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Limited Deterrence – More questions than answers

Paper.No. 17

"To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence." sun tzu

In its first declaratory policy after self announced status of a nuclear weapons state the Govt. of India said that

  1. India would pursue a policy of limited deterrence
  2. It will not use the nuclear weapon first These are very similar to the policies announced by the Chinese govt. after they exploded their first device at Lop Nor in October 1964. While the second is clear enough the first one, namely , limited deterrence calls for a closer examination and clarification.

Before analysing the concept of limited deterrence an understanding of deterrence in the context of India's perceived national security threats would be essential. In the context of international relations deterrence would mean preventing another nation from pursuing a policy , if not a course of action which is perceived as detrimental to the interests - particularly the national security interests - of the country. Deterrence in the nuclear context would be to stop a hostile power from carrying out a nuclear attack.

Conventional wisdom points to China and Pakistan as envisagable security threats for India. The nature of threats from these countries have been too well discussed in the past in a no. of forums and strategic literature and does not bear repetition. What needs scrutiny however are the chances of these countries carrying out a nuclear attack on India. Secondly what would be the minimum deterrence against such attacks and how effective would be such deterrence ?

In Pakistan we have a neighbor who , from the moment of birth had decided to be an implacable foe of India and keeps harping on Kashmir issue as the core of the problems between the two countries. Given the irreconcilable differences between the two countries on this issue India cannot afford to rule out yet another war with Pakistan which had already gone to war twice before on this issue. Being weaker than India in conventional arms capability Pakistan may come under considerable pressure to use the nuclear weapons in the next round of conventional war .( One can recall such a contingency in the past when the Indian armed forces were almost at the gates of Lahore in the 1965 war. Fortunately Pakistan had no nuclear capability then). It is interesting to note that Pakistan has consistently refused to sign a No First Use agreement with India . Pakistani writings on the subject make it amply clear that Pakistani Nuclear weapons are only Indo centric. What may deter Pakistan from contemplating nuclear attack on India is a nuclear India .

In the momentous month of May 1998 both India and Pakistan unveiled their long suspected nuclear capability though the extent of capability from the angle of yield have been questioned by some western sources. The nuclear capability has been sought to be proved with a handful of tests. a procedure which has been questioned by some experts who have been associated with the nuclear programs of India .Even if Govt. of India chooses to dismiss them as "doubting Thomases" a study of India's deterrence capability would raise questions like how many war heads and related delivery systems are readily available with India. More important, how many are held and will be further produced by Pakistan. The only source of such information is the educated guess of the western experts who place 60+ bombs with India and 15 to 25 or so with Pakistan. Would this number be taken as sufficient deterrence against Pakistan ? The question however cannot just be one of numbers. With no first use policy , deterrence would really be the country's ability to absorb a first nuclear attack and retaliate in a manner unacceptable to Pakistan. This would mean ensuring the survivability of our nuclear weapons with their delivery systems in a nuclear attack and having the command and control systems in tact. Simply put, the delivery systems and their payloads need to be protected in hardened silos from both conventional and nuclear attack. The executive arm of the Govt. (Read Prime minister and his cabinet colleagues with adequate no. of civilian and armed forces managers ) need to be available to take charge of the post attack scenario . The population itself needs to be protected with underground shelters and given post attack rehabilitation. None of these seem to have been planned as yet unless of course they are well guarded secrets "in the interest of national security ". It is no secret that India , except for a modest mileage in Calcutta does not have underground railways yet. Former Soviet Union , the U.S. and China have all planned for a nuclear attack and have provided for secure positions for the command and control post after the attack. Even their population would have in major cities a readily available shelter in their underground rail stations.. Mere possession of a few bombs does not ensure deterrence without the attendant infrastructure to deal with the inherent risks of a nuclear war. The infrastructure enables the country to survive a first attack and retaliate.

The second issue is the capability for retaliatory attack which would cause unacceptable damage to Pakistan . Though the definition of what is unacceptable is predicated on Pakistan's perceptions, a reasonable interpretation would be that the retaliatory attack should decapitate its command and control systems and destroy to a large extent its war making capabilities – both conventional and nuclear. This depends on accurate intelligence and excellent attack capability with precision guided munitions and accurate missiles with very low Circular Error Probable (CEP - a radius with the target as the centre within which 50% of the fired nuclear armed missiles will strike ). Missiles known to be operational and in India's inventory are the Prithivis with ranges of 150 and 250 Kms. A third version with a range of 350 is reportedly under development. The IRBM Agni has been flight tested only thrice so far out of which one was a failure and one had apparently a reentry problem. The CEPs of these missiles are not known. The future plans of operationalising Agni with acceptable Circular Error Probable are also not known as further development of this missile seems to have slowed down probably under intense pressure from the west. Major cities of Pakistan like Islamabad and Karachi which are the two nerve centres would be , for example, 280 KMs and 240 Kms respectively from the nearest cities of Jullundur ( Amritsar is even nearer ) and Bhuj at the Indian Border. India should therefore be able to bring these two cities under nuclear threat by deploying Prithvis close to the border. Karachi would further be vulnerable to sea based cruise missiles like Sagarika which is said to be under development. The border deployment however carries the inherent risk of the missiles being destroyed both by air action as well as in a conventional armor attack. Safe deployment would therefore have to be adequately away from the range of Pakistani air or missile attack which in turn would mean longer range missiles like Agni , The possession of Ghauri missile by Pakistan needs to be taken into account in this regard.

Any CEP more than 1Kmr. would be of no value with a conventional payload and India would then have to use nuclear payload with unforeseen consequences including the possibility of the radio active fallout reaching India back. Hence development and deployment of Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) like Agni , contrary to general impression , is essential even in a nuclear exchange with Pakistan.

Any nuclear exchange between the two countries would be catastrophic for both , the region and the rest of the world. The only way to avoid this would be to ensure that nuclear war cannot be started or succeed. . Destruction of the opponent's ability to attack even first would ensure that no nuclear war is fought between the two.. This would call for rapid development of cruise and short range missiles with maximum accuracy possible. This ability coupled with the second strike capability ( i.e.capability to absorb the first strike and retaliate effectively ) would be deterrence with greater degree of confidence. Deterrence is also effective only if the opponent is made aware of our capability and stopped from underestimating it.

As for deterrence against China India does not seem to possess the capability now .The Prithvi is of no relevance with respect to china. Any worth while target in China either on counter value (attacking civilian targets ) or counter force (attacking armed forces centres ) strategy would require MRBM with a range of at least 3000-4000 Kms. The known range of Agni is 2500 kms. The kind of distance involved here would be clear when one considers that the distance between Calcutta the nearest city in India to Beijing would be 3200 Kms as the crow flies. As against this China is known to possess missiles of all classification which can reach any part of India . Their known nuclear inventory is 434 out of which 284 are strategic nuclear weapons. China's nuclear arsenal consists of a triad of strategic delivery systems, as well as tactical ones including nuclear artillery and atomic demolition mines. They have the Inter continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with 11000kms range, Intermediate range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) with ranges between 1800 to 7000 Kms. and pay loads ranging from 200 K tons to 5 Mega tons.

It is hard to believe that India would be able to catch up with this capability in near future. China is disturbed not so much with the recent entry of India in the nuclear club as by India citing them as a reason for going nuclear. The concept of Limited deterrence therefore leaves some questions unanswered , at least as far as China is concerned. China's policy of no first use could be some source of solace that absence of deterrence against China at the moment may not be fatal.

S.Gopal                                                             7-12-1998

(Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India)