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Indo-Pak Nuclear Lexicon: An Indian Perspective on Credible Minimum Deterrence


By Tanvi Kulkarni

Why Credible Minimum Deterrence?

India’s nuclear weapons policy is identified with the posture of Credible Minimum Nuclear Deterrence (CMD). The principle entails quite a different interpretation than that understood in the western nuclear lexicon in that western theories and constructs, particularly from the Cold War, cannot be applied effectively to the Indian context. K Subrahmanyam has defended the CMD doctrine by stating that it has been adapted to suit India’s requirements and thinking on nuclear weapons. Bharat Karnad defines it as a self-explanatory, moderate, limited, reasonable and legitimate posture that justified India’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities after the 1998 tests. The CMD doctrine highlights that India does not seek an open-ended nuclear arsenal and pillars other postures like the second-strike capability and no first use. Both terms, credible and minimum, are important individually and their equation makes for the credible minimum nuclear deterrence policy.

What is the Indian understanding of credibility?

Odd as it seems, as a key feature of nuclear deterrence, ‘credibility’ is a dynamic, ambiguous and controversial concept. A theoretical understanding of credibility often embroils into a political and technical debate and its definition then depends on which decision-making community, school of thought and context one chooses to represent.
The Indian nuclear doctrine looks at credible deterrence as a political-psychological concept and serves as a prime means of communicating to potential adversaries that India maintains the will and capability to inflict unacceptable punishment through retaliation with nuclear weapons. An effective second strike capability and survivability become important elements of credibility. Credibility must be maintained by robust command and control systems, safety and security of arsenal, operational force preparedness, planning and training of forces, research and development and effective conventional military capabilities. The doctrine lends dynamism to the credible deterrent by making it responsive to India’s strategic environment, national security and technological imperatives.

A state’s approach and policy towards strategic weapons as well as the concepts and ideas that define them are affected by the internal politics of the state’s decision-makers. In India, strictly speaking, the political leadership, military and scientific communities do not share the same approach to credible deterrence. The difference is however, to use the words of Professor Rajesh Basrur, a matter of ‘political-technical perspective’.

In an interview to the Hindu newspaper on 29 November 1999, the then Minister of External Affairs, Jaswant Singh stated that “credibility lies in the possibility of retaliation and not its certainty.” The political leadership in India maintains that deterrence credibility lies in its psychological impact on the adversary and on oneself. This neither suggests that the Indian political leaders are averse to sanction new technological developments, nor that the debate within the political class is monolithic. But from the political perspective, credibility has more to do with the effective communication of the threat of retaliation to the adversary – a sentiment echoed in the nuclear doctrine – than with the quality and quantity of weapons.

The psychological approach does not go too comfortably with the Indian military. As a professional entity and the end-user of weapons systems, the military seeks credibility through technical parameters. The size, structure, level of technology, targeting philosophy, degree of acceptability of damage, time component and the temporal and physical reach of weapons systems are factors that decide how credible the deterrent is. The contentious Cold Start Doctrine, which enjoys little political support, is nevertheless reflective of the Indian Army’s understanding of credibility in the operational sense. In a September 2009 television interview, General VP Malik suggested that India’s inability to acquire requisite weapons and missile technology had eroded deterrence. In another USI Journal article in 2008, Gen Malik, who oversaw the Pokhran II tests as the Army Chief, wrote that a credible Indian deterrent would require allaying doubts about India’s thermonuclear weapons capability, fissile weapons policy and the nuclear triad. A similar conception of ‘credible’ runs into a technical debate amongst the Indian nuclear scientific community. Debates on the partial success of the thermonuclear device and the need for further testing, which became even more pronounced against the backdrop of the Indo-US nuclear deal, have divided Indian nuclear scientists. Many scientists may not be as vocal as Dr. K Santhanam, but they would cast doubts on the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent based on a technical and technological yardstick.

Credible nuclear deterrence as a policy allows a range of diverse interpretations under the conceptual flexibility it provides. There is thus scope for a difference of interpretations among members of a country’s strategic community. In the Indian nuclear strategic community, experts like K Subrahmanyam – a nuclear pragmatist, according to Professor Kanti Bajpai – would strongly advocate the politico-psychological approach towards nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent. On the other, Bharat Karnad – often termed a nuclear maximalist by the pragmatists – argues for a capability credible enough to deter China as the principle adversary.

The context of nuclear deterrence presents us with yet another parameter to assess credibility. Does the level of credibility differ for deterrence against China and Pakistan? Opinions differ. To gauge it technically or politically would also depend on what kind of confrontation is to be deterred, what is to be communicated to the adversary and with what aspect of the adversary’s nuclear identity does one associate the deterrent (a mutual no first use policy with China or the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal?).

How we choose to define credibility further affects the size of the nuclear arsenal and therefore affects the ‘minimum’. This commentary on the interpretations of ‘credibility’ is hoped to be followed by another which would look at how the minimum is debated within India. The number-game is perhaps the most complicated debate for nuclear weapons states.

Tanvi Kulkarni
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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