China & Pakistan: How to deter them – Gautam Sen

Dr. Gautam Sen“The point is to deter through credible threats but avoid instability. All unilateral initiatives need to searchingly anticipate the reaction and behaviour of adversaries in order to forestall a worsened security outcome. The dilemma between credible threats to deter and avoidance of instability cannot be fully resolved, as the history of nuclear deterrence has amply demonstrated. In the India-Pakistan and India-China deterrence equation, radical solutions may be required to curb Pakistan using mutual deterrence to sponsor repeated terrorist attacks against India.” – Dr Gautam Sen 

Agni MissleThe recent controversy over revisiting India’s nuclear doctrine implies that some critical issues arising from it might be examined afresh. To be sure, the suggestion that the country might abandon its stated no-first-use stance has been repudiated by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s senior leadership. The desirability of a no-first-use doctrine has also been reaffirmed by some prominent former policy-makers.

Yet, the enthusiasm of several senior military officers and commentators for a rather public reassessment of India’s nuclear doctrine is an unusual prospect. There is a strong rationale for secrecy on issues pertaining to nuclear weapon assets possessed and the complex issues that arise in the dramatic circumstances in which their actual use might be contemplated. Indeed, public statements themselves constitute an aspect of deterrence.

Nuclear doctrine and strategy are only about their utility for deterrence purposes since the actual use of nuclear weapons, in virtually any form, would mean massive failure on all counts, and possible mutually-assured destruction. However, the paradox is that credible threats to actually use nuclear weapons are the essence of deterrence. It entails insinuating a perception that this very massive failure of mutually-assured destruction will indeed be unequivocally contemplated in some circumstances.

Between the existence of nuclear weapons that deter adversaries and the preparedness to actually use them to defend fundamental interests lies a portfolio of strategies. This is where the greatest difficulties lie and threats of the unpredictable arise that cannot be viewed with cavalier equanimity. There is a vast and tortured literature on the subject. It ranges from Thomas Crombie Schelling’s risky brinkmanship policy prescriptions to the historically less ambitious modes of signalling to adversaries that have been deployed by superpowers and other countries. Pakistan is the only country that has evidently adopted the “coercive” risk-taking of a Shelling posture that others were too fearful to espouse.

India’s assumption of status as a nuclear weapons’ state was prompted by underlying anxiety of the threat to its territorial integrity posed by the People’s Republic of China, intensified by the fear of two-front China-Pakistan aggression. In addition, a mistaken assumption that the United States might sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty led to an inference that it would make Indian nuclear testing more politically difficult in its aftermath. There has also been a suggestion that Pakistan’s surreptitious nuclear weapons’ programme, including “cold” and “hot” tests in the mid-1980s, compelled India to test in order to expose Pakistan’s hand. It is now known that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’ programme was actively assisted by China with American complicity. Other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries also “in the know” conspired to allow it.

It needs to be borne in mind that India’s nuclear weapons are unnecessary in most conceivable military encounters with Pakistan except as a deterrent that guarantees retaliation in the event of a Pakistani nuclear “first-strike”. This is why India adopted a no-first-use policy, which is in fact aimed at minimizing the hazard of a nuclear standoff with Pakistan. The only situation in which uncertainty arises over India’s no-first-use commitment would be massive reverses suffered by Indian conventional forces in the face of a coordinated China-Pakistan assault. In such a situation, both adversaries would assume that an Indian nuclear weapons’ response might be forthcoming.

In most other circumstances, the doctrine of no-first-use, applied to India-Pakistan deterrence, has the significant merit of lowering tensions that would otherwise be heightened in a crisis situation between them. Without the no-first-use doctrine in place, the nuclear threshold would be lower, possibly dangerously so. However, from a Pakistani point of view, the Indian commitment to the no-first-use doctrine will be perceived as unconvincing in one other significant circumstance.

It could be reasonably assumed that if India has certain knowledge of an imminent Pakistani “first-strike”, it would be tempted to launch a pre-emptive strike of its own to forestall devastation of its territory. Yet, the onus for instigating a situation in which such an erroneous perception of threat occurs will lie with Pakistan. But there is also a danger of India misperceiving Pakistani intentions, without specific real provocation. This could trigger an Indian temptation to embark on a “pre-emptive strike” and, therefore, constitutes a potential destabilizing issue. The credibility of India’s no-first-use is, therefore, conditional.

Unfortunately, this serious danger in the India-Pakistan nuclear deterrence context is not merely due to the threat, in exceptional circumstances alone, of an Indian pre-emptive launch, because of a feared Pakistani “first-strike”. Pakistan has made plain that it will resort to a nuclear “first-strike” against India in a host of less fraught situations, including, extraordinarily, any naval blockade of Karachi harbour. It means Indian fears that Pakistan will launch a nuclear assault against it will tend to constitute a very real backdrop in any overt conflict encounter with it. As a result, there is a danger that India will be tempted to abandon its no-first-use promise in a crisis because it anticipates that Pakistan is poised to launch a nuclear assault without sufficient provocation.

Yet, the repudiation of India’s no-first-use doctrine in advance will create an even more generalized backdrop of additional insecurity for Pakistan that will prompt greater operational preparedness for it to launch a “first-strike”. This also compounds the risk of launch due to misperception and misunderstanding manifold. If it includes, as likely, as a result of the absence of an Indian no-first-use commitment, further dispersal of Pakistani nuclear assets and wider authorization of launch, in case the leadership is disabled, the obvious question of an accident arises. The danger of a nuclear exchange is inherent in nuclear deterrence due to such accidents. It should be regarded as a permanent feature, but factors that accentuate it further should always be borne in mind.

One may surmise that the Indian nuclear tests of 1998 were not co-terminus with the capacity to actually launch an attack with assurance. There were evidently delivery issues that future developments have since addressed. This is why Indian reaction to the grievous assault on its Parliament in December 2001, surely a casus belli, was, in the event, restricted to military mobilization. India was also careful to desist from any military conduct that might violate stated Pakistani parameters for nuclear escalation. It fastidiously ensured that Indian fighter aircraft and bombers did not cross the international border during the Kargil War.

Prithvi, the first missile developed by DRDO under India's prestigious IGMDP is now a proven technology, said official.Indian forbearance in these two instances as well as in the aftermath of the terror attacks against Mumbai in 2008 underlines its situational vulnerability and also highlight the setback its deterrence posture has suffered. The legitimacy of the Pakistani ruling order, its dominant military-bureaucratic social structure, depends on the notion of a supposed existential threat posed to the country by India. The Pakistani elite are thus fated to engage in opportunistic military action against India and foster tension as a matter of course. And the prevalence of India-Pakistan nuclear deterrence has created an ongoing window of opportunity for Pakistan to undertake serial assaults. This is because Indian willingness to respond with its overwhelming conventional superiority has been circumscribed, as it desists from cross-border retaliation to avoid the threat of nuclear escalation. 

Pak-China NexusAt the same time, the paradox of India’s no-first-use doctrine is that the logic of its geopolitical situation militates against its credibility. Quite clearly, the likeliest “existential threat” to India before its nuclear tests in 1998 was a joint China-Pakistan conventional assault. Such a military confrontation might have posed compelling challenges and serious setbacks, even a threat to major Indian cities, which could not have been ruled out a priori. This is the pressing window of vulnerability in relation to a massive conventional attack against it that Indian nuclear deterrence strategy sought to address. 

This is also precisely why India’s no-first-use doctrine is not entirely credible from a Chinese perspective and indeed from a Pakistani one as well, since its armies could conceivably achieve a breakthrough in a joint conventional assault with China. In this case, both China and Pakistan would anticipate a possible Indian nuclear response, which is exactly the purpose of its nuclear arsenal. In addition, India’s nuclear weapons’ status insures against nuclear blackmail of the kind China employed against Taiwan by launching nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in 1996. Similarly, cruise missiles are routinely used by the United States to achieve political goals. 

Nevertheless, India’s no-first-use promise, emanating from its highest political leadership and underpinned by societal consensus, does signal some reassurance to Pakistan against a calculated pre-emptive Indian nuclear strike against it. Such a situation posits a measure of stability that is especially important in the context of uncertainty over the operational control and safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. And it is this stability that is reinforced further by the existence of mutual protocols that minimize the dangers of uncertainty and misunderstanding in a generally tense relationship. The importance of a hotline cannot be overestimated even in the knowledge that it may be misused by Pakistan to pursue its own tactical goals against India. 

In addition, the Indian quest for an anti-ballistic-missile shield appears to undermine stability and will likely create greater scope for misperception and accidents. In any case, an anti-ballistic-missile shield is vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a larger number of offensive nuclear missiles it induces an adversary to acquire. In fact, the Indian attempt to develop such an anti-ballistic-missile shield has already prompted Pakistan to acquire more and varied warheads and missile capabilities. A tangential issue is the rapid advance, despite technical difficulties, of a United States’ national missile defence capability that will almost certainly be deployed against any unilateral resort to nuclear weapons by a third party. India may be an inadvertent beneficiary, but cannot base its own deterrence policies on it. 

However, the existence of an Indian anti-ballistic missile capability will prompt the possible concurrent Pakistani deployment of nuclear weapons for use in battlefield situations. It will also involve wider participation in decision-making authority to launch and jeopardizes Indian security. The response that India will not distinguish between battlefield tactical nuclear-weapon use and a strategic assault does not carry conviction. It was the implausibility of the threat of “massive retaliation” that led to the evolution of “graduated” and “flexible” response in the superpower deterrence context. 

The point is to deter through credible threats but avoid instability. All unilateral initiatives need to searchingly anticipate the reaction and behaviour of adversaries in order to forestall a worsened security outcome. The dilemma between credible threats to deter and avoidance of instability cannot be fully resolved, as the history of nuclear deterrence has amply demonstrated. In the India-Pakistan and India-China deterrence equation, radical solutions may be required to curb Pakistan using mutual deterrence to sponsor repeated terrorist attacks against India. 

The first option to be exercised is intervening inside Pakistan to impose acute costs for terrorist activity on Indian soil. This policy existed before the 1990s and was subsequently and inexplicably downgraded by India. The threat of a spiral in such a retaliatory proxy war of intervention does exist, but will be more costly for Pakistan to absorb. 

Much more dramatically significant will be to treat the China-Pakistan nuclear threat as the product of a single, seamless source since the warheads and missiles originate in China. China also retains potent influence over any Pakistan temptation for their use against India. Let Beijing consider if India will indeed be provoked to behave “irrationally” and attack Chinese cities in the event of the loss of its own. But India’s “second-strike” capability must achieve invulnerability before such an escalating factor is introduced into the equation, in order to deter a possible Chinese nuclear threat, in the interim, against it during India-Pakistan crises. 

All it requires is a public discussion, without government involvement, by retired senior military officers and their bureaucratic counterparts to convey an earnest message of a dire possibility that will be hard to dismiss. During the Cold War, a similar threat was in play against the Soviet Union, which may not have found credible that the United States would endanger its own territory to punish a conventional Soviet assault against Western Europe. The United States posture was to suggest that in such a situation a rational calculation should not be taken for granted because the United States might indeed launch a retaliatory strategic nuclear assault against Soviet Russia. 

A variety of steps might be taken through purposive acts to fortify Indian deterrence credibility in the light of its understandable caution during the Kargil War and during Operation Parakram. The first on-going endeavour is to attain the invulnerable “second-strike” capability of a triad, which remains urgent. Measures like evacuation drills in major cities, advertised in advance, with foreign observers present to prevent misperception, may be contemplated. On a related question, it needs to be recognized there is no satisfactory way of signalling Indian nuclear deterrence resolve while it simultaneously reinforces conventional forces against China, which implies a contrary intention. 

Manmohan Singh & Sonia GandhiIndia has some advantage as a status quo power and sufficient conventional defence preparedness may suffice to impose dissuasive costs on enemy incursion into its territory. Newer technologies on stream create the possibility of decimating incoming armies, armour and aerial power, without the need to escalate threats. Indian economic growth and success can underpin such a military posture within a relatively short span of time. Finally, the deployment of Indian nuclear assets should be re-examined immediately by a new government in the aftermath of revelations by Sanjaya Baru that files of the prime minister’s office were shared with the Congress president and her advisers. It cannot be assumed that India’s most vital secrets have remained secure. – NewsInsight, 14 & 16 May 2014

» Dr Gautam Sen has taught Political Economy at the London School of Economics.