Taking a cue from the Russian nuclear strategy, Bharat Karnad, in an article for ThePrint asserted that India should discard its No First-Use (NFU) nuclear policy in favour of the first-use doctrine, targeted principally against China. The underlying argument is that since India is not sufficiently capable of deterring and defeating “expansive-minded China” conventionally, it should threaten China with limited nuclear escalation to deter aggression in Eastern Ladakh. Theoretically, Karnad suggests that India adopt the asymmetric escalation strategy, operationalising tactical nuclear weapons as warfighting instruments against large-scale conventional threats to deter and defeat their outbreak.
Conventional inferiority and nuclear compensation
The idea of limited nuclear response emerged during the Cold War. In the early phase of the cold war, both the United States and the Soviet Union threatened massive retaliation in response to nuclear and conventional aggression. However, the advent of thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs in the mid-1950s, employing the principle of nuclear fusion, made strategies of massive retaliation increasingly suicidal. Any first use of nuclear weapons would have led to massive nuclear retaliation in response, causing an unprecedented catastrophe and irreversible devastation to both the warring parties. The threat of limited nuclear response was introduced as a relatively more credible option to deter conventional threats. As a result, both the US and USSR stockpiled thousands of low-yield nuclear weapons to control escalation.
The idea of limited nuclear war gained credence when States such as Pakistan and North Korea acquired nuclear weapons. Equipped with low-grade military hardware and relatively weak military forces, they faced the pressing challenge of deterring conventionally superior adversaries. Thus, to compensate for their inferiority, they adopted the threat of limited nuclear war to deter conventional aggression. Indeed, there is a general claim that conventional inferiority produces nuclear compensation.
However, as rational as asymmetric escalation sounds, it can be questioned on the following grounds:
First, the conventional inferiority thesis assumes that the nuclear deterrent is more attractive than conventional military options. Nuclear weapons are massively destructive than their conventional counterparts; however, the same cannot be said about their usability. Historical records show that nuclear weapons have little military utility. Nuclear weapons do not aid ground forces in capturing or holding territory, nor do they help win wars of aggression. In short, nuclear weapons cannot be used to achieve limited political and military objectives. In the Indian context, asymmetrical threats from Pakistan can be addressed with conventional instruments (e.g., surgical strikes on enemy targets). Moreover, as demonstrated by the Indian Army’s capture of the Kailash Range crest during the Galwan standoff in August 2020, it is clear that proactive deployment of our armed forces is enough to tackle Chinese aggression.
Second, the asymmetric escalation strategy assumes that States can control nuclear escalation, or limited nuclear escalation would remain limited without risking massive nuclear exchange. The challenge of controlling escalation and the credibility of limited nuclear threats are two well-recognised problems in academic and strategic circles. The limited nuclear attack cannot be hermetically separated from full-scale nuclear war. Robert Jervis argued, “Even a slight chance that a provocation could lead to nuclear war will be sufficient to deter all but highly motivated adversaries.”
Third,the argument for India employing nuclear weapons against China assumes that China is risk-averse and would not respond to a limited nuclear strike. While the prognosis might be true in certain instances, one can never be sure about China’s escalation management strategy and response options in a state of crisis.
Fourth, Karnad builds upon the Russian escalate to de-escalate doctrine to suggest a similar approach for India. He argues that “the Russian tactic of ‘escalating to de-escalate’ should be rejigged to deal with India’s prime and only credible adversary”. The alleged Russian de-escalation doctrine argues that Russia might use nuclear weapons early in a conventional regional conflict to deter or terminate conventional hostilities without risking massive nuclear exchange. It assumes that a regional conflict would not involve values for which the adversary would tolerate the risk of even a single nuclear strike, thus capitulating to Russian coercion tactics.
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Russian nuclear strategy
There is little concrete evidence of de-escalation being part of the Russian declaratory strategy. The latest Russian military doctrine released in 2014 and the principles on nuclear deterrence “reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Russia adopted a low nuclear-use threshold on the lines of de-escalation strategy; however, in its 2010 military doctrine, Russia raised the bar for nuclear use.
Russian rationale to include limited nuclear strikes against conventional war was a stop-gap arrangement until Russia modernised its conventional capabilities and developed long-range precision strike weapons. Lately, Russia realised that while nuclear weapons are good for deterrence, they cannot be literally employed to achieve political objectives and address security threats in the neighbourhood.
Since 2008, Russia has made persistent efforts to modernise its conventional forces and reduce its unhealthy dependence on nuclear weapons. The 2014 Russian military doctrine codified the evolving ideas on non-nuclear deterrence, envisaging military and military-technical measures such as precision strike weapons for strategic deterrence purposes. Russia demonstrated the growing importance of the precision strike regime in its military strategy during the 2015 air campaign in Syria and strategic-operational exercise Zapad 2017.
As Russian conventional response options have expanded, its dependence on nuclear weapons has decreased. A leading Russian nuclear strategy expert argues that “States that face a conventionally superior adversary do not necessarily lean back and rest on their nuclear laurels: some seek to rectify their conventional inferiority,” A similar argument can be made in the case of Pakistan, which has diversified its conventional response options against limited conventional aggression by India, especially the air and naval strike capabilities.
Thus, to build upon an outdated version of Russian doctrine to deduce lessons for Indian nuclear strategy is inexplicable.
The Russian experience suggests that excessive dependence on nuclear weapons can be counterproductive and unsustainable in the longer term. Channelling away resources from improving conventional forces reduces flexibility by restraining military response options. Also, there are clear limits to what nuclear deterrence can achieve (They cannot deter all forms of aggression).
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The strategy of asymmetric nuclear escalation and the idea of conventional inferiority rests on questionable assumptions which might be incorrect. Also, any strategy needs to be analysed in the context of a particular country’s security dynamics. Even if one assumes that conventional asymmetry with China poses security threats to India (Though many, including the author, would argue that India’s conventional forces, at least in the theatre of conflict, are capable of deterring threats from China), nuclear weapons are not sufficient to address all of them.
As envisioned by India’s nuclear doctrine, they are best suited for deterrence by punishment and futile for warfighting. To address looming security threats from China, India need not lower its nuclear threshold but enhance conventional response options and leverage conventional, informational, and non-military (political, diplomatic, and psychological) warfare tools.
Abhishek Saxena is a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. He Tweets @Abhisaxena3690
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)