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Indian first strike option


 Air Cdre Jamal Hussain |

Ever since Pakistan achieved strategic parity in the military balance of power with India following the nuclearization of the two countries, India has attempted to evolve strategies to regain the military superiority it had enjoyed before the advent of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent. For Pakistan, matching the burgeoning Indian conventional military might was economically unsustainable and the nuclear option has practically stymied India from attempting any major military adventure against it.

The Indians learned this bitter lesson during the 2001-2002 standoff where despite its apparent conventional superiority the nuclear factor, in the end, compelled India to back off.  With the option of an all-out war with Pakistan no longer feasible, the Indian strategic planners and military thinkers started to evolve fresh strategies where it could employ its superior conventional forces staying below the perceived level of Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. The concept of Cold Start was fancifully launched that involved unified Indian battlegroups successfully conducting a short sharp offensive operation against Pakistan with limited objective and end it before Pakistan could consider a nuclear retaliation.

The Indians learned this bitter lesson during the 2001-2002 standoff where despite its apparent conventional superiority the nuclear factor.

The Cold Start doctrine ran into serious difficulties in the implementation phase because of infighting among the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force about command and control and resource allocation. Other issues of financing and the risk of nuclear escalation made the subject so controversial that a former Indian Army Chief, V. K. Singh in January 2011, while speaking to the media about the widely speculated Indian war doctrine popularly referred to as Cold Start had said, “There is nothing like Cold Start. But we have a ‘proactive strategy’ which takes steps in a proactive manner so that we can achieve what our doctrines and strategies (imply).

The Indian army has conducted a series of major combat exercises to practice swift multiple offensives deep into enemy territory under its Pro-Active Conventional War Strategy.” On January 6, 2017, army the Indian chief General Rawat publicly acknowledged the existence of such a doctrine. Examined closely, the proactive strategy was just an alias for the controversial Cold Start.

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The final nail in the Cold Start coffin was laid when Pakistan publicly announced the deployment of tactical nuclear tipped missiles (Nasr) and the will to use them when considered necessary to frustrate land or sea invasion of any magnitude—the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Pakistan has stated that the development of Nasr indicates that Pakistan views Cold Start with concern and that the missile was meant to deter India’s implementation of the doctrine. The Cold Start or proactive strategy concept of the offensive staying below the nuclear threshold of Pakistan went out of the window.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has become a major headache for the Indian hawks. If the Indian military behemoth cannot even conduct the “Pro-Active Conventional War Strategy” without the risk of a nuclear holocaust, how could it justify its current size and the national burden on the national exchequer? Ways and means to neutralize Pakistan’s nukes are being sought. Doctor V. P. Narang, an Indian nuclear strategist from Massachusetts of Technology while postulating about nuclear first use option, in a conference on nuclear policy by Carnegie, a think tank, had stated, “there is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first”.

The Cold Start doctrine ran into serious difficulties in the implementation phase because of infighting among the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force about command and control and resource allocation.

According to him, “India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries that can carry nuclear tactical weapons but a full comprehensive counterforce strike so that India does not have to expose its cities to nuclear destruction.” In simple nuclear lexicon, deny Pakistan the 2nd strike capability, the very essence of nuclear deterrence.

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The initial draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine clearly stated the following: “India’s nuclear doctrine is firmly anchored on the principle of no first use even against the nuclear threat or use. India’s use of its nuclear weapons would be predicated on the failure of deterrence, that is, if and when an adversary uses nuclear weapons against India.” This was subsequently qualified by the addition, “any nuclear attack on India and its forces anywhere shall result in massive retaliation, inflicting unacceptable damage to the aggressor.”

The doctrine preamble describes the Indian nuclear doctrine as Minimum Credible Nuclear Deterrence, yet it speaks of massive retaliation should it suffer a nuclear attack on its soil or on its forces operating in the adversary’s land. Massive Retaliation was a term adopted by the USA primarily against the Soviet bloc when it was the sole possessor of the deadly weapons. Once the Soviet Union acquired enough weapons to destroy the USA in a retaliatory raid, the term Massive Retaliation was replaced by Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

Given the size and delivery capability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, it would make more sense to replace Massive Retaliation by MAD. Nuclear deterrence is considered viable only when a state has a sufficient number of nuclear weapons and delivery modes to cause unacceptable damage after absorbing a first strike on its nuclear arsenal— the nuclear riposte is termed as a 2nd strike. Nuclear deterrence does not exist if the adversary has the wherewithal to conduct a preventive first attack and eliminate the nuclear weapons, degrade the command and control mechanism and the delivery means to a degree where a 2nd strike cannot be launched.

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To be able to do so, the targeting philosophy has to be Counterforce (attack on forces/nuclear arsenal) and not Countervalue/Countercity (targeting cities or population centers). Minimum Credible Deterrence, which both India and Pakistan (officially and unofficially) have adopted aim at hitting counter value targets only. Neither to date has developed the counterforce competence. Given the size of the respective nuclear arsenals, the delivery means and the reach of the nuclear-tipped missiles of the two and the adoption of Countervalue and not Counterforce targeting strategy, currently both have 2nd strike capability against each other—hence the MAD applicability.

Doctor V. P. Narang, an Indian nuclear strategist from Massachusetts of Technology while postulating about nuclear first use option, in a conference on nuclear policy by Carnegie.

What V. P. Narang has opined is the likelihood of the Indian graduation from Countervalue to Counterforce targeting strategy. Any move towards it would be very destabilizing, giving further impetus to the nuclear arms race in the Indian subcontinent. Besides political grandstanding, a formal declaration of no first use by a nuclear state has little relevance for the adversary. During the Cold War era, the USSR had a no first use policy whereas the USA did not eschew the first use option. The entire US nuclear doctrine, however, was predicated on the assumption the USSR could/would violate their pledge, hence both developed thousands of nuclear weapons.

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The adoption of Launch on Warning (LOW) concept where many of their nuclear-tipped land and sea-based missiles were on a few minutes to half an hour readiness status on a 24/7 basis was also a fallout of the first use threat. These were readied to be fired if the credible launch of nuclear missiles of the adversary was received, on the “use it before you lose it” concept.” Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine and strategy similarly is based on the principle that the Indian no first use declaration is not to be trusted. If their mantra had been believed, about a dozen or at most a score of nuclear weapons would have sufficed.

Pakistan, according to independent sources has over a hundred nukes widely dispersed that can be launched by aircraft and land-based missiles. The numbers, delivery means and dispersal of the nuclear assets is based on defeating any first strike by India and still having enough to retaliate to cause unacceptable damage in the process. Any repudiation of the no first use policy without a move towards a Counterforce targeting strategy would, therefore, have practically little impact on the current status quo. A move from the Counter value to Counterforce targeting, however, will open a pandora box.

A careful study of the good doctor’s elocution indicates the Indian first strike pre-emptive option is not his idea or suggestion; he has gleaned it from his discourses with and writings of the former Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, former defense minister Manohar Parikar and former chief of the Indian Strategic Force Command, Lt. Gen. B. S. Nagel. He has cited Menon’s recently released book, Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy, to conclude the reassessment of the Indian nuclear doctrine and switching over from the counter value strikes to counterforce strikes—essentially from targeting population centers to aiming at Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

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While a simple abandonment of no first strike option by India might not be much of a game changer (except perhaps further heightening of strategic intelligence), any move towards Counterforce targeting strategy would have serious repercussions. Military strategies are conceived not on the intentions of the adversary but on his capability. A Counterforce nuclear strategy aims at neutralizing the 2nd strike capability of the opponent and any step in this regard by India would entail a reassessment by Pakistan of the number of nuclear warheads, the delivery modes, their dispersion, and readiness status.

The adoption of LOW concept where many of their nuclear-tipped land and sea-based missiles were on a few minutes to half an hour readiness status on a 24/7 basis was also a fallout of the first use threat.

The nuclear delivery Triad has three components: manned aircraft, Surface to Surface Missiles (SSM) and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) or Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCM). The first two legs of the Triad in Pakistan are public knowledge but the sea-based delivery means remains ambiguous. The two, for the time being, are considered sufficient guarantor of a reasonably high assured 2nd strike competence against a nuclear-armed state that follows the Countervalue targeting philosophy. For an opponent with the Counterforce ability, the sea-launched option would come into play.

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SLBM capability can only be achieved by nuclear-powered submarines which are large enough to house ballistic missiles. Conventional submarines of the class Pakistan Navy possesses can launch cruise missiles while still submerged. Pakistan has successfully developed tactical nuclear weapons small enough to be mounted on short-ranged land-based SSMs. The ability to arm the submarine-launched cruise missiles with tactical nuclear warheads is now more a policy decision rather than a technical hurdle. Should Pakistan decide to field sea-based nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, the SLCM leg of the Triad would be accomplished.

Whether Pakistan adopts the SLCM strategy is a decision for the state but any move towards a Counterforce strategy by India would make SLCM almost mandatory if Pakistan desires to maintain a credible 2nd strike option. Just SLCM or even SLBM ability by itself would not guarantee an assured 2nd strike capability against a Counterforce threat. Of the two, the nuclear-powered submarines can launch ballistic missiles that carry strategic nuclear warheads and are far more difficult to defend against compared to cruise missiles.

In addition, they can operate indefinitely in the deep ocean (crew fatigue and logistics being the only limiting factors.) The conventional submarines on the other hand have finite patrol time before refueling and can at best fire nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. At any given time, at least one or more of the SLBM/SLCM platforms must remain in the deep ocean for the assurance to be meaningful. The submarines capable of firing nuclear weapons in the harbor would be vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike but once submerged in the deep sea they are almost undetectable.

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For adoption of the SLCM leg of the Triad, the submarines must be equipped with foolproof state of the art two-way communication network while still staying submerged at a distance. Since the submarine commander would be authorized and capable of firing the nuclear-tipped missiles on receiving legitimate orders, a failsafe mechanism must be in place to ensure prevention of accidental or rogue launch. SLBM or SLCM submarine platforms would need to keep the missiles ready for launch at very short notice, a variation of the LOW concept. This would result in further lowering of the nuclear threshold.

The nuclear delivery Triad has three components: manned aircraft, Surface to Surface Missiles and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles or Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles .

India would be wise not to adopt any measure in the nuclear field which would force Pakistan to adopt the SLCM route as a short term measure, and in the long run, go for the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines to achieve the SLBM capability. Doctor Narang considers any such shift as dangerous and destabilizing. He is convinced India currently does not have the number of required warheads or missiles or defense systems to neutralize Pakistan’s 2nd strike capability but postulates “it is working on both fronts”.

He believes there is little evidence that India can “find, fix and destroy Pakistan’s nuclear force in real time on land or sea,” and adds “it is unclear whether India has a good fix on all the locations of Pakistani strategic forces.” It would be logical to conclude, he goes on to postulate, the Indian government would never reveal the exact nature or state of its nuclear arsenal, targeting abilities and quality of intelligence in its possession to outside experts. Ambiguity appears to be objective India would be trying to achieve.

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In his judgment, however, “the various iterations on India’s nuclear doctrine show confusion, not ambiguity.” First strike option by a nuclear power aiming to destroy the 2nd strike capability of another nuclear state is a realm even superpowers tread with extreme caution. North Korea with just a handful of nuclear devices continues to mock and threaten the US-led a western coalition that includes Japan and South Korea and gets away with mere economic sanctions.

While the threat of massive retaliation should North Korea attempt any military misadventure conventionally or otherwise against its neighbour South Korea has been clearly spelled out, a pre-emptive first strike, conventional or nuclear, to defang its nuclear arsenal is considered a very dangerous and unviable proposition—one that could result in a catastrophic nuclear war. For India to even consider the option of a first strike against the nuclear assets of a nation that boasts of over a hundred weapons, well dispersed and a near Triad delivery means that provides it with full spectrum deterrence, is sheer madness.

Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defense issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh) and Dawn, The News, and The Nation English Dailies from Pakistan. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views espressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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