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The nuclear revolution hasn’t been absorbed in military plans. Fix it

May 10, 2023 07:48 PM IST

On Pakistan, India should be more willing to use conventional military options and call out Pakistan’s nuclear bluff

On May 11, 1998, India declared itself a nuclear weapon state by conducting a series of tests in the Thar desert. Under Jawaharlal Nehru and Homi Bhabha, India laid the foundation of an elaborate nuclear science programme in 1948, just a year after its Independence. Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi conducted a peaceful nuclear explosion in May 1974. Yet, India took almost five decades to embrace nuclear weapons. No other country in the nuclear age gestated on its nuclear weapon-making potential for so long.

PREMIUM
Soldiers of the Indian Army during the Kargil War in July 1999. During the war, India’s responsible and restrained nuclear behaviour laid the foundation of the India-US strategic partnership and the dehyphenation of India from Pakistan in America’s South Asia policy. (HT PHOTO)

India’s conscientious forbearance of the nuclear option did not result in any material or diplomatic gain. The guardians of the global nuclear order — primarily western countries led by the United States (US) — remained suspicious of India’s ultimate nuclear intentions, resulting in heavy technological sanctions on its nuclear and defence industries. It also failed to limit the nuclear programmes of its adversaries. In the 1960s, China was included as a nuclear weapon State in the non-proliferation treaty; in the 1970s and 80s, Pakistan developed nuclear weapons by pilfering technology and material from the West. China also abetted Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

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Under duress, PM Rajiv Gandhi ordered the weaponisation of India’s nuclear deterrence in 1989. Yet, New Delhi was unprepared to embrace its nuclear status fully, given its decades-old diplomacy for nuclear disarmament. India’s nuclear ambiguity only symbolised its hesitation to behave like a normal state in international politics, one which acknowledges power and interests as fundamental drivers of the state’s security and foreign policy. The 1998 nuclear weapons tests unshackled India from the idealism of its international relations.

An explicit self acknowledgement of India’s nuclear weapon status helped break the inertia of its foreign policy idealism and the psychological constraints imposed by its secretive programme. The tests were also a blessing in disguise for India-US relations. If India’s nuclear ambiguity sputtered hopes in Washington DC that New Delhi would eventually relent to its non-proliferation agenda, India viewed American non-proliferation advocacy as a significant roadblock in its rise in the global order. The tests liberated India of its self-imposed restraints and allowed the US to move beyond its non-proliferation agenda.

Within a decade of the 1998 tests, it had achieved major diplomatic objectives. During the Kargil War, India’s responsible and restrained nuclear behaviour laid the foundation of the India-US strategic partnership and the dehyphenation of India from Pakistan in America’s South Asia policy. India’s rise as an economic and military power raised its stature as an Asian powerhouse, in league with China. Even today, among all the US allies and strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific, only India is a nuclear weapon power. And, the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal of 2008 recognised India as a de-facto nuclear weapon state.

But there remain some significant challenges.

The doctrine of no-first-use and massive retaliation, which guides India’s nuclear deterrent, has failed to contain Pakistan’s use of sub-conventional warfare under the shadow of its nuclear arsenal. The continuous invocation of a nuclear exchange also forced India into a shell, unable to respond to many Pakistani provocations, whether the Parliament attack in 2001 or the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The growing asymmetry in military power on the Himalayan border with China has also led some in India’s strategic community to suggest relinquishing the doctrine.

But changing the doctrine to allow first use of nuclear weapons will not resolve India’s predicament with Pakistan or China. Nuclear weapons will not provide any tactical or strategic advantage on the border. Any use of nuclear weapons in the mountain passes will not only be highly hazardous, given that India is a lower riparian State, but will also invoke a strategic response from China, a more capable nuclear power. The only answer is beefing up India’s conventional military force on the border to increase the costs of China’s opportunism.

On Pakistan, India should be more willing to use conventional military options and call out Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. Since 1998, India’s military restraint resulted partially from the fear of a conventional military crisis escalating into a nuclear one. The 2016 surgical strikes and the 2019 Balakot attacks have given enough empirical evidence to shatter this belief.

Second, even after 25 years of Pokhran, India is still building a credible second-strike capability vis-à-vis China. The deployment of Agni-V, India’s first intercontinental-range ballistic missile, is a significant upgrade in the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. However, the third leg of its nuclear force — its SSBN fleet — is still immature: The boats are underpowered and under-armed. Until India develops, demonstrates and deploys a capability to target most of the Chinese territory through SSBNs, which can safely operate in the southern Indian Ocean and use submarine-launched missiles, India’s second-strike capability will lack credibility. China’s modernisation of its nuclear forces will only add to India’s imperative.

Along with the 1991 economic reforms, the 1998 nuclear tests opened the pathway to India’s rise as a global power. India’s diplomatic gains have been substantial. However, the need to absorb the nuclear revolution into its military strategy is still a work in progress.

Harsh V Pant is Vice President, ORF. Yogesh Joshi is a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore The views expressed are personal

On May 11, 1998, India declared itself a nuclear weapon state by conducting a series of tests in the Thar desert. Under Jawaharlal Nehru and Homi Bhabha, India laid the foundation of an elaborate nuclear science programme in 1948, just a year after its Independence. Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi conducted a peaceful nuclear explosion in May 1974. Yet, India took almost five decades to embrace nuclear weapons. No other country in the nuclear age gestated on its nuclear weapon-making potential for so long.

PREMIUM
Soldiers of the Indian Army during the Kargil War in July 1999. During the war, India’s responsible and restrained nuclear behaviour laid the foundation of the India-US strategic partnership and the dehyphenation of India from Pakistan in America’s South Asia policy. (HT PHOTO)

India’s conscientious forbearance of the nuclear option did not result in any material or diplomatic gain. The guardians of the global nuclear order — primarily western countries led by the United States (US) — remained suspicious of India’s ultimate nuclear intentions, resulting in heavy technological sanctions on its nuclear and defence industries. It also failed to limit the nuclear programmes of its adversaries. In the 1960s, China was included as a nuclear weapon State in the non-proliferation treaty; in the 1970s and 80s, Pakistan developed nuclear weapons by pilfering technology and material from the West. China also abetted Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

Hindustan Times - your fastest source for breaking news! Read now.

Under duress, PM Rajiv Gandhi ordered the weaponisation of India’s nuclear deterrence in 1989. Yet, New Delhi was unprepared to embrace its nuclear status fully, given its decades-old diplomacy for nuclear disarmament. India’s nuclear ambiguity only symbolised its hesitation to behave like a normal state in international politics, one which acknowledges power and interests as fundamental drivers of the state’s security and foreign policy. The 1998 nuclear weapons tests unshackled India from the idealism of its international relations.

An explicit self acknowledgement of India’s nuclear weapon status helped break the inertia of its foreign policy idealism and the psychological constraints imposed by its secretive programme. The tests were also a blessing in disguise for India-US relations. If India’s nuclear ambiguity sputtered hopes in Washington DC that New Delhi would eventually relent to its non-proliferation agenda, India viewed American non-proliferation advocacy as a significant roadblock in its rise in the global order. The tests liberated India of its self-imposed restraints and allowed the US to move beyond its non-proliferation agenda.

Within a decade of the 1998 tests, it had achieved major diplomatic objectives. During the Kargil War, India’s responsible and restrained nuclear behaviour laid the foundation of the India-US strategic partnership and the dehyphenation of India from Pakistan in America’s South Asia policy. India’s rise as an economic and military power raised its stature as an Asian powerhouse, in league with China. Even today, among all the US allies and strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific, only India is a nuclear weapon power. And, the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal of 2008 recognised India as a de-facto nuclear weapon state.

But there remain some significant challenges.

The doctrine of no-first-use and massive retaliation, which guides India’s nuclear deterrent, has failed to contain Pakistan’s use of sub-conventional warfare under the shadow of its nuclear arsenal. The continuous invocation of a nuclear exchange also forced India into a shell, unable to respond to many Pakistani provocations, whether the Parliament attack in 2001 or the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The growing asymmetry in military power on the Himalayan border with China has also led some in India’s strategic community to suggest relinquishing the doctrine.

But changing the doctrine to allow first use of nuclear weapons will not resolve India’s predicament with Pakistan or China. Nuclear weapons will not provide any tactical or strategic advantage on the border. Any use of nuclear weapons in the mountain passes will not only be highly hazardous, given that India is a lower riparian State, but will also invoke a strategic response from China, a more capable nuclear power. The only answer is beefing up India’s conventional military force on the border to increase the costs of China’s opportunism.

On Pakistan, India should be more willing to use conventional military options and call out Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. Since 1998, India’s military restraint resulted partially from the fear of a conventional military crisis escalating into a nuclear one. The 2016 surgical strikes and the 2019 Balakot attacks have given enough empirical evidence to shatter this belief.

Second, even after 25 years of Pokhran, India is still building a credible second-strike capability vis-à-vis China. The deployment of Agni-V, India’s first intercontinental-range ballistic missile, is a significant upgrade in the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. However, the third leg of its nuclear force — its SSBN fleet — is still immature: The boats are underpowered and under-armed. Until India develops, demonstrates and deploys a capability to target most of the Chinese territory through SSBNs, which can safely operate in the southern Indian Ocean and use submarine-launched missiles, India’s second-strike capability will lack credibility. China’s modernisation of its nuclear forces will only add to India’s imperative.

Along with the 1991 economic reforms, the 1998 nuclear tests opened the pathway to India’s rise as a global power. India’s diplomatic gains have been substantial. However, the need to absorb the nuclear revolution into its military strategy is still a work in progress.

Harsh V Pant is Vice President, ORF. Yogesh Joshi is a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore The views expressed are personal

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