Donald Trump’s review could help India nuance its nuclear doctrine
The Trump disruption continues. Now, it is reaching into the area of US nuclear policy. The new American nuclear posture review (NPR) comes on the head of a series of decisions taken by the Trump Administration that has brought a more combative edge to the American nuclear strategy.
Late last year, Trump ordered the Department of Energy, which oversees the US nuclear weapons programme, to be ready to conduct a nuclear test within six months, if ordered. As it is, he has authorised a $1.2 trillion programme to overhaul the nuclear weapons complex and authorised the development of a new nuclear warhead, the first time in 34 years, according to Time magazine. All this has led to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moving their famous atomic clock 30 seconds forward towards Doomsday.
None of these developments affects India directly, but many of the dilemmas that Trump is responding to have a resonance in India. Primarily, adversaries who believe that they can use low yield nuclear weapons to lower the nuclear weapons use threshold and create a shield behind which they can conduct hostile activity.
The Americans are reacting primarily to Russia which it says is developing low yield or tactical weapons to gain coercive advantage in a crisis. The new US NPR is aimed at meeting the Russian challenge and preserving deterrence stability. Even while emphasising that it will not enable “nuclear war-fighting”, the Pentagon claims that it will give the US new options for which it seeks to develop new weapons. The aim is to raise the nuclear threshold so that Moscow does not perceive any advantage in limited nuclear escalation.
Pakistan’s development of Theatre Nuclear Weapons (TNW) has often been explained by the argument that they seek to offset the increasing gap in their conventional capabilities. In reality they are a means to give Pakistan a shield against an Indian response to terrorist attacks carried out by its proxies. This is a dangerous game. But it does pose a conundrum for India’s nuclear doctrine which speaks of No First Use and eschews Tactical Nuclear Weapons. In a 2015 conversation with former US official Peter Lavoy, Lt Gen (retd) Khalid Kidwai, who had steered Pakistan’s strategic plans division from 2000 to 2013, said that the rationale for Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons was India’s Cold Start doctrine. He claimed it was “Pakistan’s defensive, deterrence response to an offensive doctrine”. He bragged that through tactical nuclear weapons, “we have blocked the avenues for serious military operations by the other side.” Only after some prodding he responded to the point in everyone’s mind—that India’s so-called Cold Start doctrine is the product of the frustration of dealing with Pakistan’s use of terrorist proxies. However, Kidwai claimed that terrorism and militancy were consequences of India’s refusal to allow self-determination in Kashmir and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan was merely a victim, taking steps to preserve itself.
The Pakistani doctrine poses problems for India. Kidwai grumbled that “some people (read India) via massive retaliation bluster,” not realising that Pakistan, too, had similar capacity. In the run up to the election in 2014, the BJP manifesto called for an update of the Indian nuclear doctrine. In August, however, Prime Minister Modi said there would be no review. Though that October, the National Security Adviser, AK Doval, said that India was shifting its posture from “credible minimum deterrence” to simply “credible deterrence.” The only other comment, semi-official, came when in 2013 Shyam Saran, the then chairman of the National Security Advisory Board reaffirmed the NFU pledge and said, regardless of the size of the attack, Indian retaliation would be “massive.”
The American change could well persuade India to nuance its approach as well. Its big problem was the use of the word “massive” in terms of a response to a Pakistani tactical nuclear weapon strike. No one believes that India would wipe out Lahore, if Pakistan used a low yield nuclear weapon against an Indian military formation, and that, too, in Pakistan.
In the draft nuclear doctrine of 1998 the formulation was “punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict unacceptable damage to the aggressor ”. Returning to it is one option, but with a careful nuance to ensure India does not shift to a posture of “nuclear wear fighting.” This calls for new concepts and possibly a newer generation of weapons.
There are other options a US shift may open up. Primary being that if the US breaks the test ban, India can test its thermonuclear weapon which fizzled out in Pokhran in 1998. Of course, this would torpedo the Indo-US nuclear deal, but Trump could be open to renegotiating it. Another option that low-yield weapons can give India is in following the new US strategy suggesting possible use to respond to a non-nuclear attack on critical infrastructure. So far India has not addressed the problem of a catastrophic attack on power grids and telephone networks. But it’s not too late to think about it now.
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal