Nuclear Deterrence: An Indian Perspective

Tasneem Jamal

Rajesh M. Basrur

Rajesh M. Basrur is Reader, Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai, India

Each of the panelists at the Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence & Alternative Security Arrangement, held in Ottawa on September 28-31, 2001, was asked to submit a short paper relating to the topic of their presentation. The other Consultation participants were asked to submit brief papers responding to one or more of the following questions:

1. What changes to its nuclear policies should NATO be realistically asked to make, in the context of the current review, to move it towards fuller compliance with global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation obligations and imperatives?

2. Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interest in missile defense?

3. What are the most realistic short-term or interim measures that should be taken by nuclear weapon states and nuclear alliances to demonstrate a commitment to significantly reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of elimination?

If NATO is to conceive of a major shift in nuclear strategy from the centrality of nuclear weapons to their relative marginalisation, two points must be recognized: 

1)  The existing strategy of reliance on nuclear weapons as a vital component of security invites symmetric responses from other nuclear powers (Russia, China) and legitimises the aspiration of others for acquisition of nuclear capability (India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, Iraq). What’s nuclear sauce for the goose is likewise for the gander. In short, while the argument that the nuclear genie cannot be rebottled may be sound, there is no reason why the genie cannot be restrained.

2)  For that to occur, we must draw a clear distinction between the political and the operational facets of nuclear weapons. The former tends to embrace a minimalist posture, while the latter facilitates reliance on large and sophisticated arsenals.

The Political Face of Deterrence


They are fundamentally non-usable instruments that nevertheless cannot be ignored because there is always some possibility they may be used.

Contemporary societies have a relatively low capacity to tolerate damage, and hence it takes little to deter them. Potential aggressors would find it hard to conceive of gain in cost-benefit terms from nuclear conflict.

It follows that the operational aspects of nuclear weapons, such as accuracy and reliability, are not really important. Deterrence rests on the adversary’s unwillingness to risk great damage, not on one’s confidence in one’s ability to inflict great damage.

Small arsenals are therefore sufficient to deter (what objective would be worth even a small risk of an airburst over, say, Vladivostok or Shanghai?), and arms control is welcome.

The Operational Face of Deterrence

Here, nuclear weapons are viewed very differently. 

Like other weapons, they have operational characteristics – accuracy, reliability, vulnerability – that must be optimised in order to ensure their credibility.

Contemporary societies are capable of withstanding a great deal of pain and can only be deterred by the threat of severe punishment, which necessitates the threat of nuclear use on a large scale.

In order to be effective, deterrence must rest on credibility, i.e., high probability of immense damage, which means large numbers, variety and technical sophistication are essential.

Arms control is risky, because of the possibility of cheating, or because the other side may gain an advantage.

It is readily evident that NATO doctrine stands close to the latter conception of deterrence. This is explained by the historical circumstance in which it came into being. The Second World War was a total war in which mass destruction resulting from non-nuclear and nuclear weapons did occur, and the nations on which it was inflicted did survive and even prosper. But the Cold War era revealed a widening credibility gap in nuclear strategies on either side. The more the weapons, the less the likelihood they would be put to use. Today, absent an enemy, a NATO posture based on the operational face of deterrence is both non-credible and wasteful. While hedging may be admissible, there is a strong case for basing it on the political face of deterrence, which facilitates a minimalist posture. The Indian example may be instructive in this respect.

India’s Nuclear Minimalism

India’s nuclear posture has long been a minimalist response to the security dilemma faced by states in an anarchic international system: the problem of charting an appropriate course between a rock (the insecurity arising from possessing nuclear weapons) and a hard place (the insecurity resulting from possessing them). The Indian government’s adoption of deterrence as a pillar of national security strategy in 1998 was less radical than it appeared. Since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister, the value of deterrence has always been recognized along with the horror of nuclear devastation. Since then, every government, irrespective of party or leadership preference, has kept the nuclear door open, and steadily strengthened the technical capacity of deterrence. Yet, the actual deployment of nuclear weapons and the building of a comprehensive nuclear infrastructure have been eschewed. In spite of having demonstrated its technical capacity more than a quarter of a century ago, and despite having built its first operational weapon several years ago, India retains a minimalist nuclear posture today. This reflects the prioritisation of the political over the operational understanding of nuclear weapons.

The posture is not without its problems. Official nuclearisation has given a fillip to operational thinking, some of which is reflected in the National Security Advisory Board’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine (1999) and other recent writings on strategy. But the persistence of the political approach to nuclear weapons is reflected in practice. Nuclear weapons have not been deployed. The short-range, nuclear-capable Prithvi missile remains in storage. Above all, despite the extreme tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, particularly as a result of the Kargil conflict last year, the nuclear risk-reduction measures they have agreed upon – the annual exchange of lists of nuclear facilities which should not be targeted, and mutual information on impending nuclear tests – continue to be observed.

If India can adopt a minimalist nuclear stance in spite of real threats from two quarters – Pakistan and China – there is no reason why NATO cannot redesign nuclear posture in the absence of significant nuclear threats.

Concluding Thoughts

The politics of nuclear weapons exists at two levels. At one level, the threat of cataclysm brings caution and war-avoiding behaviour. At another – what I would call a “secondary” – level, states play symbolic games of balancing and manoeuvring that have little relation to reality. This explains the building of multiple overkill capability by the major nuclear powers during the Cold War. Such games continue to be played today. The politics surrounding “missile defence” is a case in point. If a nuclear power already has the ability to deter, why would it need to install a missile defence system against a “rogue state”? If the adversary is undeterrable, as has sometimes been argued (a dubious proposition in the first place), then it could surely choose to employ other horrific means of destruction that are less expensive and difficult. The reaction of the Chinese and the Russians to American missile defence initiatives is equally unrealistic. The notion that missile defence gives one side an advantage in a strategic relationship is based on the operational conception of nuclear weapons outlined above. It cannot answer a fundamental objection: how can a country possessing a missile defence system be certain that it will work a hundred percent? If it cannot, how can it risk launching a first strike (assuming this made political sense to begin with)?

It is time to take advantage of the end of the Cold War and marginalize nuclear weapons. This can only be done on a non-discriminatory and universal basis. The opportunity to do this has been with us for some time. The historical moment is conducive to a serious effort to rethink nuclear weapons as political creatures to be placed under a tight leash rather than as operational instruments that might unleash unimaginable horrors upon us.

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