[Explosion of the Russian “too big to use” 60 megaton — “Czar Bomba” over the test site at Semipalatinsk on 30th October 1961]
A bit of serious reading is required by Indian decisonmakers and lay public alike on the issue of the missing thermonuclear security of the country in a milieu in which, even in government and the military, “opinions”, not informed views and perspectives, generally prevail. Hence, I am reprodcing below an article that the Indian army’s thinktank — Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, requested me to write for the winter 2022 edition of its professional publication — CLAWS Journal. It is featured in pages numbered 25-43 of the recently released Journal issue.
Getting Serious About Thermonuclear Security:
Need for New Tests, Augmented Capability and First Use Doctrine & Posture
By BHARAT KARNAD
Abstract: India has been an economic and military punching bag for China. This is India’s fault because it has done less than nothing to counter the pummeling except occasionally reacting (as on the Galwan) and then only defensively. It is time India, a nuclear laggard, adopted the strategy conventionally weak nuclear weapons states (Pakistan against India, North Korea against the US) have successfully wielded against stronger adversaries by threatening nuclear first use, and by substantiating such threat by laying down short fuse, forward nuclear tripwires. For an India that has historically quailed before China, making this new more assertive stance credible will require significant measures — resumption of thermonuclear testing, emplacing a differentiated two-tiered doctrine that replaces the impractical “massive retaliation” strategy with flexible and proportional response notions pivoting on nuclear first use but only versus China while retaining the “retaliation only” concept for everyone else, and alighting on a tiered posture supported by the buildup of ‘soft’ strategic infrastructure (a separate strategic budget, specialist nuclear officer cadres in the three services, and a mechanism for oversight of nuclear weapons designing activity). It is a doable strategy the Indian government should not shy away from.
India from the get-go did little right, nuclear military-wise, and has paid the price for it. Strung out between moral pretensions, ideals of a peaceful world, strategic myopia, and foreign pressure, Indian governments have not pursued a straightforward policy the nuclear visionary, Homi J. Bhabha, urged 1962 War onwards — a series of open-ended underground tests of progressively higher yields culminating in a thermonuclear arsenal. It was a practicable policy once the weapons threshold was attained in March 1964. Instead, in the following decades there were sporadic nuclear tests aimed at scoring political points or making short term political capital, not securing a credible strategic deterrent. Bhabha’s strategic vision, moreover, got directed by the Trombay leadership of the 1970s and 1980s into the small arsenal-minimum deterrence channel that conformed with government views. It led to the testing “moratorium” in the wake of the 1998 Shakti series despite the government being informed of the thermonuclear/boosted fission device (S-1) “fizzling”, and to the 2005 civil nuclear cooperation deal with the United States conditioned on India not testing again. More alarming still, the nuclear weapons programme was nearly terminated by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965 in return for joint US-UK security assurances. And but for some inspired bureaucratic shuffling by an MEA official (M.A. Vellodi), the Bomb project would have been axed by Prime Minister Morarji Desai, ten years later, on the altar of Gandhian values. It would seem Indian nuclear weapons face greater peril from the country’s leadership than from external adversaries.
Whereas Pakistan had a clear idea why it wanted nuclear weapons — to prevent India from doing a Bangladesh in what remained of that country post-1971 War, there was no such clarity on the Indian side. Nuclear weapons were considered a moral abomination and danger to world peace and, after the 1974 test, as variously an antidote for chemical and biological weapons and even for terrorism. Even a humiliating military defeat in 1962 did not result in the hard-earned capability being converted into nuclear weapons. It is not clear why getting to the nuclear well but not drinking from it was thought to serve the national interest. It set the precedent for dealing the same way with other advanced technologies as well. The multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) technology, for instance, has been on the DRDO shelf since 2001-2002, but permission for prototype testing is still awaited.
It is not clear why getting to the nuclear well but not drinking from it was thought to serve the national interest.
The country is in an extended strategic rut, but this is not recognized because of a sense of complacency – the Indian Establishment’s besetting sin where national security is concerned. Three sets of corrective decisions need to be taken fast: to (1) resume open-ended nuclear tests to obtain a panoply of proven nuclear and high-yield thermonuclear weapons and, in parallel, rapid test-launches and induction into service of long range MIRV-ed missiles; it will instantly endow the Indian strategic deterrent with clout, credibility and reach; (2) revise the “massive retaliation” doctrine with ‘credible minimum deterrence’ undertones into a two-tiered set of guidelines centered on nuclear First Use to tackle China, and retention of retaliation only principle for Pakistan, and configuring a deterrent posture accordingly; and (3) install the ‘soft’ but vital infrastructure supportive of the strategic forces. This article briefly discusses why these decisions are necessary.
Resumed thermonuclear testing is key
Commonsense is a precious commodity in short supply in the Indian milieu when it comes to nuclear weapons. Unless a new weapon technology is iteratively tested, its performance proved in all conditions to the satisfaction of the end-user, it is not deemed a reliable battle-ready system. It is a metric the armed services use for conventional military hardware. So, it is curious the Indian military accepts the performance of the more consequential thermonuclear armaments on the say-so of the government/Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO)/Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). This is, perhaps, because the uniformed brass does not want to make a fuss over something it knows little about. Naturally, the judgment of experts is trusted. Except, the experts in this case are the very BARC-DRDO scientists and technologists who design and produce these weapons, and have a vested interest in proclaiming them first rate and, in the past, have rendered advice the government wanted to hear. For example, regarding the 1998 thermonuclear test.
Despite K. Santhanam, Director, Field Testing, Pokhran, writing to the government immediately after the S-1 test on May 11, 1998, that the hydrogen bomb had “fizzled” and advising more tests, the Vajpayee regime declared it a roaring success, and announced on May 28 a testing moratorium. R. Chidambaram, then chairman of the atomic energy commission (AEC), and his BARC cohort did two things to provide scientific cover for furthering the government’s political agenda of improving relations with the US but at the expense of the national interest. They claimed success for the hydrogen bomb on the basis of unconvincing seismic data, and despite nuclear veterans such as P.K. Iyengar, former chairman of the atomic energy commission and initiator of thermonulear weapons project, and A.N. Prasad, former director, BARC, strongly contesting such claims and offering technical assessments of the failure.  Chidambaram further asserted that India need never test again because between computer simulation and component testing the country would always have dependable thermonuclear weapons. Chidambaram and his successor at AEC, Anil Kakodkar, have been charged with “dereliction” for “obscuring the failures of their thermonuclear device design”, which Ashley J. Tellis suggests, getting the sequence wrong, “spurred Vajpayee’s decision to end nuclear testing prematurely before the performance of India’s highest yield warhead – which even at its maximum delivers just about 20 percent of the explosive power of China’s largest weapon – could be credibly demonstrated.” In any case, it enabled Vajpayee to forge the ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership’ with Washington, and his successor Manmohan Singh to sign the civil nuclear deal with the US conditioned on India not testing again. The nuclear deal and Chidambaram’s stance did lasting damage to the weapons programme.
Computer simulation can replace physical nuclear weapon tests only if a country has “exascale” computational capability (i.e.,“one billion billion” – 18 zeroes — operations per second) that only the US, Russia, and China have. Place the fastest Indian supercomputer, Pratyush, with the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology capable of 20 petaflops (15 zeroes) capacity alongside, and the problem becomes evident. Assuming optimistically that BARC has a 150 petaflop supercomputer (a level Pratyush expects to reach, finances permitting), it is still dwarfed by the US ‘Summit’ and the Chinese ‘Sunway TaihuLight’ exascale supercomputers. More daunting still, in October 2021 China claimed revolutionary technological breakthroughs with its ‘Zuchongzhi 2.1’ supercomputer featuring superconducting quantum computing and photonics quantum computing that is “10 million times faster” than ‘Summit’!
India has to conduct open ended tests to secure a modicum of such data, which will be infinitely more accurate than information derived from ICF and computer simulation.
Next, consider the scale of resources required. What China spends is unknown. But US, for example, spends upwards of $5 billion annually on simulating thermonuclear explosions at its many weapons labs, and has as many as 700 highly rated scientists and engineers at each of these locations. These simulations are driven, moreover, by realtime injection of data from actual miniature thermonuclear explosions produced at an inertial confinement fusion facility (ICF), where plutonium pellets are bombarded by high intensity lasers to create fusion phenomena. Because India lacks the financial, technological and skilled manpower resources to replicate such experimental and computational capability in scale, resumption of underground thermonuclear tests is imperative. Vast explosion physics and material science data collected from actual weapon tests create a body of information about how temperature, pressure, density and other factors affect plutonium during a thermonuclear explosion and assist in designing better weapons. India has to conduct open ended tests to secure a modicum of such data, which will be infinitely more accurate than information derived from ICF and computer simulation.
The US has carried out 1,032 nuclear tests and fired 1,132 devices/weapons prototypes with total actual yield of 196,514 kilotons; USSR/Russia 727 tests, 981 devices fired yielded 296,837 KT; China 47 tests, 48 fired, produced 24,409 KT; North Korea six tests, six fired, yield of 197.8 KT; and Pakistan two tests, six fired yielded 51 KT. In the thermonuclear category, China has carried out nine tests, one 300KT boosted fission shot in 1965 and eight megaton (MT) weapons tests in the 3 MT-4 MT range. China’s weapons programme, besides design and material help, also benefitted from Russian thermonuclear test data (as did the UK, French and Israeli fission and fusion weapons projects from American test data) and Pakistan and North Korea from Chinese test data transferred to them as part of the “rogue nuclear triad”. As sensitive information sharing is ongoing within this triad, Islamabad and Pyongyang may not have to test again to enhance their strategic weapons profiles. With this triad in mind, any of the six nuclear tests, two of them thermonuclear, North Korea conducted in the last two decades offered reasonable cause to India to resume testing but New Delhi did not avail of it.
India is apparently satisfied with its three tests, six devices fired yielding a total of 70 KT, including the failed thermonuclear. According to Richard Garwin, one of the premier US thermonuclear weapons designers, some 2,000 things have to go right for a fusion device to explode to full yield. How are his Indian counterparts to discern which and how many of the two thousand things went wrong with the S-1 device, without a host of new tests, leave alone design new and upgraded thermonuclear weapons based on flawed data from one fizzled test? He also added that “without nuclear tests of substantial yield, it is …impossible to have any confidence in a large-yield two-stage thermonuclear weapon”. Chidambaram’s view, therefore, that a little tinkering with the basic design and some computer simulation is sufficient to validate Indian hydrogen bomb designs and upgrades, is absurd. Yet the government-BARC act as if Indian fusion weapons are the equal of thermonuclear armaments in other inventories.
In any case, if the Indian government had made up its mind not to test again, and knew it lacked ICF and the computational wherewithal, it should have at least extracted from the US its thermonuclear test data in return, the first time for the 1998 moratorium decision and, the second time, for the 2005 nuclear deal. This, incidentally, is what France did for ceasing nuclear testing after its last series of N-tests in 1996. It makes one wonder why the Indian government rarely acts in the country’s best interests.
To begin doing strategically correct and impactful things for a change, the Indian government should immediately order frequent test launches of MIRV-equipped long range missiles on a speedy induction schedule to provide targeting versatility and, more urgently, full-bore thermonuclear tests of yields in the 300KT-low megaton range, and get the deep excavation work underway soonest to prepare L-shaped tunnels at depths around 2,000 metres.
The US was never in a position to prevent India from testing and weaponizing had it been determined to do so, but it offered an excuse for Indian leaders to escape making difficult decisions. Jawaharlal Nehru in the early Sixties declined to proceed with weaponization, and in 1974 Indira Gandhi got cold feet after just one test. Had either of them proceeded with nuclear weaponization Washington could have done little about it. In the emerging international “correlation of forces”, US is unlikely to impose sanctions for restarting nuclear testing because it needs India more than India needs the US, and would prefer a proven Indian thermonuclear arsenal discomfiting the PLA at the southern Asia end of the Indo-Pacific.
A Two-tiered Nuclear Doctrine and Posture
The Indian establishment’s and the Indian military’s ambiguous attitude to nuclear weapons is reflected in the stock view of all and sundry that “nuclear weapons are for deterrence, not warfighting”. It undergirds the disturbing belief that possessing dread-inspiring bombs is good enough as symbols that their quality and quantity don’t matter, i.e, a 20KT Indian bomb has the same psychological and deterrent effect as a Chinese standard-issue 3.3MT warhead. This is the pixilated take on nuclear weapons and deterrence the Indian government has internalized and reflects a minimalization of nuclear weapons by political consensus. It eventuated in Prime Minister Vajpayee’s defining in Parliament on May 28, 1998, the two basic parameters of Indian nuclear doctrine and strategy — No First Use (NFU) and minimum deterrence.
A military doctrine is a guideline for action, not a straitjacket to squeeze strategy and operations into. The draft-nuclear doctrine produced by the First National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) in end-1998 encompassed Vajpayee’s parameters but, under the elastic rubric of “credible minimum nuclear deterrence” — credible relative to which adversary, minimum compared to what enemy force, and provisioned for strategic forces to grow and improve qualitatively. Inherent in NFU is the retaliation only principle, which the draft finessed to say “rapid punitive response”. It then passed into the hands of the National Security Adviser (NSA), Brajesh Mishra, a generalist civil servant of a type Dr. Santhanam dismissed as “a babe in the woods on nuclear matters.”
Amateurism surfaced in several aspects. Unprecedented for any country’s nuclear doctrine, the draft document was made public supposedly to generate debate. It led, as some NSAB members had warned, to foreign public and official pressure (mainly from the US and Western Europe) to define the size and quality of the “minimum deterrent” India proposed to have. It is not known what assurances were conveyed to these countries. But the slow-paced growth of the Indian nuclear arsenal in the new millennium is, perhaps, a consequence. India could have produced 175-200 additional weapons/warheads by now using its stock of separated reactor grade plutonium to obtain an arsenal the size of China’s. In any case, as of mid-2022, India had 160 weapons/warheads – the smallest nuclear weapons stock of any state, lagging behind Pakistan’s stockpile (of 165 weapons/warheads), and China’s (with 350 weapons/warheads expected to grow to 1,000-weapons by 2030). Ignoring the draft doctrine, the government in 2003 formalized a “massive retaliation” strategy, and stepped into an existential muddle.
Obviously, this strategy won’t work at any level against China – a comprehensively superior thermonuclear weapons-armed adversary. Mercifully, no Indian official has claimed otherwise. The infirmities in the massive retaliation strategy against Pakistan are many, and best illustrated by outlining certain contingent scenarios. The threat of the “massiveness” of response is supposed to so unnerve Islamabad as to dissuade it from initiating nuclear first use. The scenario is for the Pakistani nuclearized 60mm Nasr rocket hitting the lead armoured units of an aggressing Indian formation that has broken through the forward defences, penetrated into Pakistani territory, and is poised for a “break out”, providing the Pakistan army with plausible cause for going nuclear. Needing to make good on its threat, India will have to decide how massive its “massive retaliation” has to be? Clearly, destroying several Pakistani tanks in return won’t do, but an enemy defensive formation? Or, by way of jumping a step in the escalation ladder and pursuing the Russian “escalate to de-escalate”-strategy, attacking Pakistan’s II Strike Corps headquarters in Multan with a bigger tacnuke? The problem with escalation inherent in the intended Indian practice of massive retaliation is that it will deplete the weapons stockpile faster than Pakistanis can fire their weapons singly or in salvo, because the logic of such response requires more weapons to be expended in retaliation to achieve a greater level of destruction than is suffered by India from Pakistani first strike and follow-on attacks. Soon enough in this action-larger reaction sequence, Indian weapons will be exhausted even as Pakistan retains a residual force. In short, minimum deterrence is not compatible with “massive retaliation” strategy.
There’s another aspect to consider. Should Pakistan breach the nuclear taboo, the nature of subsequent action could be taken out of New Delhi’s hands by forces of nature. The winds in the winter campaign season blow west to east and could turn a Pakistani tactical nuclear strike inside Pakistan into a strategic war. How? Clouds bearing the resulting radioactivity could be carried by the prevailing winds into India where populations in border town and cities would be contaminated by radioactive rain, compelling the Indian government to skip the tactical response option and hit Pakistani cities. Any which way massive retaliation is gamed it leads to unedifying outcomes — why it was jettisoned by both US and USSR early in the nuclear age. It makes sense for India to revert to a flexible and proportional retaliation nuclear strategy implied in the “punitive response” notion featured in the NSAB draft doctrine. It provides a longer fuse, more political-military offramps for de-escalation, and dovetails with a small-sized nuclear force.
Actually, Pakistan is not a serious threat and does not merit nuclear attention for two reasons. One, because the exchange ratio in a nuclear war so lopsidedly favours India – two Indian metro cities for the extinction of Pakistan as a social organism, in the Spenglerian sense. Pakistan army will do nothing to facilitate such a denouement. And secondly, total war is inconceivable because India-Pakistan conflicts have historically been encounters of manoeuvre restricted in time, space and intensity and with little collateral damage. Nuclear sabre-rattling apart, shared culture, history, ethnicity, language, religion and social norms are, apparently, powerful inhibitors of wars of annihilation.
China, on the other hand, is a different proposition and demands a more aggressive approach. Its policy driver is its vision of its centrality in the world with policies geared to subduing neighbouring states/regions into acknowledging this. Disrupting Beijing’s “tianxia” geopolitical design and policies and blunting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s military edge should, therefore, be the chief purpose of Indian policy. Except, the chasm between China’s nuclear and conventional militaries and India’s is real and widening. India has no choice other than to opt for an asymmetric strategy successfully adopted by weak nuclear weapons states against conventionally stronger foes — Pakistan against India, North Korea against the US, and Russia trapped in a losing war in NATO-assisted Ukraine. These countries have laid down short-fuse forward tripwires and threatened nuclear first use.
In theory, India has a triadic deterrent. The air vector is the weakest because, absent a genuine strategic bomber, medium-range strike aircraft (Su-30 MKIs) are tasked with this role. However, the chances of mission success are bleak owing to the circuitous routing over sea of this aircraft and of aerial tankers for mid-course refueling, and complicated tactical routing over densely air defenced mainland China. Leasing six of the advanced ‘White Swan’ variant of the Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bomber from Russia is an obvious solution. The sea vector has a different problem as the Arihant-class SSBNs are to be deployed in a protected “bastion” with restricted patrolling area in the Bay of Bengal. But their protection will consume a large fraction of the navy’s submarine and surface combatant fleets, thereby reducing the availability of ships and submarines for other duties, such as sea presence. In this respect, the SSBNs so disposed will become as much an operational liability in crisis as aircraft carriers requiring equally extensive protection.
The principle of not dividing a military force, mandates consolidating the nuclear fighting assets against China and involves, for a start, unilaterally moving nuclearized short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) Prithvi and medium range (700 km) Agni-1 ballistic missiles (MRBMs) from the Pakistan border to the LAC in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, and grouping them with, say, nuclearized Prahar/Nirbhay-type area weapons. (Longer-range Agni-5 Prime missiles from hinterland launch points can hit targets in Pakistan as well as in China.) This collection of weapons forming the second tier of a forward deterrent posture on the LAC will balance the Chinese SRBM/MRBM forces in Tibet, the largest such concentration outside the Fujian coast opposite Taiwan. These missiles can be converted to canisterisation on LAC sites for ready use in launch-on-launch (LOL) and launch-on-warning (LOW) modes. China should be publicly warned, moreover, that firing of any missile southwards from the Tibetan Plateau would lead to LOL/LOW action because there’s no technology to distinguish nuclear from conventional warheads on incoming missiles, and prudence dictates that the worst be assumed.
Atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) – simple, compact, low-yield fission devices that can be easily designed and produced in bulk for placement in mountain sides of passes the PLA will likely negotiate, would constitute the tripwire and first tier. When triggered, the ADMs will bring down mountains on Chinese forces that have penetrated into Indian territory. The reason ADMs are ultra-credible weapons is because of their usability in that (1) they are activated only by enemy action, (2) there is no venting of radioactivity because the toppled mountains of earth/dirt will effectively absorb and entomb the gamma rays, and (3) they fit India’s passive-reactive-defensive military outlook and ideology vis a vis China. Optics-wise, moreover, the biggest virtue of this first nuclear use (FNU) policy is that ADMs will act as guillotine with the rope-tug releasing the falling blade handed to the Chinese theatre commander. The only thing about the revised doctrine that should be made public is this new wrinkle — first nuclear use solely against China. It will end the era of silk-glove handling of China and may even earn for India a smidgeon of respect from Beijing.
Filling the soft strategic infrastructure void
By their very nature, nuclear armaments are hard, high-end, but minus the soft supportive infrastructure their political and military value gets diminished. In the years since India became a declared nuclear weapons state in 1998, the government has not addressed three critical voids facing the country’s strategic forces. The first is the absence of an Indian version of the JASON Committee in the US. Reputed scientists including stalwart weapons designers are appointed as its members with a brief to check and professionally evaluate the scientific and technical viability of new nuclear weapons designs conceived by the weapons laboratories, recommend solutions for glitches they may discover, and even suggest novel design improvements to increase performance. India desperately needs such a committee in light of the experience with R Chidambaram, who stifled the weapons programme, is accused by BARC insiders of letting the experimental ICF at the Centre for Advance Technology, Indore, go to ruin, and for opposing the renewal of testing. Though essential, the BARC leadership is unsympathetic to having such oversight because they believe it questions their competence. This is where the government, for the sake of national interest, will have to over-rule the nuclear establishment and constitute a JASON Committee-type mechanism to curb the excesses of another Chidambaram.
The second void in fact refers to a budgetary innovation. It is time there was a separate budgetary stream for nuclear forces and infrastructure (including the development of military bases in friendly island-nations and countries on the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean littoral). A systemic solution was attempted during the Vajpayee government. It tried to implement a 1999 plan by Defence Research & Development Laboratory that mooted a “separate strategic weapons directorate” to indigenously design and develop long range, long endurance, weapons systems to ensure “strategic security” for the country. Such consolidation of the existing design, development, testing and production agencies under one roof would also have resulted in a singular funding stream. But despite Prime Minister Vajpayee and Defence Minister Jaswant Singh’s support this plan died because of bureaucratic politics. Too often programmes relating to strategic systems and infrastructure — nuclear weapons development and acquisition, MIRV, nuclear powered ballistic and cruise missile firing submarines, N-powered attack submarines, intercontinental range and intermediate range ballistic and cruise missiles, lease of Tu-160s, hardening of nuclear command, control, communications (NC3) net, excavation of L-tunnels for tests, and of mountain tunnel complexes for long range missile storage and launch sites, etc., are sidelined because they compete with conventional military priorities. The defence budget should rise to the 3% of GDP level recommended by the 15th Finance Commission and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence. A third of this enlarged defence allocation – 0.75%-1% of GDP, should be sequestered for the proposed Strategic Forces budget. Otherwise, the country’s meagre nuclear arsenal will continue languishing in the basement to carry on without political direction, until faced with Chinese nuclear coercion by when it will be too late.
The third element is the missing specialist nuclear officer cadre in the three armed services. “Without a specialist cadre that is fully versed and immersed in all aspects of nuclear deterrence — from designs of nuclear weapons and missiles to conceiving and designing command and control networks, from nuances in deterrence theory to practical problems of mobility, and from nuclear forensics to technology for secure command links”, I wrote in August 2012, “the country will be stuck with what we have: a Strategic Forces Command with military officers on its rolls who are professionals in conventional warfare but rank amateurs in the nuclear field. They have to perforce learn on the job, only for such learning to go waste once their three-year term ends, and they are posted elsewhere.” With the navy running SSBNs, it is the first military service to appreciate the benefits of a dedicated band of specialist nuclear officers. But its efforts have run into the problem of reconciling too few nuclear platforms and too small an officer cadre generally to carve up a separate nuclear stream. The army feels no need to have one because it is not concerned with what the artillery units are asked to fire as long as they control the missile launch units, and the air force has no strategic bomber fleet to make such an officer branch worth its while. The consequences of the missing military nuclear specialists are two-fold. The knowledge of nuclear issues within the SFC being shallow, the commander and his team cannot write up the QSRs for anything relating to nuclear armaments and strategic forces and infrastructure, and have to be satisfied with whatever DRDO-BARC dish out. And such advice as they are now and then called on by government to give is usually ignored, leaving it to the equally clueless generalists clogging up the system of stove-piped decision making to come up with what passes for strategic counsel in government.
Typically, strategic nuclear capacity, capability and infrastructure deficiencies take 25-30 years to makeup. The Indian government and military cannot afford to stick to their habitual tardiness in implementing the corrective measures. Smaller, weaker, nuclear weapon states with, survival-wise, smaller margins of error (Pakistan, North Korea, Israel) are naturally more serious and proactive where their nuclear security is concerned. Large and powerful countries (US, Russia, China) are not any less driven because they compete with each other for primacy in the strategic realm. India, uniquely, is the only big state which manifests a stunning level of nuclear complacency and incompetence. Sandwiched between two purposeful nuclear adversaries, for the Indian government to continue to do nothing to alleviate the situation would be to do something definitely wrong.
 Why thermonuclear weapons? Because, according to Richard Garwin, who first engineered the theoretical ‘Teller-Ulam’ configuration into a thermonuclear weapon, for a fission weapon to produce 200 kiloton yield would require 60 kg of plutonium or U-235, which amount of fissile material would suffice for 10 thermonuclear weapons in the megaton class, each weighing less than 1,000 lbs. See Bharat Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy, Second edition [New Delhi: Macmillan India, 2005, 2002], p. 628.
 Ibid, pp. 180-195.
 That influential leadership was formed by the duo of Raja Ramanna and P.K. Iyengar. Ibid, pp. 318-323.
 Ibid, pp. 254-256.
 Ibid, pp. 332-338.
 Feroz Hassan Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb [New Delhi, etc: Foundation Books, 2014 reprint], pp. 68-94.
 Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, [Westport, CN & London: Praeger Security International], pp. 80-82.
 Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, pp. 400-420; Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, pp. 65-71; P.K. Iyengar, A.N. Prasad, A. Gopalakrishnan, Bharat Karnad, Strategic Sell-out: Indian-US Nuclear Deal [New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2009].
 S.K. Sikka, G.J. Nair, Falguni Roy, Anil Kakodkar, “The Recent Indian nuclear tests – A seismic review”, Current Science, Vol 79, Issue 9, November 2000, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237222667_The_recent_Indian_nuclear_tests_-_A_seismic_overview . Iyengar’s view based on various indices, such as large traces of the thermonuclear fuel — lithium deuteride, evidenced in the rock morphology in Pokhran, was that there was “partial thermonuclear burn”, not full combustion, and that’s a far cry from a workable weapon. See Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, pp. 412-413.
 Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, pp. 415-419.
 See his Striking Asymmetries: Nuclear Transitions in Southern Asia, [Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2022], pp. 200-201. As special adviser to US ambassador Robert Blackwill, Tellis helped shepherd the 2005 Indian-US nuclear deal at both the Washington and New Delhi ends.
 It is revealing that Tellis describes the moratorium on testing as a self-imposed “constraint” derived from “the political failures of the BJP leadership”. Ibid.
 Abhijit Ahaskar “India’s supercomputing capabilities fall behind its peers”, Mint, 6 July 2022
 “Chinese researchers achieve quantum advantage in two mainstream routes”, Global Times, Oct 26, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202110/1237312.shtml
 Eric Betz, “Testing Nuclear Weapons is More Important Than Ever”, Discover, March 20, 2019, https://www.discovermagazine.com/technology/testing-nuclear-weapons-is-more-important-than-ever
 List of nuclear weapons tests, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_weapons_tests
 Bharat Karnad, “Countering the Rogue Nuclear Triad of China, Pakistan and North Korea”, The Wire, 25 July 2016, https://thewire.in/world/countering-the-rogue-nuclear-triad-of-china-pakistan-north-korea
 Refer fn # 16.
 Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, p. 627-628.
 R. Jeffrey Smith, “France, US secretly enter pact to share nuclear weapons data”, Washington Post, 17 June 1996, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1996/06/17/france-us-secretly-enter-pact-to-share-nuclear-weapons-data/cf9d04f3-aabe-4b77-b793-95163527da8e/
 “We want to be India’s defence partner of choice for India: US Official”, The Hindu, November 3, 2022. Also refer Ashley Tellis’ statement to an Indian daily, see “Idea Exchange: India may be compelled to test again and when it does, it’s in the US interest to avoid penalising it”, Indian Express, October 31, 2022.
 Santhanam said this specifically about Manmohan Singh’s NSA, M.K. Narayanan, a policeman, but it applies to most generalist diplomats/civil servants/policemen who have so far been appointed NSA. See “NSA a babe in the woods on nuclear matters: Santhanam”, PTI, The Hindu, September 25, 2009
 The reasons and the logic for an Indian thermonuclear force of some 470 weapons/warheads is detailed in Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, pp. 614-646. A 2015 ISIS study estimated India’s then stock of separated reactor grade plutonium at 2.9 metric tons – good enough for as many as 125 weapons/warheads. This stock of plutonium has grown since then. See Elizabeth Whitfield, “Fuzzy math on Indian nuclear weapons”, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, April 19, 2016, https://thebulletin.org/2016/04/fuzzy-math-on-indian-nuclear-weapons/
 Status of World Nuclear Forces, Federation of American Scientists, https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/; Peter Martin and Anthony Capaccio, “China’s Nuclear Arsenal Is Growing Faster Than Expected, Pentagon Says”, Bloomberg, November 3, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-11-03/pentagon-sees-china-nuclear-arsenal-growing-faster-than-expected#xj4y7vzkg
 “Cabinet Committee on Security reviews progress in operationalizing India’s nuclear doctrine”, Prime Minister’s Office, 4th January 2003, https://archive.pib.gov.in/archive/releases98/lyr2003/rjan2003/04012003/r040120033.html
 Shyam Saran, ex-Foreign Secretary and then Convenor of NSAB, was reported as saying this: “India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary.” See Indrani Bagchi. “Even a midget nuke strike will lead to massive retaliation, India warns Pak”, Times of India, April 30, 2013. For a response, see Bharat Karnad, “India’s nuclear amateurism”, New Indian Express, 28 June 2013.
 For a case arguing why tactical nuclear warfare between India and Pakistan is impracticable, unrealistic and extremely unlikely, see Bharat Karnad, “Scaring-up Scenarios: An Introduction” in Gurmeet Kanwal & Monika Chansoria, eds., Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Conflict Redux [New Delhi: CLAWS and KW Publishers, 2014]. On the “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, see Joshua Bell, “Escalate to De-escalate: Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Strategy”, Global Security Review, March 7, 2022, https://globalsecurityreview.com/nuclear-de-escalation-russias-deterrence-strategy/
 Bharat Karnad, Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition [Gurugram: Penguin-Viking, 2018], pp. 326-330.
 For the text of the 1998 NSAB draft nuclear doctrine, refer https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1999-07/indias-draft-nuclear-doctrine
 Karnad, Staggering Forward, pp.333-334.
 Husain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military [Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005], pp. 199-260.
Bharat Karnad, “Key to Peace in South Asia: Fostering ‘Social’ Links between the Armies of India and Pakistan”, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, April 1996.
 Karnad, Staggering Forward, pp. 154-220.
 Karnad, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) [New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015], pp. 335-336; Karnad, Staggering Forward, pp. 364-365.
 Admiral Arun Prakash, “Why the Arihant missile test was critical for India”, Hindustan Times, 18 October 2022
 On large aircraft carriers as operational liability, see Karnad, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), pp. 373-376.
 Tellis claims the Agni missiles are canisterised only to keep nuclear warheads stable in an airconditioned container, and are not ready for instant use. See his Striking Asymmetries, pp. 127-129.
 Karnad, Staggering Forward, pp. 344-349.
 Bharat Karnad, “Incomprehensible position on N-testing”, Security Wise (Blog), February 7, 2017, https://bharatkarnad.com/2017/02/07/incomprehensible-position-on-n-testing/
 Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, pp. 328, 417.
 On the urgent need to build up the North and South Agalega island base in Mauritius, the Gan island base in Maldives, Trincomalee in Sri Lanka and Na Thrang in Vietnam, see Karnad, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), pp. 346-351.
 Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy [Westport, CN, & London: Praeger Security International, 2008], pp.79-80.
 Bharat Karnad, “Dedicated nuclear cadre”, Security Wise (Blog), 16 August 2012, https://bharatkarnad.com/2012/08/16/dedicated-nuclear-cadre/
 Such complacency is labelled as “the remarkable persistence of strategic conservatism” by Tellis. See Striking Asymmetries, pp. 69-74.
Another wonderful article penned by you Dr Karnad. I just have one question. In India the major economic centers are mostly in the coastal cities in Western states like Gujarat and Maharastra. If I am a Chinese general, my first thinking would be to neutralize these states so as they cease to exist as any potential economic threat. I would love to use the Pakistani (and Iranian) ports of Karachi , Gwadar and Chabahar in order to achieve this particular strategy. What do you think about this strategy of mine ? What are the practical problems for implementing it ?
Short of direct missile hits on the Indian west coast targets — as exposed as the more valuable Chinese wealth belt — Hong Kong to the Fujian coast, including all of metro Shanghai, is to Agni-5 strikes, China is not now and won’t be in the foreseedable future in a position to realize such a plan.
Email from Dr V Siddhartha, former science adviser to Defence Minister
Mon, 3 Apr at 3:38 pm
Self-belief in stated doctrines, not “perceptions about perceptions” are the projectors of credibility for India, which has not co-evolved the theories of deterrence as a practitioner. Thus, the Karnad-advocated partitioning of India’s doctrine into two parts will be credible as a neo-doctrine emerging from a non-follower N-power; yet one that is independent of his fizz on the H-test. — VS
For those who might have missed it:
“Perceptions Of Credibility”: Existential Hazards Of Russian Nuclear Doctrine
A very comprehensive and insightful article that I’m sure the entire country would benefit from reading. Frankly, there is nothing much to disagree with. However, based on what I’ve read it seems like some your suggested actions are being implemented already.
The rocket force for example – it is stated policy that Brahmos handle the NE border with China. Pralay and Prahar are also in the mix. Canisterization and upgrades of Indian missile delivery is happening. The SSBN program is also adding more subs and it has become more secretive. So progress is not highlighted. MIRV testing is continuously ongoing. And the number of nuclear weapons is increasing to 200, with a plan to increase to 500 by the mid 30s. However, the air triad is likely the weakest like you suggest. No strategic bomber and a reliance on the Su30-MKI as long range bombers.
Even regarding NFU, India has introduced uncertainty. But it should implement the remaining suggestions you make, especially thermo nuclear weapons development. My guess is that this too will happen, but timing is key. Maybe this will happen once India has signed a few contracts for key conventional weapons tech like aircraft engines. As for defence spending, this years budget will make it 2.3% of next year’s GDP at R82/$ (2.5% of FY23 GDP – including BRO, CRPF, ITBF spending). So increasing to 3% of GDP like many have argued could happen over the next few years.
There is no doubt India needs a credible nuclear deterrence against China, just like it needs a conventional military deterrence. The Indian public must be made aware of this and there should be some public pressure to make this happen.
Testing of strategic wherewithal is still not full-bore. For instance, MIRV has not been tested with actual test firings of MIRVed missiles, w/o which simulation and lab/bench tests alone mean nothing.
Thanks a lot Dr Karnad for expressing your great erudite and clear views on my question. Sir there are 2 ports Kandla and Mundra (both in Gujarat) that literally dominate foreign trade when it comes to India. If I am the Chinese war planner my first and utmost priority will be to somehow eliminate these two ports (the easiest way is to fire some dongfeng(1 or 2) missiles from the Gwadar/Karachi/Ormara/Chabahar ports) portparticularly their large terminals. I believe both of these ports are relatively unguarded as most of Indian army is busy defending borders in the Himalayas (kashmir , Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh) I would love to know are my ideas realistic when it comes to war planning ?
DF missile strikes on standalone basis? Not a plausible scenario.
Here is an article that acknowledges the complexities of today’s global order. Of why middle powers have emerged with their own interests and ambitions unlike anything seen in the past 200 years.
I wonder if there is a theory of international relations that can accommodate this complexity. My instincts are realist, and I’ve studied offensive realism the most as that theory seems to make the most sense. However, offensive realism is based on the research of great powers over the last 200 years and avers that only great powers matter, not middle powers. Increasingly, middle power decisions are shaping global outcomes. India is a prime example. This is not like the non aligned era where two superpowers dictated terms and the NAM was irrelevant.
Concepts of realism and nationalism still apply and could be used to predict outcomes. It’s just getting harder to do this. It seems like each globally important region has its own regional great power and middle power dynamic, where alignments can be different from those in another region (e.g., Indo Pac, Middle East, and Europe).
What seems clear is that no great power will be able to dominate all key regions. And India will expand its influence in the littoral states of the Indian Ocean and the states of SE Asia, like it historically has. (China and Russia will be unlikely to dominate the Middle East as they are distant from it. The U.S. will have to focus on East Asia). If India does this successfully, it will be a great power in its own right. This scenario can certainly play out.
A reasonable read of the future.
Agree with ur views on chain of n-tests on open ended basis that was short circuited. But who’s gonna popuralise this view on national level. Need serious prose and discussion on this issue in India
Nuclear modernization is taking place at break-neck speed, at least as per my knowledge.The ONLY thing that’s not being done is megaton yield ATMOSPHERIC thermonuclear testing.Apparently, the GOI is holding this option in reserve and intends to use it only when a Chinese assault is imminent.Detecting such an assault is not difficult with the resolution of the satellites produced by ISRO.As for NC3 , we are going to use the same C2 used by conventional forces.GSAT-7B, for instance, which will be launched in 2025-26, will be “EMP hardened” and also capable of “frequency hopping” to counter any kind of Chinese EW jamming.A massive mesh of thousands of km of underground optical fibers is also being laid and will be be completed in the coming months.These two will provide the “Satellite cum optical fiber” hardened ,fail safe C2 which you desire.Moreover, as per my knowledge,Agni-P which has 2000km range,has been tested with MIRV’s and even PENAIDS (decoys).Testing of MIRVED Agni-V prime and K5 SLBM is overdue.In any case, Agni-P can handle any theatre-level requirements in case of China and can serve as the ultimate strategic sledgehammer against Pak.Construction of impregnable mountain tunnel complexes at LAC is in full-swing and can serve a “dual-role” i.e. store conventional munitions as well a nuclear missile or two.State-of-the-art Early warning radars are also being set up and that project will be completed around 2027 or so.With the very recent procurement of Himshakti EW System we have acquired a counter satellite EW capability.Most importantly, a HGV capable of being mounted on the standard A-5 is said to be operationalized by 2025.
Long ago I used a metaphor of Pakistan as a gnat that can be put down by a rolled-up newspaper. The problem is the “strategic sledgehammer” turns into a puny hammer against China — Indian 20KT proven versus the standard issue 3.3 megaton Chinese weapon/warhead , a disparity that is an obvious recipe for New Delhi to be self-deterred. All other strategic buildup, in this context, therefore counts for little.
@ Dr Karnad,
I Totally agree with you on the fact that full-yield megaton testing must be our topmost national priority, trumping everything else including even economic growth and nonsensical welfare schemes like MNREGA and its kind.Whenever,the GOI makes the decision to cross this fateful Rubicon,it must go all the way and conduct ATMOSPHERIC tests in the Andaman sea to eliminate any figment of doubt people like yourself have in this country, as well our enemies(China and US).However,I firmly believe that delivery systems and NC3 matters at least as much the warheads itself if not more.
Also you greatly exagerrate the comlexity of fusion bomb technology.It is 70-year-old dated tech.The first H-bomb to be tested in weaponized configuration was the Soviet RDS-37 in 1955.Back then,it was developed using supercomputers which were much weaker than today’s iPhones! Moreover, the “2000 things should go right” pales in comparison to the “tens of thousands of things should go right” required to run a fighter-jet engine.The very recently modified Kaveri dry engine works perfectly without the Afterburner. In any case, we have database generated from decades of research carried out by the splendid team at Trombay during the 1980’s and 90’s.This can be used for generating efficient computer models for our petaflop range supercomputers which are also coincidentally used by the world’s strongest nuclear power Russia.Moreover,its a well-known fact that once we get the fusion-boosted fission bomb right,getting a staged fusion bomb is not very difficult and only a matter of time.This is exactly what USSR,China,France and US did back in the 1950’s and 60’s.Pokhran-II “S1” might technically be considered a fizzle but its fusion-boosted-fission primary worked perfectly as was even acknowledged by late K santhaman.You have mentioned in your books that back in the early 90’s IAF had operationally deployed 100kt FBF gravity bombs weighing no more than 200-250 kg on its Mirage series aircraft.The tested FBF primary of the Pokharan “S1” device can easily be scaled up to the range of 500 kt level.The 1.5 ton payload capacity of all Agni series missile means that all of our delivery systems can easily accomadate these weapons.For the sake of comparison, the highest yield US nuclear warhead is the W88 with 475 kt yield.It is due to be replaced with a warhead with a yield of 300kt.Besides, Pentagon war games reveal that the Chinese have discarded their vintage Megaton weapons and their current arsenal consists entirely of lower yield MIRV-capable warheads.The yield range is 5-300kt.https://www.airandspaceforces.com/wargame-report-chinas-nuclear-arsenal-more-survivable-in-taiwan-conflict/
Two 100 kt warheads can rain more destruction than a single megaton range warhead.
Besides,GOI faces the hard choice of choosing between conventional force/NC3 modernization and megaton TN tests.This is simply due to potential threat of otherwise very unlikely US sanctions.Even if imposed,their impact is very likely going to be as farcical as it has been on the much smaller and natural resource based Russian economy.India’s ultimate enemy has always been the US.To mitgate the damage from potential sanctions the GOI is very quietly participating in de-dollarization with trade in national currencies with most important nations and also apparently co-operating with the devil himself(china) in setting up a BRICS super-national currency. The GOI’s other fears are obvious domestic political consequences due to the degradation of living standards of 1 billion odd Indians who live on government welfare and other freebies.This combined with the real threat of seizure of their ill-gotten property and bank accounts in western countries as well as the threat to the progeny of our babus makes it obvious as to why they choose the first option and leave the latter as a reserve for extreme situations(An imminent Chinese assault).
We shouldn’t talk of a successful boosted fission as precursor to staged weapons, especially with flawed test data to go on. Old S&T it may be but getting the design right is very tricky business, especially because one isn’t sure exactly what went wrong the first and only time when, potentially, any of a number of design features could have malfunctioned or performed sub-par. Also, atmospheric testing is no go because contamination dangers in the Andaman Sea are real and will make serious enemies of all the littoral and offshore states in the region. It will be a diplomatic disaster, which India simply cannot afford.
And finally the Modi regime seems to be falling into the BRICS currency trap set by China. It is one thing to de-dollarize the country’s trade and commerce by cutting rupee deals. Quite another thing to expect an amicably negotiated interface between the prospective internationalised rupee economy and the renminbi economy Beijing has had a headstart in installing.
It looks like he Indian armed forces are becoming more active on social media vis a vis China on information warfare. I’ve watched so many YouTube programs by Vice Admirals, Lt. Generals etc. Who are quietly, calmly and smartly highlighting the deficiencies of the Chinese military and economic machines.
For example, there is a possibility that the Chinese economy maybe overstated by up to 50%. So it’s real size maybe in the $9-$10T range. Additionally, 2 year conscripts make up 800K of its armed forces and they don’t receive much training. Yet they are required to operate modern naval warships for example, which they have produced in great numbers. To me it sounded like they might cut tarkari in these ships rather than operate modern weapon systems. What I found very interesting is that they made their aircraft carrier Liaoning in 2012, and 11 years later they haven’t made one trip to the Indian Ocean! Speaks about the skill they have in aircraft carrier ops.
Additionally, for all their massive infra development in the Tibetan plateau, these same infra can be destroyed easily by an interdiction campaign. And their ability to fight high altitude warfare is well known.
So the Chinese dragon has blown a lot of hot air and may have peaked. Yet, it is a threat, but India should let the US and China duke it out. This also means that India need not be paranoid about the dragon, and focus on developing its economy and fix the mighty gaps in its military capabilities all around. The good news is that this is happening now, unlike a few years back, when it was an all around disaster.
Sir, why are we not declaring these as National Missions ? I am sad and it’s disgusting to hear such utter incompetency. I live in the west and I want to come back but this is disheartening to the core. I am living in a very depressing world as an Indian coz I know the realities and I can sniff Chest Beating vs Practical ground Situation. China just announced Chinese Names for 11+ cities in our Arunachal Pradesh ? Do we even have the Balls? Looks like DRDO + BARC are just chilling.
My point was that FBF bombs can easily be scaled up to the yield of several hundred kilotons, which is the level at which most major nuclear powers have capped their warhead yields.Also , I firmly believe that any Megaton fusion weapon tests must be ATMOSPHERIC.The reason being that these will not be just “development trials”.Their primary purpose would be “demonstrative”.The shock and awe value of the stunning crimson flash of a megaton range explosion will be unparalleled and stun our enemies(China and US) into dreading us.Moreover, do you care more about a spectacular event that instantly propels india to true great power status and puts a final full stop to the LAC border conflict ,or the opinion of tiny-little-nobody island states in the IOR. “Might is right” has been the bedrock of international relations ever since Neanderthals evolved into Homo sapiens.
The Modi regime’s covert cooperation with China on setting up a BRICS super-national currency is a very tricky and dangerous gamble.This is obviously meant to mitigate damage from any potential sanctions whenever we take any disruptive decision to ensure our strategic security(which will obviously not be in western interests).the other , perhaps , larger reason is the sheer contempt the modi government has received from the American establishment and their otherwise powerless European lapdogs(The British and Germans).Even under the Trump Admin, the Yankees did nothing but utter sweet words, which was readily swallowed by an erstwhile gullible and naive GOI.The Modi government’s message to the US is “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”.The GOI still, at least on paper cooperates with the US, but does not believe that the US will ever give us a broken penny.A rigorously negotiated BRICS super-national currency is clearly in our interests.Ideally, all “founding members” of BRICS should have a veto on the currency’s distribution.
GOI has made a reasonable assumption that when the BRICS currency operationalized by 2026-27 , we will be the third largest economy and our military will also be far more capable with the induction of key systems.This will hopefully provide us with more leverage.Besides, you have mentioned repeatedly in your books that India must cooperate with the Chinese to end American hegemony.
@Deepak, don’t fall for Chinese psyops… they are playing on Indian minds. Who cares if they name a few landmarks. The reality is different. Watch YouTube military interview videos by Aadi. You’ll get a real sense of the Chinese dragon. India has a long way to go, but the dragon hasn’t risen as much as you think.
A side question, now that China has started ranting over Arunachal Pradesh again do you feel we have anything left to say on Tibet in particular or we have given up all our rights on Tibet. Can we raise the Tibet issue internationally by some means?
I understand we can raise Taiwan, Xinxiang or Hong Kong, but what about Tibet?
Have proposed in my books and other writings that Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy construct be equated to New Delhi’s ‘One India’ concept, inclusive of all of the erstwhile princely kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir, including Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan — the territory now covered by the ‘Command Northern Areas” of the Pakistan Army, and the Shaksgam Valley (some 3,000 sq miles) gifted. by Ayub Khan to Zhouenlai vide the 1963 agreement. Because China will not agree, India will then be free to junk the “one China” notion central to India’s China policy. This is perfectly doable and advisable if the Indian government does not want forever to remain disadvantaged both rhetorically and substantively.
Regarding Chinese rhetoric, my view is that we should let the dragon blow hot air, and focus on getting infra, military capabilities, and partnerships/alliances right. That’s what will truly deter China. They know that Indians are highly emotional and get carried away by them and periodically make these statements. I don’t think India should do anything that takes China’s focus away from the US.
India should ‘pass the buck’ to the U.S. on China, in Prof. Mearsheimer’s language. Let the US back away from the one China policy first. The Chinese are also emotional and will do some stupid things then. What India should not do is to rile China so much that India becomes its primary focus.
In the meanwhile, I like the info warfare campaign retired Indian military officers are unleashing on social media. Be factual, calm, unemotional and puncture the dragon. Let it’s hot air blow cold.
At the same time, India should be prepared for war. As Pakistan could do something stupid with China in Gilgit Baltistan. That in my view is the one thing that can trigger war between India and China. However, by passing the buck to the US, India will get some time to prepare for this war.
I was just thinking about how Pakistan can behave to generate war between India and China. Actually, if all Pakistan cares about is bringing India down, then a ‘bait and bleed’ strategy against India could actually work. By offering Gilgit Baltistan on lease to China or worse selling it to China, Pakistan can instigate a war between India and China. The downside is loss of its own territory to China. Not sure if Pakistan wants that. But if all it wants is to bleed India, which would be the stupid part, a bait and bleed approach paradoxically might work.
Who knows, but the panjus across the border can do anything. That’s why I believe India must be proactive and redraw maps there with US help. The U.S. also has an interest in preventing the CPEC through Pak. India must leverage this convergence of interests to its benefit.
Here is an article proclaiming China’s desire to build ties with India…a la Russia.
To balance the U.S., China should have built good relations with India in the first place. But it’s stupid wolf warriors thought they could squash India like a gnat and focus on the U.S. Now that it’s post Covid economy is teetering, and India has grown in stature, China is making conciliatory noises.
I guess it’s too late. I remember in 2014 when Xi Jingping was in India how much fanfare there was about potential Chinese investments in India. But after Doklam and Galwan, both stupid mistakes on Chinas’s part, China seems to be realising it’s mistake and that India is no pushover.
I see India using this olive branch from China to increase its bargaining power – perhaps on the non dollar currency front and trade flows, while improving its position in the Indian Ocean. It will also use this uncertainty of who it will support to extract concessions from the U.S. Seems like India is coming back to its geopolitical sweet spot and THE key swing state.
In this environment, I do not see any thermo nuclear testing. I think it is more likely that India will focus on building its economic and military strength and play smart politics rather than go full on nuclear. After all, the Chinese dragon may not be all fire and a lot of hot air. Though India should not lose sight of the fact that China is its main threat, and should do everything to deter war with China.
You are way wrong here. Chinese bans on few orgs is NOTHING compared to the Deficit we have with them. ITS NOTHING. Fact is We Dont Have the Balls no more to thwart back and they know it. Coz we act like Celebrities on the Global Stage. We Lack Seriousness. Just look at our FM’s Language–“They’re Big we are Small” BS talk. We are Losing on all Fronts. There’s so much internal BS politics over religion, etc and most of them are propagated by the west and the chinese. Once the Chinese Cuts off Siliguri, It’s Game Over. Bangladesh “DREAMS” of this Scenario. Now, we have a Chinese Spy Base on Coco islands which were gifted by Nehru. And what are we doing bout it ? NOTHING. We are CHILLING by telling our folks how “Ancient” we are! We are So Fked. Piece by Piece, we are being conquered by various entities for the past 2000+ years. What a disgusting hopeless situation of which there’s no light! Sad state of affairs!
Since you already believe India is screwed, we will just have to wait and see what the outcome is. I have a different opinion, but clearly you have made up your mind. So let’s wait and watch what actually happens.
@Deepak- Brilliant Analysis
Reproduced below is an informed response by one of the few military officers whom I am acquainted with knowledgeable in nuclear deterrence matters (even if he errs, methinks, on the side of minimalism in the nuclear weapons debate!) — Colonel Ali Ahmed Zaki (Retd.), formerly of the Maratha Light Infantry; currently teaching at Jamia Millia U, New Delhi. His post available on his Blog — ‘Ali’s Version’, at https://aliahd66.substack.com/p/nukes-and-thermo-nukes-in-a-two-front.
Nukes and Thermo-Nukes in a Two Front Conflict
MAY 9, 2023
Bharat Karnad recently updated his blog, Security Wise, putting up his article, ‘Getting Serious About Thermonuclear Security: Need for New Tests, Augmented Capability and First Use Doctrine & Posture’, written for the last winter’s issue of the flagship journal of the Army’s think tank, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).
He argues that India’s nuclear capability must be upgraded, principally by introduction of thermonuclear weapons (thermo-nukes). Alongside, the nuclear doctrine must be made realistic and nuclear soft-infrastructure be toned up.
He has long been votary of renewing nuclear testing for reassurance on the workability of the thermonuclear capability; the test of which he has long since pointed out as a ‘fizzle’.
On doctrine, he outlines a ‘differentiated’ doctrine: a different nuclear doctrine and corresponding posture for each front, against China and Pakistan (and, if Karnad had his way, the third against the United States (US)!).
For strategic forces, he urges the military to get nuclear war-savvy officers into place rather than, as presently, have conventional war experts rotate through assignments at the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and at the ‘Strategic Programs Staff’.
Nukes and thermo-nukes
There is no gainsaying that nuclear weapons – being of a different order altogether – render nuclear war as warfare of its very own kind. The longevity of the nuclear taboo and the world’s non-proliferation exertions provide evidence of nuclear level being a distinct and forbidding – if not quite forbidden – territory.
Even votaries of usability of nuclear weapons rely on the unthinkability of such use – for purposes of deterrence. For them, while resulting doctrine has nuclear first use, the purpose is to allay such requirement.
Therefore, if nuclear weapons are not quite usable, the more terrifying of these – thermo-nukes – appear even less so.
Is it that nuclear deterrence only works with such weapons in the arsenal? Does only thermonuclear weapons capability deter thermonuclear weapons use?
An Indian nuclear expert, Manpreet Sethi, examining whether India needs a thermonuclear capability arrived at an answer to the contrary: these are not essential for deterrence.
Those more mindful of with the difference nuclear weapons make, such as Rajesh Basrur, have it that existential deterrence is good enough: their very possession has a deterring effect, thermo-nukes making no further difference.
Common sense says that in the Cold War mentality more – either in numbers or in yield – can never satisfy those hankering after it. Even if thermo-nukes are on hand, their numbers will be then next grouse. Their delivery modes will also consume attention and resources. Mere possession incentivises arms races.
Even so, the nuclear capability continues to remain under review, depending on geopolitical developments. The US puts out a Nuclear Posture Review at every presidential term, contemporising their role by mostly reaffirming much and changing little.
For India, the altered national security circumstance in India-China relations and the materialisation of the adversarial context of a Two Front conflict is a good juncture as any to see if nukes and thermo-nukes are answers to India’s resulting strategic predicament.
A Two Front conflict
The professorial former Army Chief, General MM Naravane, outlined how the military intended to address a Two Front conflict situation. While one front would be designated the Primary front, the other would be the Secondary one. He elaborated: ““Most of our aggression will be concentrated on the primary front and we will adopt more deterrent posturing on secondary front.”
The Primary front could be taken as one in which a political decision is sought in a particular phase of the conflict, privileging it for the nation’s ‘all of government’ attention and resources, even as a holding action proceeds on the other, Secondary, front.
Two interpretations are possible.
One is that the designations – Primary and Secondary – hold through the conflict; and, second, is that these could switch between the two fronts, depending on the political aims, strategic design and operational circumstance.
In World War I, the Western front was the primary front for the Germans, while for Hitler in World War II, the Eastern front was the primary front. Hitler’s eye on Russia led to the neutralisation of the threat towards the Secondary front to the West, prior to his turning to the Primary front, Russia.
Alternatively, in the second interpretation, in World War II, for the Germans the Primary front was to the West and once that was disposed-off in 1940, the Primary front was to the East where Operation Barbarossa unfolded in 1941.
The second interpretation could be applied to the US in World War II. For them, the Pacific was the Primary front. However, the Pacific temporarily played second fiddle for the duration between the Normandy invasion and the fall of Germany, which for the duration was the Primary front.
Between the two interpretations, a designation holding true for the duration of the Two Front conflict appears to be more likely for India.
Caught in a Two Front conflict situation, the Primary front could be the one against China or Pakistan, depending on political aims sought. While a decision is obtained on the Primary front, a holding action proceeds on the other.
A shift in strategic weight and effort from one front to the other – say, to either force a decision or gain strategic advantage or to prevent the other side from similar dividend – is possible.
An overstretched India is unlikely to be able to take out either foe. Pakistan, that can be expected to be kept afloat by co-belligerent, China – quite like the US has thrown Ukraine a lifeline in the war there – will also cock a snook at the Indian military.
Therefore, India could designate a front across either foe – flowing from political aims – as Primary front – for the first call on its resources – while keeping the second foe at bay across the Secondary front.
An example can be drawn from the 1971 War.
The Eastern front was the designated Primary front, with General KP Candeth, commanding on the Western theatre tasked to mark time initially, which he proceeded to do with the adoption of an offensive defence posture. Similar action was on part of his counterpart, General GG Bewoor, in the southern sector.
Once the conditions were set for unconditional surrender on the Eastern front, the Army proceeded with switching its strategic reserves. (One infantry unit was airlifted out of the Eastern theatre for the Western front. In the bargain, unit members received both the Poorvi Star and Paschimi Star!)
Implications for nuclear use
Given the designation – Primary or Secondary – it can be reasonably surmised that the premium on any role for nuclear weapons is less on the Secondary front than on the Primary front, though nuclear deterrence would be operational on both fronts.
Whereas India reckons nuclear weapons are for deterrence only, it may require leaning on these for compensating its conventional over-stretch. Nuclear posturing might result – through for instance signalling by their movement, manipulating the alert status and tweaking doctrine (for example by public rescinding of No First Use (NFU)) or through heightened rhetoric.
However, India shouldn’t be digging itself out of a conventional hole by nuclear resort. Nuclear asymmetry being enhanced in favour of the collusive foes, they may – taken together – command escalation dominance.
While the capability is doubled when twinned, it is unlikely the two – China and Pakistan – would collude on nuclear use. Instead, each will be wary of the other’s nuclear moves, tending each towards restraining the other.
Each is in any case capable of individually giving it back in the same coin, so does not need a leg up from the other. The independent deterrent of each is credible. While China’s is self-evidently so, the one of Pakistan has vertical proliferation, missile diversity and a better unity of command (than India’s) making for credibility.
It is with reason that the drafters of India’s draft nuclear doctrine inserted the line on necessity to keep the conventional capability honed, so that there is no compulsion to go nuclear. They of course had in mind NFU.
Even Pakistan might not require to reach for nuclear weapons by default to negate India’s conventional advantage. After India’s recent ‘rebalancing’ to the north, it might have the self-confidence to remain at the conventional level to neutralise Indian operations. It no longer needs an escalate-to-deescalate asymmetric strategy.
As for China – by all accounts – conventional asymmetry exists. It’s escalation dominance at the conventional level – Tibetan topography allowing it inner lines and a better infrastructure – prevented India from escalating the border incident into a localised, border war. China has little reason for reaching for nuclear weapons, allowing it to hold true to its No First Use (NFU) pledge.
In a Two Front situation, China would also not like Pakistan reaching for nuclear weapons either, given that their introduction into the conflict would complicate the conflict for itself immeasurably. To that extent, it might exercise influence over Pakistani military moves in favour of nuclear restraint.
Thus, while India’s two foes appear not to have any incentive for proceeding to the nuclear level, it is India that might instead be leveraging the threat of use or use of nuclear weapons – nuclear weapons being the proverbial ‘great leveller’.
How might India work nukes?
Besides advocacy for pursuing a thermonuclear capability by rekindling efficacy of warheads and delivery vectors – such as through acquisition of strategic bombers – Karnad pitches for ditching NFU in respect of China and a shift to a ‘flexible’ doctrine. Further, he wants emplacing of atomic demolition munitions on avenues of ingress, easily identified mountain passes that tend to channelise invaders.
For the Pakistan front, Karnad has always been more sanguine, holding that a war of annihilation is not likely between ethnic cousins sharing the subcontinent. All he requires is a distancing from the imbecile massive retaliation formulation in the nuclear doctrine in favour of ‘flexible response’. The ‘response’ is since the NFU could be retained to disincentivise Pakistan from going nuclear.
By all means, Karnad’s measures for nuclear modernisation must be apace.
One such could be streamlined command and control by removal of the SFC from under a civilian adviser, the National Security Adviser (NSA). (Karnad informs of an eminent scientist sneering at the nuclear comprehension levels of an NSA. Since yet another intelligence czar has followed in the footsteps of that predecessor, arguably little has changed.)
On the Pakistan front
Karnad’s posture in respect of Pakistan has much to commend it. Massive retaliation is indeed incredible. There are also environmental reasons to keep clear of such genocidal thinking.
However, the phrase ‘massive retaliation’ is in itself expressive of what Indian security planners seek. It reflects the ‘visceral hatred’ that General Prakash Menon, once Military Adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat – a nuclear expert to boot – informs on that exists between the national security establishments of the two States.
Contra Karnad, wars of annihilation aren’t unknown in South Asia. Take for instance the fratricidal one at Kurukshetra or the genocidal one in Kalinga.
This accentuates calls for greater circumspection in nuclear use thinking, which lends itself to a posture informed by a flexible response doctrine – as Karnad advocates but with different reasoning.
In a Two Front circumstance in which Pakistan is across the designated Secondary front, nuclear exchanges are, firstly, avoidable, and if it does come to it, measures need to be in place prior for an early termination of these – if not of the conflict itself.
The Army’s foremost nuclear expert, General K Sundarji, had advised as much some thirty years ago. With Pakistan matching India nuke for nuke, he appears even more prescient. (Unfortunately, his sage view got eclipsed since he lay medically indisposed even as the draft nuclear doctrine was being written up.)
Thankfully, the preliminaries in the direction of his thinking are already in hand. Though relations between the two states have been estranged for long, they have had channels going even at the worst of times. This time round, their engagement has witnessed mutual friends act as midwife.
Thus, when and if nuclear clouds do get to dot the Indus-Ganga basin, there is no longer the earlier fear of implacable escalation. Just as a succession of crises have been managed, so is a nuclear crisis also amenable to a de-escalation impulse.
The rush to de-escalate will be equally ascendant in the circumstance, as much as the feared calls to hit back harder. Pre-existing channels of engagement facilitate de-escalation.
Third parties – as the traditional one, US, and new found ones, the Gulf States – are in any case available, counter-intuitively including even in a Two Front situation, China.
On the China front
Karnad believes more needs doing for deterrence credibility. That might be so if the threat from China is existential. There are no indicators of such threat.
Geopolitically, China minimally wants India to stay out of the US orbit. Maximally, it might wish for a subordinate India.
The dictum ‘intentions can change, its capabilities that matter’ is usually trotted out to show China may exercise military muscle to intimidate India. Its growing nuclear complex – seen from newly discovered tunnelled sites – is taken as evidence.
Firstly, the additional nuclear forces are not India-specific.
Secondly, it is not self-evident how going nuclear helps India ward off salami slicing or, worse, a 1962 redux.
Salami slicing is reportedly ongoing in any case, though India is a nuclear power. As for bigger territorial bites – such as of Depsang or Tawang – these will set off a conventional war. Such a war could go nuclear.
Will either side trade mainland cities for either dispute? Does face-saving – that might get enmeshed and provoke escalation – require slicing off one’s nose?
The Indian military is categorical that it can hold its own, even if more needs doing on the infrastructure and logistics front. They have comparative advantages in human resources, training and experience (though the Agniveer scheme will not inconsiderably whittle).
Critics, as Praveen Sawhney, have it that the military is prepared for the last war. Assuming Sawhney is proved right, would Indian military setbacks incentivise it going nuclear and does doing so extricate it any?
Going the Karnad route has the advantage of telling off China not to go beyond a point. Karnad’s maximalism negates escalation dominance by China, that might otherwise embolden it to be expansive in its conflict aims – take South Tibet or assist Pakistan in helping itself to the Valley.
Assuming China has ambitious aims – unseen in any previous Chinese conflict indulgence be it in Korea, in 1962, at Ussuri or against Vietnam – this is expected to deter China from, say, heading for the Chickens’ Neck or opening up the much-feared Half Front in North East. (The Manipur happenings today show how delicate that front really is.)
In other words, it is an insurance policy against the worst – but most unlikely – case.
Besides, the opportunity cost of creating such capability – that can only detract from conventional musclebuilding – the cost of leveraging such capability at a crunch is prohibitive. Self-deterrence must and should – and, very likely, shall – kick in at the juncture.
It’s difficult to countenance trade-off between the periphery and the heartland. While nationalist sentiment will be aroused, it would only be willing to suffer pain at the periphery, not in its very midst.
To be fair to Karnad, he takes care to suggest neutralisation of the Chinese advantage of proximity to Indian heartland by shifting Indian nuclear-tipped missile deployments accordingly.
However, instructive on this might be the reaction in Calcutta in World War II, and, later in 1971 in Madras, when the USS Enterprise sailed into the Indian Ocean – which General Vijay Oberoi just reminded of.
It’s better to keep the exposed Indian heartland from being tested for resilience of its nationalism. It’s been rather inflated lately, a survey registering some two-thirds believing India can whip China.
While air and missile strikes have been known to steel the nationalist instinct, much is conjectured on what nuclear strikes do to social cohesion. The migration at the onset of the Covid lockdown might have some clues.
What is certain is that the Half Front might willy-nilly become an all-consuming Primary front.
Nuclear maximalism has the advantage of being difficult to disprove. In respect of the Cold War, the argument goes that it such extreme precautions are what kept it cold. However, revisionist Cold War history has it that the Soviets did not require being deterred, since they never quite had any intention of going down that route to begin with.
China should not be built up as the villain in the Soviet mould, that then requires Cold War levels of arming to deter.
The days of colonisation long gone, there is no existential threat that requires nukes to counter. Instead, its nukes that generate an existential threat.
The border problem, amenable to a negotiated settlement, is being kept alive by both in their geopolitical face off.
A recent article in Foreign Affairs by noted India watcher – a nuclear expert himself – Ashley Tellis should gladden Chinese hearts. He says India not getting to be a US stooge anytime soon, though it will tug its coattails for any benefits, milking their mutual concerns on China.
If Ashley Tellis is right, India has no intention of joining the supposedly impending wars of global hegemony. China, even if victor would be duly whittled in such a war, making it easier to manage by an intact India.
The Indian policy for the interim is very clear in maintaining status quo on the border zone. Notwithstanding Dr. S Jaishankar’s Jai-speak and Jai-isms on YouTube, India is long reconciled that status quo ante of May 2020 is ruled out.
Consequently, there is no reason to up the nuclear ante, other than moving to flexible doctrine (in keeping with Karnad), with the NFU kept under scrutiny for revision (a step short of Karnad).
Rescinding the NFU would in itself be potent messaging. If it comes to it, First Use would per force have to steer clear of strategic use, kept restricted to preventing operational setbacks. Cities must be kept hostage.
There are absolutely no issues – including the improbable one of being reduced to a tributary by the Middle Kingdom – that require India to run the risk to its cities.
China is of itself not going down the route of city exchange(s). To hold that only thermos-nukes will deter it from doing so is to be negate deterrence value of non-thermo-nuke nukes.
China has no reason to get to that level – knowing that receiving such a strike from India would set it back in its race with the US. Vicarious learning from Russian experience for it is that should prevent India from serving as proxy for the US.
For its part, India has no reason to provoke China to such levels of anger, fear or opprobrium.
To be sure, thermo-nukes have their uses: more bang for the buck and best use of delivery vehicles getting through to the Chinese heartland of megalopolises.
The alternative of multiple warhead-carrying missiles is however available for an inventory that does not have thermo-nukes. The same number of missiles require getting through and the damage is arguably more wide spread.
Even so, no harm in testing the capability yet again to bring it up to speed, if and when opportunity as resumed testing by any of the Permanent Five presents itself.
Karnad presents no pressing reason to jump the gun for now. The moratorium on testing being unilateral is liable for a unilateral jettison.
Deterrence by punishment of the levels Karnad wishes can wait.
Not the last word
Karnad might be right and ahead of his times, but for clinching his argument he needs taking nuclear deterrence theory further.
Deterrence theory has it that nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons. For some of the nuclear first use school, nuclear weapons deter war itself.
There is no line in deterrence theology books that reads: Only thermo-nukes deter thermo-nukes. For now, this requires proving.