Unclear nuclear identity

Print edition : August 28, 1999

The draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine proposed by the National Security Advisory Board is a remarkable document for the things unsaid and for the vague or confusing statements.

AFTER months of deliberations, the 27-member National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), headed by defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam, has come out with a document, the Indian Nuclear Doctrine (IND) that is perhaps not worth the paper it is written on. The doc ument, which was released on August 17 at a press conference by National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, in the presence of Subramanyam, was labelled as a "draft nuclear doctrine" pending discussion and approval by the National Security Council (NSC), a council of the key Cabinet Ministers concerned with national security.

According to Mishra, the document was being made public to show "greater transparency in decision making". When asked why the document did not spell out the specifics and why he was being secretive about it, he said it was for "reasons of security". The doctrine "is a step necessitated by the security environment", he said, adding quickly that it was "not country specific". As the doctrine was aimed at achieving "an element of strategic autonomy", he said that it was based on the concept of an "effectiv e credible minimum deterrence". He emphasised that the policy of "no first use" was central to the doctrine and that it incorporated the "cardinal principle of civilian control" in the use of nuclear weapons.

On his part, Subrahmanyam asserted that it was a "consensus document" even though individual members of the NSAB might have disagreement on individual elements. A point which has not been highlighted sufficiently is that the NSAB is not a statutory body. Its term expires with the present government. The next government may not even have such an advisory body. Does it mean that national security ends with this draft on nuclear doctrine and the yet-to be-released document on national security strategy? Al so, the document does not indicate the time-frame in which the nuclear force structures it has recommended are to be put in place.

The preamble says: "This document outlines the broad principles for the development, deployment and employment of nuclear forces. Details of policy strategy concerning force structures, deployment and employment of nuclear forces will flow from this fram ework and will be laid down separately and kept under constant review." This implies that a separate body - not identified in the draft doctrine - will have to go into these issues but given the vagueness and the general nature of the doctrine, which doe s not even address the issue of threat perceptions, arriving at a nuclear force structure based on this document would seem impossible and implementation could become arbitrary.

While the fact that a doctrine has been articulated would imply that the process of weaponisation is being carried forward beyond the claimed capabilities after the Pokhran nuclear tests in May 1998, the content of the draft leaves one in doubt whether any substantive thinking had gone into the making of the document, the credentials of the NSAB members notwithstanding. In substance, it goes slightly beyond Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's December 1998 statement on India's Nuclear Policy.

The Prime Minister's statement had pronounced the doctrine of "no first use" of nuclear weapons, which is the only clear-cut doctrinal element in this new document produced by the NSAB. The other clear-cut statement concerns the so-called "nuclear button " - the control of nuclear weapons will rest at the highest political level and the authority to release nuclear weapons for use will reside in civilian control in the person of the Prime Minister or "designated successor(s)". However, who these "designa ted successor(s)" may be is unclear.

The document is remarkable for the things unsaid and for the vague or confusing, sometimes even contradictory, statements. The unqualified use of the phrase "effective credible minimum nuclear deterrence" might pass in the Prime Minister's policy stateme nt, but not in the enunciation of a national nuclear doctrine. Unless qualified by appropriate quantitative elements including an assessment of the threat perceptions and the force numbers for an "adequate retaliatory" capacity (which in turn needs to be quantitatively defined in terms of a second strike or third strike capability), such a phrase carries no meaning for operational significance or even evolving a nuclear strategy. Indeed, the concept itself is a dubious one and largely rhetorical.

Self-evidently, deterrence is no deterrence unless it is credible; in that sense, the use of this adjective is superfluous. Similarly, a deterrent force, by definition, has to be effective. As far as minimality of deterrence goes, it makes sense only aga inst a quantitative assessment of the adversary's nuclear strike capacity. Moreover, no nuclear weapons power has ever admitted that its stockpile is more than the minimum level. What may be regarded as minimum by one may not be perceived as such by the adversary.

As General George Lee Butler, the former Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, pointed out in a recent interview (Frontline, June 18), this is what makes deterrence a false notion that is conceptually flawed because "you will never know what th e enemy is thinking".

At Pokhran, after the nuclear tests on May 11, 1998.-

Nuclear weaponisation requires a nuclear doctrine and a well thought out and formulated nuclear strategy (in military terms). As has been pointed out by the former Naval Chief, Admiral Ramdas (Frontline, July 17, 1998), the doctrine and the strate gy should address the following questions: What are our threat perceptions? Are our nuclear adversaries regional or global? Under what set of circumstances or scenarios are the nuclear weapons to be deployed and employed? For the NSAB, it would seem, the se issues are not important in arriving at a nuclear doctrine. A careful and rigorous analysis of an effective deterrence capability in the Indian context, as has been done by Dr.G. Balachandran, an independent analyst (The Hindu, February 15), sh ows that the existing capabilities in the nuclear field will not suffice to build such a nuclear deterrent capacity.

Equally significant is the document's silence on the expected costs of such a weaponisation programme. The draft document makes a general statement (Article 3.1) that "nuclear forces will be effective, enduring, diverse, flexible and responsive" and they will be "based on a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets" in keeping with the above objectives. Specifics, such as whether sea-based assets will include nuclear-capable submarines, are not spelt out but to a question Subrah manyam replied that the "language of the doctrine allows it". If submarines do form part of some unwritten nuclear strategy, the cost of weaponisation will increase dramatically because of the high cost of submarines.

The document speaks of enhancing the "survivability of the forces" with a combination of multiple redundant systems, mobility, dispersion and deception. A survivable nuclear force itself has been defined (Article 4.3) as one that will be "designed and de ployed to ensure survival against first strike and to endure repetitive attrition attempts with adequate retaliatory capabilities for a punishing strike which would be unacceptable to the aggressor". It also states (Article 2.3) that "survivabilty" is a dynamic concept related to strategic environment, technological imperatives and the needs of national security and that the "actual size, components, deployment and employment of nuclear forces will be decided in the light of these factors". A perfectly general premise that seems to defy a definition of "minimum deterrence" and ensure stockpile and attendant cost escalation.

It may be pertinent to highlight some of the ill-conceived elements of the doctrine. Consider Article 2.3 (a) which says "any threat of use of nuclear weapons against India shall invoke measures to counter the threat." What are these measures? With the " no first use" posture, and given the asymmetry of some nuclear weapon states not declaring a "no first use", what does this element of the doctrine mean? Article 2.5 says: "India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against stat es which do not possess nuclear weapons or are not aligned with nuclear weapon powers." This a redundant statement given the "no first use" and "retaliation only" policy.

Mishra, while releasing the document, made a strange remark that he did not elaborate upon. He claimed the Kargil conflict and its resolution had vindicated India's nuclear deterrence policy. The question is how? In fact, it is clear that after it achiev ed nuclear parity with India, Pakistan could venture into a conflict with India and India's superior conventional force was not any more sufficient to deter Pakistan from military adventurism.

Article 2.7 is, further, contradictory. It says: "Highly effective conventional military capabilities shall be maintained to raise the threshold of outbreak both of conventional military conflict as well as that of threat or use of nuclear weapons." Subr ahmanyam clarified this point by saying that it implied greater expenditure on conventional forces. But it may be recalled that reduction in the expenditure in conventional military forces was given as a rationale for going nuclear. Now, with India havin g gone nuclear, the proposed doctrine advocates greater investment in conventional force structures "to raise the threshold of conflict".

The doctrine differentiates between "peace-time deployment" and "fully employable forces in the shortest possible time" without giving any measure of what this "shortest possible time" should be - a few hours, a few days, a few months? For example, coupl ed with the requirements of "safety" and "security" of the nuclear stockpile (Article 6), does the doctrine envisage that warheads will be kept separate from weapon systems and delivery vehicles that will be assembled in case of nuclear threats or attack s?

National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra addressing mediapersons in New Delhi on August 17 during the release of the draft document on India's nuclear doctrine.-

Security and safety for nuclear materials and nuclear weapons, during their manufacture, transportation and storage, have to be orders of magnitude more stringent than what is maintained for conventional forces. Even an agency like the Department of Atom ic Energy (DAE), with years of experience with nuclear materials, does not have a grand track record of safety in civilian nuclear installations (Frontline, March 26). As Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory B oard (AERB), commenting on safety issues has pointed out (Frontline, June 4, 1999) that in countries such as the United States, a defence nuclear facilities board for independent external overseeing of all nuclear weapon activities from the viewpo int of safety exists.

During his tenure, Gopalakrishnan highlighted the fact that even the R&D programme of the nuclear submarine or the Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) project, had been kept outside the purview of the AERB. In fact, in the Indian context, the AERB does not even have an entirely independent authority to regulate civilian nuclear activities. The Indian defence establishment, even the Defence Research and Defence Organisation let alone the Services, has absolutely no experience in handling nuclear activities . No agency has been or is being created for defence nuclear activities under the Ministry of Defence - unless, of course, the doctrine is envisaging the defence nuclear activities too to be managed by the DAE. The regulatory aspects of a nuclear weaponi sation programme need to be addressed first before building up an arsenal. The pious statement in Article 6.1 of IND will not suffice. Remember that in India nuclear training is imparted only within the DAE system. So even for defence requirements, the n uclear posture will have to draw on personnel from the DAE or a new defence nuclear establishment, with an instituted recruitment and training programme, may have to be established.

Safety of nuclear weapons includes prevention of "inadvertent activation/use" and risks of accident therefrom or even accidental nuclear material dispersion from failed missile launches. One of the criteria of safety against accidental detonation that is used in the U.S. is that "one point safety criterion" and the U.S. conducted a series of "hydro-tests" of yields commensurate with such one-point detonation accidents to ensure safety. Does it mean that such low-yield tests will be carried out violating the moratorium on nuclear explosive testing that has been declared? Even within the civilian programme, elements such as risk assessment are not entirely public. In the defence context, it most certainly will not be. Similarly, the document speaks of "d isaster control" and merely says, "India shall develop an appropriate disaster control system capable of handling the unique requirements of potential incidents involving nuclear weapons and materials" without giving an idea of how this is to be done.

Aspects of Command and Control (C&C) have also been dealt with rather superficially. In fact, Article 5.3 is not very clear and the clarification that Subrahmanyam gave at the press briefing is not of much help. The Article says: "For effective deploymen t, the unity of C&C of nuclear forces, including dual capable delivery systems, shall be ensured." In the context of nuclear forces, what does the term "dual capable" mean when, according to the document, nuclear forces will be based on a triad of force structures. Or does it mean that, for example, an aircraft will at the same time carry both conventional weapons and nuclear weapons? According to Subrahmanyam, however, this statement means that both conventional and nuclear force structures will be und er the same C&C umbrella but with different operational ground rules and command chain. If so, the language used leaves much to be desired because it is confusing, to say the least.

Speaking of technological back-up to C&C structure, Article 5.6 says, "space based and other assets shall be created to provide early warning, communication, damage/detonation assessment." Does the last element mean that the retaliatory response will be a function of damage/detonation assessment and will be carried out only after such an assessment? Article 7 talks of the need to step up R&D efforts in the field "to keep up with technological advances in the field". Does it mean that the doctrine advoca tes the launch of an R&D programme like the Stockpile Stewardship Programme of the U.S.? And what kind of investment does the NSAB envisage for such continued R&D in nuclear weapons? For good measure, the doctrine speaks of Disarmament and Arms Control ( Article 8) and, interestingly, seeks an international treaty banning first-use of nuclear weapons and internationally binding negative security assurances by nuclear weapon states to non-nuclear weapon states.

Besides the political factors that may have tempted the government to make the document public now, even though it had been submitted by the NSAB nearly a month ago, the thinking perhaps is that with the articulation of a doctrine the world will be force d to recognise India as a nuclear weapons state.

The Vajpayee government may feel that mere discussion of the doctrine by world nations - witness reactions from the U.S. - is tantamount to such recognition. It might also have been done to upstage Pakistan, which has refrained from declaring "no first use". Having come out with an apology of a doctrine, the government may turn around and say, "Look, we are a responsible nation."

What this draft nuclear doctrine does is to provide at best grist to a whole new series of seminars on India's nuclear posture. But it does little to clarify for the armed services, not to mention the public and the policy makers, what nuclear weaponisat ion entails.

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