Michael KreponThe Counterforce Compulsion in South Asia

Quotes of the week:

“There has been literally no chance at all that any sane political authority… would consciously choose to start a nuclear war. This proposition is true for the past, the present, and the foreseeable future. For sane men on both sides the balance of terror is overwhelmingly persuasive… There is no prospect at all that [X] could attack [Y] without incurring an overwhelming risk of destruction vastly greater than anyone but a madman would choose to accept.”
—McGeorge Bundy, “To Cap the Volcano”

“Dreams of  ‘disarming first strikes’ leading to the temptation to ‘go first’ and the consequent instability of Small Nuclear Power equations are think-tank myths.”
—General K. Sundarji, “India’s Nuclear Weapons Policy”

Vipin Narang stirred up a tempest at the Carnegie Endowment’s 2017 Nukefest by warning that a serious revision of Indian nuclear doctrine may be in the offing – even to the extent of entertaining pre-emptive strikes against Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. Is New Delhi likely to succumb to the most extreme manifestation of the counterforce compulsion – a damage-limiting, nuclear-war-fighting force posture?

Vipin cites provocative passages in Shivshankar Menon’s new book, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, the public musings of former Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, plus the hawkish advocacy of former Strategic Forces Command Commander-in-Chief Gen. B.S. Nagal, to conclude:

“There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first. And that India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries in the theater, but a full ‘comprehensive counterforce strike’ that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons so that India does not have to engage in iterative tit-for-tat exchanges and expose its own cities to nuclear destruction.”

Before jumping to conclusions, let’s back up a bit. India has always had its share of nuclear hawks. They primarily reside in aviaries of retired military officers. Read, for example, Gurmeet Kanwal’s The New Arthashastra: A Security Strategy for India. A second species consists of scientists associated with India’s defense research establishment. Unlike their military brethren, they usually speak up while on the government payroll, rather than in retirement. A rare breed is the civilian strategist with perches at think tanks, like Bharat Karnad, who has written India’s Nuclear Policy and other books on this topic. These views deserve a close reading, but they have had little influence on Indian nuclear doctrine in the past.

Shivshankar Menon’s views are more consequential, as he served as the National Security Adviser in the previous Congress-led coalition government and is a widely respected strategic thinker. Reports of his hawkish musings have already led some champions of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent to conclude that their darkest suspicions have been confirmed.

The Strategic Plans Division is already ramping up Pakistan’s counterforce capabilities, presuming the need to compete in this sphere with India. Vipin’s take on Menon’s book will no doubt add impetus to this compulsion. But it’s not too late to avoid reprising the U.S.-Soviet counterforce competition on a regional scale. So before going off to the races, let’s look more closely at Menon’s book.

This chapter is entitled, “Why India Pledges No First Use of Nuclear Weapons.” Not “Why India has Unwisely Pledged No First Use,” “Why India Should Rethink No First Use,” or “Why India Should Revise No First Use.” Menon states that India’s NFU doctrine has “deterred others from attempting nuclear coercion or blackmail against India.” He asserts that “a first-strike doctrine is surely destabilizing, and does not further the primary purpose of our weapons in deterring blackmail, threat, or use of nuclear weapons.” He argues that, “no first use is a useful commitment to make if we are to avoid wasting time and effort on a nuclear arms race,” and that, “Today, India has effective deterrence against both China and Pakistan.” Menon also writes that he is opposed to shifting Indian strategic doctrine to a nuclear war fighting posture (such as by embracing tactical nuclear weapons, like Pakistan) because “this shift would be reactive and would not increase the effectiveness of deterrence. Instead it would add one more level of complexity and bring nuclear war closer. Nor would this shift be credible.”

And here is Menon’s bottom line:

“It seems to me that rather than seeking answers in our nuclear weapons to all the threats that India does or may face, it is important that we maintain the fundamentals of our doctrine, treating our nuclear weapons as political instruments to deter nuclear attack and attempts at coercion.”

These passages do not suggest a warm embrace of counterforce targeting, let alone its most extreme form. Instead, they reinforce India’s NFU posture. Now let’s look more closely at the two troublesome passages in Menon’s book that Vipin has rightly focused on:

“Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS [nuclear weapon state] that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.”

And then this:

“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… In other words, Pakistani tactical nuclear weapon use would effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan.”

What are we to make of these two passages that suggest the possible embrace by India of the most extreme form of counterforce targeting– pre-emptive damage limitation strikes?

The first passage ends with one additional, cryptic sentence: “India’s present public nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario.” This is most odd. Is there an additional exception to India’s NFU posture that has not been publicly declared – one that permits pre-emptive, damage-limiting strikes? If so, India does not have a NFU posture; it has a first-use and first-strike posture. Night cannot be day, and day cannot be night. At this point, even a public reaffirmation at the highest level of India’s NFU posture will not be persuasive to Pakistan’s nuclear hawks, but it is still needed. Otherwise, opaqueness and worst-case thinking will add even more fuel to a counterforce competition now in its early stages.

The second passage reads to me as nothing more than a reaffirmation of India’s declared nuclear doctrine: First use by Pakistan, regardless of yield and location, would invite massive retaliation by India. What’s odd here is Menon’s terminology. If Pakistan uses nuclear weapons first, then India’s response is not a “first strike”; it’s a retaliatory strike – pure and simple. Menon has thus regrettably added salt to the open wound that is India’s deeply flawed declaratory policy. The threat of massive retaliation, even in the event of a single demonstration shot, invites the worst of two worlds: it lacks credibility, yet invites uncontrolled escalation.

Parsing Menon’s language is tedious, I know, but necessary because the nuclear competition in South Asia is at an important juncture. Pakistan and India have fulfilled the requirements of countervalue targeting, and are moving down the path of counterforce targeting requirements. Warhead totals can grow significantly because MIRVing technology is available and because, as counterforce capabilities increase, neither side can afford to be caught with missiles in garrisons. The obvious countermove is to have some missiles out of garrison, even in peacetime. Many more missiles will be flushed in a crisis. These are some of the operational ramifications of adopting worst-case assessments of Menon’s writing, which Rawalpindi is prone to do. New Delhi is likely to lag behind unless there is an extraordinary shift in India’s strategic culture. Nuclear dangers will grow alongside counterforce capabilities, because launchers will be maintained at increased readiness levels to deal with reciprocal fears of surprise attack. Sound familiar?

It will be difficult, but still possible, to break this cycle. For a start, it’s worth recalling how the premier strategic thinkers on the subcontinent rejected the counterforce compulsion in favor of stable nuclear deterrence. General Sundarji’s views, as noted above, were anti-counterforce.  K. Subrahmanyam estimated in India and the Nuclear Challenge that a minimum deterrence posture could consist of “an arsenal of a few dozen bombs and an aircraft delivery system.” In Nuclear India, Jasjit Singh believed “it is difficult to visualize an arsenal with anything more than a double-digit quantum of warheads. It may be prudent to even plan on the basis of a lower end figure of say 2-3 dozen nuclear warheads by the end of 10-15 years.”

Back then, Pakistani strategic analysts were on the same page. Agha Shahi, Abdul Sattar, and Zulfikar Ali Khan wrote of “minimal” requirements for deterrence. They expressed confidence that Pakistan would avoid a futile arms competition with India. They ruled out the need for a nuclear war-fighting posture. When Abdul Sattar joined the Musharraf government as Foreign Minister, he promised Pakistani participation in the Fissile Material Cut-off negotiations. Early on, the SPD’s Director General Khalid Kidwai discounted the likelihood of nuclear artillery being part of Pakistan’s nuclear plans.

Pakistan and India have come a very long way since these hopeful and sensible declarations. Both have succumbed to the siren song of “credible” deterrence. Rawalpindi now embraces the concept of “full-spectrum deterrence,” which will be reinforced by the former Indian National Security Adviser’s thoughts about pre-emption.

Athletes achieve peak performance by slowing down the game. If Indian and Pakistani decision makers do not slow down the counterforce compulsion, they could pay a very steep price.


  1. nit (History)

    Clearly this has set up quite a fire. Let take Pakistan’s threat of TNW. So it plays out this way. Any Indian conventional attack Pak uses TNW. Indian retaliates with Countervalue, Pakistan fires it’s quota of warheads etc etc..

    So then one may ask, why should India wait for Pak to use TNW, when the ultimate outcome according to the declared doctrine .would be.to nuke each completely?

    India might as well start off the proceeding with a nuke attack on Pak forces. What difference it makes?

    Pak’s threat of TNW was to create a escalation ladder, where in nukes there is no such thing. It wants to do this to prevent use of strategic nukes.

    By due to this ho-ha, Pakistan now might reorient it’s thinking towards it’s crown jewels, rather than dabbling around with TNW..

    India’s objective is to make Pak understand there is nothing called Tactical nuke war. let Pak spend energy on creating deterrent against “assumed counter-force”.

    Regarding Indian first strike, it is obvious the reference is to using conventional means to target Pak nuke warhead and delivery system. Having said that, GOI has not responded on any of these stories.

  2. Sultan (History)

    India’s former Chairman of National Security Advisory Board, Mr Shyam Saran stated in his policy speech at Habitat Center Delhi in 2013 that parts of India’s nuclear doctrine have not been made public. So it is not a surprise that senior Indian decision makers have started talking about something that was not in India’s declared doctrine of 2003.