In an article for ThePrint, Bharat Karnad argued that India should abandon its No First-Use (NFU) nuclear policy in favour of a first-use doctrine aimed primarily against China, drawing on Russian nuclear strategy.
The fundamental thesis is that, because India lacks the conventional capabilities to deter and defeat “expansive-minded China,” it should threaten China with limited nuclear escalation to dissuade aggression in Eastern Ladakh. Karnad proposes that India pursue an asymmetric escalation strategy, operationalizing tactical nuclear weapons as warfighting instruments against large-scale conventional threats in order to discourage and destroy their spread.
During the Cold War, the concept of a limited nuclear reaction arose. Both the US and the Soviet Union pledged catastrophic punishment in the early stages of the Cold War in reaction to nuclear and conventional attack. However, the development of thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs based on the idea of nuclear fusion in the mid-1950s rendered huge reprisal measures exceedingly suicidal. Any first use of nuclear weapons would have resulted in enormous nuclear retaliation, resulting in an unprecedented calamity and irreversible devastation for both sides.
To dissuade conventional threats, the possibility of limited nuclear retaliation was offered as a more credible option. As a result, both the US and the USSR built up stockpiles of low-yield nuclear weapons in order to prevent escalation.
When countries like Pakistan and North Korea acquired nuclear weapons, the idea of a limited nuclear war gained traction. They confronted the serious task of deterring conventionally superior foes with low-grade military gear and relatively limited armed personnel. As a result, they used the fear of limited nuclear war to dissuade conventional aggression to compensate for their inferiority. There is a widespread belief that conventional inferiority results in nuclear compensation.
However, asymmetric escalation, as sensible as it appears, might be questioned on the following grounds:
The conventional inferiority thesis, for example, assumes that nuclear deterrence is more appealing than conventional military choices. Nuclear weapons are far more destructive than conventional weapons, but it does not mean that they are more usable.
Nuclear weapons have little military utility, according to history. Nuclear weapons do not assist ground forces in seizing or holding land, and they do not aid in the victory of aggressive wars. To summarise, nuclear weapons cannot be employed to achieve specific political or military goals.
Asymmetrical threats from Pakistan can be dealt with conventional weapons in the Indian context (e.g., surgical strikes on enemy targets). Furthermore, as the Indian Army demonstrated during the Galwan standoff in August 2020 when it captured the Kailash Range crest, proactive deployment of our military troops is sufficient to counter Chinese assault.
Second, the asymmetric escalation approach implies that states can control nuclear escalation, or that limited nuclear escalation can be kept under control without risking a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
In intellectual and strategic circles, the difficulties of managing escalation and the credibility of restricted nuclear threats are two well-known issues. The limited nuclear attack and full-scale nuclear war are inextricably linked. “Even a modest probability that a provocation could lead to nuclear war will be sufficient to discourage any but the most strongly motivated opponents,” Robert Jervis stated.
Third, the case for India using nuclear weapons against China is based on the assumption that China is risk averse and would not retaliate to a limited nuclear attack. While the prognosis may be correct in some cases, it is impossible to predict China’s escalation management plan and response options in a crisis.
Fourth, Karnad applies the Russian escalate-to-de-escalate philosophy to India, suggesting a similar strategy.
“The Russian technique of ‘escalating to de-escalate’ should be rejigged to deal with India’s main and only credible foe,” he claims. According to the purported Russian de-escalation doctrine, Russia may use nuclear weapons early in a conventional regional confrontation to dissuade or end hostilities without risking a major nuclear exchange.
It assumes that a regional conflict would not contain principles for which the enemy would be willing to risk even a single nuclear strike, allowing Russian coercion techniques to succeed.
Russia’s nuclear policy
There is scant evidence that de-escalation is part of Russia’s declaration strategy. The most recent Russian military doctrine, which was released in 2014, and the nuclear deterrence principles “reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons when the state’s very existence is in jeopardy.”
Russia chose a low nuclear-use threshold in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of a de-escalation plan; nonetheless, Russia raised the bar for nuclear use in its 2010 military doctrine.
The Russian reasoning for including limited nuclear strikes against conventional conflict was intended as a stopgap measure until Russia’s conventional capabilities were modernised and long-range precision strike weapons were created. Russia has just realised that, while nuclear weapons are useful for deterrence, they cannot be used to achieve political goals or address security problems in the region.
Russia has been working hard since 2008 to modernise its conventional troops and reduce its unhealthy reliance on nuclear weapons. The Russian military doctrine of 2014 codified evolving non-nuclear deterrent principles, envisioning military and military-technical means such as precision strike weapons for strategic deterrence reasons.
During the 2015 air campaign in Syria and the strategic-operational exercise Zapad 2017, Russia underlined the growing importance of the precision strike regime in its military strategy.
Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons has diminished as its conventional response options have grown. “States that face a conventionally superior foe do not necessarily lean back and rest on their nuclear laurels,” writes a renowned Russian nuclear policy specialist. “Some want to repair their conventional inferiority.” In the case of Pakistan, which has varied its conventional response choices against limited conventional aggression by India, particularly its air and naval attack capabilities, a similar argument can be made.
As a result, it’s nonsensical to draw lessons for Indian nuclear policy from an out-of-date version of Russian doctrine. Excessive reliance on nuclear weapons, according to Russian experience, can be detrimental and unsustainable in the long run.
By diverting resources away from developing conventional forces, the military’s response options are limited. Furthermore, there are definite limits to the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence (They cannot deter all forms of aggression).