Col. Anil Athale,

Coordinator Inpad.



Indian nuclear decision making was always in the global political context. These were almost exclusively political decisions with the armed forces not in the loop. The 1974 Pokhran I tests were in response to the emergent Sino-US quasi alliance of 1972 (Shanghai declaration by Nixon and Chou En Lai) that threatened the withdrawal of the implicit American nuclear ‘umbrella’. The 1998 tests were in the context of CTBT that was to be universally applicable which would have left India permanently as a Tier II power. The other context was emerging multi-polar world. A rising  China which has adopted revanchist policies in its neighbourhood was a also a major factor in that decision, as has become clear now. In both the cases the emphasis was exclusively on preserving the ‘political independence of decision making’ and had very little if any, security linkages. Neither in 1974 nor in 1998 was there any immediate security threat to the country, nuclear or otherwise.

Given this context it is futile to rue the fact that the military was never a part of the decision making since the decisions were guided by political and long term considerations. Both the actions had the Sino-US combine as their intended targets.

Close to six years after India’s Pokhran I test of 1974, India’s nuclear strategy remained a political strategy with global aims. This ought to have changed when under the Reagan administration (the US and its then ally China) brought about/facilitated Pakistani nuclear capability to ‘balance’ the then Soviet ally, India. The US and China have thus done permanent damage to the sub-continent by creating a regional nuclear flashpoint. Unlike India, Pakistan is not a ‘natural state’ with constant questions by its own citizens about its existence. It is at the same time a revisionist state that wants a part of India (J&K) and wants to forever redress the adverse balance of power in the sub-continent.

Thus in the 1980s, India’s nuclear strategy acquired a clear security linkage, yet the political and military elite continued with the earlier thinking and promoted concepts like ‘nuclear ambiguity’ and ‘recessed deterrence’ to name a few. In the context of nuclear weapons, the first is positively dangerous as ‘ambiguity’ can lead to miscalculation and detracts from the concept of ‘deterrence’ that is central to the nuclear non-zero sum game with armed peace as a saddle point. The less said about ‘recessed or hidden deterrence’ the better.

This situation came about due to the reluctance/disinterest of the armed forces’ top leadership in seriously considering ‘deterrence’ as central concept as they continued with their ‘business as usual’ approach, preparing and arming to fight the last war. Gen Sundarji was possibly the only exception who had the intellectual capacity to understand the changed military context. His brilliant concept of turning the c3 and I (Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence) into a force multiplier is evidence of this. But Sundarji did not have a lasting influence and on his retirement the armed forces returned to status quo ante.

In 1998 when India conducted a series of tests, including that of a thermonuclear weapon, it declared a unilateral ‘no first use’ policy. This was a political requirement to calm the fears of the world community and also assure Pakistan a degree of security as long as it stayed non-nuclear. But given its policy of striving for a strategic balance with India, Pakistan also went ahead and conducted its own tests. Since 1998 both the countries have openly declared their possession of nuclear weapons. Pakistan did not give a ‘no first use pledge’ and in fact announced that given conventional arms superiority of India it would use nuclear weapons against even a conventional threat to its territory. China on the other hand continued with its ‘no first nuclear use’ policy vis a vis India, but instead built up its conventional strength on the Sino-Indian border.

Given the close strategic co-ordination between China and Pakistan vis a vis India, it seems that the combine is playing a Mutt and Jeff or Good Cop Bad Cop game with India. With China acting as a good cop and non threatening while Pakistan acts aggressive. In short, China is getting Pak to do its dirty work. Indian reaction to this strategy by trying to ‘reason it’ with bad cop, i.e. Pakistan, has failed as seen by the Pakistani misadventure in Kargil in May 1999. That this happened despite PM Vajpayee’s effort at peace through his Lahore visit is instructive.

Pakistani argument that its option of first use of nuclear weapons is dictated by its weakness in conventional strength is patently false. While it is true that India does have an edge in conventional military forces, it is far from attaining any kind of ‘superiority’ over Pakistan. Many Indians nostalgically point out at the proactive Israeli strategy against terror attacks but fail to appreciate that India does not enjoy that kind of superiority over Pak. It is an axiom that in modern era, defence is inherently superior to offense and this goes in favour of Pakistan. Finally, the canal and river system in Punjab make it a nightmare for any major offensive. India’s attempt to create a counter in terms of ‘Cold Start’ force and doctrine was dead even before it was born. Pakistan has seen through this bluff.

Given these factors India’s long held doctrine (?) of offensive defense against Pakistan stands neutralised. Even against China, India’s defensive defence strategy is being threatened by the Chinese logistical build up in Tibet giving it strategic mobility as well besides the tactical mobility it had as result of geography (Tibet is a plateau while India has to traverse the Himalayan range). The terrain already gave it advantage of tactical mobility being on the right side of Himalayan barrier.

In addition to the above stated problems, India tends to treat the conventional, sub-conventional and nuclear threats in isolation. What this divergence between the conventional and nuclear has done is that there is a lack of synergy in defence planning between the various facets of defence forces and linkages of various threats. Once our security is linked to the nuclear weapons, the linkage though escalation ladder with conventional and sub conventional conflicts is inevitable. It is lack of this linkage and clear thinking on our part that has hamstrung our security policies. In addition this also brings in the possibility that we may stumble on the slippery slope of nuclear war by escalation.

India’s bumbling defence policies and ineffective strategies that seem to have been trumped more often than not are in stark contrast to the very effective economic policies that are envy of the world. The difference is that most economic policies are adopted after a vigorous open debate. There are also several think tanks that deal with economic issues and these are regularly consulted by the govt. On security front however one has hardly seen any informed debate and both the military and civil bureaucracy have shunned any dialogue. Secrecy about plans and some equipment is necessary but most of the broad strategies are based on information available in open sources. Open debates and clear articulation of policies is a necessity in nuclear age as these enhance deterrence and reduce the chance war by miscalculation. One routinely hears that defence ministry stating that they have a strategy that is ‘not in public interest to disclose’. Many including this author suspect that the individuals involved use the cloak of secrecy to hide their incompetence. Our otherwise vociferous MPs also seem silent on this very vital issue.  

(the views in this article are author’s personal views.)