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.


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