fatal Flaw

India’s DND is open to two major levels of criticism. The first and most important level is the fundamental flaw embodied in all nuclear doctrines. This has to do with the inescapable and irreconcilable dilemma of deterrence. At the second level lies a more detailed criticism of specific proposals made in the DND. The first flaw is addressed here, while the actual provisions of the Indian DND are addressed later.
Deterrence is an attempt to achieve security by threatening someone else’s security. It is an attempt to avoid war by preparing to fight a war. It seeks security for one country by generating fear and hostility in the other. Not surprisingly, deterrence frequently breaks down and there are actual wars. In the non-nuclear case, life carries on despite conventional wars, even for the loser. However, in the case of nuclear deterrence, this cannot be, since there is no way of maintaining civil society for the losers (and even for the winners) after a nuclear exchange. Therefore, unlike for non-nuclear deterrence, the only purpose of preparing for a nuclear war is to avoid it. If nuclear deterrence breaks down (and it is illogical and irrational to believe that it cannot break down, especially since non-nuclear deterrence clearly can, and does) all security collapses, as does most life.
Why can nuclear deterrence break down? It can because it is based on a limited, frequently uninformed, erroneous, and changing perception of how opponents will think about and respond to the threat of nuclear war. In fact, mutually hostile countries would always be tempted to strike first, regardless of commitments given, because it is easy to believe that to do so confers ‘great advantage’ over a hostile opponent. In the nuclear deterrence framework, the initiator can hope to knock out most of the nuclear might of its opponent especially if it also tries to ‘decapitate’ the political leadership of the ‘enemy’. The country that strikes second is no longer acting to enhance its security, so that nuclear retaliation is an act of revenge, not of security. Pursuing security through nuclear deterrence is therefore always a dangerous gamble where the consequences of failure are horrendous and unthinkable -- there is no second chance after a breakdown of nuclear deterrence. Relying on nuclear weapons for security creates two major insecurities -- the regular and continuous insecurity of an escalating arms race between rivals as each tries to prevent the other side from getting an ‘advantage’, and the ever-present fear that the worst, -- ‘a breakdown of deterrence’, -- might happen sooner or later.
To sum up, -- nuclear deterrence, the most ‘reasonable’ foundation of all nuclear doctrines aiming at security, is nothing but the irrational hope that a terrible fear of the consequences of nuclear war will continuously promote wise decisions by fallible human beings operating under intense pressure in changing circumstances they can never fully control. All nuclear doctrines are thus basically nothing but hope masquerading as operative strategies. The Indian DND is no exception.

4. Specific Features of the Indian DND

As noted earlier, the DND is an attempt to serve as a framework for the limited debate about what kind of nuclear weapons India is to have. The DND is thus a statement of intent and will be treated as such for the moment, although the issue of the lack of India’s capacity to build what the DND claims is necessary is itself a major point of concern.
Paragraph 2.1 says that building a deterrent force is “consistent with the UN Charter, which sanctions the right of self-defence”. This extension of the cover of the UN charter to nuclear weapons is illegitimate and hypocritical. This is especially so, given the ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which has rejected any such right in regard to nuclear weapons except in the case of the most “extreme circumstance of self-defence” on which it has given no ruling at all . Nuclear weapons are instruments of revenge or offence, not defence. In fact, in 1995, the Indian government had submitted its own memorandum to the ICJ insisting that the use of nuclear weapons, the threat of their use (deterrence), their development and deployment, and even preparations to build such weapons were immoral, illegal and unacceptable “in all circumstances”!

4.1. Summary of the Major Points Made in the DND

The DND is made up of eight sections, each with their sub-paragraphs. The sections are (1) Preamble, (2) Objectives, (3) Nuclear Forces, (4) Credibility and Survivability, (5) Command and Control, (6) Security and Safety, (7) Research and Development, and (8) Disarmament and Arms Control. The major points made are :

India’s DND is based on the principle of pursuing security through reliance on the presumed efficacy of nuclear deterrence. The DND, however, admits that such deterrence can fail, in which case India promises adequate punitive retaliation.
India’s nuclear arsenal must be such that it will always provide maximum credibility, effectiveness and survivability. Therefore, the size of the arsenal cannot be fixed but its nature must be dynamic and flexible enough to respond to changes in the security environment (such as changes in the weapons postures of perceived rivals), to changing security needs (as defined by state elites), and to technology advances.
India’s nuclear might must deter any state with nuclear weapons.
India will pursue triadic deployment and have multiple redundant systems, that is, more than just a ‘bare minimum’.
India will not strike first but will carry out the promptest possible retaliation which will also be punitive, meaning massive enough to be unacceptably damaging to the opponent.
The nuclear arsenal will be tightly controlled by the political centre, namely the Prime Minister, but will also be of a highly mobile and dispersed nature.
The safety and security of the weapons system is of paramount importance, and all precautions will be taken to ensure against sabotage, theft and unauthorized or inadvertent use of nuclear weapons (the DND says nothing on how this is to be achieved or ensured).
India will not accept any restriction whatsoever on its research and development capabilities or activities in regard to nuclear weapons and related areas.
India promises No-First-Use (NFU) against nuclear weapons states and No-Use against non-nuclear weapons states except where the latter are aligned to nuclear weapons states.
India will pursue arms control measures and believes in the goal of complete, global disarmament, which it will also pursue.

4.2. Punitive Retaliation and Potential Targets

Paragraphs 2.3 and 2.4 admit that deterrence can fail but say that in that case there will be “punitive retaliation”. Punitive retaliation comes when ‘nuclear security’ has failed. But the DND fails to acknowledge the basic insoluble dilemma of nuclear deterrence. Of course, the DND also does not admit that such retaliation, even if possible, is simply a senseless and suicidal act of revenge since it will lead to continuing nuclear exchanges. Given this context of punitive retaliation, the DND is covering up the fact that once deterrence fails there is permanent collapse of security.
Paragraph 2.4 says “Indian nuclear weapons are to deter use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any State or entity against India”. Paragraph 4.1 says “Any adversary must know that India can and will retaliate to inflict destruction that the aggressor will find unacceptable”. These stances are so open-ended that they can assert a need for nuclear deterrence against almost anybody, including major nuclear weapons states such as the USA as well as entities such as NATO. This would require a huge weapons system for ‘credible’ second-strike capacity. These stances effectively commit India to an arms race with the major nuclear weapons states — an economically, politically and socially suicidal policy.
In paragraph 2.5, the DND says there will be no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states if they “are not aligned with nuclear weapons powers”. So Japan, for example, may not get an assurance of non-use, only of no-first-use (NFU). This ambiguity not only dilutes India’s earlier NFU commitment but is more objectionable than, say, China’s NFU commitment which specifically excludes use against any non-nuclear state regardless of whether or not it is allied to a nuclear state. This paragraph also flatly contradicts paragraph 8.3 in the same document which says, “Having provided unqualified (our emphasis) negative security assurances, India shall work for internationally binding unconditional (our emphasis) negative security assurances by nuclear weapons states to non-nuclear weapons states.”
Paragraph 5.2 talks of “sequential plans”, “flexibility and responsiveness”, an “integrated operational plan” and “a targeting policy”. These make sense only in relation to identified, actual opponents. This flatly contradicts the government claim that India’s weapons are “not country-specific”. Such a posture in practice will clearly vitiate India’s immediate security environment further rather than improving it.

4.3. The Notion of ‘Minimum’ Deterrence

Paragraph 3.1 talks of triadic deployment and “sea-based assets”, “multiple redundant systems, mobility, dispersion and deception”. Paragraph 2.2 talks of developing a capability of “maximum (our emphasis) credibility, survivability, effectiveness”. What all this means is simple. In defining its ‘minimum deterrent’, the DND is so ambitious and open-ended that it makes a mockery of any even remotely reasonable notion of ‘minimum’. Britain has moved towards a single system of deployment; France is moving towards it and NATO in practice no longer has triadic deployment (it has some airborne and submarine deployment). In this background, India’s idea of triadic deployment as a ‘minimum deterrent’ appears especially bizarre.
The DND also talks of “sea-based” rather than strictly submarine-based nuclear weapons, which leaves open the option of tactical nuclear missiles on surface vessels. ‘Tactical’ nuclear weapons are not, incidentally, explicitly repudiated anywhere in the DND. Since such weapons are irrelevant even to the notion of nuclear deterrence, there is ground for legitimate concern that the DND has a hidden agenda extending beyond even ‘minimum nuclear deterrence’ to nuclear weapon-based attempts at hegemony.
Paragraph 3.2 commits India to shift from “peacetime deployment to fully employable forces in the shortest possible time”. When this is linked with the requirement for “mobility, dispersion and deception”, and with paragraph 5.5 which talks of executing “operations in an NBC environment” (‘NBC’ refers to ‘nuclear, biological and chemical’ weapons) what emerges is a rationalization of two actions.
Firstly, it implies possible delegation of authority to use nuclear weapons, which contradicts talk of centralizing such a decision at one point (the Prime Minister). Certainly, all nuclear weapons systems and nuclear deterrence ideologies suffer from this inescapable and unresolvable contradiction, and it would have been astounding if the Indian DND, with its far-beyond-’minimum’ stances, were to be any exception. If there is a ‘decapitating first strike’ which is even partially successful, who will decide on the launch of the remainder of the weapons, and how will this decision be taken if delegation has not been allowed for? On the other hand, delegation of any sort weakens central control and is more provocative and dangerous.
Secondly, the DND demands the quickest possible retaliation, which has to mean launch-on-warning of an enemy attack, or launch-under-attack, or immediate launch-after-attack. In all these modes, there is a requirement for a nuclear weapons system at a high level of operational alert and readiness, with regular training exercises for maintenance. All of these ‘aggression-as-a-routine’ postures are bound to be deeply expensive, provocative and destabilizing — none of them good indicators of enhanced security.
Furthermore, paragraphs 7.1 and 7.2 insist on continuous and unrestrained research and development in nuclear weapons. Once again, this indicates the shifting base of the DND’s notion of ‘minimum deterrence’, and demonstrates that the DND is tacitly accepting the inevitability of an arms race, committing India to enthusiastic participation in that doomed exercise.

5. Costs Implicit in the DND

How much is the nuclear arsenal envisaged by the DND likely to cost? This is hard to answer, in part because the DND excludes nothing in principle. Triadic deployment in operational readiness is explicitly envisioned. Tactical weapons are not excluded, neither is a ‘credible’ second-strike capacity against large nuclear weapons states such as the USA, nor a ballistic missile defence system, nor continuous research into ever more advanced nuclear weapons, nor “space-base d assets” for early warning and damage monitoring. In fact, nothing in the DND suggests any bar to spending on the scale of the nuclear weapons programme of, say, the USA. In such a situation cost estimates can only be highly speculative, uncertain and subject to constant escalation. Even an adequate breakdown of the costs of the different components of the weapons system cannot be made.
Further, the DND recognizes that there is no such thing as a ‘stable minimum posture’ in terms of defined quantities, estimates of which would be needed if costs are even to be guessed at. The DND also talks of flexibility and responsiveness to changing force structures of other nuclear powers and to technology advances, compounding the open-ended nature of expenditure.
However, the ‘base’ which this DND aims for is already so advanced (triadic rather than single-system deployment) as to impose an enormous burden. In addition, it is reasonable to assume that there will be difficulties because of supply obstacles, external restrictions, construction failures and over-runs, and costs will skyrocket. This is when only the initial development and manufacturing costs are considered. There are constantly recurring (annual) costs for maintenance and replacement-improvement which can be anything between 30% to 50% of the total costs incurred in institutionalizing a nuclear weapons system. Producing nuclear bombs takes usually around 10% of the total cost. Command, control, communications, intelligence mechanisms account for about a third, and over 50% goes towards the delivery systems. And finally, all these costs are in addition to rather than substituting for conventional defence costs (a point made depressingly clear by the Kargil confrontation in mid-1999), which themselves are likely to rise as the security environment degrades further in mutual suspicion and provocation.
Although no definitive numbers can be guessed at, what range of spending is likely to be necessary? One way is to ask the NSAB panel which produced the DND. While the DND itself is silent on the issue of costs, a member of this panel has said that costs for the proposed ‘minimum deterrent’ can be anything from Rs.70,000 to 700,000 crore rupees, or 15 to 150 billion dollars. A second method is extrapolation. Earlier estimates of a ‘small’ 100-warhead arsenal are of the order of Rs.40,000 to 50,000 crores. The arsenal envisaged by the DND which could well have 400 plus weapons is likely to cost several-fold more. A third way is to look at what other countries have spent. Its nuclear deterrent has cost the USA over 5.5 trillion (5,500 billion) dollars. The Chinese ‘minimum’ has so far cost well over 100 billion dollars or 450,000 crore rupees. Even if the unrealistic assumption is made that a ‘modest’ Indian deterrent is going to be somewhat less expensive than the Chinese arsenal, the figure of Rs.70,000 crores is a hopeless underestimate.

6. What Does the DND Represent?

Clearly, this is not a doctrine which is any less awful than others around the world. The DND is adventurist, aggressive and destabilizing like others of its kind. It makes a mockery even of the so-called ‘reasonable’ notion that India should have a small ‘minimum’ deterrent, that there will be no competitive arms race with rivals and that the construction of a ‘minimum’ will be cheap. If implemented, the DND can only push India further into the nuclear abyss. The DND thus reinforces the view that the Indian government’s decision to ‘go nuclear’ was not determined by any changes in threat perceptions, nor by any degradation of national security, but instead by the obsession with nuclear weapons as ‘status symbol’ and ‘power currency’ which needs an open-ended and highly ambitious arsenal, regardless of the cost to the nation. The DND is entirely in keeping with the self-righteous and grandiose ‘nationalism’ of the BJP-led government and of its ideological mentors which makes the people subservient to the ‘state’.
India can either relentlessly pursue a global nuclear disarmament programme or recklessly join the nuclear arms race. It cannot move in these diametrically opposite directions at the same time. The claim of the DND that it intends to pursue both these goals simultaneously is a blatant contradiction, and its proposed espousal aims to mislead not only the people of India but of the entire world.