Not an Eye for an Eye
India’s response to Pakistan’s TNWs has to be proportionate and deterrent

Even as the world is debating implications of Pakistan’s signalling that it has developed theatre or tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), India’s response, so far, has been implausible at best, and nonchalant at worst. At the political or strategic level, the Chairman, National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran has sought to make a case that India’s nuclear weapons are not symbolic but are meant for deterrence. At the military or operational level, the Indian Army, most affected by this new weapon has adopted a dismissive and cavalier attitude. ‘We are not sure if this is a bluff, and even if it is not, we do not envisage changing our offensive plans,’ is the overriding sentiment at the Army Headquarters. Both stakeholders need to think carefully about a befitting and proportionate response to Pakistan Army’s game-changer.

Saran maintains that India does not make a distinction between strategic and tactical nukes in its nuclear doctrine of assured second strike capability. Does this mean if the Pakistan Army uses a TNW (less than one-kiloton) to wipe out most of an offensive division (about 10,000) of the Indian Army in a battlefield, India will drop a 20kiloton bomb on a Pakistani city, instantly killing over 100,000 innocent civilians and three times the numbers dying slowly because of poor civil-defence and medical infrastructure? Such disproportionate Indian response appears less of deterrence, and more of pretence.

The seriousness of India’s response is further diminished by Saran’s arguments (in The Hindu newspaper) which are supported by vague assertions. Take the case of land-based vectors for delivery of strategic nukes. Saran says that India has both Agni-II (1,500km) and Agni-III (2,500km) ready for use; the reality is that the Strategic Forces Command has Agni-I (700km) and Agni-II only. Agni-III is experimental and will not enter service; it forms the basis for Agni-V (5,000km) with an added third stage motor and composite material.

Saran’s contention that ‘two legs of the triad are fully operational’ is aspirational rather than real. Given Indian Air Force’s (IAF) operational commitments on the two disputed borders and its fast depleting combat aircraft strength, it is unreal to expect the Air Headquarters to keep aside nearly 60 aircraft (three combat squadrons) for the nukes delivery role; two aircraft armed with nuclear weapons would require 15 to 20 escort aircraft for a single mission plus at least two to three decoy missions would have to be readied. The air-based vector is not a doable option.

Saran also makes the point that the three defence service chiefs are part of the Nuclear Executive Council headed by the National Security Advisor. This is precisely what is required. In the existing set-up, only the Chairman, chiefs of staff committee is in the nuclear execution loop; the other two service chiefs are outside the nuclear delivery chain which runs upwards from the Strategic Forces Command to the NSA through the chairman, chiefs of staff committee.

In Saran’s defence, he does mention that the article on nuclear deterrence is his personal opinion. But would he have written on such a sensitive and important issue based on doubtful facts? It seems fair to assume that the government is at a loose end on how to respond to Pakistan’s new weapon. If this indeed is the issue, the way out should be available. Considering that Pakistan has created a theatre-imbalance in conventional war with tactical nukes, real deterrence lies in a proportionate response and not by upping the ante.
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