Fabian Blog
April 9th, 2020


Managing India’s Nuclear Forces
by Verghese Koithara
Routledge New Delhi, 2012
294 pages; Rs.795

Managing India's Nuclear Forces

Managing India's Nuclear Forces

VICE-ADMIRAL Verghese Koithara examines, critically and with clinical thoroughness, India’s nuclear doctrine and the management of its nuclear forces. He points out the shortcomings and proposes remedial measures. His style, free from jargon, is a study in plain, robust English. His logic is sharp and he never misses the big picture. India acquired nuclear weapons primarily to take care of its security needs. The political leadership of the day might have wanted to make a political statement or to derive domestic political advantages. But, the primacy of the security consideration cannot be questioned. If the nuclear weapons in India’s possession are to add to its security, it should manage the nuclear forces more rationally and coherently. This is the fundamental message of the book. It should be read by those who are responsible for India’s nuclear policy. The strategic community and the general public interested in security questions will find in it much food for thought. Koithara does not practise circumlocution even for a moment. “For a variety of political and organisational reasons, India is saddled with a nuclear force management system that is seriously inadequate for the work it needs to do,” he writes (emphasis added throughout). The author mentions two reasons for such a state of affairs.

Firstly, India is the only nuclear weapons state (NWS), with the possible exception of France, that started its nuclear programme without the clear intention of producing weapons. For the first 15 years, the programme was wholly civil oriented. In 1964, China conducted its first test. By that time a system controlled by scientists, with no role for the military, was in place in India.

Secondly, the “barren relationship” that developed between the political leadership and the military since Independence resulted “in the rapid whittling down of the latter’s contribution to national security policymaking”. It follows that the military was excluded from the loop when India considered the starting of a nuclear weapons programme. A comment is called for here. Would it have made sense to have had wide-ranging consultations before deciding to start our Manhattan Project? It may be recalled that Harry Truman, when he took over as President, had to be briefed about the Manhattan Project. As Vice-President he was not in the loop. A certain level of secrecy is necessary in such matters.

The author makes a crucial distinction between the control of nuclear weapons and their management. Nuclear forces of all NWSs are “directly commanded and controlled by the national leadership”. But, except in India, the nuclear forces are managed by the armed forces under the supervision of the political leadership. In none of the other NWSs does the technical establishment play a direct role in managing the forces. In India, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) share the responsibility of the management with the three armed forces. This “troika style of management” degrades both “effectiveness and accountability”. There is no good reason for having such a troika.

The fact is that the troika has survived the vigorous public debate that began in 1964 with the Chinese test. The debate gathered strength through the 1974 nuclear test, Pakistan’s rapid progress in the 1980s, and the mounting pressure on India in the 1990s to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). But the debate was mainly confined to two issues: the strategic and political need to have nuclear weapons and the penalties India might have to pay if it tested. The value of nuclear weapons as an enhancer of international prestige and national self-confidence was emphasised much, but the need for enhancing the deterrence value by an adequate structure for management, including speedy deployment if the need arose, was lost sight of.

The author draws our attention to the paradoxical nature of nuclear weapons. The best nuclear weapon is the one never used, if the deterrence theory holds. But for the deterrence to hold, the weapon should be deployable at short notice. To maintain short-notice deployability, certain preconditions have to be met. Koithara’s well-argued thesis is that such preconditions have not been met so far.

There is not much information in the public domain on India’s management of its nuclear forces. “All analysis and commentary in the media about the current and future capabilities of the country’s nuclear arsenal are based on snippets of information from the DAE and DRDO scientists—in attributed, and more often, non-attributed forms.” These “morsels” often contain “dubious technical claims and projections”. That such “single-source flow of information” forms the basis for decision-making is indeed a matter of concern.

The author draws attention to the fact that while the management style has not changed from what it was before India became an NWS, even after it became one the external and internal factors impinging on India’s security have changed substantially. Pakistan has a number of operationalised, adequately survivable, nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking most of India.

Missile material availability is no longer a constraint on Pakistan. At the same time, the conventional balance of power has “progressively and irretrievably” tilted against Pakistan, increasing its dependence on nuclear weapons. There is a parallel in this regard in Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Unlike in the case of Pakistan, aircraft cannot be used by India for the delivery of nuclear weapons against China. India needs reliable, survivable 3,500-4,000-kilometre range missiles. There is another equally important factor. China is engaged in nuclear modernisation to enhance its deterrence against the United States and Russia. Apart from the unresolved territorial question with China which is in possession of 38,000 square km in the west and is claiming 90,000 sq km in the east, India needs to note the axis between China and Pakistan. Also, China has industriously cultivated India’s other neighbours in a manner impinging on India’s security.

China’s deterrence

The chapter on “the challenge of deterrence” gives an excellent account of the theory and history of deterrence. Both the U.S. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had great faith in military power and from this stemmed “an overestimation of what nuclear power could do”. The size of the nuclear arsenal increased without any linkage to deterrence value. The U.S. arsenal went up from 300 weapons in 1950 to 2,500 in 1955 and 18,000 in 1961. The U.S. figure rose in the mid-1960s to 32,000 and the Soviet figure went up to 34,000 in the late 1980s. After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. accepted the logic of MAD (mutually assured destruction), eventually leading to Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (START).

China travelled a different route. It experienced nuclear threat from the U.S. and the USSR in the 1960s. The U.S. threatened a nuclear attack when China stepped up its military assistance to North Vietnam in 1965-66. The threat from the USSR came when troops of the two countries clashed along the Ussuri river border in early 1969. Right from the beginning, China’s objective was to deter an adversary from carrying out a nuclear attack. It slowed down its strategic weapon pursuit once it achieved minimum deterrence capability by the late 1970s. China took a more refined approach to deterrence than the two superpowers. “The most important salient point to note is China’s judgment [pioneering at that time] that it takes very little to deter even super powers if a proper politico-military strategy is chosen and implemented”.

Israel’s position

Israel maintains a position different from China’s. It has a high estimate of what is needed to deter. It has no adversary with nuclear capability. Despite having nuclear weapons of its own and the indubitable support of the U.S., Israel believes it is vulnerable. It wants to prevent the emergence of another nuclear power in the region.

Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the credible threat of unacceptable counteraction, as pointed out by the U.S. Department of Defence dictionary. Deterrence and coercion are not the same. But deterrence can be seen as coercion by one of the parties. Pakistan used sub-conventional force against India and then tried to use nuclear deterrence against conventional counteraction by India. Herman Kahn has categorised deterrence into three types. Type 1 seeks to deter direct nuclear attack on the U.S. Type 2 seeks to prevent very provocative acts. Type 3 seeks to prevent lesser provocations. The reader will note that India has not succeeded in preventing Types 2 and 3 attacks from Pakistan.

Dealing with India’s approach to deterrence, the author asserts that India has a “fairly, casual attitude”. India rules out a nuclear attack from Pakistan owing to its “huge structural superiority”, its strong relationship with the U.S., the non-use of nuclear weapons for 65 years, and India’s “presumed ability” to fight a conventional war without crossing Pakistan’s “true nuclear thresholds”. For India, deterrence is more a matter of political posture than “an operationalised strategic posture”.

India released its draft nuclear doctrine (DND) in August 1999. The doctrine asserted its plans to have a “triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles, sea-based assets, along with space-based assets to provide early warning, communications, and damage/detonation assessment”. Many critics, especially foreigners, felt that the DND smacked of ambitious posturing. Twelve years later, India has not seriously pursued the goals set in the DND.

No first use

India’s pledge of no first use (NFU) is limited to states not possessing nuclear weapons or are not aligned to nuclear weapon powers. China was the first to formulate and adopt NFU. The principal challenge in projecting deterrence is to make one’s nuclear threat credible in the eyes of the adversary. The sheer scale of destruction from the use of nuclear weapons is so enormous that the threatened party might not take the threat seriously. This is compounded in India’s case by “inadequate operational capability and inflated rhetoric”.

The remedial measures proposed by the author include the creation of a Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) as the existing CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security), loaded with other responsibilities, cannot attend properly to nuclear strategy matters. The author recommends the revival of the Defence Minister’s Committee that had worked for 15 years after Independence.

The current practice of morning meetings is not useful. All important matters should be approved by the Defence Minister after discussion in the DMC. Deterrence can fail. Suppose Pakistan resorts to a low-impact first use, how should India respond? Publicly, Indian authorities and commentators have counselled massive retaliation. But, General K. Sundarji differed. He advocated a proportionate response. Koithara raises pertinent, but rarely raised questions, and discusses possible answers with much intellectual vigour, always keeping the big picture in mind. A great advantage of the book is that it is written with a commendable sense of economy. Most other writers would have used more words to say less.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is author of Diplomacy: Indian Style, published in 2012.

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