Massive Retaliation

India is a “weird” country and its nuclear doctrine “weirder” still. Much of this perception of weirdness arises from the lack of connect strategic logic and the policies adopted by the government. Consequently Michael Krepon asks “why has New Delhi adopted a posture of massive retaliation?” My contention is that very frequently as with most things in India, the real reason actually lies not in strategic logic but rather in bureaucratic battles and paranoias.

India’s 2003 doctrine is based on two extremes – first excessive restraint and the second operatic overreaction. The two extremes are hard to rationalise strategically and hard to reconcile with each other. How is it that a country that espouses NFU on the basis of its pacific intentions is willing on the other hand to psychotically annihilate the populace of a country on the other hand in response to what may or may not be a nuclear strike?

The NFU makes no strategic sense whatsoever since it implies India will not use its nukes to equalize against militarily superior China and anyway doesn’t need those nukes against militarily inferior Pakistan. Psychologically it makes perfect sense to calm Pakistani hyper-paranoia with an NFU since the prospect of conventional collapse against the Pakistan Army is non-existent. Yet within the same doctrine India dilutes its NFU by claiming the freedom to use nuclear weapons against a chemical or biological threats. Consequently Pakistan does not believe India’s NFU declaration.

On the other hand Pakistan’s India paranoia, is matched almost exactly by India’s China paranoia examples of which can be found here and here. Frequently even western observers fall for these melodramatic Indian sob stories. The highest official confirmation of this China paranoia came in 1998 following the nuclear tests. Then Prime Minister Vajpayee named the PRC as being the prime target of Indian deterrence, and his defense minister George Fernandes labelled China, not Pakistan as India’s “threat No 1”. The fear is China will knock India over like a nine pin. This very nearly happened in 1962 when China thrashed India in a border war, and it still rankles in the memory of the citizens of India’s North East, that India abandoned them.  The point is if you so fear a conventional collapse you must have a first use option to stall said collapse.

Similarly “massive retaliation” makes no sense in the Indian context. It incentivizes Pakistan to respond to conventional defeat with an all-out strike at India, fearing that a nuclear pinprick will bring the entire Indian arsenal down on its head. Against China massive retaliation is superfluous given that both countries adhere to an NFU and China has significant but not overwhelming superiority across the conventional spectrum.

Clearly India’s doctrine and deterrent posture are not working. The cumulative effect of this paranoia, and a defective nuclear doctrine is some of the most ruinous and misguided military expenditure in India’s history. Projects like the ill-conceived Mountain Strike Corps, the fatally flawed Multi Role Combat Aircraft, and the stillborn Fifth Generation Stealth Fighter being developed in Russia, have all been rationalized by the “China Threat”.

When examining this concept (and rejecting it outright) during the formulation of the alternative doctrine at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, I noticed the first telltale signs of the oft spoken about civil-military divide I believe to be at the root of the problem. The retired military personnel were resolutely opposed to massive strike, arguing very cogently for a multiplicity of tactical options first. The civilians on the other hand savaged the draft for having removed “massive” saying it had gutted the doctrine and removed the “tooth and substance” of the document. The real reason however as one retired bureaucrat put it “you want us to trust these fellows with the button?”

Since then over the years slowly probing this angle I have found a deep seated mistrust of the armed forces that is both well founded and logical based on the latter’s lying, fudging, corruption, dangerous behavior, insubordination to civilian authority and megalomania. Examples abound, pointing to these being the norm rather than the exception, but some stand out cases can be found here here here here and here.

I do not believe in monocausality, but given the civil-military divide and the reality that in India bureaucrats rule the roost, we have the only explanation for the idiosyncrasies of the Indian doctrine.  India’s doctrine is aimed more at keeping nuclear weapons out of the Indian military’s hands than it is aimed at China or Pakistan. Massive retaliation keeps India’s nukes away from military control with warheads firmly under civilian control. Similarly the NFU serves the exact same purpose, circumventing the need to deploy and hence keeping the military away from active nuclear warheads.

The real test of this clearly untenable situation will come when India’s sea based deterrent becomes active, excluding as it does the de-mating and disassembly of warheads, and granting the military full operation control over the devices. One has to wonder if a Soviet style political officer or nuclear commissar will be deployed on each boat.


Posted in , China, Doctrine, India, India-Pakistan Relations, No First Use, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

After his B.Com from the University of Madras he pursued a career in the corporate world before turning to academia. He holds a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Political & Social Inquiry at Monash University, and is pursuing his PhD. He served as research assistant on several projects all under the aegis of the Centre For Muslim Minorities & Islam Policy Studies at Monash (2007-2010). He is a Programme Coordinator at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and currently a Visiting Research Scholar at Sandia National Laboratories. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent any institutional or national position. His primary research is on limited wars and nuclear thresholds, but his interests include, military transformation, defence planning, procurement and offsets, infrastructure, governance and Historical Patterns of Conflict in Democracies. His spare time is spent traveling, cooking, flying microlight aircraft and scuba diving.

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8 thoughts on “Massive Retaliation

  1. First time read someone quoting himself.
    The first sentence always gives out the mood of the writer.
    India is a “weird” country and its nuclear doctrine “weirder” still.
    You probably haven’t ever visited the country of your forefathers.
    When you say “bureaucratic battles and paranoias”, “the civil-military divide and the reality that in India bureaucrats rule the roost” and “megalomania” you are far from truth and are only ‘Ullu Banawing’ the Western world.

    US, although possessing the maximum number of nukes, even today does threaten first use.
    Why does the US not adopt “NFU” policy? Why does US deploy nukes outside of US? Has US ever held any debate on NFU?
    But you want India to react only conventionally even “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons”.
    That is your well “connect(ed) strategic logic and the policies adopted by the government”.
    You don’t know what it means to live with militarily controlled neighbour, whose Martial Law Administrator perpetually threatens a first nuclear use.
    Surely you are aware of missile flight time between India and Pakistan.
    Here are two of my comments:
    Please do spend some time in India to understand better the nuclear maturity our scientists, strategists, military leaders and political leaders.

  2. A-I-M: interesting angle on the civil-military divide in India over keeping the nukes out of the hands of the military! But what I have read on Indian nuclear decision-making, Indian military is not a part of the nuclear decision-making elite, so isn’t the ‘decision’ on revision of India’s NFU doctrine (if it happens) and its strike options or deployment strategy already out of the hands of the military? same goes for India’s sea-based deterrence, the ‘decision’ to operationalize second strike capability and put the nuke boats out there rests purely with the civilian bureaucracy and military will only serve to carry out those orders at the tactical/operational level.
    I seriously doubt that any revision or update in India’s nuclear doctrine will lack strategic rationale at the risk of minimizing China-Pakistan factor and aim at reinforcing the check on its military which already is a hallmark of its outstanding constitutional framework. I too am not a fan of monocausality especially when it is used to analyze complex dynamic phenomenon! I think Indian armed forces should be included in Indian nuclear decision-making for they have much to offer on the evolving Indian nuclear force posture or survivability of India’s command and control as it moves towards nuclear triad for example. I think that sooner or later this reluctance by the Indian civilian bureaucracy to include Indian military in nuclear decision-making will have to give way without compromising the civilian authority of course.

  3. Hey thanks Rabs

    “already out of the hands of the military”

    Yup exactly …. military doesn’t have any say on anything nuclear, So even an NFU revision will have ZERO military inputs

    “military will only serve to carry out those orders at the tactical/operational level”

    Yes, but it will mean 1) military for the first time will have a fully mated system with them and 2) but possibly incomplete launch codes.

    Given that our command systems are quite obsolete i fail to see how our SSBNs will receive launch orders except through periodic surfacing…which means maritime patrol aircraft will have to transmit the missing parts of the code OR we have a politician deployed on each submarine :-) knowing India’s politicians & bureaucrats and their “joie de vivre” i doubt any of them would volunteer for the job.

    “outstanding constitutional framework”

    The grass is always greener on your neighbours lawn.

    “I think Indian armed forces should be included in Indian nuclear decision-making”

    Agree and disagree… some of the stories I’ve been hearing about the military are very upsetting. I don’t like our bureaucrats, but I’d rather have incompetent bureaucrats than the military

  4. “The grass is always greener on your neighbours lawn.”
    What is your idea of “outstanding constitutional framework” if not India’s?
    “I don’t like our bureaucrats, but I’d rather have incompetent bureaucrats ”
    If you don’t like someone, they become incompetent?
    Strategic logic!
    You may call them incompetent, but thank God you feel they are your bureaucrats.

  5. Very interesting article Abhijeet and very well argued too. I would however second Rabia’s opinion that the Indian armed forces need to be included in nuclear decision-making. Effective decision-making especially in the nuclear realm would require, in both India and Pakistan, a certain amount of harmony between the civilian and military bureaucracies whereby they overcome the mistrust that exists between them and work in unison towards fulfilling their purpose. With this disconnect in civilian military relations, it has been suggested that the Indian nuclear policy is being “pulled in opposite directions.” How far would you agree with this notion?

  6. “How is it that a country that espouses NFU on the basis of its pacific intentions is willing on the other hand to psychotically annihilate the populace of a country on the other hand in response to what may or may not be a nuclear strike?”
    The Authors statement shows utter confusion and comes through in his analysis too. NFU means you will respond in kind to a Nuclear attack, not initiate one. Those who cannot understand this cannot be helped. Where has any Indian authority claimed they will respond with Nuclear Weapons to a non Nuclear strike as you assume ? What is wrong with the Doctrine of massive retaliation to an nuclear attack ? Are you suggesting India should respond with a kiss ? Ambiguity on retaliation to the use of chemical and biological weapons is necessary to dissuade the option for its use, not to dilute or strengthen the NFU stand.

    There is no need to compartmentalize weapons like you tried to do — A,B,C are for use against Pakistan and X,Y,Z are for China. Defense purchases need to have a holistic approach keeping in mind requirements of the country. To believe in Civil / Military divide based on random articles in the Press smacks of ingenuity. Where I do agree is that control over Nuclear Weapons should rest with the Civilian Government, not the Military.

    The Nuclear Doctrine of all countries can suffer from some ambiguities and need to be revisited for the sake of improvement. I hope the new incoming Government in India can draft a better Doctrine without altering NFU clause. India enjoys a certain respected standing in the global community because of its stand on major global issues and its actions, definitely not based on its weapons capability. It needs to continue on the same path without being pacific or belligerent.

  7. A-I-M: Insightful read. I think keeping military’s role restricted at tactical/operational level in overall nuclear decision-making is a great success of India’s democratic political set up. Certainly, during any kind of hostility/crisis/war in the region, the political control of nukes substantially lowers the likelihood of nuclear use. If India includes military in nuclear decision-making, one can argue the next would be — military making inroads to national policy-making.

  8. @Amina @ Sadiq

    Thanks Guys – the reason i said both agree and disagree to Rab’s question was that on one hand allowing the military into policy making will make it much more rigorous, well thought out, professional, executable and avoid many of the pitfalls of current Indian policy

    On the other hand the civil-military divide in India is very deep and structural – and for very good reason too (I’ve hyperlinked some of them).

    As Sadiq points out, once you let the military into nuclear decision-making whats to prevent them form formulating national policy? This is not to suggest they will, but rather that our civilian defence bureaucrats are not specialists and can very easily be taken for a ride (they spend on average 3-5 years in the defence ministry, most of that time is taken in coming upto speed on issues, and by the time they gain expertise its time to retire). Second our politicians are thoroughly defence illiterate (and a lot are actually illiterate in every sense of that word too).

    So till we gain
    1) A specialised civilian defence bureaucracy comprising production managers, systems engineers and defence economists as well as cogent strategists mostly recruited from the private sector and
    2) Defence literate politicians
    I cannot support integration of the armed forces into any decision making body. We need a civilian bureaucracy that is confident in its assessments without having to look over its shoulders and able to push back the military as and when required.

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