Retired Army Chief, General Shankar Roychowdhury, writing in a popular magazine on security affairs (Future Shock, Force, August 2007), questions whether India is capable of 'second strike' against "known but not proven sanctuary areas in the context of trans-border nuclear terrorism". He advises 'the country's political leadership and their planners' to introspect on "alternative options for 'second strike' since 'conventional nuclear warfare is almost totally unlikely". He cautions that none (of the options) is likely to be 'soft' and all carry major consequences. In doing so he unintentionally does the nation a service, by pressing for alternatives.

The General conjures up an oxymoron in coming up with 'conventional nuclear warfare' and in believing that this is 'outdated'! This slip proves that arriving at clarity in nuclear terminology is necessary to begin with. Professor Lawrence Freedman, Head of the renowned Department of War Studies at King's College London, and author of the definitive book Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, clarifies the major terms thus: "A first-strike capability was intended to disarm the enemy in a surprise, preemptive attack by destroying as much of its means of retaliation as possible. If a target country were able to absorb that first strike and still maintain the capability to retaliate with enough nuclear force to overwhelm any existing enemy defenses, it was said to possess a second-strike capability."

General Roychowdhury errs in his use of the term 'first strike' in claiming that Pakistan has a "declared nuclear policy of first strike". Further, he states that "India has a declared nuclear policy of 'no first strike'". The confusion owes to the General using 'strike' where 'use' would suffice his purposes and could have proved closer to what he probably means. India's policy is of 'No First Use' (NFU). Pakistan has not 'declared' its nuclear policy, though it has not denied itself the option of nuclear 'first use'.

The ambit of nuclear use options is being stretched to include nuclear terrorism. Even if 'massive retaliation' is found wanting by strategists, proportional response would prove be worse, for it lends a seeming utility to nuclear weapons.

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By using Freedman's helpful definitions, it is evident that any such 'first use' by Pakistan cannot be of the order of a 'first strike' since it does not having a 'first strike capability'. Use of a nuclear weapon in a terrorist mode, even if sponsored by Pakistan, does not amount to 'first strike'. India's counter-strike in the circumstance cannot therefore be termed 'second strike'.

Confusion in terminology apart, through his article, the General is urging India to prepare for a nuclear counter-strike. India's current nuclear doctrine posits that the punitive nuclear retaliation 'will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage'. The General wants this to also cover the threat of sponsored nuclear terrorism that could, as part of Pakistan's proxy war, prove to be the 'Future Shock' - the title of the General's paper. Since this type of threat may not warrant 'massive retaliation', alternatives should, indeed, be thought through, though not the advocated response 'in kind'.

The General is cognisant that a nuclear counter-strike by India would 'carry major consequences'. Precisely for this reason non-nuclear alternatives to the counter-strike have to be found. In his logic, terrorists are inseparable from the Pakistani state. This is unsustainable in light of the turn of events since 9/11. Further, he has taken the Pakistani state as inseparable from its people. This is again questionable in light of the sociology of Pakistan with a praetorian military. If these two distinctions are made, then alternatives to nuclear retaliation become thinkable.

An Indian counter-strike will be escalatory, leading up to war and a nuclear one to boot. Terrorists, who have proven their agency despite the reverses in the GWOT, would likely have this very denouement as their design. This would be a replay of the Parliament attack episode, in which the GWOT was rendered unstable by the threat of an Indo-Pak war over the turn of the year 2002.

Indian nuclear response on known bases would strengthen fundamentalist and terrorist forces, making for a compounded crisis. Deliberate retaliation after investigation would likely be on thin air. Hasty retaliation may result in repenting at leisure. The impact in India would be a veering of the polity to the Right and further attenuating inter-community relations.

But alternatives to nuclear use in such straits are inescapable and necessarily are 'soft' – a term used to deny legitimacy to alternatives as viable options. The threat demands action to the contrary: of engaging Pakistan and addressing its concerns through mutual compromise on hard-line positions on Kashmir; of having joint monitoring centres as proposed by Pakistan and ignored by India; and of ensuring justice, security and equity for minorities; and delegitimising nuclear weapons as a currency of power over the long haul.

The central worry about the General asking for India's doctrine to expand cover the threat of sponsored nuclear terrorism is that he himself sits in the Rajya Sabha. His views would carry credibility with politicians, known to be uninitiated in matters of security. Views acquire a persuasive momentum and before long become commonly held. Doctrinal evolution begins with conditioning of the public discourse through advocacy of the intended direction by 'experts'. Here we are witness to its inception and need to arrest it at the outset, even if the effort requires bringing out shortfalls in the 'expertise' on display.

A second reason for contesting such views is that the General wishes a self-denial of democratic debate merely because, in his estimate, 80 per cent of intelligence is gathered by the adversary from open sources!

A pattern of expansion of India's nuclear employment options is emerging and the General's article is a reminder that this is the major issue at stake. The tenets of 1999 Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) were expanded in the official release of India's nuclear doctrine on 04 January 2003. The earlier DND restricted nuclear retaliation only to a nuclear attack 'on India and its forces'. The press release of the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) on the deliberations of the Cabinet Committee on Security expands the scope to include 'Indian territory and forces anywhere' as also for attacks with biological and chemical weapons.

Now the ambit of nuclear use options is being stretched to include nuclear terrorism. Even if 'massive retaliation' is found wanting by strategists, proportional response would prove be worse, for it lends a seeming utility to nuclear weapons.

The virtual wiretap by Pulitzer prize-winning author Bob Woodward on the White House Situation Room in Bush at War (Simon & Shuster, New York, 2002) exposed the US' intention of reserving the right to respond with nuclear weapons to any terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, the formula arrived at in the 1991 Gulf War. It would be understandable that the American example will have an influence on thinking in Indian operations rooms. And this is reason enough to input realism into realist thinking.