by Zafar Cheema

The hype about India’s preemptive first strike, nuclear, conventional or combined, against Pakistan’s nuclear assets, just before it is ‘expected’ to use or threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) is hardly surprising.

It is however really astonishing to see Pakistan’s response, notwithstanding the fact that any discussion on the employment of nuclear weapons by itself is a scary subject. Most Pakistani analysts have rightly pointed out that Pakistan did not trust India’s no-first-use nuclear declaration credibility at the first place. The most recent reiteration came on 6 April 2017, from Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson who said, “Pakistan had long maintained that India’s ambiguous no-first-use nuclear declaration was not verifiable and hence nothing more than an empty political statement”. However, most analysts have remained short of clearly pointing out that a successful disarming, decapitating or preemptive counterforce strike against an adversary possessing ‘credible’ nuclear weapons capability is almost impossible.

The historically established strategic precept about the assured failure of completely taking out all the weapons of a nuclear-armed adversary in a counterforce preemptive strike and the retaliatory ‘unacceptable damage’ from a counter strike is not based upon a postulation only, but a broad consensus of the nuclear strategists and professionals from across the world. Why then is the Indian strategic elite so excitingly spreading the very notion of disarming or preemptive strike in such a style?

Large-scale preemptive attacks by inherently dual-use systems in a limited or full-scale conflict to degrade or destroy the adversary’s nuclear capability are considered the most dangerous, and therefore, counterproductive. These types of dangerous undertakings would lead to an uncontrolled escalation of limited conventional war to a nuclear exchange, which would be catastrophic for the whole region.

The postulation of preemptive first strike was kicked off from Vipin Narang’s assertion presented in a paper at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace conference (2017) on nuclear policy and non-proliferation, suggesting that ‘There is an increasing evidence India will not allow Pakistan to go first,’ in the use of nuclear weapons and could launch a ‘comprehensive preemptive first strike to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons so that India does not have to engage in iterative tit-for-tit exchanges and expose its own cities to nuclear destruction.’ This ‘assessment’ of India’s NFU nuclear policy is neither new nor surprising. It is premised on a number of previous statements and formulations by Indian political leaders and officials, lately from India’s former National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon’s articulation in his 2016 book that ‘India might find it useful to strike first against an adversary poised to launch or that declared it would [certainly] use its weapons’, which was an unequivocal reference to Pakistan.

India’s nuclear history is replete with such contradictory assertions and an affront to basics of deterrence strategy. India’s first officially articulated Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) in 1999 is a bunch of hyper contradictions. Article 2.3 of the Indian DND stated that “India shall pursue a doctrine of credible minimum nuclear deterrence,” but Article 2.6 laid down a list of requirements, which describe that deterrence required India to maintain: “Sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared nuclear forces”. It is obviously a self-contradiction that the doctrine of credible minimum deterrence requires maintaining ‘sufficient’ nuclear forces. Due to this provision, the Indian nuclear doctrine was assessed internationally as an aggressive.

The projection of preemptive first strike seems to be more politically motivated than a well-articulated military strategy, may be to satiate the aggressive intent of India’s hawkish ruling elite.

In January 2003, India’s cabinet committee on security reviewed the draft doctrine and to make it partly operational; the committee summarised a version, which significantly departed from the August 1999 DND. The “no-first-use” posture has been modified significantly. Article VI of the operationalised nuclear doctrine renders the NFU declaration invalid by stating: “However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, with biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.”

The possibility of successful preemptive strikes against nuclear weapons can also be ruled out because the dispersed and well-concealed nuclear warheads and mobile delivery vehicles cannot be attacked and destroyed with assured certainty. The survivability of even a few nuclear weapons for retaliatory purposes could wreak havoc if used in a counter-city mode or attack on nuclear installations.

Will India go against international wisdom to engage in this act of “suicidal madness” in an attempt to disarm Pakistan of its nuclear assets?

Large-scale preemptive attacks by inherently dual-use systems in a limited or full-scale conflict to degrade or destroy the adversary’s nuclear capability are considered the most dangerous, and therefore, counterproductive. These types of dangerous undertakings would lead to an uncontrolled escalation of limited conventional war to a nuclear exchange, which would be catastrophic for the whole region. The South Asian scenario is especially not conducive for such preemptive military strikes due to border contiguity, geographical proximity, and retaliatory war options.

The dangerous strategic miscalculation is being repeated once again by the Indian policy circles projecting an obsolete strategic concept of counterforce preemptive first strike. The projection of preemptive first strike seems to be more politically motivated than a well-articulated military strategy, may be to satiate the aggressive intent of India’s hawkish ruling elite.

The writer is President, Strategic Vision Instituted (SVI).