A lot of Twaddle about AI and nuclear weapons, tacnukes

[Agni on the way]

I have no patience anymore for uninformed commentaries on nuclear deterrence penned by people who wear their unfamiliarity with the broad swath of deterrence literature and with the empirical evidence of nearly 80 years of the nuclear age, on their sleeve. Missing the nuclear woods for the trees is one thing. Quite another for these worthies to convert the analects of minimal deterrence into articles of faith. With logic, reason and experience thus rested, who can argue with faith?

What particularly gets my goat are former flag rank military officers who are tigers when growling for more and more conventional weaponry but kittens mewing contentedly with just a small nuclear arsenal. This last because anything nuclear-related is the proverbial “black box” technology that they know nothing about, have never handled, and is a subject they don’t care to delve into. This doesn’t however prevent them from mouthing off on TV and writing op-eds and such that hew safely to the government line of the day. Like the infrequent official pronouncements, their views betray ignorance of the broad field and amount to little more than minimalist drivel that has acquired a smidgeon of legitimacy simply by its repitition! Like how nuclear weapons are for deterrence, not warfighting, how a responsible India is committed to credible minimum deterrence on the principle first voiced by General K. Sundarji in the 1980s when less was known about the utility of nuclear weapons than is the case now, that when a few will do why have more, etc., indicating a laid-back attitude to the country’s strategic security that, because it echoes opinions one hears in military circles, is truly worrisome.

The provocation for this post is a particularly senseless and grating piece of dross published in ThePrint– ‘India should declare that AI will not be used to autonomously launch nuclear weapons’, dated 16 May, penned by retired Lt. General Prakash Menon (at https://theprint.in/opinion/india-should-declare-that-ai-will-not-be-used-to-autonomously-launch-nuclear-weapons/1575693/ ). He repeats the usual half-digested nuclear minimum deterrence themes that none of the great powers follow because they are so much impractical nonsense.

However, what ‘s notably risible, and at once foolish and dangerous in this article is General Menon’s urging India to foreswear the use of Artificial Intelligence in nuclear forces and deterrence infrastructure. AI is a dawning technology that’s still in its formative development stage, meaning the universe of its uses is yet to be discerned, especially so its potentially wide-ranging military ramifications. The militaries and governments of the more advanced states are all struggling with this obviously revolutionary technology they have in its basic form, whence their utmost caution in rushing to judgement about AI. But Menon, apparently unaffected by any doubt or uncertainty, and confident he has grasped its various applications and functional significance sees clearly its downside even as such understanding has so far escaped the putative leaders in the field — China and the US.

The trouble is if the General actually has any technical knowledge of, and insights, into AI then these are not readily evident in this article. Rather, he seems to have conjoined, on the fly, nuclear weapons to AI, and because they are both pretty scary technologies, concluded that AI should play no part in India’s nuclear deterrence systems and posture! And further, that this gesture by India of preempting itself from such use of AI, will set an example to all countries, be a beacon of hope in the militarised global milieu, confirm the country’s supposed high moral stature and standing, and its leadership in a new area of arms control. Such a view exaggerates India’s international influence, and is unmindful of how India’s moral pretensions have seminally hurt national interest and security in the past.

May be Lt. General Menon and his ilk need a bit of reminding about the record of Indian moralising and airy-fairy thinking that, in converting nuclear security into a morality play, dumped the country into a deep strategic hole.

In an excess of idealism, Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s campaigned for a ban on nuclear testing in the atmosphere and under the sea. It led to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty that India promptly signed, thereby immeasurably raising the costs of India’s weaponisation. Underground tests are far more expensive to conduct than nuclear tests in the atmosphere or in the extended seas around India. So, while Nehru played a wondrously successful double-game of secretly securing a weapons capability with the civilian uses of the atom and his campaign for disarmament as cover, he dithered fatally on moral-pacifist grounds when it came to testing and weaponizing once the capability threshold was reached with the commissioning in March 1964 of the plutonium reprocessing plant. Had the production of weapon grade plutonium been ratcheted up at this point and the government proceeded with testing and producing weapons when there were no international constraints, India would have automatically been, like China, one of the six 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty-recognized nuclear weapons states, and on a very different and rocketing power trajectory. Instead, by remaining sub-nuclear, India found itself in the NPT doghouse.

If Nehru’s terminal prevaricating wasn’t bad enough, Morarji Desai, PM during the Janata Party interregnum (1976-1979), who swore by “Gandhian values”, was determined on abolishing the country’s nuclear weapon-making capability altogether. Only an inspired rearguard action by a senior MEA official (M.A.Vellodi) thwarted Desai’s plan that, incidentally, had his foreign minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s support. Not surprisingly, the same inapt moralistic-pacific impulses mixed with the political desire to placate the US led to Vajpayee, now prime minister, to announce in 1998 the “voluntary moratorium” on testing in the wake of the Shakti series of tests despite being officially warned that the thermonuclear device (S-1) tested was a dud and more tests were necessary to obtain a certified and proven 2-stage Hydrogen Bomb. As a consequence, the country is presently stuck between and betwixt, with a flawed high-yield, simulation-jigged, fusion weapon packing zero credibility, and an Indian government, first under Manmohan Singh and, since 2014, under Narendra Modi, lacking the political guts and the will to act in paramount national interest and quite literally blow up the moratorium and the NPT-driven international system with an open-ended series of thermonuclear blasts.

That will help India obtain a versatile and potent nuclear inventory of simple fission weapons, of course, but also thermonuclear weapons of various weight-to-yield ratios as the bulk force, including megaton range warheads, complimented by rapidly tested and operationalised MIRV-ed (Multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicle-ed) Agni Iintermediate Range Ballistic Missiles and genuine Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles of 12,000-mile range. Having thus displayed the resolve, if need be, to undermine the current global nuclear order combined with India’s economic muscle will, willy-nilly, gain the country entry into the councils of great powers.

This, I have long argued, is India’s gateway to great power, and not the flim-flamming diplomcy — G-20, SCO, Quad summits, and Modi flying hither and yon. Not that such diplomacy cannot be the window dressing for an Indian policy backed by real, not fictional, thermonuclear heft. But until then India will remain what it has always been — a supplicant, except these days it begs for military high tech, jet turbine powerplant design and engineering, H1B visas and, in return, is treated indulgently at least for the nonce by the US and the West, as something of a magnified nuisance, as the dog that’s taken into the tent, as US President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s advised in another context, just so it pisses out than be kept out only for it to piss into the great power tent.

Prakash Menon’s whimsical advice to forego AI when the country is still at the starting block of capability development epitomises the sort of self-abnegatory mindset that was more prevalent in the policy establishment in the past — of giving up leverage before acquiring it, and if and when acquired, negotiating it away (as in the case of the 2008 Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation deal that sent a whole bunch of indigenous natural uranium-fueled reactors into the international safeguards regime, thereby reducing the fissile material available for reprocessing to weapon grade)! It reflects still the traces of that thinking in government and in vast sections of the Indian intelligentsia and thinktank/academic community, who seem to be in thrall to the Hiroshima syndrome and believe that there are no good arms that can’t be done away with, failing which, controlled. Such sentiments resonate with powerful policy lobbies in the US and the West that have long sought a world where, as the late K.C. Pant memorably put it, the unarmed or the nominally armed are disarmed! But there are payoffs for such writing — offers of short term attachment in the flourishing thinktank industry in Washington/Europe and its extension, in Singapore, invitations to international seminars and conferences, etc..

That among this lot are former senior military officers, such as Prakash Menon, ought to be a matter of concern. Because, owing to their background, they are assumed by their foreign hosts to enjoy more access in government circles than they actually do, and to be privy to official thinking, which they are not and, hence, what they say and write is paid heed. They could, in the event, end up sending the wrong message about what the Indian government may be inclined to accept or may be induced/pressured into accepting bilaterally or in multilateral forums. Which is another way of saying that General Menon, et al, are, perhaps, taken seriously for no fault of their own.

Still, it doesn’t take away from the shallowness of their writings. Consider another recent, equally baffling, article by Menon (Should India make tactical nukes to counter China? Delhi’s no first-use rule has no room for it”, dated 4 April. at https://theprint.in/opinion/should-india-make-tactical-nukes-to-counter-china-delhis-no-first-use-rule has-no-room-for-it/1494421/ ) In it, the General, having swallowed whole that antique, entirely discredited, massive retaliation notion, contends, in effect, that India can do without tacnukes given that there’s no situation the threat of massive retaliation cannot solve, and hence that they are extraneous to need! Conceived as a knee-jerk reaction by the US early in the Cold War when the Soviet Union enjoyed massive conventional military superiority but had no atom bomb, the massive retalition idea was quickly discarded once Moscow tested a fission weapon in 1949. Then again, Menon is a votary of massive retaliation, not because he has given it thought, but likely because he does not want to stray far from the safety of the gazetted nuclear doctrine of January 3, 2004 featuring this concept and the No First Use principle.

By way of negativing tacnukes for the country, for instance, he dismisses the promised early use of tacnukes in a losing conventional war by Pakistan by saying India prepares to only fight limited wars and, in any case, that the mere presence of nuclear weapons on both sides dampens their nuclear ardour. As regards China, he accepts at face value its claim that it doesn’t possess tactical nuclear weapons and, moreover, that because a “big fight” is not what, he thinks, the PLA has in in mind to wage against India, that nuclear weapons use won’t come into the picture. Voila! why tacnukes? Such naivete and gullibility is excusable in an undergrad student, but in a Lieutenant General, albeit retired, it is positively alarming if such attitude is assumed to permeate the officer corps in the armed services. It certainly explains why Beijing finds it so easy, time and again, to get the better of India.

It turns out though that General Menon’s take on the country’s nuclear deterrent stance does not even fit reality! National Security Adviser to Manmohan Singh, his namesake, Shivshankar Menon, has written and spoken on numerous occasions about the fact that there may be military situations in which India could opt for nuclear first use and that, for all intent and purposes, the government and the Strategic Forces Command, unbenownst to Prakash Menon, long ago reverted, for practical reasons, to punitive retaliation/flexible response strategy touted by the 1998 draft doctrine produced by the first National Security Advisory Board, which posture, ipso facto, requires a large stock of tacnukes.

This doctrinal reversion has not been publicly ballyhooed; perhaps it should be so the likes of the Lt. General don’t consistently go off on the wrong track. It indicates there is more flexibility in the country’s response calculus than the former Military Adviser (MA) to the National Security Council (NSC) is in the know of. His advice that punitive response strategy replace massive retaliation is his contribution to the country’s debate on nuclear deterrence! But he apparently has no idea why punitive response mandates more tacnukes in the Indian arsenal which, in turn, undercuts his advocacy for ‘No Tacnukes’! (He may care to read my 2002 tome Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security for the deterrence literature-cum-Cold War experience underpinnings for why a punitive response strategy to be credible requires a big stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons of 2, 5,10 kiloton yields.)

There is, however, a curious aspect to the doctrinal rectification that Menon seeks. Such a modified doctrine, per conclusions drawn from Shivshankar Menon’s statements, has been in place since 2011-2014 when the General was, as mentioned, MA to NSC. That he knew nothing about this change confirms what is common knowledge that the Military Adviser is no part, and has never been, of any nuclear decisionmaking loop in government or the military. Indeed, as far as I know, no one holding that post has been allowed anywhere near Trombay. But it is still hard to account for Menon’s ignorance of a basic doctrinal change as realised in the field, and calls for more situtional awareness on his part. Absent that, Menon seems quite as much at sea as most everybody else in government and the military insofar as the nuts and bolts of nuclear deterrence are concerned, which is what AI and tacnukes are about.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, disarmament, Europe, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indo-Pacific, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Missiles, nonproliferation, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Pakistan nuclear forces, Russia, russian military, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US., war & technology, Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to A lot of Twaddle about AI and nuclear weapons, tacnukes

  1. Amit says:


    I too was bemused by that article by Gen. Menon. The only reason provided for India to foregoing AI launched weapon systems was that the U.S. did it! No other explanation or rationale. Normally when the US does such things they have solid backup plans that allow it to make such statements which are meant for rhetoric rather than serious policy positions.

    I also agree that most military officers in India are not very aggressive when it comes to nuclear weapons. Almost all toe the regular line of minimal deterrence, NFU, no tacnukes etc. India should change its nuclear policy to NFU against China like you suggest (like the Chinese seem to have done against India). And test thermo nuclear technology at an appropriate time.

    As for AI, the max number of AI trained people globally are in India. I am familiar with data science and engineering companies in the U.S. Majority of the U.S. folks in this field are also Indians! Additionally, some of the top people in this field are also Indians. I would hypothesise that the U.S. is dependent on Indians in this field! With such Human Resource advantages, why the Indian military does not lead in this space is beyond me. Maybe it’s changing, but it’s not visible yet from the outside.

  2. Amit says:


    Here is an article written by a Goldman Sachs leader, which I think will be of interest to your blog’s readers. One of the most reasonable articles I’ve read in a long time. About the rise of swing states in geopolitics and how it impacts global businesses.


  3. Ayush says:

    Totally agree with you on the mind-blowing ignorance prevailing among the military leadership.In fact, the military leadership itself is the single biggest obstacle in the transfromation of the Indian armed forces into a great-power level combat force.These people had the excuse of “non-existent local industry” 15-20 years ago.Now,that excuse no longer applies.The Indian DPSU’s and private sector can develop everything from handheld loitering munitions to bleeding edge xenon thrusters for satellite propulsion.As you have mentioned before,”vested interests” tend to develop when any service imports such massives volumes of expensive weaponry from abroad.It is this disgusting , puke-inducing corruption that is still preventing the armed forces from aquiring critically-needed 1 ton gaurav glide bombs,QRSAM,MPATGM,large numbers of Arjun Mk1A’s and more.

    These “generals” are the same people who leak confidential documents to western intel channels like the following “defense journalist”.https://theprint.in/india/cbi-books-defence-journalist-under-official-secrets-act-for-leaking-info-to-foreign-agencies/1577086/.The arrest of this “journalist” is, in fact ,an absolutely golden-oppportunity to root-out and eliminate the “sources” of this “journalist”.Unless and until Western intel parasites located deep inside the MoD are eliminated,this nonesense will continue indefinitely.It’s high-time we adopt SMERSH-style ruthlessness to deal with the one too many traitors. (China did this in 2011 and dealt an irrecoverable blow to the CIA station in Beijing). I am inclined to believe that this “journalist” will lead us to an entire cesspool of traitors lurking within the establishment if investigated properly.

    Begging for the American GE F414(which will apparently be granted to us next month) makes absolutely zero sense to me.In fact,once they are done begging the US,they plan to go to Europe with their begging bowl for a separate engine for AMCA mk2!Despite their cheap bombast meant to please the largely illiterate masses (like themselves!) the GOI has no shame.In any case, we can easily secure a 100% ToT deal for the bleeding edge ,variable-cycle,thrust-vectoring AL-41F saturn engine from Russia.The Russian AL-41F is incontrovertibly superior to anything the US or its European lapdogs can offer to us.And in this case,there will be no strings attached as Russia provided us far more sensitive nuclear-propulsion tech 20 years ago.In fact, this engine also more than satisfies the requirements of AMCA mk2.Given the rather desperate situation of the Russia right now,such a deal can be made relatively quickly and cheaply.Moreover,the US’ own overhyped F135 engine (for F-35) is prone to very frequent breakdowns and cannot deliver enough power for the sensor-suite of the aircraft.That engine is so unreliable that the availability rates of the trillion-dollar F-35 has never been more than 50%.

    My interpretation from information you have provided in this piece is that we have built a relatively small force of tacnukes over the past few years and the Pralay missile might very well serve a dual-use purpose like the Russian Iskander.Moreover,you tend to exagerrate the impact Indo-US nuclear deal has had on fissile material production.We easily have enough plutonium to produce more than 200 warheads.M0reover,at the underground facilites in Challakere and Mysore we are apparently producing hundreds of kilgorams of HEU every year.Written agreements are always a scrap of wood pulp,especially for large countries like ours.It is Modi’s call to take the right step and carry out full-yield ATMOSPHERIC megaton range tests and elevate us to great power status.ATMOSPHERIC tests wil eliminate any doubt our enemies(US-China) have about the functionality of our weapons but will also produce a tremendous shock and awe effect.In fact,he needs to do this not just to secure great-power status but probably his own physical and political life from a Chinese assault which I believe is highly likely in the next 12 months.

    • Amit says:

      @Ayush, to equate the US as an enemy would be to make the same dumb mistake that the US, and China have made – have two great powers as explicit adversaries. India needs to cultivate the US however difficult they are, while focusing only on China as a great power adversary.


    Another wonderful article by your mighty pen Dr karnad. I would love to know what are your thoughts on so many West Asian countries boycotting G20 in Srinagar ? I believe China is the main reason here and not Pakistan. What are your thoughts on this ?

  5. Ayush says:

    The US has been and will remain the ultimate enemy of our country.The only reason why the Chinese dare to do the kind of nonsense we see at the LAC is because of the lack of tested megaton TN’s.And why don’t we have them —because of the US! Also, guess why the Chinese don’t dare to even lift a proverbial finger at the much longer (4,000km long) Sino-Russian border despite the Russian far-east being immensely mineral rich and the border being rather exposed due to Russia’s ongoing heavy commitment at the Ukraine front.Yes , you might have guessed it right it is because of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.In fact, the same analogy can be applied to NATO in the Kaliningrad front.The reason why people like Dr Karnad and me endlessly keep yapping about megaton nukes is because they confer you the ability to completely level even the largest of cities and any underground command post,serving as an extremely potent deterrent against the enemy.

    What we have to do now is to suck the US dry of critical technologies just like parasites.Fortunately, this is what the Modi government has in its mind when it deals with the US.Make no mistake, they are under no illusions regarding the Yankees.

    • Amit says:

      @Ayush, there is no doubt about the hegemonic ambitions of the Yanks. So they will do everything to prevent peer competitors. But right now the peer competitor is China, and it has realised that it can’t contain China on its own. So it needs India, and will therefore support its rise. On the other hand, US won’t allow India to become a peer competitor or at least try pretty hard not to. So you may think that this is why he US is an enemy.

      However, India MUST be friendly with the U.S. and try to extract benefits from it, just like you say. There will be no TOT if India is not friendly. So India must leverage the goodwill that exists for its benefit, not destroy it by being inimical to the U.S. India can’t take on China on its own, leave alone taking both the US and China. However, India must also recognise that the U.S. won’t allow it to become a peer competitor, but that day is still far away.

      Regarding nuclear deterrence, I’m not convinced you need a thermo nuclear weapon alone. India can change its NFU policy and this itself could be a significant deterrent. But yes, India should build a strong TN deterrent. Building a strong conventional military is also a strong deterrent. The kaddus in China are trying the same thing they are in the South China Sea, but India is no Philipines, Vietnam or even Japan. They may have taken India by surprise, but the Chinese have been surprised by India’s resilient response as well.


    Dear Dr Karnad

    I want to know your views on 2 issues.

    1. Will the Manipur crisis and ongoing civil war in Myanmar distract Indian military presence away from our borders with China ?
    2. How should India react to the fact that Russia is unable to supply for our military needs due to the ongoing war in Ukraine ?

  7. Gram Massla says:

    ” AI is a dawning technology that’s still in its formative development stage….”. True. The potent jurisdiction of AI is so wide and unfathomable that some are already predicting doomsday. With a wily and thoroughly amoral adversary such as China it is bad strategy to lay all of one’s cards on the table. Gen Menon may be operating under the Stanley Kubrick principle. Kubrick predicted AI going haywire in his classic movie, A Clockwork Orange.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.