After INS Arihant, India needs to seriously reevaluate its nuclear deterrence policy

by Lt Gen Ds Hooda (Retd)

On 5 November, India’s first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the INS Arihant, completed its first deterrence patrol. This was widely reported in the media and the Prime Minister’s Office issued a press release hailing this achievement as the completion of “the establishment of the country’s survivable nuclear triad”.

This is somewhat of an overstatement. A single SSBN does not constitute an effective third leg of the nuclear triad. With a displacement of 6,000 tonnes, the INS Arihant is the smallest submarine in its class and carries short-range missiles, incapable of reaching China. The Chinese Jin class is a 12,000-tonne submarine, the US Ohio class is approximately 19,000 tonnes and the Russian Borei class has a displacement of 24,000 tonnes. All these carry intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. It could take another decade for the Indian nuclear triad to become fully effective.

Notwithstanding this, the induction of the INS Arihant will provide invaluable experience and lessons in operating an SSBN. An SSBN is the most vital component of nuclear deterrence and also the most challenging to operate. It must operate stealthily, hidden in the vastness of the ocean. A key dilemma is the procedure to be followed if the SSBN loses contact with the National Command Authority. All these issues will be refined as the INS Arihant completes more sea time.

With the Indian nuclear triad on its way to maturation, it is also the time to start a comprehensive debate on India’s nuclear doctrine. The Indian nuclear doctrine, enunciated in 1999, is based on the principle of credible minimum deterrence, with a policy of ‘no first use’ and massive retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage. These were popular Cold War terms, and while they may not have lost all their relevance, the nuclear threat landscape is today significantly different from the contours of the US-Soviet Union deterrence strategy.

Many strategic experts have written about the emergence of the second nuclear age in the late 1990s. Thérèse Delpech, in her book, Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century, explains that one of the features of the second nuclear age is the advent of new nuclear powers. These states are “dissatisfied with a regional or international order that they regard as inappropriate. Nuclear weapons could be instrumental in changing that order, through coercion, threats, effective use, or simply possession. In any case, the risk of use rises with the number and diversity of players for whom, in addition, deterrence could have different meanings.”

The increased likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons is also reflected in the National Intelligence Council report, Global Trends 2030, which states, “With the potential for increased proliferation and growing concerns about nuclear security, risks are growing that future wars in South Asia and Middle East would risk inclusion of a nuclear deterrent.”

The question of whether nuclear weapons can today ensure deterrence in South Asia is extremely difficult to answer. China’s nuclear policy, while professing ‘no first use’, is mired in opacity as they continue to modernise their nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is developing tactical nuclear weapons as part of their war fighting doctrine to neutralise India’s conventional superiority. India’s planning for future wars almost completely ignores the nuclear threat, and the use of conventional and nuclear forces is kept distinct from each other. Compounding this problem is the fact that there is no mechanism for any discussion on nuclear issues between these three countries. One reason for the success of deterrence in the Cold War was the nuclear arms control treaties that were put in place between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Cyber threats have added a new dimension to warfare and this will certainly impact nuclear deterrence. If command and control networks for nuclear weapons are disrupted, it will be difficult to predict how nations will react. Decision-making will be complicated by the problem of correctly identifying the source of the cyber-attack.

I am not suggesting that the Indian nuclear doctrine is flawed and requires a completely new approach, but that in this age of nuclear uncertainty, there is a need for a much more vigorous debate in India on how nuclear deterrence can be achieved. Thérèse Delpech reminds us, “We should not forget that in the nuclear arena, combat is first and foremost an intellectual contest. The side that stops thinking is already losing, even if its operational capabilities are vastly superior to those of its adversary.”

Knowledgeable discussions will also serve to educate the political leadership on their vital role in nuclear decision making. In times of crisis, domestic public pressures and political posturing will count for little. The personality of the leader making the decision is important, but equally crucial is the fact that he is intellectually prepared.

The author is Former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command