Hope isn't a strategy:
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 within 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 non-nuclear confrontations, 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.
In sum, 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.
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.
An inconsistent stance: The DND (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”!
Punitive Retaliation and Potential Targets:
The draft [Paragraphs 2.3 and 2.4] admits 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.
Further, the draft [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 negative security assurances, India shall work for internationally binding 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.
The Notion of ‘Minimum’ Deterrence:
The draft doctrine [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.
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.