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India is not moving to counterforce doctrine

  Jun 29, 2017

India is not moving to counterforce doctrine

India's "minimum credible nuclear deterrence" doctrine and "no first use" policy are based on the concept of deterrence by denial, rather than deterrence by punishment. Should deterrence ever break down, India will have to pay an enormous price for a nuclear first strike by an adversary before launching massive punitive retaliation. Nuclear doctrine has to be ultimately tested in the crucible of operational reality. Across the entire spectrum of conventional conflict, the first use of nuclear weapons by India does not make sound strategic sense. The real distinguishing feature of India's nuclear doctrine is that it is anchored in India's continued commitment to global, verifiable and non-discriminating nuclear disarmament.

The object of deterrence is to persuade an adversary that the costs to him of seeking a military solution to his political problems will far outweigh the benefits. The object of reassurance is to persuade one's own people, and those of one's allies, that the benefits of military action, or preparation for it, will outweigh the costs.

However, lately there has been a lot of speculation on India’s nuclear doctrine. There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first. India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries in the theatre, but a full comprehensive counterforce strike that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons.

BMD and MIRV
The pieces of evidence cited for this claim are: India’s focus on developing highly accurate missiles, acceleration of ballistic missile defence (BMD) and the development of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (Mirv) capabilities for its missiles. None of these moves sufficiently explains a possible change in India’s nuclear doctrine.
Counterforce strike
Moreover, a counterforce strike is a lot more complex and taxing than both first use and second strike. First use may be on counter value and/or counterforce targets or ones that overlap and it may not be a surprise or a pre-emptive strike. On the other hand, a counterforce strike is a surprise nuclear blitz on the enemy’s missiles, C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence), military infrastructure and war- fighting capabilities. It requires a large number of warheads, missiles, accurate and round-the-clock intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (Istar).

The enormity of the task to track hundreds of road mobile missiles and other military targets can be gauged from the fact that after the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, the Indian Air Force was ready to strike Pakistan, but did not have the precise targeting coordinates of terrorist camps and other relevant targets.

India Vs Pak Nukes
If Pakistan uses tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) even on its soil on Indian troops, India, according to its stated doctrine, will undertake massive retaliation, which was thought to be countervalue strikes on Pakistani cities. Recently, this has been misinterpreted by some analysts as a counterforce first strike. India using nuclear weapons after Pakistan’s use of TNW will not be a first strike but a retaliatory strike. India would be free to take out Pakistani targets like the Pakistan army headquarters in Rawalpindi, which is an example of an overlapping counterforce and countervalue target.

The talk of counterforce first strike is destabilizing and dangerous. Instead of deterrence, it moves to the realm of fighting a nuclear war and trying to win it. It means hundreds if not thousands of warheads on hair-trigger alert and the risks that come with it.

Any signalling to India’s adversaries that India is moving to a counterforce first strike doctrine will make them take countermeasures and increase their own arsenal and look to strike India first, leading to a destabilizing chain reaction. The assumption that India is moving towards a counterforce first strike doctrine and the evidence cited for it are on weak ground. While India’s doctrine needs a revision to be in tune with current strategic realities, the claims that it is moving to a counterforce first strike are erroneous.