Towards An Indo-Pak Nuclear Lexicon: Minimum Nuclear Deterrence – Analysis


By Tanvi Kulkarni

The three Asian nuclear weapons states – China, India and Pakistan – have adopted the doctrine of minimum nuclear deterrence to project their nuclear weapons policy. The term ‘Credible Minimum (Nuclear) Deterrence’ (CMD) is now used as a brand-name for the Indian Nuclear Doctrine, advertising three features of a nuclear weapons-empowered India: security with a thrust on deterrence, a responsible nuclear weapons state and commitment to global nuclear disarmament. Indian thinking on minimum nuclear deterrence is neither original nor exclusive. While it is argued that India’s nuclear weapons programme was always guided by the concept of minimum deterrence, it is difficult to trace when exactly this term entered the Indian lexicon, both within and outside the official discourse. The staunch advocacy of a minimum deterrent posture by India’s nuclear strategy gurus, K Subrahmanyam and Gen K Sundarji, has influenced the official line on this issue in India.

Pakistan India Relations
Pakistan India Relations

Indian nuclear policy imbues the term minimum with a meaning beyond the numeric context – minimizing usability through the No First Use (NFU) and non-use against non-nuclear weapons states, a de-alerted and de-mated warhead status, minimizing the financial, human and social costs of a nuclear exchange, and absolute civilian control over the nuclear force. The minimum deterrence posture is influenced by the reality that India does not possess the capacity (in terms of fissile material, number of reactors or the level of technology) to indulge in nuclear adventurism of the maximalist-type. More importantly, for India’s policy-makers, minimum deterrence is closely associated with moral standing – that of a ‘reluctant’ nuclear power which exercised its nuclear option only when ‘forced’ by security circumstances. Moreover, maintaining the smallest possible nuclear force is a practical demonstration of India’s commitment to nuclear disarmament. Doctrinal declarations regarding nuclear weapons are also politico-psychological tools of deterrence; hence a unilateral moratorium on testing would also reinforce the ‘moral’ dimensions of minimum deterrence.

Minimum Deterrence has ultimately to do with ‘numbers’ (of warheads, delivery systems and fissile material stockpiles). Safety, security, survivability and an effective second-strike capability are the pre-conditions for a minimum deterrent. The ‘numbers’ labyrinth involves complex calculations based on a state’s capabilities and resources, and an assessment of those available to the adversary. The exact number and quantity of weapons and fissile material that India possesses is not public knowledge, hence the Indian analyst is left to make ‘guesstimates’ ranging from Subrahmanyam’s ‘60 deliverable warheads’, Sundarji’s ‘90-135 fission devices’ to Bharat Karnad’s ‘300 to 400 warheads based on ‘thermonuclear deterrence’.

How terminologies are constructed is important. Loading ‘minimum’ with a prefix like ‘credible’ dilutes the concept of minimum since what is credible may not be the minimum and vice versa. However, some experts believe this is not defeatism, since it allows the deterrent to remain dynamic and elastic, and respond to changes in India’s strategic and security environment. Jaswant Singh explained that for India, ‘adequacy’ frames ‘credible’ and therefore ‘defines our minimum’. The difference between Credible Minimum Deterrence and Minimum Credible Deterrence is not simply one of language but of posture. The former implies a deterrent which is of the smallest possible value (minimum) and yet the minimum must remain ‘credible’. But a Minimum Credible Deterrent would associate minimum with credibility and not with the deterrent. The Indian Nuclear Doctrine envisages a minimum deterrent in tandem with maximum credibility.

Have we got our terminology right? ‘Minimum’ deterrence, based on the smallest strategic nuclear force that can deter an attack or the threat of an attack by a nuclear weapon-armed adversary, seals the lower limits of the arsenal, indicating that any number below this limit would endanger deterrence. Herman Kahn’s term ‘finite deterrence’ appropriately conveys the sense of a fixed upper limit. It is naïve to believe that India’s nuclear force would always remain at a fixed minimum level of the deterrence – India’s growing nuclear arsenal reflects how dynamically the term ‘minimum’ is used. The term ‘minimal’, widely used by many Western experts, better conveys the relation between the deterrent and the consequent numerical flexibility. There might therefore be a need to rephrase this term in our lexicon.

If the nuclear deterrent is to be kept at a minimum level, there is greater incentive for arms control, disarmament and confidence-building between India, Pakistan and China, while they adhere to this policy. If numbers do not matter and even a single nuclear weapon can constitute minimal deterrence, there is a need to introspect whether India’s policy gives leeway for the arsenal to increase. Greater official clarity on what constitutes the ‘minimum’ deterrent is required; else the policy will remain a mere political slogan in the region.

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


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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