Varthaman’s release was Modi’s nuclear tripwire?

Image result for pictures of Pakistan's Nasr battlefield nuclear rocket

[Nasr on Parade]

All this seems a bit orchestrated with the United States the conductor. Two only slightly different narratives have emerged in newspapers in India and Pakistan today. According to the Hindustan Times story (    ) attributed to a source in the Cabinet Committee on Security,  the day WingCo A. Varthaman was shot down on the morning of  Feb 27 is when NSA Ajit Doval got on the horn to ISI chief Lieutenant General Asim Munir to tell him that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was prepared to escalate hostilities if the downed Indian pilot was not returned safe and in good health, and as evidence of the PM’s intent referred to the 12 batteries of short range ballistic missiles — presumably the Prithvi 150km range, deployed on the western border. He then  repeated this threat to his US opposite number John Bolton. The Trump Administration had previously stated that any Indian reaction”in “self-defence” would be fine with Washington.  Doval also informed the Saudi Arabian and UAE governments about India’s resolve and urged them to pressure Islamabad to pullback by releasing the pilot forthwith or face escalatory Indian actions. Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi in a Feb 27 early evening  TV news programme warned his country about the possibility of India attacking Pakistani cities using land and/or air forces, but hoped Delhi would show restraint. It was a warning the Imran Khan government took seriously enough to order blackouts in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore and in areas with important military installations. The likelihood of an Indian aerial attack on cities was repeated in the Majlis (Parliament) by the foreign minister the next day, Feb 28. But Islamabad also communicated its intent to retaliate by firing 13 Nasr rockets should Delhi carry out its missile threat.

The Pakistani narrative written by Ambassador Zamir Akram, former permanent representative to UN, Geneva, and published in the Express-Tribune ( ) apparently  agreed with the essentials of, and the datelines in, the HT story, including the details (such as the Doval- Munir communication, etc.). Except it gave the entire post-Pulwama episode, not unreasonably, a nuclear colouring, besides maintaining that Modi’s decision to send in the Mirage 2000 punitive strike sortie against Balakot on Feb 26 was prompted by the prior “self-defence” justification provided by Washington.

At the core, the views clash. Delhi believes that its threat of missile strike gave Islamabad pause for thought while Islamabad’s  point is that its counter-threat to fire 13 Nasr rockets for the 9 Prithvis India had in mind to trigger, sobered up Delhi.

Both the Prithvi SRBM and the Nasr 60mm-diameter rocket are touted by the two sides as vehicles for nuclear warheads. And, in any case, because there’s no current technology available anywhere to distinguish an incoming warhead as conventional, prudence dictates that the first blip on radar of a fired Nasr, or Prithvi for that matter, will be apprehended by the other side as an incoming nuclear attack whence a response calculus would kick in. The state espying an underway N-strike could (1) wait and suffer actual destruction to ascertain its conventional or nuclear nature, before responding in kind, and  flexibly, proportionately and appropriately, (2) fire off a missile/rocket or two of its own and take the risk that the adversary’s delivery system if conventionally warheaded would result in it being responsible for starting a nuclear exchange, (3) decide that the devil takes the hindmost and fire a small launch- on-warning salvo on value-cum-area targets — in the subcontinent major military facilities are also in or near big cities, so it is collateral civilian or military damage either way, or (4) decide to go the whole hog and let loose an annihilatory salvo using various vectors.

The targeted country, especially if it is India with its record of buckling under US and international pressure will, in this situation, always be at  a disadvantage because, as I have argued, it will be pressed relentlessly to limit its nuclear retaliation and to keep it proportional — which, of course, will make nonsense of the Indian nuclear doctrinal injunction for “massive retaliation”. But this is not the sort of consideration that will generally play on the Indian government’s mind in the circumstances because the Indian population for certain will demand that, with Pakistan violating the nuclear taboo, Delhi go all out.

The fact is any which way one cuts a nuclear weapon-use scenario — short of a harmless demonstration by Pakistan of its nuclear use intent by setting off a 5-KT battlefield nuclear ordnance in a remote part of its own territory to warn India against using its conventional superiority to endanger its vital interests, the [prospects are dicey. In the event of an N-demonstration explosion, Pakistan would have to ensure that west-east winds don’t blow radioactive clouds  formed by the rising debris over into India and precipitate a radioactive rain on some Indian town — which, as I have argued (in my latest book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’), could be seen as a nuclear strike on an urban target, and a war of annihilation would follow.

This brings up the matter of ‘red lines’. There’s no doubt that Modi has redrawn the red line twice. The first time by sending IAF aircraft to take out a target fairly deep inside  Pakistan. And followed up by pushing the red line some more to expand India’s operational space yet again, by intimating first use of its nuclear Prithvi missiles. He, thereby, proved that there’s far greater elasticity in the Pakistani nuclear stance — something I have long argued in my  ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’ (2002), ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ (2008) and ‘Why India is Not a great Power (Yet)’ (2015)  — than Strategic Plans Division, Chaklala and GHQ, Rawalpindi, let on, and reflects, I have said, the survival instinct of the very professional Pakistan Army.

Recall that in the 1965 War Pakistan sued for peace once its War Wastage Reserve was down to a week’s supply (compared to India’s 10 days) and, in December 1971, ‘Tiger’ Niazi ordered the mass surrender of his army in Dhaka when General Yahya, a 1000 safe miles away, was urging the Pakistan army units in the then East Pakistan to die fighting.  “Fighting to the last man” , it turns out, fares better in rhetoric and war films than in actual military hostilities, especially when all hope is exhausted in the face of imminent defeat or when the enemy is perceived as having a decisive edge. This to say that for Pakistan to mount a nuclear challenge would definitely be infructuous.

This brings the discussion back to Modi’s reason for contemplating a missile-qua-nuclear strike in the first place, and for what? If the CCS-leaked story is correct, then the non- release of a healthy Varthaman was the trip-wire. While it is all very well for a government to do its utmost to ensure the safe return of its captured military personnel, does it make sense to make it cause for nuclear war? This is so outlandish, many in CCS seemingly realized it. The HT story’s CCS source races uncomfortably past this troubling aspect.  “Don’t know about nuclear button or nuclear flashpoint”, he told the newspaper, a bit airily. “But PM Modi gave green signal to all measures if any harm came the IAF officer at the hands of Pakistan Army….India was prepared to go down the missile road on February 27.”

At one level, use of the phrase “all measures” is vague enough to permit the Modi government and its champions to claim, with hindsight and in light of the inevitable criticism in the future about Delhi preparing to initiate a nuclear affray on a flimsy excuse, that no such nuclear first use was ever contemplated, and that option wasn’t even on the table. And that the CCS source misconstrued the PM’s orders — Modi nowhere said use nuclear weapons!

Lucky, it worked this time around against a Pakistan which, as I have analysed in my writings, relies on nuclear bluster as an effective deterrence measure against an India that it is convinced cannot hold its nerve in a crisis and will fold, but is in no position to actually convert the threat of nuclear first use into an actual go decision.  The fact is threatening nuclear missile use for the safe release of a pilot trivialized Indian nuclear weapons, and suggests that no one in the Modi government is even aware that nuclear weapons are strictly strategic weapons meant for strategic purposes, and not means to gain tactical advantage and, even less, a bargaining chip to get back a downed pilot. In this respect, Ambassador Akram is right in concluding that perceived deficiencies of India’s conventional land forces to muster a hefty punch is what compelled Modi to bypass ‘Cold Start’ and step on the escalation ladder with the threat of missile strike.

The trouble is, as mentioned in my previous post, Varthaman would not have been brought down had Air HQrs sent up the MiG-29s instead of the venerable MiG-21 bis — a point now supported by Air Marshal Harish Masand (Retd), VrC, arguably the finest IAF MiG-29 pilot to-date, in a piece published in the Indian Defence Review on March 21 ( ). Masand also wondered why Varthaman, given the known limitations of the bis platform, had not used the longer ranged Russian R-77 A2A missile from a standoff distance to shoot down the PAF F-16 rather than close in to fire the R-73 A2A missile and get in harm’s way of other PAF aircraft in the vicinity.

In the preceding post I also referred to India exposing itself to diplomatic arm-twisting by inviting major states to evaluate the Indian evidence of Pakistan’s support for JeM-directed terrorism in Pulawama as provocation for India’s Balakot  action. By painting itself into a nuclear corner and then depending on Washington, Riyadh and Dubai to get it out of a bad situation by having them prevail on Pakistan to back down, was once again to hand foreign countries the whip hand. It is the kind of deleterious strategy Pakistan has always used to get itself out of a jam. More and more, the Modi government, by aping Pakistan, seems bent on shrinking India’s stature and standing.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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20 Responses to Varthaman’s release was Modi’s nuclear tripwire?

  1. ss108 says:

    Varthaman is an embarrassment, he was ordered not to pursue any Pakistani fighter jet into POK several times, before take-off and while in-flight, obviously he did not listen and then proceeded to put India on weaker footing. He should should be dishonorably discharged for directly disobeying orders. My contact in the Army confirms this narrative.

    And yes, it goes without saying, the Mig 21 should not have been utilized, no doubt about that. But this is India.

  2. devraj says:

    Sir if pak try to fire big nukes in big number india can knock out many of them before hiting india.but if somehow 10 to12 bomb hit india.then opposition will pressure government not to retaliate even ask for proof where paki nukes are exploded and bjp will tell pak we are firing non nuclear missiles in arab sea to warn pak and then shout at tv we gave answer and proced for elections

  3. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Sir thanks for your article. Do you see more warlike scenario in near future between India and Pakistan if Modiji feels the BJP will lose the 2019 election?

  4. Bharat says:

    Didn’t the Chinese interfere to create chaos… Please elaborate on that angle

    • China always plays interference. That’s not a surprise. What is, is that India has never paid back in the same coin.

      • Bharat kumar says:

        modi has shown courage and started this nuclear blackmail saga.. why does he hesitate to start underground testing and have credible hydrogen bomb.. now that america won’t sanction and would capitalize indian market in return.. guess he doesn’t have Nehru’s Hamlet stuff

  5. Rupam says:

    Bharat karnad ji when you say stamina do you mean mental stamina or actual stamina in terms of Ammunitions and weapons.

    • Clausewitz says:

      The Hindustan times article has never once mentioned or speculated on neither what missiles were being planned to use nor the nature of warhead(conventional or nuclear). It’s plausible that the missiles to be used were Brahmos with conventional warheads.

      How could you so callously give this whole episode “nuclear colouring” based on Pakistani version of events . The word ‘nuclear’ is perhaps the most likely word a member of Pakistani establishment would murmur in sleep, with the possible exception of word ‘Kashmir’ . Besides, that the Pak establishment folks are pathological liars and masters at disinformation is an established fact.

      Most important of all, India has a declared NFU policy and the whole idea, that India would ring up Pak, threaten nuclear strikes with exactly 12 missiles over Abhinandan, ring up a whole bunch of other countries that interestingly don’t ltao(laugh their ass out) at India’s behaviour, but nudge Pak to acquiesce & it does, is beyond fucking fiction.. to be found in “geopolitical satire” section on amazon.

      Your distaste & disdain for Modi is well known. No problems with that. My only appeal is, not to let that cloud your remarkable scholarship.

      • If GOI did not mean nuclear missiles than the CCS should have clarified that. He didn’t and that’s the whole point about how nuclear signalling is done.

        And, don’t be fooled by the NFU provision in the doctrine — this from one of its principal drafters. In operational terms and with canisterised missiles, India has moved, as I have pointed out in my books starting with ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ published in 2008, to launch-on-launch and launch-on-warning capability.

      • Shaurya says:

        Second the response from Bharat. Do not be fooled by our NFU stance. If you are a close watcher of the space there is enough public evidence that India will not absorb a first strike. I will just point to Parikkars statement as RM for starters.

        Our adversary is NOT going to assume the incoming missile from India will not carry a nuclear payload due to NFU (there is enough evidence Pakistan does not believe in our NFU).

        As for Brahmos the statement should have clarified it as such. But there is a larger issue, which again Bharat has written about. Nuclear Signalling works best when asset types are well known and CLEAR. The Prithvi being a dual purpose missile confuses the matter and my submission is reduces space for Prahlaad and its derivations.

        We need to move our land-based strike to Agni completely. Its ballistic profile and launch points would be clear to Pakistani radars and then they will know for sure the payload is the Brahmastra.

  6. devraj says:

    Sir do india have air launch nuclear missile.pak have babur and raad

  7. Rahul Gautam says:

    Thanks for the article Mr. Karnard. Could u pls comment on:

    India openly stated that Indian military structures were hit by Pakistani jets although no damage was done.

    Is it not a case of military aggression by pakistan gone unchecked ? maybe an act of war? and we clearly did not respond to this! Were the Pakistanis testing what response we would give? and now we stand exposed ,as in we lack any strategy?
    We carried out Balkot in darkness, perhaps operational success demanded it.But they came in broad daylight.

    If this line of thinking is correct then the whole thing seems like a sham in essence?

    I get a sense that the Pakistanis are far more intelligent strategically than us.

  8. Mr Karnad,

    There was a news report in Indian express which seems to suggest that Pakistan had prior info about a possible action on Balakot camp and hence Pak military was deployed at the camp. Some madarsa students were also present during the attack who escaped unharmed from atleast one location. What do you make of the impact on JeM post this attack?

  9. Thomas says:

    “threatening nuclear missile use for the safe release of a pilot trivialized Indian nuclear weapons”

    What would have been the appropriate yet disproportionate response in your opinion? Why have we not explored the amphibious dimension / economic blockades? Could we not suggest something which rhymes with Op Trident and Op Python (1971)

  10. V.Ganesh says:

    Can you please post the link to the Hindustan Times story as the link posted by you was not found?

    Why would Doval call Munir? Couldn’t this or shouldn’t this have been done by Dhasmana?

    Modi before coming to power mocked then Union Home Minister about his comments on India-US plans for Dawood Ibrahim by saying such things aren’t discussed in public, see this –, why did he let Pakistan know what he’ll do? Enemies don’t inform their enemies what are they going to do. Do you really think that he let Pakistan know of his plans for them?

    Why doesn’t India call Pakistan’s bluff [the Nasr part of their response to India’s missile strike if it happened]? I read that when the Pakistanis came to know of the Indo-Israeli plans for strike on Kahuta, they had it let known that they would strike Trombay. So, in view of this, why didn’t India go in for a missile strike on Pakistan without informing it?

  11. raja says:



  12. raja says:


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