Making India’s Nuclear Deterrence Credible: The Centrality of Escalation Control and Dominance

The debate on the nuclear threat that India poses to deter Pakistan’s first use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) is ongoing. Traditionalists in New Delhi have hinted that the threat is of massive countervalue retaliation – the use of strategic nuclear weapons against an adversary’s cities and industrial hubs. However, a few retired Indian government and military officials have recently presented a flexible reading of that threat, which includes proportionate counterforce retaliation – meaning the use of nuclear weapons of yields proportionate to Pakistan’s TNWs on military assets in Pakistan. In light of this debate, this piece argues that both massive and proportionate retaliation demand contemplation of the prospect of escalation control and the probability of escalation dominance, both of which New Delhi has avoided to date. However, these concepts remain central to making India’s nuclear retaliatory threat a credible deterrent to Pakistan’s first use of TNWs.

India’s nuclear retaliatory threat, as captured in its declaratory doctrine of 2003, has traditionally been read by various Indian experts as massive countervalue retaliation. However, critics have heavily questioned the credibility of the threat of massive retaliation as a deterrent to Pakistan’s first-use of TNWs in a battlefield. The criticism has been that on the ground, the threat is highly disproportionate; that Pakistan, in response, could retaliate massively as well with its second-strike capabilities, and as a consequence, the probability of India using its strategic nuclear weapons in retaliation to use of TNWs is low. In recent years, India has attempted to develop ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, but they are yet to be commissioned into service, and it is unlikely that New Delhi would risk inviting a second strike from Pakistan on its cities counting on the efficacy of BMDs.

In response to the criticism of the doctrine in posing the threat of massive retaliation, retired senior Indian officials like former National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon and former Commander-in-Chief of India’s Strategic Forces Command Lt. Gen. (retd) B. S. Nagal, have recently noted that the doctrine does not restrict India from retaliating proportionately or from choosing a mixture of civilian and military targets in Pakistan.

Indeed, as has been argued, India already has the capabilities and procedures for proportionate nuclear retaliation since that threat remains purely retaliatory and is congruent with India’s existing operational doctrine of assured retaliation. For instance, it has fission devices of sub-kiloton yield, tested in May 1998, that parallel the yields of Pakistan’s TNWs. Meanwhile, on delivery capabilities, since India is not necessarily required to retaliate in the same battlefield where Pakistan first uses a TNW, it could use its medium-range ballistic missiles from the Agni-series as well as cruise missiles from the BrahMos series as delivery vehicles. Concurring with the argument that proportionate retaliation does not require any changes in the command and control, Indian scholar Rajesh Rajagopalan argues that India could instead use its air bombers to deliver much smaller-sized warheads, avoiding the “unpalatable” consequences of TNWs.

In essence, proportionate retaliation does not require the development and deployment of TNWs with pre-delegation of their launch authority to local commanders – pre-delegation is a requirement of an asymmetric escalation posture, which Pakistan has adopted to deter a low-intensity conventional attack.

Yet, traditionalists in New Delhi continue to oppose the consideration of proportionate retaliation as India’s nuclear threat to Pakistan, arguing that it would promote nuclear warfighting in South Asia. They argue that Pakistan may accept the cost of a proportionate retaliation by India because of prospective gains such as halting India’s conventional offensive. Pakistan’s decision to accept the cost of an Indian proportionate retaliation would have to be based on speculation that the conflict would not escalate beyond a proportionate nuclear exchange at a tactical level. Thus, traditionalists have categorically dismissed proportionate retaliation because it may lead to the consideration of escalation control, encouraging Pakistan to initiate nuclear conflict. Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, for instance, has noted that “Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level. Pakistan would be prudent not to assume otherwise as it sometimes appears to do, most recently by developing and perhaps deploying theatre nuclear weapons.”

Indian traditionalists, however, fail to note that even massive retaliation would require the contemplation of escalation control, since Pakistan would reply in kind to India’s massive retaliation with its own strategic nuclear weapons. This is perhaps why Menon makes the contentious argument that:

“If Pakistan were to use tactical nuclear weapons against India, even against Indian forces in Pakistan, it would effectively be opening the door to a massive Indian first strike, having crossed India’s declared red lines. There would be little incentive, once Pakistan had taken hostilities to the nuclear level, for India to limit its response, since that would only invite further escalation by Pakistan. India would hardly risk giving Pakistan the chance to carry out a massive nuclear strike after the Indian response to Pakistan using tactical nuclear weapons.”

If indeed escalation control is improbable once a nuclear weapon has been used, then, as Menon argues, nothing short of a comprehensive nuclear strike, which eliminates all of Pakistan’s nuclear assets, would suffice India’s security needs. That is neither proportionate retaliation nor massive retaliation. And while India’s ability to completely eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear assets is likely to remain questionable, India may still be better off with a lesser number of Pakistani nuclear assets remaining intact and functional.

But all of this deliberation is premised on the assumption that escalation of a nuclear conflict cannot be controlled. It’s true that there are serious challenges to India’s and Pakistan’s ability to control escalation of a conflict once nuclear weapons have been used. Nonetheless, as Stephen Cimbala of Pennsylvania State University notes, “States still have the responsibility for world order, and peacemaking does not stop after [nuclear] war has begun.” Cimbala further adds, “Deterrence can be applied to the problem of limiting a war as well as preventing it.”

Critics of proportionate retaliation could argue that contemplation of escalation control would encourage nuclear warfighting between India and Pakistan. However, as I have argued elsewhere, massive countervalue retaliation or the threat of it cannot be proclaimed as war-terminating either – it is rather “one that escalates war to the worst levels” once executed.

An important factor that would determine the prospect of escalation control, and consequently the credibility of India’s nuclear retaliatory threat, is the probability of New Delhi dominating escalation. That is, whether India can use its retaliatory threat to influence Pakistan’s calculus in such a way that stops Pakistan from escalating the conflict beyond India’s nuclear retaliation and simultaneously discourages Pakistan from using nuclear weapons in the first place. Policymakers in New Delhi need to assess whether India can dominate escalation in posing the threat of massive retaliation or proportionate retaliation, and thus determine which of the two is more credible of a deterrent.


Click here to read this article in Urdu.

Image 1: Public.Resource.Org via Flickr

Image 2: Andolu Agency via Getty

Posted in , Deterrence, Escalation Control, India, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, TNWs

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas is an Associate Fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Physics Graduate and has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Bristol. His research interests include nuclear deterrence, coercion, and South Asian stability at the nuclear, conventional and subconventional levels of conflict. He was an SAV Visiting Fellow in 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Making India’s Nuclear Deterrence Credible: The Centrality of Escalation Control and Dominance

  1. Why Bharat is so concerned about Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear device? Modi’s aspirations for Ballistic Missile Defence System which is nothing but a symbolic arsenal because its credibility has not yet been established even by the great powers, at the cost of millions of poor people languishing under the poverty lines is really regrettable and callous. But Modi sarkar is hell bent to go ahead with this dead elephant of BMDS. Why our people are not raining their voices for their share?? Why Pakistan’s threat is so glorified and magnified despite the fact that it is we not Pakistan which is time and again initiating fires on LoC. it appears as if Modi government is in direst need of war with India to galvanize public support and to divert people attention from the real governance issues.

  2. The Indian BMD has the ability to intercept a missile in the final stage. At that point, the destruction of a missile with a nuclear warhead by an anti-missile missile had its ramifications in the target area.

  3. In South Asia’s case, India has shown through its recent past behaviour that it gives a damn to what the international community says or does. For the last 30 years, India has been refusing to sign the NPT. For the last over two years, it has been the only leading opponent of the CTBT. And for the last many months, India has been adamantly opposing the conclusion of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. What punishment has the international community, the Western world, the Americans have given to India for its consistent defiance of the will of the world community?

  4. Despite several advancements and developments on part of India’s nuclear establishment and military inventories, in order to cater to the very threat of Pakistan and China so far, the Indian government seems to be getting more obsessed with these military technologies and seeks more developments. The one thing for sure is that Modi’s aggressive policies are just focusing on fueling up the turmoil situation in the region along with indulging the neighboring nations in a never ending arms race. As long as India keeps on lingering with its Cold Start Doctrine and BMD system Pakistan would keep on engaging itself while developing more sophisticated technology as to balance the very strategic equation in the region and to make its deterrence more credible in case of India.

  5. Time and again the author mentions massive/over whelming Indian counter strike. The reality is Pakistan has more proven nuclear assets than India, so whether India initiates or counter attacks – it will be on the receiving end of more nuclear weapons than Pakistan..

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