Talking casually about nuclear weapons is both irresponsible and dangerous
When former defence minister Manohar Parrikar and National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon make sensational comments on nuclear weapons, analysts — keen to dramatise them — cannot be blamed for drawing nonsensical inferences.
A few months before he demitted office, Parrikar wondered aloud if India should bind itself to the no-first-use (NFU) nuclear policy, adding that this was his personal opinion. While there is little personal about a defence minister speaking in public, his statement made the world sit-up and wonder if India was contemplating pre-emptive nuclear strike on Pakistan to stop its proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir.
Recently, after reading Menon’s book, Choices, a nuclear proliferation scholar at MIT, United States, Vipin Narang, concluded that India’s opening salvo may not be conventional but comprehensive nuclear strike to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons. To avert this scenario, he added, Pakistan would increase its nuclear weapons capability, and in a tit-for-tat, it would be a nuclear arms race.
Narang’s incredulous conclusion was based upon Menon’s writing that ‘there is a potential grey area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another Nuclear Weapon State (Pakistan). Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.’
Couching his inference in western phraseology, Narang told his breathless audience that, “It’s very scary because all the first strike instability stuff is real.” Real or not, media got its story with the New York Times, followed by Indian newspapers, declaring that a subtle shift in India’s NFU policy was discernible.
No one bothered to understand the conventional war dynamics in the subcontinent. Worse, few cared to read Menon’s entire chapter on NFU where he betrayed his ignorance about war between India and Pakistan. Menon writes that, ‘Pakistan claims to seek to integrate its conventional and nuclear war-fighting plans and capabilities even more closely, thinking that this will increase its immunity from Indian retaliation. But the actual consequences are to diminish deterrence stability between India and Pakistan, to bring the likelihood of nuclear war closer, and ultimately to destabilise the Pakistan Army itself.’
Menon is dead wrong in his assessment. A nation with NFU policy should seamlessly integrate its conventional and nuclear war plans, and also announce that it has done so. This is real deterrence for the adversary. With standing operating procedures known to all conventional war field commanders — whose red lines would vary depending upon their sector’s sensitivity — and those responsible for nuclear weapons release and execution, there would be little ambiguity when one battlefield would transit into another.
For this reason, Pakistan has gone the extra mile in announcing its nuclear red lines to the world. It has done so to unambiguously indicate that conventional and nuclear war dynamics would be separate. The conventional war would be monitored by the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) reporting to the army chief. The nuclear war, on the other hand, would be monitored by the Director General Strategic Plans Division reporting to the National Command Authority (read, the army chief).
China, with NFU policy, has done the same through its May 2015 military warfare strategy. Its chain of command for conventional war runs from the Theatre Commanders to the Commander-in-Chief, Joint Command of the Commission, Xi Jinping, through the head of the Joint Staff Department. The nuclear war chain of command runs from the commander, PLA Rocket Force also to Xi Jinping through the head of Joint Staff Department. Hand-picked by Xi, the head of Joint Staff Department is responsible for integration of conventional and nuclear war plans, and for advising the Chairman Central Military Commission, Xi, of the transition from conventional to nuclear war.
On the issue of Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW), its former DG, SPD, Lt Gen. Khalid Kidwai explained its rationale to the world in a talk with US strategist, Peter Lavoy on 23 March 2015. According to him, Pakistan acquired full spectrum deterrence with introduction of TNW to close operational gaps at the tactical level. While Pakistan maintains “a healthy balance (at the operational level of war where outcomes are determined) despite asymmetry that we talk about (India has more manpower and equipment), nukes will provide a back-up force in some circumstances.” According to Kidwai, TNW are meant to discourage, and thwart if needed, Indian Army’s Cold Start doctrine.
What are these circumstances that Khalid referred to?
Since India’s Cold Start is at the heart of the hot war with Pakistan, the latter has taken its unfolding details seriously. These include the creation of Integrated Battle Groups (fast moving self-contained mobile forces around an armour brigade), the moving of cantonments forward towards the border, and the field formations re-organisation. While the Pakistan military has taken more than adequate counter-measures to meet this challenge which has made its Punjab and the area between Chhamb and Sialkot vulnerable to sudden attacks (details are available in the book Dragon On Our Doorstep), it cannot afford to even temporarily lose its ground, however miniscule, to the sheer numbers of the Indian Army. To pre-empt this scenario, Pakistan has brought TNWs into the discourse — these are low-yield weapons but would be held and controlled at the highest strategic level (read, army chief). If anything, the Pakistan Army has increased rather than diminished deterrence.