India’s former foreign secretary and current member of the National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran, declared a few days ago that even the smallest of nuclear attacks by Pakistan on India would be met with a massive response. This statement is interesting for multiple reasons, not the least of which is from whom it came. Though it is refreshing to get even a murmur out of what is essentially an opaque nuclear regime, the profession of faith in an old Cold War strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) deserves closer scrutiny.

Essentially, MAD postulates the use of high-yield nuclear weapons to annihilate enemy targets, be they military, population, or industrial centres. This idea grew out of World War II era convictions about strategic bombing when nuclear weapons were seen merely as bigger bombs. It was only with the understanding of what the nuclear age really meant – magnification of force and compression of time – that the problems with MAD began to be noticed. Its insistence on massive retaliation draws a red line that reduces operational flexibility; furthermore, giving little to no incentive for the adversary to step back, MAD becomes a rapid downward spiral, a race to the bottom, allowing for no alternative but total annihilation for even the smallest of nuclear provocations. In that sense, MAD is more of a suicide pact than a military strategy.

Most disconcertingly, the dyad-specific thresholds upon which MAD operates are not clear – is a nuclear strike against an advancing Indian armoured column on Pakistani soil an attack on India?; is a warning detonation on barren Indian soil grounds for launching total war? For that matter, would Islamabad be willing to rain tactical nuclear warheads on its own soil if the Indian Army pushed through and tried to cut across Pakistan? The potentially disproportionate response also reduces the credibility of MAD, not to mention that in the event of a failure of deterrence, there is no incentive for the enemy to hold back from an overwhelming first strike.

But if total annihilation does not deter, what does? Some theorists have argued that if deterrence by annihilation does not work, the pre-nuclear era concept of deterrence by denial (inability of adversary to win an exchange) would. This was the birth of the notion of limited nuclear warfare. As World War II era mass bombing was found to be ineffective in breaking the enemy’s morale, limited warfare enthusiasts argued for counterforce (military assets) rather than countervalue (cities and industrial centres) targeting and developing an assured second strike capability. With technological improvements in warheads and their delivery systems, such precision with smaller bombs was made possible. The intent was to stablise nuclear conflict, increase control over escalation, and manipulate threats more adroitly.

Seen closely, deterrence by denial begins where deterrence by punishment fails – if the fear of nuclear war does not give the enemy pause, the fact that it has no hopes of winning one might. Despite its arguable appeal over MAD, limited nuclear war theory creates problems of its own: the temptation to escalate for the weaker side, and an arms race resulting from the larger arsenals required to insure against a neutralising counterforce first strike.

The use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan must indeed be met with counter use; otherwise, the deterrent value of India’s nuclear arsenal will go down in future conflicts. Deterrence is not about one side’s will and capability to use nuclear weapons but the adversary’s perception of it; the better one is perceived as being prepared for using nuclear weapons, the more credible the deterrence effect. In this regard, some transparency in terms of a clearly and publicly articulated doctrine and approximate force composition would increase stability, as would clamp down on idle and jingoistic rhetoric. Saran’s invocation of MAD as a strategy is a response that has not been properly thought out, at least against Pakistan.

The three nuclear-era crises between India and Pakistan – the 1990 border standoff, Kargil in 1999, and the one in May 2002 after Pakistani-backed terrorists attacked the Indian parliament – all reveal Pakistan’s very low nuclear threshold. This is not only because of India’s conventional superiority but also largely because as a much smaller country than India, Pakistan lacks the strategic depth to allow a conventional war play out for too long. Islamabad’s last resort will very likely also be its first response.

As a revisionist state, it is evident that Pakistan would be more willing than India to take risks, spanning the entire spectrum from pinpricks to cannonballs. New Delhi must not only be able to respond well, but make it clear that India is prepared to fight and is able to win at every level of violence. Yet while meting out punishment, Raisina Hill must not forget its second goal of damage limitation.

The standard critique of any nuclear strategy is that it pins much hope on the rationality of all actors. In the case of Pakistan, a jihadist-infested state teetering on the verge of failure, this is a great concern. While one can hope that senior military officials and political leaders in Pakistan, through their interaction with the international community, understand the “rules of the game,” religious zealots and fanatics such as the ones plaguing and being supported by Pakistan are unpredictable.

Indian planners must not overstate the irrationality either – however hardline some of Pakistan’s senior military officials are, they are under no illusion that even India’s rudimentary nuclear capabilities are enough to mean the end of their beloved nation. The Inter Services Intelligence, for example, would rather prosecute the war with India on a low flame through a thousand terrorist pinpricks; Pakistan’s nuclear shield would act as a circuit breaker and mitigate the scope and intensity of India’s responses. To these hardened realists, India’s MAD doctrine will ring hollow because of the proximity of the two states – no government will risk the resultant fallout of total nuclear war for only a small infraction.

But what of the irreconcilable Islamists? Pakistan certainly has many of those too, but New Delhi cannot fashion a strategy predicated on the assumption of an intractable suicide mission by the other side. India can only exert pressure through international partners on Islamabad to keep the jihadists in check; one would hope that Pakistan would do so for its own sake as well.

What is interesting about Saran making the pronouncement is that he is high enough in the Indian hierarchy not to be ignored but does not hold any official senior position that he cannot be overridden if the situation warranted it.

Nonetheless, the message India should be sending Pakistan is that the second user faces no nuclear taboo as the initiator of a nuclear exchange might; nuclear weapons may be, as one scholar wrote, “weapons of last resort – for us, at least – but last resort should not be confused with no resort.” While India indeed separates survival-of-state threats from lesser ones, New Delhi sees no stigma attached to the use of nuclear weapons. This posture encourages the separation of the Pakistani nationalist generals who would be unwilling to risk the survival of their country from the suicidal Islamists. One hopes that the perception of a strong will, military capability, and a clear strategy from New Delhi is enough for Islamabad to hold the dogs of nuclear war on a tight leash.

 

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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