[IRBM Agni-5 launch]
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement on 24 February upped the ante for all the parties involved in Ukraine. Sounding verily like his friend Donald Trump, his former American counterpart, Putin warned the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization against interfering in his plans for the erstwhile Soviet province; he promised consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history”.
This was interpreted as a threat to use nuclear weapons, encompassing a deterrence tactic that the Russians have developed — “escalating to de-escalate”. Meaning, strike so much fear of nuclear war in an adversary state that it decides not to engage or, if already committed, draws away from the fracas.
Clearly, the Kremlin has determined that Russia’s stake in keeping Ukraine out of NATO is high enough to merit escalating the conflict, if needed, to the ultimate level. So far, the US and West European countries have limited themselves to making sympathetic noises, imposing sanctions, and replenishing the Ukrainian military’s stocks of ammunition, anti-tank guided munitions, and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Because one thing no one in the West wants is to get embroiled in a war with Russia that could turn total. So, by way of an outcome, an ‘independent’ Ukraine with no links to NATO is a certainty, as are the Ukrainian coastlines on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov controlled by the Russian Navy.
A nuclear state is a secured state
Except, the war in Ukraine begs the question: Would Russia have tried militarily to tame Kyiv if Ukraine had retained nuclear weapons in 1994 after the trilateral Budapest Memorandum signed with the US and Russia after the formal breaking up of the Soviet Union? The answer obviously is Nyet! It also proves the obverse, that a powerful nuclear weapon state can mount a conventional military offensive without fearing nuclear retaliation by nuclear allies of the targeted state. This is the premise for China’s aggressive moves in eastern Ladakh as also the South China Sea and against Taiwan.
It highlights two basic nuclear facts of life, namely, that nuclear weapons endow a country — even if small, poor, and militarily weak — with absolute security, and powerful nuclear countries with the protective shield to further their interests using conventional military might. Such strategic benefits are why nuclear weapons are so sought after.
It motivated China to secure nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union’s help to fend off a conventionally superior US, Israel with France’s to hold off the Arab states, and Pakistan and North Korea with China’s assistance to neutralise India’s and South Korea-US’ military edge. And why technologically capable Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan may soon go in for nuclear arsenals of their own to face down China because, as the US has once again shown, it will not take a Russian (or Chinese) bullet – nuclear or otherwise — for any ally (Japan, South Korea), quasi-ally (Ukraine, Taiwan), or “strategic partner” (India).
If India has to fight China all by itself, how will it do so? Definitely not under the illusion that its conventional forces are qualitatively on par with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and can wage a sustained war with it. The PLA can fight to a decision, in the main, because of a large and sophisticated Chinese defence industry that can quickly replenish the stocks of spares and whole weapons systems exhausted or destroyed in battle. It is an advantage that an Indian military equipped with imported armaments and a public sector-dominated defence industry stuck at the licensed production-screwdriver level of technology, does not enjoy.
What then? As I have long argued in my books and other writings, nuclear weapons are the only option against an overwhelmingly strong China. In this context, the Russian tactic of ‘escalating to de-escalate’ should be rejigged to deal with India’s prime and only credible adversary — the expansive-minded China. It will require seminal changes in the government’s attitude to nuclear weapons, the nuclear doctrine, and in the deployment of strategic forces.
Change India’s nuclear doctrine
The ill-thought out official Indian nuclear doctrine of “massive retaliation” is wholly inappropriate and as a deterrent useless. Of American origin, the massive retaliation concept was conceived in the late 1940s when the US had a nuclear weapons monopoly. In the second decade of the 21st century, this concept, combined with the principles of minimum deterrence and No First Use, constitutes a strategic handicap and major military liability. This is so because these three mutually cancelling concepts will ensure Indian nuclear weapons, other than for safely brandishing against Pakistan, will stay sheathed when it matters most against China.
The government has to change its view of nuclear weapons as mere symbols of power and see them, instead, as affording the country a dynamic military means to control the level and intensity of conflict with China by deterring the PLA from pushing its conventional military and terrain advantages, as the PLA has done in Ladakh. In this context, a revamped nuclear doctrine should state bluntly that Indian nuclear forces are oriented principally to the China threat, No First Use is discarded, and that a First Use nuclear doctrine is now operational but only against China.
Further, to show India means business, New Delhi should announce a two-tiered strategic defence of atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) placed as nuclear tripwire to bring down whole mountain sides without venting radioactivity (because the collapsing earth will absorb it) on large aggressive PLA formations that breach the Line of Actual Control (LAC). And, as back-up, batteries of forward deployed canisterised Agni missiles, capable of launch-on-launch and launch-on-warning, comprising a short fuse deterrent.
Such a posture of defensively arrayed ADMs and canister-borne Agni missiles will at once shift the onus and the responsibility for India’s nuclear use to China, especially if it is made clear by the government that their triggering will be dictated entirely by PLA actions in-theatre without exactly defining the nuclear use threshold to retain ambiguity and manoeuvring space.
Just as Russia and Western Europe know that they have too much to lose in a nuclear exchange by militarily challenging Russia in Ukraine, China needs to be convinced that the situation on the LAC has changed, and that India will hereafter not fight China on Chinese terms by restricting its actions to the conventional military field.
The Indian government, alas, is painfully slow in learning military lessons and, where the threat of use of nuclear weapons against China is concerned, apparently has a mental block. This when such threats, based on a credible nuclear posture with ADMs and canisterised Agni missiles, can actually leverage more responsible Chinese behaviour. After all, whatever the cost to India of a nuclear exchange, the prospect of China likely losing Beijing, the Three Gorges Dam, the Lop Nor nuclear weapons complex, and/or its entire wealth-producing eastern seaboard, will compel President Xi Jinping and the PLA to do a rethink about the costs of not having a settled border with India, and speed up a negotiated resolution of the long-standing border dispute.
Published in ThePrint.in, March 25, 2022 under the title — “India’s nuclear doctrine is useless. Discard no-first-use, say nukes are for China threat”, at https://theprint.in/opinion/indias-nuclear-doctrine-is-useless-discard-no-first-use-say-nukes-are-for-china-threat/886866/