The Catechism of a Minister


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

The honourable Raksha Mantri was at a public book release function on 10 November 2016. Addressing the gathering he suggested that India should not bind itself to a No First Use (NFU) nuclear policy; continuing in the same vein, he blathered, “…in strategic warfare, there is a need to be unpredictable (with the use of nuclear weapons) while being responsible… I ought to declare that I am a responsible nuclear power and will not use (nuclear weapons) irresponsibly.” Such mindless derogation of an existing developed and sophisticated policy must surely promise him a place in Pyong Yang’s or even Islamabad’s nuclear establishment!

When Marshal Ferdinand Foch, one of the lesser meat grinding generals of the First World War, was faced with strategic perplexity, he is said to have countered with a fundamental question “de quoi s’agit-il?” – What is it all about? Indeed had the Minister Mr Parrikar, paused just a fraction to ask himself as to what it was all about, it may have revealed to him the woeful lack of discernment he possessed on the matter. And this coming from a key member of the Political Council of India’s Nuclear Command Authority can only make for a Dr Strangelovesque parody, if it were not serious.

Foundations of a Deterrent Relationship or ‘A Strategic Primer to Warfare’

The Clausewitzian understanding of warfare holds many truisms that remain relevant to the relationship between nations to this very day. Its significance lies in the manner in which a theory of total war, is advanced from the abstract and then moderated by uncertainties, shaped by friction and confounded by paucity of predictive surety. His labours breathed life into the concept of ‘limited wars’ the nature of which was determined by symmetricity, available means and limits on political purpose.

With the advent of nuclear arsenals not only has the wheel come full circle and war in abstraction has become a definite reality; but it also poses a peculiar dilemma to the strategist because nuclear weapons seek to obliterate what polity pursues to win; in which case what purpose do such weapons of mass destruction serve? The answer is to be found in what may be termed as ‘limits to conflict’ and ‘coercive appeal’ both settings solicit rationality of leadership. In such a frame of reference nuclear forces, in fact, become politics and not just an extension of it. As a natural corollary, its unpredictable and irrational control is a negation of polity. The appeal is made at two distinct levels and is intended to keep the scope of an armed conflict to mutually tolerable bounds. Firstly, it urges leadership to constantly indulge in an ‘interest-benefit’ analysis and secondly, it announces an unambiguous threat that beyond a certain threshold the antagonist would be made to suffer ‘more pain than gain.’  Nuclear forces today, therefore is the “shadow face” of warfare from where it scripts the perimeter and imposes cut-offs on the limits of the primary face as represented by conventional forces. This perspicacity lies at the core of India’s nuclear doctrine. To toy with it is reckless.

Lesson I, for the Mantri, may now be summarised by stating that in orthodox analysis of nuclear correlation, leaders are assumed to be rational and willing to engage in ‘interest-benefit’ calculations when contemplating a nuclear solution to a soured political relationship. The assumption of rationality is considered universal in terms of context and challenges and is largely a labour in mirror imaging. A deterrent relationship is premised on this assumption. From such a standpoint, the idea of ‘unpredictability’ is anathema.

Thus far it will be noted that the working of a deterrent relationship is less than perfect; while theoretically it attempts to arrive at a state where the level of understanding is such that the protagonists know where tolerance thresholds lie and that rationality is the basic premise that drives the relationship. On the part of the ‘deterree’ there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks of hostile action; and on the part of the ‘deterrer’ rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of the risks involved in a manner that strategic miscalculations are avoided. The exceptional feature of this transaction is that the roles are reversible, provided it is in the common interest to maintain stability in the relationship.  However reality is far from this surmise. For, rationality itself is conditioned by human behaviour and a liberal sprinkling of all the elements of power—including wealth, geography, values, strategic culture, dynamism, history etc. This leaves the relationship riddled with deep suspicions that provides the incentive for overkill and for covert programs. Under the circumstances it is a “nuclear armed peace” that holds. Half-baked declarations such as those that sent quivers down the air-waves on 10 November only serve to further confound the problem.

Lesson II, is that the quest for a stable nuclear deterrent relationship begins by putting in place measures and structures that remove suspicion and bring about transparency. This is much easier said than done. It is also equally clear that any confidence building measure that does not target these two factors condemns the relationship.

The Problem

The real problem with the possession of a nuclear arsenal is to find ‘goofproof’ means to convince decision makers that no conceivable advantage can be achieved from a nuclear exchange; for as long as one side believes that there is some value to be had through the use of nuclear weapons, uncertainties and imponderables creep in that sets into motion a chain reaction that aggravates and raises the degree of risk of a catastrophe.

Military planners are more than familiar with the fact that risk assessment is an imperative in the generation of a strategic plan. Its evolution is marked by persistent motivation to not only eliminate uncertainties and bring about balance in the ‘objectives-resources-means’ equation but also to ensure that the benefits that accrue far outweigh hazards. However, the abiding conundrum is that the nature of warfare is in opposition to such precision. And, as we enter the nuclear arena we must note that strategic imbalance is intrinsic to the objectives-resources-means relationship. For, from the very start, the equation is irrevocably in a state of unstable equilibrium activated by the fact that whatever nuclear means are used, sets into motion an uncontrollable chain reaction of nuclear escalation that will invariably obliterate the very objectives that were sought to be attained.

Lesson III, is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in its non-usage; its aim is, to deter nuclear war; its futility is, in attempting to use it to attain political goals.

The Razor’s Edge

Nuclear weapons have put us on a razors edge, in part because of our inability to control the manner in which political events and technology are driving nuclear weapon policies. While technology invites covertness; lethality, precision, stealth and time compression that it has wrought demands transparency, demarcation between custodian and controller and central control if at all the risks of an exchange is to be averted and stability of a deterrent relationship assured. The development of tactical nuclear weapons only serves to enhance fragility of the relationship as control is easily lost. A whimsical approach consequently enlarges vulnerabilities of a deterrent correlation.

Lesson IV, is that escalation control of a nuclear exchange lacks conviction and to conventionalise the weapon’s use has to be abhorred. Nuclear weapons do not provide answers to low intensity conflicts. So also, to suggest conventional principles of war such as surprise or deception apply, is ludicrous. Besides, policy must remain sensitive to the multi-lateral nature of contemporary nuclear dynamics.  The bottom line: capricious and erratic behaviour in crafting a nuclear posture increases the perils of unintended use.

Indian Nuclear Doctrine and an Abiding Counsel

The genesis of India’s nuclear doctrine is rooted in three guiding canons; primarily, the nation would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, secondly that a nuclear first use would invite an assured massive retaliation and thirdly, India would develop a credible minimum arsenal. There was a fourth equally important unwritten faith and that was, under no condition would the weapon be conventionalized. The last principle, it is significant to note, was advanced in the wake  of the Cold War and yet remained oddly divorced from the one absurd tenet that characterized that war, that is, the belief that a nuclear war was not only fightable, but was also winnable. This last precept has currently been universally debunked.

The Doctrine is distinctive for it identified, with as much clarity as no similar document by any nuclear weapon state had done in the past; the role, purpose and relationship between Controller and Custodian in realizing the overall nuclear strategy of the nation. There remains the unwavering belief that nuclear weapons are, primarily, political weapons of war avoidance rather than devices of war fighting. Indeed Reviews of the Nuclear Doctrine is a cyclic phenomenon that is influenced by current geopolitics and challenges that are perceived to prejudice the status-quo. In fact over the last decade two such reviews have scrutinised India’s Doctrine for relevance and efficacy. Both reviews were neither public nor were they a wool gathering exercise. They were conducted objectively and by those in the know; the outcome (Mantri must note): no substantial changes to the doctrine.


Hillary Nuclear Policy: A Time of Change, Dither or Sameness?


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(First published on the IPCS web site on 02 Nov 2016, as a part of their Impact Series. may be accessed at:

An Inexpedient Second

The last time that a Democrat President of the USA was elected to office after two terms of a Democratic Presidency was 180 years ago. A certain Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in 1836. Coincidentally he was a former Secretary of State. The occurrence is unique in an unflattering way for a variety of reasons which has little to do with the candidate’s merits but more with ballotter’s disposition. Significant of these fancies are: exaction for change, anti-incumbency, voter fatigue, absence of choice and the resigned philosophical knowledge that this would be a one-off, destined to enter office as a ‘lame-duck.’

In the current Presidential race, two candidates have been thrust on the electorate who under circumstances of choice would have been spurned. Donald Trump comes with dangerous impetuousness while Hillary carries a baggage of alleged chicanery and unimaginativeness. However reality and opinion polls suggests that Hillary would enter the Oval office as America’s 45th President (this assumption is central to the narrative).

The 1837 inauguration of Van Buren proved less of a celebration and more of banality. His inaugural address took melancholy note of it: “In receiving from the people the sacred trust twice confided to my illustrious predecessor… I know that I cannot expect to perform the task with equal ability and success. But, I may hope that somewhat of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend upon my path.” … and Van Buren pledged to “tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson.” Needless to state that Buren lasted just one term, his Presidency was troubled, weak and had little success to legate; collapse of the economy, hostility to Native Americans and compromises in securing the frontiers with Canada and Mexico. On leaving office he was re-baptized ‘Martin Van Ruin’. Clearly if history is to prevail and Hillary elected, then ‘Continuity’ is her only deliverance.

Survival of Obama’s Nuclear Policy

In addition to his ‘Global Zero’ initiative, one of the most significant promises Obama made in his, now less-than-lustrous, 2009 Prague speech was to “put an end to Cold War thinking” by reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy. The Cold War had ended decades earlier and while the U.S. nuclear arsenal had decreased, little else had changed in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. As the Commander-in-Chief he could have made meaningful changes without the agreement of Russia or Congress. He did not. Changing the deeply entrenched status quo and overcoming inertia in the U.S. security establishment, however, demanded more than a vision; it required statesmanship, profoundly lacking, it would now seem. In some areas his administration has made nuclear matters worse. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, considered “making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.” However, it did not take this step. Instead, U.S. policy still allows the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis. This suggests that nuclear weapons have legitimate uses in war fighting. Add to this, Obama announced a $1 trillion plan to rebuild and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Whatever became of the resolve to bemoan the Cold War nuclear paradigm? With such a distracted policy inheritance, Hillary’s by now well acknowledged dawdling on nuclear matters is more than likely to return to Cold War beliefs.

The No-First-Use Non Starter

Obama, towards the last few months of his term in office, toyed with the idea of unilaterally declaring a No-First-Use (NFU) nuclear weapons policy to impel a first step towards goals of Global Zero. It would have been a landmark change in the U.S. nuclear posture. America’s overwhelming conventional weapon superiority provided the logic for such a step and the probable dividend was that the other nuclear weapon states would follow suit. This, notwithstanding, protests from allies who believe that “extended first use deterrence” works, despite convincing arguments of the “first-use-illusion” (after all, first-use not only suggests a break down in deterrence but also brings with it an assurance of retaliation). To declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter and if necessary only respond to the use of nuclear weapons by other countries; would not only conform to the Nuclear Posture Review of 2010, but would also provide incentive for Hillary to veer away from Cold War nuclear theology and set the NFU agenda in order to give fresh meaning to the idea of Continuity. Nevertheless, the question is really not of rationality but of whether the Hillary administration will have the resolve to take on a Republican dominated Congress? Clearly if Cold War thinking were to prevail, then such a transformatory change in posture is destined to collapse.


Test Ban and START

Seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution affirming a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons was Obama’s scheme to enshrine the United States’ pledge not to test without having to seek the Senate’s unlikely ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Then again, this runs contrary to the one trillion Dollar upgrade of the nuclear arsenal. Could the state really contemplate warhead and vector enhancements without testing was the conundrum? Hillary will have to juggle with this very complex issue of making large investments without a corresponding assurance of reliability; and then will the nuclear establishment give her the lee way to make such compromises? Time will of course tell, but, the prospect of such an event transpiring is stacked against her.

The Obama administration had noted that offering Russia a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty’s limits on deployed nuclear weapons (even though those limits don’t expire until 2021) would pave the way for his successor to not let the treaty lapse. Hillary, undoubtedly would have recognised this and it is reasonable that she will take steps to give legitimacy to the proposition provided Russia ‘plays ball’.

Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSOW)

The development of a new LRSOW nuclear cruise missile may have held logic for a limited nuclear strike but it also suggests a warped rationality that can only push the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. In the circumstance of it being used against a nuclear weapon state, then, the risk of retaliation and a nuclear exchange spinning out of control is very real. It is a capability Obama doesn’t believe the United States needs and by any wisdom, worthy of cancellation. It would also fulfil his campaign promise to take U.S. land-based missile off hair-trigger alert. Discarding the option of launching weapons-on-warning was his way of rejecting the very Cold War thinking he was calling the world to castoff. It will remain an awkward irony that Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his vision of a world without nuclear weapons if he is unable to pass down such a legacy to his successor. Yet robust opposition to such a dramatic remodelling of nuclear doctrine can, with some certainty, be expected to come from the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex.

U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

There are two issues related to America’s nuclear arsenal that the establishment has never really attempted to resolve, these are: Firstly, why the Pentagon is embarking upon a trillion-dollar programme to modernize the Triad? Is the program necessary (remember Hillary, in Jan 2016, had already dismissed the expenditure as meaningless)? And secondly, how do advances in non-nuclear weaponry affect theories of nuclear deterrence devised during the 1950s and 1960s? Does the logic of those early theories still hold, particularly in the light of overwhelming conventional and technological superiority? And will the Hillary Administration be resolute enough to put ‘actions where their mouth is’ and review the trillion-dollar proposed outlay in addition to challenging the ‘Word’ of Washington’s nuclear Ayatollahs? The matter seems dubious; given current relationship with Russia and China’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal. This will imply more of Cold War rationality rather than less.

The Future of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal

On successful conclusion of the Indo-US civil Nuclear Deal on 10 October 2008, the late     K. Subramanian, one of the early proponents of India’s independent nuclear deterrent and an architect of her nuclear doctrine, argued that the convergence of strategic interests between the two nations made such a remarkable agreement a reality, overcoming decades-long US stand on non-proliferation; what he did not mention was, it also put an end to an equally long antagonism between the two establishments. While much of the world’s approach to India in the past had been to limit its access to nuclear technology, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratories (a leading institution for nuclear weapons design during the Cold War) in a Senate hearing in 2008 put the matter in perspective. He suggested that it may well be that today we (the U.S.) limit ourselves by not having access to India’s nuclear technology developing such entrée should help to advice… efforts with India because India’s nuclear program was developed mostly indigenously, the country used unique techniques that other countries can learn from. Given this technical standpoint and not for a moment losing sight of the commercial prospects, the element of mutuality must come as no surprise and neither must the contract for 6 Westinghouse AP 1000 nuclear reactors due to be inked in June 2017.

While the full potential of the civil nuclear deal is yet to be realised, there can be no two opinions on changes in bilateral strategic orientation since the deal was struck. The extent to which transformation has occurred may be judged by several episodes in the relationship which include: deletion of many high technology sanctions imposed on India since 1974. Enhancing nuclear power generation through imported uranium and purchase of new reactors is an example; while convergence of strategic perspectives holds great promise for the future whether it be measures to bring about strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific or whole hearted support to India’s admission into the UN Security Council as a permanent member and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a steps to buttress stability in global security and nuclear politics and commerce. The U.S. has become India’s largest trading partner in goods and services and the two sides have set an ambitious goal of half a trillion dollars for future trade; cooperation on counter-terrorism, information-sharing and intelligence-partnership have expanded rapidly in recent years. In military cooperation the America has become one of India’s major suppliers of arms, and the two sides have on the table agreements that were improbable a few years ago such as the Logistic Memorandum of Understanding or entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime or even rejecting the idea of mediating between India and Pakistan, especially on the Kashmir question. All these advances are direct dividends of the nuclear deal for it provided the strategic ambience that facilitated partnership.

About the UNSC and NSG membership, Hillary has made it amply clear that her backing for India’s full membership is comprehensive. It includes the three Nuclear/ Chemical & Biological Weapon export control regimes; the NSG, Wassernaar Arrangement (an export control regime for conventional arms and dual-use Goods and Technologies) and the Australia Group.

Continuity and a Retreat to Cold War Thinking-A Forecast

Much like the hapless Buren, the 45th Presidency is more than likely to face an unsympathetic Congress, a hostile Pentagon and the prospect of a near certain ‘lame duck’ term. The only virtue that history may remember Hillary for is that she stayed-the-course laid by her predecessor. And yet even here it cannot be easy, for the geopolitical script has changed. There is, today, a far more assertive Russia than was in the first decade and a more forceful China set on rewriting the rule book. In the nuclear field the early flirtation with ending Cold War thinking is a pipe-dream. So for Hillary, Continuity may prove an arduous abstraction that could boomerang with more recoil than forward momentum. Perhaps her only redemption may come from building an entente cordiale with India as a balancing power.

The Misshapen Pivot


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar 

(This article was first published in the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies web site on 21 October 2016 and may be accessed at )

We note, with some, anxiety an unmistakable parallel to the current situation in the Western Pacific with what obtained in the run-up to the 20th Century. An impending face-off between a rising and revisionist China against a loose entente of status-quo powers led by a deflected USA that has set itself the task to pivot into the region and rebalance the strategic situation. All this at a time of convulsions in West Asia and global uncertainty. For the pivot to flounder is to legitimize Chinese illegal actions.

Lessons of History

The world of empires of the 18th and 19th centuries were remarkably well connected, willing to strike compromises that did not upend the status-quo and in turn enjoyed slanted stability. Imperialism of the 19th century thrust political, financial, economic, scientific and religious institutions that we see as underpinning the world system to this day. But beneath this global order run widespread fault lines that can invariably be linked to the nature of the expansionist impulse.

In 1894 China and Japan went to war. The conflict was significant for it marked the first time that a host of imperial powers would become directly involved in a struggle between two sovereign nations far from their own shores. Regardless of how these powers felt about each other, they had strong mercantile interests based solely on open access to China. Victorious Japan sought exclusive hold over China’s Liaotung peninsula as part of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. Russia, Germany and France all felt that conditions imposed by the Treaty placed in jeopardy their own commercial interests and consequently threatened war unless Japan backed down. In the event Japan surrendered its claim to Liaotung in return for a free hand in Korea and increased war reparations from China. Within two years Great Britain, Germany and France sensing the weakness of The Qing Empire capitalised on the political and economic opportunities and took control of vast local regions. China thereafter rapidly began to fall apart; it suffered two more imperial wars: suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and war between Russia and Japan in 1904-05 over ambitions in Korea and Manchuria. Battles were fought on Chinese soil and in the waters of the East and South China Sea. Imperial competition and ‘cozy arrangements’ in the region, as James Joll has pointed out, provided one more enticement for the coming First World War.

The Tearing Tectonic

In coming to grips with that tumultuous period in East Asia a convergence of three geopolitical fault lines may be discerned beneath the larger rift that had been caused by the decay and degeneration of the Qing Empire. The end of Empire generated in China political stresses which pulled apart the state almost in terms of a geological ‘Tearing Tectonic’. While three fault lines: an emerging imperial power in the form of Japan, intervention of existing rival colonial powers sensing large commercial and magistracy interests and the decline of an existing centre of power in Russia simultaneously fractured to release energies that catalysed the speedy collapse of the ‘middle kingdom’.

A French political cartoon from 1898 is most illustrative of the situation. A pastry “Chine” is being divided between Queen Victoria, the German Kaiser, Nicholas II of Russia, the French Marianne cozying-up to the Czar and a Samurai Japan. A powerless Qing official throws up his hands.


En Chine Le gâteau des Rois et… des Empereurs” “Le Petit Journal”, 16th January 1898

The Unmistakable Parallel

As we examine contemporary geopolitics of the East Asian region we note with some anxiety an unmistakable parallel to the situation that obtained in the run-up to the Twentieth Century with a switch in the main protagonists. The fault lines against a backdrop of a global rift of uncertainty are all discernable.  A rising and revisionist China sensing opportunity for hegemony in the region confronted by a potential entente of status-quo powers, more than likely to include Japan, Australia and India; led by a deflected and hesitant USA, all to the exclusion of a declining and sulking Russia.  This at a time of great convulsions in West Asia when the strategic paradigm of the day (if there is one) is the tensions of the multi polar; the tyranny of a techno-economic combine in conflict with politics of the state; the anarchy of expectations; and polarization of peoples along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the cauldron of globalization. An uncertain geo-political brew, as the world had never seen before, has come to pass under the shadow of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Strategic Pivot

The “strategic pivot” or rebalancing, launched in 2009 by the Obama government, is premised on the recognition that a disproportionate share of political tensions and economic history of the 21st century will be written in the Asia-Pacific region. The key tenet of this strategic reorientation is the need to cultivate a stable and predictable political, economic, and security environment across a region spanning the Indian Ocean to the West Pacific. Unsaid is the central dynamic to build an Entente to contain and balance the rise of China. The military component of the pivot cannot be overemphasized and remains the abiding driver of policy in the region. The strategic importance of the pivot derives from the increased collective concern about China’s military modernization and its larger revisionist objectives.

Theoretically the Asia-Pacific pivot makes strategic sense. However, there is sloth in implementation influenced to some extent, by the situation in West Asia and the unfinished business of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet allowing these distractions to dilute the strategic priority of the Asia-Pacific could well run the hazard of accelerating a return to an ‘atavistic actuation’ that threatens global stability. As events have unfolded, sloth has granted China a fortuitous time-window to prepare for the impending encounter. It also explains China’s impious haste in development of military infrastructure and artificial islands in the South and East China Sea, operationalizing “Access Denial” strategies, declaring proprietary sea lanes of communication and Air Defence Identification Zones and a cavalier attitude towards The Hague’s verdict on claims in these seas.


The absence of a direct challenge to China’s provocative moves on the East and South China Seas, despite the fact that fundamental principles of international order have been defied, is to allow the idea of the strategic pivot to flounder. This will provide space to China to progress with its own unhinged scheme of a “New Model on Great Power Relations” that creates a de-facto G2 and works to marginalizing of other major stake holders in regional security. Besides such a scheme legitimises China’s claims in the South and East China Sea and in a manners anoints it as the recognised regional hegemon and a ‘system shaper’; suggesting a return to a situation analogous to the pre-20th Century context.