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.



“The Blind Men of Hindostan”


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Valedictory Address Christ University, Bengaluru

Conference on Non-Traditional Security Threats 03 September 2016

Let me first declare what a singular honour it is for me to be here at the Christ University to deliver the valedictory address as the curtains come down on this conference on non-traditional security threats. I would be failing in my duty if I did not congratulate the galaxy of scholars and students who participated in the very lively debates, addresses and exchanges. Indeed the experience was stirring as it was humbling. Enriching for the wealth of knowledge that we so heartily partook of and humbling for the Odysseusian voyage that we undertake with the launch of this conference. I also want to give a hearty ‘shabash’ to the organizers who have done such an outstanding job in putting it all together with so much grace. I particularly want to congratulate students of the department of International Relations who have conducted the event with great verve, a hearty cheer to you, your vitality and your contagious effervescence.

In coming to grips with threats and challenges that confront a nation, the lines that demarcate traditional threats; by which I suppose is meant those that demand a military response, from non-traditional security threats is blurred. The confusion renders discernment problematic as one security threat morphs to the other. It also places leadership in a quandary as to what combination of tools from the State’s armoury of Comprehensive National Power would be most appropriate to confront it. The dilemma is analogous to a story in primary English text of my days titled “The Six Blind Men of Hindostan”. The tale is told of six blind men who visited a zoo. Coming upon an elephant each felt and sensed different parts of the pachyderm; the first wrapping his arms around a leg swore it was as the trunk of a tree; the second ran his fingers along the torso exclaimed, no it is like a wall; while the third holding the tail vouched it was more like a rope; the fourth stroking its head and feeling the swish of the elephants ear deposed, forsooth it’s like a fan; while the fifth and sixth grasped the tusk and the trunk and vowed it must be akin to a spear or related to a snake. But, as we know, the truth in its entirety is composed of the six vital elements that made the elephant. The same may be said of the various threats and challenges that speakers thus far addressed; each one’s subjective experience and indeed narrative is true, but it is inherently limited by the inability to account for the totality of truth, that is the elephant-of-state is an integrated whole of all those elements and the State can be destabilised by trauma to any one of them.

Contemporary history of the Anglo sphere has had disproportionate influence on structuring a world order and defining economic and societal values. Driven by the philosophic motivation of free will and a belief of liberal laws delivering what is best for mankind; it does not make an attempt to explain or seek a transformation to the dangerous inequities amongst nations, tyranny of the carbon economy, domination of military power or indeed the ‘emperor’ of challenges: Climate Change. The last, links and is intertwined with all other threats, traditional or non-traditional whether in the political, economic, demographic or military dimension. And therefore it is to Climate change that I shall focus your attention.

Amongst Mahatma Gandhi’s many pronouncements on the ills of mercantilism and industrial capitalism the one that was prophetic in its sweep and profundity were his lines written in December 1928 for Young India: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism in the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million (sic) took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Gandhi intuitively came to the conclusion that Industrialization was designed for inequity and an anarchic consumerist style of existence was untenable as we quickly emptied the innards of the planet. There is today no doubt that the climate predicament has been accelerated by the manner in which the lure of the carbon economy has evolved and its impious upshots has the world’s peoples finger prints on it. Its impact has broadened and intensified while its sway on politics and society comes at a time when politically the global perspective is more diffused and society blinkered in its uni-dimensional view of development. The November 1970 Bhola cyclone that hit the entire coast of erstwhile East Pakistan is one of the deadliest natural disasters of living memory; the official death toll was estimated at 500,000 but the number is likely to have been higher. Damages included destruction of approximately 20,000 fishing boats, property and crops. Total loss of cattle reached in excess of one million and more than 400,000 houses were destroyed. Maximum wind speed reached about 222 km/h while the storm surge was about 10.6 metres (never heard of before in recorded history of that region) which partially inundated the Sundarban island of Bhola, displacing millions setting into motion mass migrations the effects of which were political, military as well as demographic. The consequences are apparent even today. One of the chief causes of the disaster was global warming, melting ice-caps and rising sea levels; these are manifest in the increased periodicity of calamitous climate events and the scale of disasters.

There is another foundational problem that is linked to the system that we live and labour in; the Westphalian scheme of nation states (touched on by one of the speakers) is structured to channelize political energies towards nationality, sovereignty and the urge for domination rather than concentrating on new ideas to relieve and reconstitute the relationship between States such that uncertainty and turmoil that currently obtains is replaced by the larger reality of common destiny. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) established the precedent of a new system of political order in central Europe, based upon the concept of co-existing sovereign nations. Inter-state aggression was to be held in check by a balance of power. A norm was established against interference in another state’s domestic affairs. As European influence spread through imperial conquests and colonial domains, these Westphalian principles, especially the concept of sovereign states, became central to the prevailing world order. However the awkward irony is that these principles came into acceptance among and within what was essentially a cohesive religious entity “the holy Roman Empire.” We note today that these principles are at odds with the globalized world that we live in and perhaps the time has come when the Westphalian model itself requires a critical review for the ‘emperor-of-challenges’ is provoking man to think of an alternate way to exist. Here communications which can serve as the vehicle that catalysis the spread of new ideas of the larger reality has, unfortunately, found satiation in egocentric intrusiveness.

In this belligerent milieu of individual rights in a self-righteous state of confrontational flux against the nation and nations feeling the heat of relations within and without; illusions of a new world order emerging out of the ashes of the Cold War were quickly dispelled and found little use in understanding the realities. Some of the symptoms that have emerged are an increased and vicious securing of spheres of power and economic influence as exemplified by China in Africa and her claims to the South China Sea; the competition between autocracy and liberalism; an older religious struggle between radical Islam and secular cultures; and the inability to regulate the anarchic flow of technologies and information. As these struggles are played out the first casualty of the era is the still born hope of a benign and enlightened world order that comes together to face its common destiny. Sovereign democratic processes have feeble impact on the challenges ahead be it the carbon economy, climate events or in restructuring the system we live in. The reasons are amply clear for it is the spiritual nature of the quest for development to the exclusion of all else but the nation that blinkers political philosophy to things as they are rather than what they could be. So why has the political domain remained unaffected by the many crises that antagonize man? Is it myopia or a self-destruct lemming-like impulse?

Let me now yield the podium on an optimistic note; idealism is the exclusive right of youth; and it is to you that I commend the future. A future more benevolent, less bigoted, more tolerant and clear eyed about man’s common destiny and the philosophical passage from the individual to kinship.

“Rewarding Thugs”

By Vice Admiral Shankar (retd.)

(This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website on 16 August 2016.)

On 12 July 2016, a long delinquent inspiration struck key members of the US Congress concerned with terrorism, non-proliferation, and trade. In concluding the hearing of the Joint Sub-Committee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs on “Pakistan, Friend or Foe in the Fight against Terrorism,” the Chairman, Mr Matt Salmon drew an unequivocal inference: “For the record, I personally believe that we should completely cut off all funding to Pakistan. I think that would be the right first step. And then, a State Sponsor of Terrorism declaration. … Right now we have the worst policy that we could possibly have; all we are doing is rewarding thugs.”

The expert’s panel was led by Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Afghanistan. His testimony was woven around what the Pakistani strategic calculus was and how its aims were the anti-thesis of the global war on terror; the exposition was substantiated by facts. Pakistan, he said, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, was coerced into providing support to overthrow the Taliban; this was, at best, backhanded support roused more by survival instincts rather than conviction. Fifteen years and $14 billion of funding later, Pakistan has shed all pretensions of being an ally in the war on terror and its blatant duplicity stands exposed. Khalilzad surmised “One may conclude now that Pakistan is a State Sponsor of Terror.”

Within the Indian security establishment, there has been little doubt that the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies provide the substructure for terrorist operations both in Afghanistan and India. It is also well known that the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and a host of other jihadists are virtual arms of the Pakistan military and their deployment a cardinal feature of strategy. Former President Musharraf more recently has boasted that Pakistan trains and equips the Taliban and Haqqani Network for operations in Afghanistan; while his military, through the devices of the LeT, HuM and JeM, were actively training, bankrolling and stoking the insurgency in Kashmir and terrorism elsewhere. The fact is that leadership of the Taliban form the Quetta and Peshawar Shura and are located there; while the LeT, Harkat-ul-Mujahidin (HuM) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) operate freely between Karachi, Lahore and Muzzaffarabad from where they control terror activities in India. Both are denotive of the extent to which Jihadists hold sway within the state of Pakistan.

It is apparent that global policy to tacitly accept Pakistan’s deceit and characterize terror groups as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and then neutralize the ‘bad’ while venturing to reform “well-disposed” groups (well-disposed to who? One wonders) has failed. And failure, to a large extent, has been machinated by Pakistan towards preserving, what they consider instruments that served them well during the Soviet occupation, current Afghan campaign and insurgency in Kashmir. With Pakistan’s stratagem now laid-bare, the time has come to impose penalties for its perfidy. The irony is that the state continues to believe that they can dupe the world at large, get aid in billions of dollars, while selectively nurturing Islamic terror outfits. The reality, however, is that these very terror organisations have infiltrated every limb of the establishment. Global peril raised by a nuclear state in this form has now become their central bargaining chip for relief, despite the obvious fact that derangement of Pakistan has already occurred!

The recent drone attack on Mullah Mansour in Pakistan, capture of Let terrorist Bahadur Ali in Kashmir, flagrant inflammatory activities of wanted terrorists Hafiz Sayeed (LeT), Massod Azhar (JeM) and Sayeed Salahudeen (HuM) and Prime Minister Modi’s strategic shift to expose atrocities in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Gilgit and for bludgeoning the Baluchistan independence movement provide a pivotal moment to work a change in the UN policy towards Pakistan. India must now direct its diplomatic efforts to bring the USA on board (to some extent this is already happening) and then orient its strategic exertions along three prongs:

  • Politically, orchestrate through the aegis of the UN, isolation of Pakistan from international collaboration and impose sanctions on the military and the ISI in their ability to move freely out of country through the instrument of a UN resolution specific to that country (on the lines of UNSCR 2255 concerning terrorist threat to international peace and security).
  • On the economic and financial fronts; embargo trade with Pakistan except for humanitarian assistance. Terror financing must be traced and cut (UNSCR 1373).
  • On the military front, action must be stepped up targeting terror leadership and infrastructure. In this context for Pakistan to be designated as a “major non-NATO ally in the war on terror” is strange; rather, Pakistan must be placed internationally on the list of sponsors of terrorism.

Pakistan’s strategic calculus has to be debunked on all counts; particularly the conviction that Afghanistan, with the pull out of NATO troops along with the drawdown of US combat forces, once again provides the space for a return to the “happy-days”. It must not be allowed to thrive under the belief that it can be both the legatee of international largesse and cavort with Jihadists. The international community and India have taken some measures to challenge Pakistan; it began with UNSC resolution 1373 in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack which proscribed terrorist organisation, to the more recent UNSC resolution 2255 that identifies threats to international security by terrorism. Blockage of military sales, cutting financial aid, calling to attention atrocities in Baluchistan, Gilgit and POK, increased attacks on terror leadership are all representative of these measures. In this context how does one see Pakistan’s all weather friend China respond? The question ought to be: Can China really afford to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds (it appears to be distancing itself from North Korea)?

As Indian and U.S. perceptions on terrorism converge and the growing disquiet over Washington’s bottomless and ineffectual aid to Pakistan attains critical mass, India must work vigorously with America and the UN to ensure that “thugs”, in fact, are not “rewarded.”