Guest Column | Perception and Reality

An indepth analysis of India’s Credible Minimum Deterrent doctrine

Lt Gen. B.S. Nagal (retd)

India declared its nuclear doctrine (summary) on 4 January 2003, a refinement of the draft doctrine made public on 17 August 1999. India had unique requirements to address in the strategic environment that forced it to operationalise the nuclear deterrent, concurrently decide on the policy, the strategy and the doctrine to be followed, from this doctrine emerged the concept of ‘Credible Minimum Deterrent’ (CMD). The doctrine is a dynamic concept related to the strategic environment, technological imperatives and the needs of national security.

India’s nuclear doctrine caters for ‘threats of use of nuclear weapons against India’ and ‘nuclear attack on India or Indian forces anywhere’. With a No First Use (NFU) policy, retaliation will be massive, designed to cause unacceptable damage. It also has provisions of nuclear retaliation in case of chemical or biological attacks.

The draft and final doctrine brought to fore certain aspects. First, nuclear weapons remain instruments for national and collective security. Second, India’s strategic interests require effective and credible nuclear deterrence. Third, the requirements of deterrence should weigh in the design of nuclear forces as well as the deterrence strategy. The deterrence strategy must provide a capability with maximum credibility, survivability, effectiveness, safety and security. Deterrence requirements include, firstly will to employ nuclear forces and weapons, secondly robust command and control system, thirdly effective intelligence and early warning capabilities, fourthly sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared forces, lastly comprehensive planning and training for operations. Since then many have debated the issue of ‘credible minimum deterrent’ (CMD) because it was a new term and did not fit the definition of ‘minimum deterrence’ as broadly accepted in western nuclear parlance.

This article seeks to examine India’s CMD, its application, development and implication for decision makers, and how firmly it is in place. Since CMD is directly linked to massive retaliation to cause unacceptable damage, therefore it should not be examined under the prism of minimum deterrence. The examination will include credibility, issues that flow from credibility, retaliation capability, arsenal requirements, force effectiveness, survivability, unacceptable damage, deterrence and strategic stability.

One of the most important principles of nuclear deterrence is credibility, to take political decisions in time to use nuclear weapons, to develop nuclear forces capability to meet the needs of deterrence, to use deterrence for national security, to signal intent to prevent threats from arising. Therefore, credibility is political and force centric, how your adversary(s) and the world views the deterrence emanating from these two determinants. When the US and Soviet Union developed their nuclear weapons, deployed the weapons and developed deterrence strategies, no one doubted their credibility or will to use the weapons, such was the intense rivalry of the Cold War. The US military, NATO and Western thinkers/think tanks developed deterrence strategies of massive retaliation/MAD/flexible response/countervailing etc, and these were integrated into nuclear strategies of NATO. The Warsaw Pact also developed deterrence strategies; this enhanced the credibility of the use of nuclear weapons. The war fighting strategies adopted by their armed forces also in no small measure contributed to enhance the credibility of the nuclear powers, to use the weapons to defend national interest, provide extended deterrence to allies, conduct ideological campaigns and seek enlarged spheres of influence.

In the Indian context, doubts are raised within and outside about the credibility of the doctrine and its application. There are two distinct views in the public domain, first that Indian political leadership in the past has failed to show resolve and will fail again. The second – but also a belief of a fair percentage – is that on nuclear retaliation decision there will be no vacillation and decision making will be prompt and decisive.

National ethos and historical precedents are important parameters to judge the decision-taking ability by the nation’s political leadership. The general perception is that Indian political leadership may be found wanting at critical junctures. The proponents of this view cite many decisions/instances or occasions when Indian political leadership failed to anticipate crisis or proactively act to avert dangers that later blew in to full-fledged embarrassments. There are historical reasons for this perception, except the 1971 war, India has been reactive during crisis, be it the 1947-48 Jammu and Kashmir operations or the 1962 Chinese aggression or the 1965 Indo-Pak conflict or the 1999 Kargil conflict. To certain terror actions such as 26/11/2008 there was inaction, the 2001 Parliament attack triggered a reaction but ended without any concrete gain. Our ability to be ahead in the decision loop has been a major failure; the capacity or potential to accept heavy cost to pursue national objectives is another negative with our political leadership, our penchant to seek consensus or defer difficult decisions even in non military matters substantiates the perception. Today, the military preparedness is not at the desired levels, once again a result of poor decision-making by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). For a nation with NFU, the compulsion of civil defence is paramount. In India there is not an iota of work on public awareness or construction of nuclear defence shelters for the public, no education of civil servants or bureaucrats, and our disaster management is knee jerk and extremely limited in scope.

Prime Minister Modi meeting soldiers
Prime Minister Modi meeting soldiers

There is a diametrically opposite view by many strategists/policy planners; the argument is based on strategic, political and survival compulsions. Any political leadership that decides that war is the last and only option, is then seized of all possibilities/consequences/actions that will follow from the decision. No political leadership in a democracy will seek war, that too, a nuclear war, unless the gains outweigh the loss, and if war is forced by the adversary it must be won on terms, that ensure lasting peace. Public pressure or even frenzy after a nuclear strike on India or Indian forces (anticipating escalation to mainland) will force the political dispensation to retaliate, continue the retaliation till the adversary sues for peace. Survival instinct is prime, in all political leaders, therefore, when faced with a Hobson’s choice, will take the decision in the interest of survival. National leadership has a moral responsibility to safeguard the nation and abide by existing and adopted strategies, hence bound by this responsibility; the political leadership will always take action to prevent destruction and prevail to achieve favourable termination objectives. In any war there are supporting/assisting nations with similar goals/aims/constraints, strategic interests and compulsions ensure they provide support of decision to retaliate, this is not to suggest that India becomes subservient or subordinate to friends or allies, but support helps resolve decision dilemmas. In sum total it can be said that there will be timely, firm and correct decisions by the political leadership. For this view to prevail and be accepted by the public there is a need to conduct nuclear signalling in a better way. More on this later in the article.

The second aspect of credibility is demonstrated in nuclear forces and systems capability, i.e. to retaliate in spite of attrition, degradation or destruction, and continue the retaliation till the war is terminated on own terms. The credibility of the political leadership will be taken seriously if supported by the requisite capability to execute the promised action. Capability will be examined under size and range, yields, delivery systems, C4ISR, command and control and survivability.

The Cold War created nuclear arsenals of thousands of weapons on land, sea and air including tactical nuclear weapons, the overkill itself created a sense that these weapons will be used to defend Europe and superpower interests around the world. The hundreds of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) deployed on hair trigger alert, SSBNs on deterrence patrols, nuclear armed bombers always airborne, command posts including airborne command posts on alert, and constant trailing/monitoring of each other’s assets, all added to the credibility of their use when a crisis escalated to war. Where and how is the capability demonstrated in India?

The size of the Indian arsenal remains secret, this uncertainty is also a principle well established in deterrence, however approximate size can be gauged from the development of fissile material and delivery systems. Open source material gives the quantum of fissile material India could have produced by now, how much would have been consumed in testing, kept as reserve and converted to weapons. The uncertainty also is about the type of weapons fielded, the yield of the weapons and features of the weapons. India has tested weapons from 0.1 KT to 45 KT during the Pokhran tests and stated that all tests had met specified parameters; however a controversy was created about the higher yield weapon tests. The constraints of testing higher KT weapons close to village Khetolai explained the reason for limiting the yield, sceptics will continue to raise the issue to either rake a controversy or garner publicity. Suffice to suggest that 16 years after the tests, even better computer simulation is available, and computer testing allows higher yield weapons to be produced without actual testing. Indian expertise in the field is well known since 1974, hence one must accept that India is capable of producing weapons of higher yields than tested. The deterrence is well met by the weapons available with India, the yields are better kept a secret, and the principle of uncertainty remains in force.

The arsenal size for India will be determined by the number of targets that will constitute unacceptable damage to the adversary, likely attrition of own assets due to first strike, technical failures, interception capability and guidance failures. The actual size has to be dynamic, because, the adversaries’ arsenals are increasing by the year. This will result in higher attrition to own forces on land, accordingly we need to structure our forces. Our arsenal will increase based on availability of fissile material and delivery systems.

The Indian delivery systems are based on the triad, the progress has been slow compared to the growth of superpower arsenals during the Cold War, however it is taking shape as envisaged. The air force has a very large number of aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons (Mirage2000, SU30, Jaguar and in future the MCRA), these are available as assets based on strategic demands, and however the absence of strategic bombers is a major void. The Integrated Guided Missile Programme has produced the Prithvi I and II series and Agni 1, 2 ,3 and 4 series of missiles, the Agni 5 has been tested and should be operational soon, once deployed it provides complete coverage of China, thereby giving substantial deterrence. The Agni 6 development should also see light of the day soon. The SSBN of the sea leg is now nearing completion, to be fitted with the Sagirika missiles; with the commissioning of the SSBN the triad will be complete, though not at the desired level. The follow-on SSBNs are expected to be bigger and should field longer range missiles which should cover the whole of China also, thus achieving the desired deterrence. Modernisation of these systems is a continuous process, the pace subject to advanced technology availability and indigenous industry. Delivery systems described above are operational, as better technology is mastered these will be replaced by better missiles with new features, for e.g. MaRV, MIRV, decoys, and penetration aids etc. The sea-based missiles with longer ranges will allow safe and secure deployment areas with short movement time.

Defensive measures under development include ballistic missile defence (BMD). India has conducted a number of tests of exothermic and endothermic interceptors. While some term it destabilising, the system will provide security to important command and control centres besides protecting value centres. The BMD increases the credibility of the command and control mechanism by protection as well as denial to the adversary, when India has a NFU policy. It is expected that the BMD in some form would be deployed in the near future, giving India an assurance of security of critical systems.

C4ISR in the strategic sphere are crucial and critical to remain ahead in the decision cycle, gather intelligence on the adversary’s political decisions and the deployment and employment state of the arsenal. The strategic inputs determine the course to be adopted, in the absence of inputs all decisions will be in the fog of war, subject to wrong deductions/inferences and faulty decisions. For BMD missile, adversary missile launches and probable targets form the basis of interception and alerts, thus any void in missile surveillance and tracking can make the system ineffective and prove fatal, similarly all other parts of C4ISR play their role for effective command and control. India has put in place a robust command and control system, the development of the systems is a home-grown effort based on fundamentals of deterrence, command and control. Intelligence and surveillance are dynamic by nature, technical intelligence is now part of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), and the capability now available allows real time information of nuclear forces. Communications are crucial in nuclear operations for issuing codes and messages besides host of other tasks and management of forces, with NFU, retaliatory strikes will be launched after absorbing adversary first strikes, the destruction and attrition will affect and degrade the planned communications, hence, redundancy and multiple modes form the basis of communications. Since a large part of the C4ISR is confidential in nature, doubts will always be raised on the efficacy of the systems in place. For command and control, India declared in the doctrine summary that the highest body in the strategic nuclear decision-making system is the Political Council of the National Command Authority, chaired by the Prime Minister, the second body is the Executive Council chaired by the National Security Advisor (NSA) which implements the orders and directives of the Political Council. The sole body authorised to order retaliatory nuclear strikes is the Political Council of the National Command Authority. The alternates are provided in the chain of command to ensure continuity of command for retaliation in case of any unforeseen emergency/mishap overtaking the Political Council.

The Strategic Forces Command (SFC) is operational, and it manages and administers the nuclear forces, and is responsible for conduct of retaliatory strikes. The Command is tasked to carry out training and conduct test launches to guarantee operational preparedness. The last few years have witnessed test launches by all types of missiles, a signal of maturing of the arsenal, training of personnel and robustness of the delivery systems. The size of strategic forces and firing of delivery systems is a significant indicator of the preparedness of the retaliation capability and credibility of deterrence. The test fires and press information release on them is one indicator of the preparedness and delivery credibility.

Survivability of the political leadership and nuclear forces is of vital importance to order and conduct retaliatory nuclear strikes. The command and control systems are designed to withstand nuclear attacks, multiple to ensure redundancy and fitted with state-of-the-art communications. India’s land missiles are based on the concept of mobility, dispersal and concealment. With a large land mass and ample cover, survivability of land missiles is not difficult to achieve. Air assets survivability is not very easy to obtain given the fixed nature of air force airbases; hardening, redundancy and NBC protection measures will improve survivability. The sea leg is the most survivable of the triad, it is virtually undetectable, once the SSBN force is operational, vulnerability of the deterrent will reduce greatly.

Nuclear signalling (also termed as principle of publicity) is an important facet of credibility of intent and force capability. Though India published its draft doctrine and doctrine summary, thereafter it suddenly clamped on further press releases and any matter related to nuclear policy, strategy or nuclear forces. The change of government in 2004 possibly relegated the strategic signalling to the background. The testing of delivery systems reduced, less an odd development test, the growth of the strategic forces also saw a pause. The strategic or services think tanks, also drew no response from the government, it appeared that adverse international comments after the tests and publication of doctrine made the government cautious and reticent. All this drying up of information caused concern in the strategic fraternity. After a break of few years testing of the delivery systems by the SFC increased, since then it has continued with regular training. The development tests, too, have improved in the recent past. The media does report of meetings of the National Command Authority (Political Council) but no official releases are forthcoming even now. The lack of participation by the government in public debates or think tank seminars indicates inability to articulate an official line on nuclear doctrine and a fear of adverse opinion/commentary/remarks. Poor understanding of public desire for information and classifying everything out of bound show bureaucratic ineptitude and political incompetence to project/demonstrate deterrence.

‘Unacceptable Damage’ is a term that is not easily defined and is open to different interpretation; each adversary has different levels of tolerance to accept punishment. There is no formula or set piece answer to what should be targeted to achieve unacceptable damage. The more advanced a society, lower the level of tolerance to bear punishment. The US, which fought World War II (1941-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1955/1964-1975) took casualties in thousands, today it is unimaginable for the US to accept similar casualties, and even a few cities being struck can be termed unacceptable. However, the situation in Asia is different, nationalism still dominates human values, poverty and poor understanding of repercussions keep the public unaware of the dangers of nuclear war, governments manipulate public opinion to create hysteria/frenzy in support of their policies, under such circumstances higher destruction will be in order, to cause unacceptable damage to bring an end to a nuclear war.

Unacceptable damage should be viewed in two segments/parts, first the damage that is likely to occur to our country, and second what will force the adversary to agree to our terms. If the adversary miscalculates and fires limited weapons to de-escalate the war, the damage to our country will be limited, however, if an all-out nuclear weapons attack is executed, the damage is unimaginable. Based on our doctrine and with no guarantee of escalation control we need to plan to destroy a large number of counter value targets to include population centres, industrial complexes and important infrastructure, and available counterforce targets. The retaliatory strikes must destroy to an extent that recovery and reconstruction is long and costly, incapacitation of population must regress the economy, the military is defeated and the political leadership that decided on war is decimated. There is a contrary view by few that a few targets are sufficient (three-six) to bring an end to a nuclear war. In conducting the retaliatory strikes care must be taken to avoid destruction of the environment, damage due to radioactive fallout will have its effect on the country as well as the world. If such be the requirement of unacceptable damage ‘credible minimum’ does not fit the definition of ‘minimum deterrence’, it must be greater.

Countervalue Strategy is a natural corollary of adopting a NFU, after absorbing a first strike finding counterforce targets will be less likely, thus the option gets restricted to vulnerable and static targets, these of compulsion are countervalue targets of cities, industrial areas, infrastructure, identified static C4ISR targets. With NFU there is no moral dilemma on targeting countervalue targets, after absorbing a first strike which will inevitably cause damage to the population and other important areas, the conscience argument does not hold sway.

Arms race is not the aim or intention of CMD, once the fundamental requirements are met, the force structure need not increase purely on the basis of what the adversary arsenal is known to hold. Pressure to increase the size of the arsenal as was the case during the Cold War, should be resisted, if any important lesson emerged from the Cold War, it was, and overkill did not reduce tensions or lessen the importance of conventional forces. Once the political and military leadership is satisfied with the size of the deterrent to cause unacceptable damage, it would be prudent to cap the size but continue to modernise. Defensive measures are labelled destabilising but are crucial to CMD as they protect the credibility of the deterrent.

Strategic stability can be established if both powers agree to restrict and make transparent the arsenals, agree on confidence building measures and de-escalate tensions. In the absence of any concrete measures to establish strategic stability, CMD offers an opportunity of assuring our adversary(s) that in the absence of an arms race certain stability can be brought about while strategic interests are still safeguarded. With appropriately sized arsenal and no overkill capability it is feasible to progress on strategic stability. CMD also offers a window to start negotiations with adversaries to limit the arsenal on specific issues.

India decided to adopt strategic deterrence over nuclear war fighting, with a specific role for the nuclear deterrent. In certain quarters strategic deterrence is questioned for its inability to prevent proxy wars, sub conventional conflicts and even limited wars/skirmishes, the simple answer is, the role of nuclear doctrine was to prevent “threat or use of nuclear weapons against India or Indian forces anywhere, and chemical or biological weapons”. The doctrine has succeeded for the role assigned, any other role will require a change in the doctrine, and linkage to conventional war will change the paradigm. To prevent proxy war/sub conventional conflicts calls for different strategy and policy, linking our nuclear policy to the balance of the war spectrum does not fit India’s strategic thought, it is fraught with dangers and misadventures.

Two other tenets or principles of deterrence are flexibility and change, Indian CMD encompasses both the principles. Since it does not fix or cap the deterrent and is linked to the strategic environment and technological imperatives, change is inbuilt in the thought process, but not in the direction of an arms race. Any change must be based on changing geo-strategic and geo-political compulsions and strategic rationale.

Deterrence and retaliation capability are the cumulative result of factors and characteristics discussed above; India today has adequate means and potential to cause unacceptable damage to any adversary if attacked by nuclear weapons. The void of long range missiles to cover complete China needs immediate redressal, both by land and sea based missiles. The accountability of organisations tasked to produce the delivery systems is absent, being part of the government delays are condoned at the cost of national security, time has come to clear the non-performers and bring in new young talent as suggested by the Prime Minister recently. There is a requirement of political leadership participation in the nuclear signalling process; whilst the doctrine has been made public, the follow-on public discourse is absent.

India’s doctrine, strategy and policy ensure flexibility and rationality in development and employment strategies. CMD provides options to policymakers to adapt to changing strategic environment, inherent are elements of uncertainty and ambiguity to enhance deterrence, offers windows for confidence building measures, can be the basis for strategic stability and does not restrict the nation to fixed notions of theories in vogue/adopted by other nations. CMD caters to changing strategic environment, assures the nation of its security, builds and sustains nuclear arsenal and forces, assures punishment to any adversary(s) who attacks India or Indian forces with nuclear weapons.

The perception that Indian political leadership will be found incapable of decision in the face of nuclear attacks is not correct, the absence of appropriate and calibrated signalling may have created the impression. It is absolutely certain, resolved, definite, unambiguous and assured that the political leadership will take correct decisions in the face of nuclear attacks. The Indian deterrent will attain maximum credibility once the Agni 5 and SSBNs become operational. The uncertainty and ambiguity contribute to deterrence, flexibility and change allows CMD to achieve the desired deterrence. India has demonstrated prudence in adopting CMD and prepared for future challenges in an emerging uncertain geo-strategic environment, CMD along with NFU is non-provocative and based upon threat perceptions and geopolitical realities.

(The writer is former C-in-C, Strategic Forces Command, and first Chief, Strategic Programme Staff)