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A nuclear strategy for India

The country should now propose no first use mutual agreements to all nuclear weapons powers, says K. Subrahmanyam

India has declared itself a nuclear weapon state after conducting a series of five nuclear weapon tests. The country has to decide now the strategy it proposes to adopt. The US generated vast quantities of strategic literature along with a vast arsenal of weapons exceeding 30,000 warheads. The Soviet Union had only very limited published literature though its arsenal tried to match the American one, on the principle of equality and equal security. The Chinese, though their nuclear efforts were triggered by the American threats to them in 1953 and 1958, developed their arsenal initially mostly with the Soviet Union as their adversary with tacit security cover of US after 1971. Therefore, India is not in a position to model itself on any of the existing nuclear weapon powers. It has to think through its own strategic doctrine.

However, we have 53-year history of the nuclear era to learn from. The nuclear strategy in US and Soviet Union evolved in the first four decades on the implicit assumption that the larger the stockpile a country had, it exercised greater deterrence. Moreover, both super powers appear to have believed that a nuclear war involving exchanges of hundreds and even thousands of both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons was rightable and winnable. As far back as 1962, after a NATO exercise involving tactical nuclear weapons the scientific adviser to the British defence minister Sir Solly Zuckerman challenged this assumption but his views and those of others who agreed with him did not have much influence on the US and Soviet governments. The arsenals grew larger and larger. In 1985, President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev brought a sense of realism into the nuclear strategic debate with their joint declaration that a nuclear war could not be won and, therefore, should not be initiated. Now many influential American Strategist believe that even an arsenal of 200 weapons would constitute adequate deterrence, and the US and Russia should move towards the goal of reducing their stockpiles to that number.

During the period of sixties to eighties when a nuclear war using thousands of nuclear weapons was considered feasible it became necessary to have second strike forces of adequate sizes which will survive an all out first strike attack. Now the widely accepted view is that such attacks are infeasible because of their environmental consequences and inability to exercise effective command and control, and even one bomb on one major city will constitute unacceptable damage. Taking these two factors into account, and the fact that no country can calculate on the certainty of being able to eliminate all weapons of the adversary and being free of the threat of retaliation, deterrence can be exercised with very modest arsenals. The survivability of the retaliatory force can be ensured by making it mobile on land or under water.

Once the idea of war fighting is given up as infeasible then the command and control over a modest retaliatory arsenal will not be as costly as those meant for war fighting. The mutual deterrence generated by possession of nuclear weapons is now-a-days called existentialist deterrence. It is hard to imagine today disputes in which nations will have such high stakes as to risk the use of a nuclear weapon which will invite certain retaliation.

In the present era prolonged high intensity international wars using organised conventional forces between industrial states, and even among relatively advanced developing states (such as India, China and Pakistan), are becoming less and less likely. Eight Years of war between Iran and Iraq proved that it could not lead to meaningful military results. While nations must still insure themselves against irrational acts like those of Saddam Hussein that insurance should be commensurate with the risks involved. A nation in possession of nuclear weapons and adequate conventional military forces does not need to resort to nuclear weapons in very low probability conventional attacks. At present, the relatively high probable occurrence is nuclear blackmail more than actual use of the weapon. Therefore, nuclear weapons are needed by India mostly to deter nuclear blackmail. This can be achieved effectively with no first use posture and existentialist deterrence arising out of India's possession of nuclear weapons. A no first use posture will be in conformity with India's stand for the last five decades that nuclear weapons must be eliminated and the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons are crimes against humanity.

Apart from that any war fighting or first use doctrine would be more expensive in terms of command and control than the no first use posture. The doctrine of no first use will restrict the use of the weapon to retaliation only after the adversary uses the weapon first. Therefore, the elaborate command and control involved in launch on warning and launch under attack strategies will not be kept well spread to make its elimination difficult and the warheads and the launchers kept separated to ensure safety and avoid any unauthorised use. One can have more dummy delivery systems by way of deception. Today the US and Russia are moving into de-targeting and de-alerting status which would be the posture under no first use. The threat of an adversary resorting to extremely improbable decapitation attack - strike on the capital to eliminate the leadership of the country - can be taken care of by providing for political and military order of succession under legislation and working out standard operational procedures for retaliation. In 1990, at a seminar in Kharagvasla, General Sundarji explained the no first use posture, its simplicity and the relatively lower costs to a group of US officials including those in command of nuclear weapons. They could not pick holes in his logic and he has been a strong advocate of no first use. He has elaborated on it in his book Blind Men of Hindusthan.

No first use is often attributed to the Chinese since they came out with such a declaration on the day of their first test on October 16, 1964. In fact the no first use doctrine was implemented in the Geneva Protocol of 1925 in which the signatories undertook not to use chemical weapons but at the same time reserved the right of retaliation. Some Indian diplomats there fore prefer to talk of the doctrine of non- use of nuclear weapons while reserving the right of retaliation. It amounts to the same thing as no first use. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 de-legitimised the chemical weapons and led the way to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. Similarly, the no first use doctrine too would in due course pave the way to de-legitimisation of nuclear weapons.

India should now propose no first use mutual agreements to all nuclear weapons powers. If any power turns down our offer that would lend additional justification for our possession of nuclear weapons. If they accept the offer then it would mean recognition of our nuclear weapon status. Either way India will have nothing to lose. While getting recognition as a nu- clear weapon power through an amendment of the Nonproliferation Treaty is not going to be easy, it will be easier to achieve that goal through mutual no first use treaties. The Chinese have refused to de-target their weapons on the US on the ground that the US is unwilling to sign a mutual no first use treaty with them.

No first use doctrine can be proclaimed unilatrally without negotiating it with other countries.  Mutual or collective agreements with other nuclear weapon powers are of relevance to promote de-legitimisation of nuclear weapons and to move the world towards disarmament. Therefore, India should not lose any time in proclaiming the no first use doctrine.