The No-First-Use Nonsense

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 11, 2009 12:49 hrs

Col. (Dr.) Anil Athale is a Chattrapati Shivaji Fellow of the United Services Institute, Co-ordinator of Pune based think tank Inpad,  and co-author of `Nuclear Menace: the Satyagraha Approach` published in 1997.  As a military historian he specialises in insurgency and peace process.
The recent controversy triggered by nuclear scientist Dr K. Santhanam`s remarks  that the 1998 nuclear tests were less than successful refuses to die down.

What adds to the Indian disquiet are recent reports from various sources, including the US, about Pakistan`s efforts to rapidly increase the size and quality of its own nuclear arsenal.

Perhaps this is what prompted Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor to remark that India will have to respond to the adverse changes in its security environment.  

To counter this, some involved in fashioning the Indian policy in this sphere have joined the debate, asserting that Indian `strategy` of `No First Use` remains valid and effective and there is no need to react to the changed environment.

Santhanam`s claims absurd: Govt

But this is too serious an issue to be left to just Delhi`s inner circles, since the very survival of India is at stake. A debate ought to take place in public domain so that the government of the day can steer the nation on a safe course.

But before that, we must understand deterrence.  

Deterrence as a concept is not new to warfare. Nations created and maintained armed forces of sufficient strength to deter would-be adversaries.  In the nuclear era it became a central concept, since failure of deterrence meant nuclear war, a war that all agreed would be catastrophic.  

Deterrence is a combination of `capability` and `credibility`. Capability depends on the size and effectiveness of the arsenal,  while credibility is dependent on the kind of delivery systems (missiles/aircraft/submarines),  their range, accuracy and reliability.

But in addition credibility is also a `political` factor and a matter of perception. This perception stems from a country`s past behaviour, its societal cohesion, the efficiency of its government and its perceived willingness and ability to strike back against any aggression.

When the sum total of capability & credibility of two nations more or less equals and cancels out each other, the deterrence becomes mutual and is a factor of stability and leads to peace. This is what happened during most of the `Cold War` era.  

But nuclear deterrence is not omnipotent. Even during the Cold War era, when it worked, proxy conflicts between the two super powers continued - be it in Korea, Vietnam or in Afghanistan. Thus nuclear deterrence is issue specific- it prevents a direct nuclear war between adversaries,  and even a direct conventional conflict at best.  

India went wrong in Kargil in 1999, when nuclear sabre-rattling by Pakistan was used effectively while we  lulled ourselves. The stand down after Operation Parakaram in the wake of attack on the Indian Parliament in 2002,  as well as our inability to react to Mumbai attack on 26/11,  showed the limits of our retaliatory capability.

Pakistan has successfully used rhetoric and threats to effectively neutralise our conventional response. Over the past decade, despite its bluster, India has always blinked first.

Our strategy of retaliation with surgical strikes or the new strategy of `cold start` (essentially the formation of integrated battle groups for faster and more effective offensive operations) remains on paper, because the enemy rightly believes that we lack the political will any offensive operation entails. Our conventional retaliation strategy lacks `credibility` and therefore is no deterrent.

The issue is not of mere `will` either. India also lacks the overwhelming technological /numerical superiority to implement this. For instance, Israel has been successfully employing `threat of retaliation` as a deterrent to proxy or terrorist threats. The Israeli technical prowess makes it a credible threat and its past behaviour has established its will to act.  

In case of India the exact opposite is true. Our conventional superiority or edge has been whittled away by the `unintended` (but not necessarily unknown) consequence of American military aid to Pakistan to battle ‘terrorists’. In addition,  an increasingly aggressive China has consciously built up Pakistani military capability to checkmate India.

The colossal failure of DRDO (Defence Research & Development Organisation) has contributed equally to our predicament. A comparison of the progress achieved by a tinpot dictatorship like North Korea in the field of missile development vis a vis us, will illustrate the point.

The truth is we are not serious about security.   
Pakistan, an economic basket case with rudimentary industry, a crumbling society torn by internal strife ought not to have been a threat to a nation of one billion plus,  with the world`s second fastest growing economy, a sound industrial base and a functioning democracy.

The Pakistani threat is essentially a proxy Chinese threat and the consequence of insensitive American policies. Dealing with Pakistan without dealing with the `source` of this threat is like applying band-aid to counter AIDS. We have no choice but to fashion a diplomatic, military and economic response to counter these policies.

The Indian Elephant cannot be a `pet`,  and the sooner it wakes up to the fact that it has to go alone the better.  

Unfortunately, Indian strategic thinking has been reduced to chanting of the mantra of `No first Use` and second strike capability. But we have an enemy that has not given a No First Use pledge,  and relies on calculated irrationality (the Mad Mullah image) as a strategy. We have not factored these asymmetries in our nuclear strategy.  

It ought to be made clear to Pakistan that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but nor will it be the second.

Let me explain. Let us imagine a scenario of a repeat of 26/11 like attack. Our satellites then detect Pakistan moving its F-16s to forward bases and start arming of its missiles.  Are we then to wait for the first nuclear bomb to fall on Delhi before we retaliate?  
Given the situation in our neighbourhood, we have to think of fighting and surviving a nuclear war. It may sound bizarre and completely heartless to think of it, but reality is far worse and being unprepared is a sin that future generations will not forgive us for.

Pakistan`s approach to nuclear and other threats can be summed up in pithy Urdu phrase-`Nange se Khuda bhi darta hai! (Even God is fearful of a shameless person)`.To deal with this kind of situation our retaliatory capability has to be based on a minimum of 1,000 Prithvi missiles that can not merely retaliate but `annihilate` the aggressor country. Anything less than that will continue to invite `probing` attacks by that rogue nation.  

But to return to the main theme, the current `rational` retaliation threat,  based on no first use will certainly not deter Pakistan from testing our patience and limits of tolerance.

The next provocation could well be a Jihadi nuclear attack!
Also see: Time to divide Pakistan?  Pakistan Terror Map | What can we do?  |   Pakistan at war with itself?  | How to deal with Pakistan | More by Col Athale

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