As a Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar can say almost anything he wants in public. There is minimal collateral damage for the rest of the nation if everyone in Panaji takes leave of their senses. Unfortunately, this is not the case with a defence minister Manohar Parrikar. In this position he is one of the four senior-most Cabinet members and the one charged with the external security and defence of India. His words are carefully listened to and strongly influence the actions of a swathe of players, including the armed services, foreign governments and terrorist groups.
Unfortunately, the person who seems to understand this the least is Mr Parrikar. His questioning of India’s long-standing nuclear doctrine on a public platform was avoidable. He effectively put a question mark over India’s nuclear deterrent, the sanctum sanctorum of the country’s national security posture. More worryingly, his “personal” comments seem to stem from an inadequate understanding of the strategic logic underpinning nuclear deterrence and a no-first-use policy.
In the dawn of the nuclear age, military strategists recognised that nuclear weapons changed the purpose of an army. A conventional arsenal is designed to defeat an enemy. A nuclear war would inflict such enormous damage on both sides that no one could win such a conflict. Therefore, the purpose of a nuclear arsenal was to prevent war. Thus was borne the concept of nuclear deterrent. To put it another way, one wins a nuclear conflict by never having it in the first place.
Once this logic was understood, the next logical step was to signal this in a number of ways including no-first-use, developing the ability to carry out nuclear retaliation even after being attacked and, most important, maintaining the credibility of national intent through testing, technology and a iron-cast doctrine. A country can build all the warheads and delivery mechanisms it wants. But if there is evidence that it lacks the political will to actually use them, it encourages an enemy to carry out a first strike. The messaging of the political determination to retaliate, irrespective of the damage done in the first strike, is absolutely essential in ensuring the enemy attack never takes place at all.
Whether in a personal or official capacity, for a defence minister to question India’s nuclear doctrine undermines the credibility of the country’s deterrent. Mr Parrikar, in other words, is inviting other countries to presume India is not certain how to use its final line of defence.