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Post Pathankot, India Must Challenge The Narrative Of Nuclear Deterrence

20/01/2016 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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An Indian army soldier is silhouetted against the setting sun as he stands guard next to his colleague, sitting on the roof top of a house outside the Indian air force base in Pathankot, India, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian troops were still battling at least two gunmen Sunday evening at the air force base near the country's border with Pakistan, more than 36 hours after the compound came under attack, a top government official said. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

For some time now, the Indian media has been abuzz with debates and ad hominem attacks over the Modi government's "intolerance". However, the government's reaction over the still fresh Pathankot Air Base attacks smacks of "tolerance".

[T]he government's reaction over the still fresh Pathankot Air Base attacks smacks of "tolerance".

In a volte-face from its election rhetoric, the Modi government has confounded expectations by eschewing an openly aggressive stance towards Pakistan in favour of a more diplomatic response. While the retrospective brainstorming over whether India should have a potent National Security Strategy or a separate Department of Homeland Security are justified, this attack should have also been the Modi government's last red-line to Pakistan's state behaviour apropos cross-border terrorism. Instead, India just shifted its red-lines further inside on the Indian side, creating room for discussions over attacks on areas outside the usual suspect -- Jammu & Kashmir.

The deterrence theory and the limits of strategic patience

For far too long, the nuclear deterrence theory has been used by many thinkers, academicians, politicians and, indeed, nations to lend their support to state as well as non-state actors in building small tactical military gains through internationally illegitimate means. Currently, the world has two such errant states -- North Korea and Pakistan. While many might count Iran too, its recent willingness to allow IAEA monitoring through a deal with its arch-rival, the US, takes it off that list for now.

India has almost given up the idea of a military response to continued terrorist attacks on its soil, fearing a nuclear escalation in the region.

It's a timely juncture to address the strategically errant behaviour of both these countries. While the Korean Peninsula (and Washington) was jolted by news of North Korea having successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, the Indian subcontinent was shocked out of its security-slumber by a terrorist attack on one of the largest and most critical air bases in the country. The international community, including the US, has so far used the same justification for not coming down hard on these two nations - their nuclear capabilities.

While the international community led by the US has struggled to solve the North Korean conundrum, fearing a nuclear retaliation, India too has almost given up the idea of a military response to continued terrorist attacks on its soil, fearing a nuclear escalation in the region.

While nuclear deterrence helps maintain stability on a large scale, it has unfortunately become the reason why nuclear and non-nuclear transgressions have been - and continue to be - tolerated for fear of international conflicts between nuclear weapon states. While in the case of India and Pakistan this narrative was broken by the Kargil conflict, the rhetoric of nuclear escalation has subsequently prevented a much-deserved conventional combat response from India every time terror has struck from the other side of the border.

Winning the nuclear rhetoric war

The battle before an actual on-the-ground nuclear standoff/escalation between India and Pakistan is one of rhetoric. Part of the rhetoric, which is currently in Pakistan's favour, has percolated from Washington, including recent claims labelling Pakistan as the fastest growing nuclear weapon state, and one which has a significantly greater number of tactical nuclear warheads than India. This has furthered Pakistan's underlying strategic superiority at the level of regional nuclear discourse.

India should immediately bring about a change in its nuclear doctrine to counter the global narrative -- one that adds a "surprise first attack" element to India's doctrine.

However, while the numbers might be in Pakistan's favour there is a general consensus on the kilotons, effect and penetration being to India's advantage. Moreover, even in terms of numbers, India's 90 to110 versus Pakistan's 120 nuclear warheads is not as skewed as it is portrayed to be. Be that as it may, much remains to be tested at the level of intent, ability, potency, penetration, precision and efficiency in command and control vis-à-vis Pakistan's nuclear arsenal operations and use in a crisis situation.

As such, India should immediately bring about a change in its nuclear doctrine to counter the global narrative -- one that adds a "surprise first attack" element to India's doctrine. The change will further build on the revisions already made in 2003 to India's nuclear doctrine which states: "Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage." This will not only change the Indian strategic thinking that is still slowed by a "second-strike-capability" mentality and "credible-minimum-deterrent" conviction, it will make substantial gains in pulling back the Indo-Pak nuclear narrative to a balance, if not in India's favour.

In another step to win the war of rhetoric, India should play the "Challakere card" to Pakistan's gallery...

In another step to win the war of rhetoric, India should play the "Challakere card" to Pakistan's gallery, now that it is no longer a top-secret project. The fact that the nature and scale of nuclear projects being undertaken at Challakere in southern India is not known to many actually might work in India's favour. A brigade of 2,500 soldiers guarding a $100 million project surrounded by 15 foot walls already underway for about half a decade, if not more, the Challakere nuclear project, will do a lot more than just get noticed by a neighbour surviving on the nuclear rhetoric as state-oxygen.

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