Ensuring India’s Qualitative Military Edge

The vulnerability of modern states facing armed conflict with conventional weapons, coupled with the possibility of it extending into the nuclear realm, accentuates the contextual and operational significance of deterrence. India aspires to promote an ever-expanding area of peace and stability so that all-inclusive developmental priorities can be pursued without disruption.

However, the existence of a nuclear doctrine covertly espousing first-use of nuclear weapons in India’s neighborhood and insistence of some nuclear weapons states on the legitimacy of their use even against non-nuclear weapon countries constitute a serious threat to peace and stability in South Asia.

Although India has always sought peaceful development and harmonious relations with neighboring countries, certain geo-strategic realities and challenges, which confront India and threaten to upstage regional stability, cannot be negated or ignored. India’s deterrence mechanism stands attuned to the regional security scenario. The nuclear neighborhood of New Delhi is witness to possession of advanced versions of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability, ranging from 8,000-14,000 kms, capable of targeting the length and breadth of India in the event of a conflict.

India has always viewed nuclear weapons as a political instrument whose sole purpose is for deterrence. India’s nuclear doctrine clearly outlines the strategy of credible minimum deterrence and establishes that India will not be the first to start a nuclear strike. However, India shall respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.

Given India’s policy of “retaliation only,” it is prudent to assume that the survivability of India’s nuclear arsenal will delineate its second-strike capability, thereby ensuring credible deterrence. India’s nuclear doctrine calls for sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared nuclear forces; a robust command and control system; effective intelligence and early warning capabilities; comprehensive planning and training for operations in line with strategy; and the requisite primary and alternate chain of command to use nuclear forces and weapons.

India’s attempts to acquire a fully operational nuclear triad will be instrumental in defining its quest for a credible survivable deterrent. With the last nuclear insurance coming in from the seas, India awaits the third and perhaps, most elusive, underwater leg of its nuclear triad (the ability to fire nuclear weapons from the land, air and sea), namely, the INS Arihant, an indigenous nuclear-powered submarine armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles (SSBN).

Likely to be fully operational and out at sea by 2014, the submarine has undergone “harbor-acceptance trials” on “shore-based steam” and shall begin extensive “sea-acceptance trials” in a few weeks from now. In a crucial step that would add towards realizing this mission, the twelfth and final developmental test of the 750-km range K-15 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) has successfully been conducted earlier this year and the missile stands ready for induction.

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The INS Arihant will be capable of carrying as many as 12 K-15 SLBMs, with each of these missiles having the capacity to deliver a one-ton nuclear warhead. Besides, India is also working towards its second SSBN following induction of the INS Arihant, namely the INS Aridhaman which shall further add to India’s strategic deterrence.

A fully functional and cohesive nuclear triad force structure composition primarily includes development of three major delivery components, namely strategic bombers (carrier-based or land-based, armed with bombs or missiles), land-based missiles and SSBNs. India’s force structure is largely based upon its existing military assets including the Sukhoi-30 MKIs and Mirage-2000s ensuring that India’s limited arsenal can execute a successful second strike to cause damage that would be unacceptable to the adversary and therefore influence its cost-benefit analysis of undertaking a first strike to begin with. The first two legs of the triad are already in place with the Indian Armed Forces.

The delivery system assumes critical importance since its survivability and effectiveness in reaching the likely decision points required in the deterrence paradigm finally decides upon the credibility of the deterrence posture. The successful test-launch of the long-range Agni V ICBM by India in April 2012 has undoubtedly bolstered India’s deterrent, given that the missile is being considered as the mainstay of India’s nuclear delivery vectors. The accuracy of the Agni V missile shall only be ascertained with frequent validation tests, before it gets fully inducted by 2015. The Agni V missile shall require a minimum of three more tests before getting into the production mode, and in this regard, the second firing of the Agni V is slated within the next few months.

That the mere possession of nuclear weapons paves way for an implicit threat of use or actual use, a well propounded and established “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons has been India’s elementary commitment, and in furtherance to this reference, every possible effort should be made to persuade as many nations who are in possession of nuclear weapons, to join an international treaty which seeks to ban its first use.

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi and holds a Post-Doctorate in International Relations from the French Foundation of Humanities and Sciences, Paris, in 2007-08. She has been a recipient of various prestigious international academic fellowships including the 2012 Senior Visiting Fellowship by the Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, USA and the Japanese Global Chair of Excellence Fellowship at the Hokkaido University, Japan.

  • “Given India’s policy of “retaliation only,” it is prudent to assume that the survivability of India’s nuclear arsenal will delineate its second-strike capability, thereby ensuring credible deterrence. India’s nuclear doctrine calls for sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared nuclear forces; a robust command and control system; effective intelligence and early warning capabilities; comprehensive planning and training for operations in line with strategy; and the requisite primary and alternate chain of command to use nuclear forces and weapons.”

    It is interesting to note that aside from the weapon-platforms and a half-hearted effort to construct a “nuclear doctrine”, none of the other pre-requisites, namely “sufficient, survivable and operationally prepared nuclear forces; a robust command and control system; effective intelligence and early warning capabilities; comprehensive planning and training for operations in line with strategy; and the requisite primary and alternate chain of command to use nuclear forces and weapons” are either in place or are even in the offing. Lacking any credible civil defense mechanism (the horrific proof of this being evident in the sluggishness of response to the 26/11 attacks), the Indian nuclear doctrine – such as it is – grounded on the presumption of “survivability”, breaks down. While there may be a secondary chain of command, this is, at best, limited to the political executive and to the upper echelons of the military and bureaucratic hierarchy. In fact, large sections of the Indian strategic-military forces remain openly vulnerable to a nuclear strike. Further, the lack of hardening of the national communications grid (distinct from the strategic-military communications grid, which is also not fully hardened) remains a key strategic weakness as does the inability to protect key industrial centers. And, the Indian surveillance and early-warning capability is, in the best case, limited to a single theater (Pakistan) and is unlikely to be able to address multiple and simultaneous vectors of attack. What then is the “qualitative edge” that the Indian strategic-military establishment is seeking to establish and maintain? To be able to ensure that India retains a second-strike capability? Surely, that is not enough!