Indian Minimum Deterrence for South Asia’s New Nuclear Environment

csp_blog_16_12_odonnellPakistan’s Nasr tactical nuclear missile platform is driving Indian debate on its current minimum deterrence doctrine. India’s minimum deterrence concept should indeed be reformulated for this new nuclear context. A new defense policy review should holistically integrate nuclear, conventional and subconventional approaches for reasons of effectiveness and continued public support.

India has traditionally followed a minimum deterrence doctrine. This concept is organized around the assumption that a small number of nuclear weapons creates sufficient risk in adversary threat assessments to have deterrent effect. This contrasts with the alternative maximalist concept: that nuclear deterrence is achieved only through guaranteeing numerical and destructive superiority against adversary nuclear capabilities, alongside development of a range of warfighting platforms. Nuclear weapons have been seen within India as having political rather than military purposes; and to be used only as a last resort.

India’s nuclear doctrine, articulated in 2003, features pledges of no-first-use and massive retaliation in case an adversary uses nuclear weapons. Its force posture has been described as “credible minimum deterrence,” meaning construction of a small retaliatory nuclear force that is nevertheless able to deter adversaries. In line with India’s minimum deterrence philosophy, Indian officials have previously ruled out developing tactical warfighting capabilities and seeking numerical parity with nuclear rivals.

Pakistan unveiled its “Nasr” (Hatf-9) 60km-range tactical nuclear missile platform in April 2011. The underpinning logic for the Nasr’s emergence intends to lower the bilateral nuclear threshold with India. This would allow it to deter a greater range of Indian conventional operations, and specifically deter conventional cross-border limited war planning central in recent Indian military thinking. This nuclear capability also threatens to undercut the credibility of India’s massive retaliation commitment, as Indian decision-makers are now formally committed to launch a devastating widespread nuclear attack even in response to a single localized Nasr strike. While the Nasr is still in initial stages of deployment, this platform and the strategic thinking behind it is propelling Indian debate regarding its effects on national security.

Indian civilian officials reportedly reviewed the implications of the Nasr for Indian national security in 2011, and concluded that it did not merit changes to India’s 2003 nuclear doctrine. However, such views are not universal. There is interest within Indian civilian official circles for a new focus on building up the destructive credibility of Indian nuclear forces.

While upholding the tenets of the 2003 doctrine, India’s military estimates substantial room on the conflict escalation ladder with Pakistan for rapid cross-border conventional strikes. These strikes would be designed to have strategic effect, yet not motivate Pakistani tactical nuclear escalation. India’s recent “Shatrujeet” exercise, concluded in April 2016, simulated fighting through adversary nuclear attack and was accompanied by official remarks that India would not be deterred by Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons. These plans, titled the “proactive war strategy,” would entail a more expansive military campaign than India has conducted since it and Pakistan became overt nuclear weapons states in 1998.

Such plans are also detailed by Pakistani officials as a core reason for developing the Nasr as a deterrent response. As such, they heighten Pakistan nuclear threat perceptions and arsenal developments that in turn undermine Indian confidence in the suitability of minimum deterrence. This places India in a Catch-22 situation with regard to assuring the credibility of minimum deterrence through its present conventional and nuclear approaches.

This focus also overlooks the reality that a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack remains the most likely trigger for an escalatory crisis eventually involving the Nasr. Outside of a response to such a terrorist attack, India has little incentive to conduct significant strikes against Pakistan. As the perpetrators are likely to be initially apprehended (if the attack is prevented) by Indian police and intelligence agencies, strengthening these subconventional capabilities must be a primary focus of India’s overall response to the Nasr.

In response to these challenges, India should retain and reiterate its minimum nuclear deterrence concept, including its no-first-use pledge and with a new focus on ensuring “assured” rather than “massive” retaliation. This above policy review, however, must also incorporate that of present conventional and subconventional defense approaches to ensure these align with and do not undermine minimum deterrence.

In conventional strategy against Pakistan, India should replace the proactive concept with one focused on defensive eviction of invading forces. There remain doctrinal and logistical doubts about the existence of a theoretical Indian proactive operation inside Pakistan territory that could have strategic effect yet not carry nuclear escalatory risk. This reform would help in reducing South Asian nuclear tensions, and accordingly Indian and regional demand for larger and more technically diverse nuclear arsenals.

New political and resourcing attentions must also be devoted to developing India’s intelligence and domestic police infrastructure. These capabilities constitute the most effective barrier against Pakistan-sponsored subconventional attacks that remain the most probable cause of a bilateral escalatory crisis leading toward Nasr use. This more holistic view of minimum deterrence will therefore most effectively bolster Indian security in the post-Nasr context. More broadly, these reforms will also support Indian foreign policy objectives of obtaining global recognition as a responsible nuclear power and of reducing regional security tensions that threaten its economic growth potential.

Frank O’Donnell is Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Plymouth University at the Britannia Royal Naval College. He is the author of “Reconsidering Minimum Deterrence in South Asia: Indian Responses to Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here.


Conventional arms control is impotent as an instrument of peace

CSP_Blog_16_07_Fatton_PhotoArms control regimes fail when they are needed most. When international tensions run high, governments tend to listen to military advice. This undermines the prospect and stability of arms control.

In March 2015, amid tensions with the West over Ukraine, Russia pulled out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), an agreement aiming at preventing conflict in central Europe with NATO members. Moscow’s decision is another example of a country disengaging from conventional arms control when relations with other member states deteriorate. This raises an important question: can conventional arms control survive periods of tension and preserve peace?

The answer is no. When international tensions are high, conventional arms control regimes cannot be established and break down if already set up. Their prospect and stability depend on an atmosphere of détente between countries. Therefore, these regimes fail when most needed and are impotent as instruments of peace.

To understand this impotence, we need to study the role of military institutions. In hostile environments, governments tend to rely more heavily on the military for advice. The complexity of military affairs makes this unavoidable, so military influence on foreign policy increases. Government leaders consequently absorb the biases inherent to the military, which include worst-case analyses and an exclusive focus on military assets to guarantee national security. These biases are incompatible with the exercise of arms control.

To illustrate how domestic politics affects arms control, it is useful to study Japan’s participation in the naval arms control framework (the Washington System) during the interbellum and Russia’s relationship with the CFE after the Cold War. Both regimes, established respectively in 1922 and 1990, were set up amid improving relations between member states and decreasing military influence within Japan and the Soviet Union. The 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference was instrumental in the rapprochement between Tokyo and Washington. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 and the 1990 agreement on the reunification of Germany solved two disputes that had kept the Soviet Union and the West apart for decades.

On the other hand, the Washington System and the CFE broke down when government perception of the international environment deteriorated. The international tensions that emerged around the early 1930s Manchurian crisis and the 2004 NATO enlargement, and later the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, heightened military influence in the two countries. Japan withdrew from the arms control regime in 1936 and Russia in 2015 (Table 1).

Table 1. Findings of case studies on the Washington System and the CFE.

This does not mean that conventional arms control regimes, once established, cannot have positive effects. Arms control may help reduce further the level of insecurity among member states by improving perceptions of others’ intentions and the predictability of behaviour. This in turn weakens the influence of the military inside countries. When arms control mitigates the perceived insecurity, armed forces lose importance in the eyes of government leaders.

While the Japanese and Russian cases both illustrate the impotence of arms control in times of tension, there are also some differences. The decline of military influence following the establishment of the conventional arms control regime was deeper in Japan. This allowed Tokyo to disregard the position of the navy on arms control during the Geneva and London conferences of 1927 and 1930. Inversely, the Russian military successfully pushed for the partial revision of the CFE in 1999. This is because the perception the leadership had of the international environment was more debated in Russia. Contrary to the Japanese government during the 1920s, the Kremlin’s assertion that the West held benign intentions was strongly contested by some domestic actors during the 1990s. The military was not politically isolated and consequently maintained a certain influence.

This highlights, once more, the centrality of domestic politics in arms control dynamics. The perception of the international environment may be a major political issue, manipulated by domestic actors seeking to advance their interests. These actors’ opposition to government perception helps the military maintain influence on foreign policy.

Finally, it is necessary to say something about nuclear arms control regimes. While they seem more resistant to international tensions than conventional arrangements, decision-makers should nonetheless keep the above in mind regarding nuclear agreements, especially the 2015 Iran deal. The military possesses high influence in Iran and some prominent domestic actors continue to claim that the West holds hostile intentions. Therefore, it should not be assumed that this regime is shielded from military assaults. Western countries, the United States in particular, must give heed to the image they portray to the Iranians. Otherwise, the military institution could be put in a position to threaten the stability of the agreement.

Lionel P. Fatton is Research Associate at CERI-Sciences Po and Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. He is the author of “The impotence of conventional arms control: why do international regimes fail when they are most needed?”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here.