The real accomplishment of the launching of India’s first nuclear-armed submarine is that it completes the basing arrangement of the country’s nuclear deterrent. Once the Arihant is fully-tested for seaworthiness, India will be able to launch nuclear weapons from sea, air and land. The sea component is crucial because of India’s declared ‘no first strike’ doctrine. Submarine-based nuclear weapons are the least vulnerable to a surprise attack. And, under the rules of N-warfare, the more suspect a nation’s ability to survive a first strike, the more tempted its enemies will be to consider such an attack.
While the completion of the strategic triad means the beginning of the end of India’s basing concerns, it should mark the beginning of a debate on the country’s N-doctrine. To merely say India will not be the first to launch a nuke attack and will stick to a minimum deterrent is insufficient. The present draft nuclear doctrine is an unofficial document that has largely been forgotten. The lack of a doctrine matters. First, doctrines determine how many weapons a country will build and how they will be deployed. Without a doctrine, building weapons can be an open-ended game — both economically ruinous and strategically dangerous. Second, doctrines that match weapons deployment help nuclear adversaries to calibrate the size and nature of their own deterrent. Ambiguity may often result in an arms race.
India’s leadership is aware of how dangerous a nuclear arms race is to a developing country. There is a consensus on a need for a minimum deterrent, but not on how small it should be. Many Left-liberals argue that India has enough warheads. Those further to the right believe India’s arsenal should match China’s. More components are needed to secure India’s deterrent capability. For example, the installation of a ballistic missile defence system — something that would muddy the waters for any first strike. However, a clear doctrine is needed if India is not to alarm its neighbours and define a parameter around its nuclear price tag. India should never forget that its sandwiched between two nuclear weapons states, one of whose arsenal is regularly portrayed as the most likely to go astray.