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.



One thought on “The Catechism of a Minister

  1. Very well argued. A clear warning that one should not indulge in semantics about a policy which wins us respect and is transparently rational. Congrats! Ranganathan

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