Generally, it is only at the time of crisis that headlines help rivet popular attention on matters of nuclear war. Not surprisingly, it is then then discourse could get largely ill-informed, and, consequently, easily manipulable. Such concern as may be occasioned by the calamity of war would be too late. Nuclear matters should instead be of continuing concern to enlightened citizens, and in particular at times of relative peace. This is because there is adequate scope for a profitable debate minus the sometimes obfuscating input of 'experts'.

India's nuclear doctrine, based on 'deterrence by punishment', has been explicated in January 2003. It is predicated on the promise of 'massive retaliation' to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the adversary against India or its forces. On the other hand, Pakistan has not outlined its nuclear philosophy; the resulting opacity enhances the value of its deterrence. Pakistan is generally believed to be following a contrasting nuclear philosophy, that of 'deterrence by denial'. Let us juxtapose the two.

India's conventional war doctrine - adopted in wake of the exercise in coercion called Operation Parakram - has been dubbed 'cold start'. Given the uncertain nuclear threshold of Pakistan, these forces launched by India are unlikely to be overly venturesome. Since war is an inherently uncertain affair, India can never be too sure of the 'nuclear redlines' –- the possible thresholds that may trigger off a nuclear response -- of Pakistan. Pakistan, on its part, may not be able to accurately guess Indian aims and objectives.

Late General Sundarji had already laid out the direction in bidding for a doctrine that is predicated on terminating the nuclear exchange, and further, the nuclear conflict, at the lowest levels of the escalatory ladder involving political compromise.

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The originally conceived redlines and objectives are themselves subject to change in the dynamic context of the conflict and amidst the climatic aura of war time decision making. Thus, Indians may venture further than intended, and Pakistanis may fear Indian aims more than warranted. To get out of a tight spot, Pakistan may resort to nuclear means. A review of its options in such a case is in order.

There is the hypothetical 'first strike' in which the enemy's nuclear means are targeted and reduced to the extent that meaningful retaliation is precluded. Pakistan does not have this capacity. The next option it has is to strike at a selection of Indian targets, military and civilian, and in doing so cause horrific damage. However, this would lay it open to like retaliation from India and, in the exchange, it would suffer out of proportion to either any gains or to comparative Indian suffering. These options are, therefore, least likely. Curiously, these are the ones against which India's doctrine of punitive response is most credible.

Other scenarios, at the lower end, are ones most likely and on this account most discussed in strategic circles. Pakistan could solely target offending Indian forces or have a demonstrative explosion to great political purpose. India's nuclear doctrine does not include the latter of the two low end options as provocation for Indian nuclear reaction. A demonstrative explosion -– perhaps in the Chagai test site –- that does not target any Indian forces, and aimed only to impress India of the escalatory dynamics unleashed by the conflict, is the best measure to heighten and focus any efforts towards peace of the international community.

The other option of targeting Indian forces on its territory may be used by Pakistan, just as the NATO in the cold war intended to use nuclear weapons to redress conventional asymmetry. Its justification would be that a state cannot be expected to forego use of the means at its disposal in case it is under attack. But to satisfy the standards of proportionality and discrimination, valid even for the manner of self defense, it would restrict its nuclear use to only military targets and to only a single nuclear device or, at best, a few warheads.

The question India would then be confronted with is whether to follow through with its declared nuclear doctrine of inflicting levels of nuclear punishment of an unacceptable order of pain and magnitude. Released of its 'No First Use' pledge, that is part of its doctrine, India would have the option of retaliation of the order of a 'first strike'. But should India go ahead as per the tenets of its doctrine, then it would fall afoul of global opinion, already aroused by India's 'offensive' steps, even if under grave provocation, of war initiation.

More importantly, it would lay itself bare to Pakistani retaliation in kind. Even if India was to destroy and damage Pakistani nuclear facilities to the extent of effectively degrading its 'second strike' capability, there is no guarantee that Pakistan would not be able to strike back. Such Pakistani response can only be 'counter value' or of city busting nature. The resulting losses would be out of proportion to the gains India may have been seeking through the nuclear route. India is therefore not likely to go in for 'first strike' levels of nuclear retaliation.

Further moderated nuclear retaliation in terms of inflicting the promised 'unacceptable damage' would escalate the war. Pakistan in anger, hurt or pain, would want to get back at India for what it would perceive to be a disproportionate response - even if one that has been declared in advanced. Internal political pressures would point out that while Pakistan had originally only targeted invading Indian forces on its territory; India had inflicted losses on Pakistani population - even if India had also taken care to restrict itself to military targets. Given the population density in the Indo-Gangetic basin, collateral damage would be of the 'unacceptable' order as intended. Therefore, a nuclear exchange could ensue, with its own built in escalatory logic.

India's doctrine of 'deterrence by punishment' is therefore least credible in this most likely scenario of Pakistani nuclear use. It is apparent that its philosophical basis is questionable. More disconcertingly, the doctrine has an inherent escalatory potential in exposing India to similar pain that it wishes to inflict. In the circumstance, that the enemy has suffered more would be of no consolation or consequence.

Of greater pertinence is that the aims of the conflict would not be achieved through its escalation. The greater the mutual damage suffered, the less feasible would be a lasting post-conflict peace. It follows that both the conflict and nuclear use in conflict should be terminated at the lowest levels of conventional engagement and, in the eventuality, also of nuclear exchange. Late General Sundarji has already laid out the direction in bidding for a doctrine that is predicated on terminating the nuclear exchange, and further, the nuclear conflict, at the lowest levels of the escalatory ladder involving political compromise.

The philosophy of 'deterrence by punishment' has been adopted in the belief that nuclear weapons are political weapons and for deterrence. As seen in the scenario discussed here both tenets will dissolve in the event of nuclear use by the adversary. Therefore it may be better to have a usable doctrine cognizant of nuclear war being an altogether different realm, where the famous dictum of the noted Prussian military thinker, Clausewitz -- 'war being an extension of politics' - does not apply.

The tenets of India's nuclear doctrine are not above revision. It was in the news that even its least controversial feature of 'No First Use' was under fire from the National Security Advisory Board. Therefore there is no reason for India to stick to a deterrence philosophy with an unacceptable underside. Compelling the nuclear establishment in this direction can only be done by the pressure of informed citizenry in the hiatus between crisis that passes for peace in South Asia.