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India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Contextualizing Deterrence – Analysis


By Alankrita Sinha

The Indian Nuclear Doctrine rests heavily on the conceptual framework of nuclear deterrence, which is suited to the security environment of the Cold War era and is very different from the South Asian context. This disconnect between India’s security imperatives and the adopted conception of nuclear deterrence may have arisen because India’s nuclear doctrine was drafted in the aftermath of the international backlash post the 1998 Pokhran II tests. Hence, at the systemic level, India attempted to justify the nuclear tests by projecting a more defensive nuclear stance to evade being labelled an international belligerent. In doing so, India not only diluted the efficacy of its nuclear deterrence, but also sacrificed its conventional one at the altar of misguided moral pretence.

South Asia: A Unique Paradigm?


Nuclear deterrence worked well for super-power rivalry during the Cold War because it was engineered to deal with threats which existed at that point in time. However, this is not so in the South Asian context. South Asia is characterised by three nuclear neighbours with unresolved territorial claims and ethnicities that spill over territorial borders. Geographical proximity, along with the geopolitics of the region, implies that ‘threat’ to sovereignty does not emanate merely from adversarial states. This fact is a major divergence from the Cold War scheme of threat perception. For example, a major threat for India since independence has been the tactical use of non-state actors as a part of its adversaries’ overall strategy to destabilize India. This strategy undertaken by adversarial states has given rise to prolonged low-intensity conflicts between India and these states. The Cold War conceptualization of nuclear deterrence is not tailored to address either the question of non-state actors or that of low-intensity conflicts. Therefore, the framework which is supposed to guide India’s strategic behaviour is not equipped to consider the myriad possibilities that exist today.

Identifying Loopholes: The Divide between Conventional and Nuclear Deterrence

India’s nuclear doctrine borrows sufficiently from the theoretical Cold War premises of nuclear deterrence, but does not adequately contextualise it within the Indian security environment. Loopholes in India’s nuclear deterrence arise because of this. Nuclear deterrence is supposed to deter adversarial states, not non-state actors. A nuclear deterrent prevents inter-state conflicts, not low-intensity conflicts. However, the South Asian scenario is characterised by both these anomalies, ones which ‘nuclear deterrence’ is traditionally not meant to address. It is because of this fact that the mere western conceptualization of nuclear deterrence is not enough in the South Asian context. Adopting the Cold War conception of nuclear deterrence, without fitting it within India’s security environment, divides deterrence into two clinical categories, conventional and nuclear. We as a state are expected to deter an adversary who relies on nuclear deterrence as an enhancement of their conventional capability; while our deterrence hinges on pure retaliatory purposes and that too only if we are first attacked by a nuclear weapon. As a result, India ends up diluting its nuclear deterrence as well as conventional deterrence.

Cases to this point are the 1999 Kargil incident and the 26/11 terror attacks. Termed as a ‘low-intensity conflict’ the 1999 Kargil incident highlights how this division between conventional deterrence and nuclear deterrence abetted the failure of Indian deterrence as a whole. Moreover, even when the 26/11 terror attack was traced back to a particular state, India held back from even an offensive conventional posture. Thus, neither was our nuclear deterrence capable of deterring the adversarial state from indulging in a low-intensity conflict and sponsoring terrorism, nor was our conventional deterrence equipped with handling a nuclear adversary using sub-conventional means. As these conflicts form the bedrock of present day divergences in South Asia, the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrence is hampered by the categorical division between nuclear and conventional. In such a case, India’s nuclear doctrine must engineer the manner in which nuclear deterrence strengthens its overall deterrence by first taking into consideration the realities of its security environment.

India’s Nuclear Deterrence: Incredulity of Credibility

Conventional wisdom suggests that both credibility and capability form equal parts of the nuclear threat on which nuclear deterrence rests. India has to realise that the credibility of its nuclear threat is continuously being challenged by the lack of an effective contextualizing of its nuclear doctrine which borrows Cold War nuclear deterrence to fit India’s security environment. Moreover, it pre-supposes a clinical divide between conventional deterrence and nuclear deterrence. Therefore, nuclear deterrence as envisaged in the Indian nuclear doctrine is not tailored to fit the reality of security challenges that plague India, but is rather intended at fitting India’s security challenges into a framework which is as alien to India now as it was back when ‘nuclear deterrence’ as a strategic term was coined. The idea of ‘nuclear deterrence’ thus becomes a double-edged sword for India, one which is as much pointed towards itself as it is pointed towards an adversary.

Alankrita Sinha
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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