The centrality of MADness in nuclear doctrine

Columnist  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Oped

The people who decide on such things reside in New Delhi, and understandably their safety gets priority.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (Photo: PTI)

It has been reported that the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC), at a meeting chaired by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, has approved the “acceptance of necessity” (AoN) for the acquisition of the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System-II (NASAMS-II) worth around $1 billion from the United States. However, in 2002, the US had vetoed India’s bid to acquire the Israeli Arrow-2 missile interceptor system. Consequently, DRDO began developing the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD), which will provide long-range high-altitude ballistic missile interception during an incoming missile’s midcourse phase as well as interception during the terminal phase. At various times these systems had different monikers, like ballistic missile defence (BMD) or anti-ballistic missile system (ABM).

The people who decide on such things reside in New Delhi, and understandably their safety gets priority. So it is the NCR that will get the expensive and exaggerated sense of protection such systems tend to generate. But no air defence system can be deemed impenetrable. The Americans and Russians realised much before the Cold War ended that the costs involved will be prohibitive, even for them, and made a virtue of necessity. But the idea was seductive. Even as the Cold War was waning, Ronald Reagan toyed with the idea of a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), which envisaged an ABM system stationed deep in space, that would launch on picking up a launch. It seemed so far-fetched and futuristic that quite a few commentators took to calling it Star Wars.

This thought has been high on the minds of our security establishment ever since it learned that on May 26, 1990 China had tested a Pakistani derivative of its CHIC-4 design at the Lop Nor test site, with a yield in the 10 to 12 kiloton (kt) range. That yield estimate accords with recorded yields of Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, which are somewhere between 5 kt and 12 kt. Refinements in boosting and efficient plutonium use are the normal next steps in weapon improvement, along with miniaturisation of warheads to fit into smaller and lighter re-entry vehicles. Pakistan has done all of these to arm its cruise and ballistic missiles with lighter payloads. Once India deploys the PAD system around its capital, we can be assured that Pakistan too will deploy an ABM around Islamabad. We can also rest assured that China will assist it in “developing” such a capability.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials has estimated that Pakistan has an inventory of approximately 3,100 kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and roughly 170 kg of weapons-grade plutonium. This is enough to potentially produce 200 to 300 warheads. Pakistan has also frequently tested the ranges of about a dozen Chinese-derived missiles from the Hatf (50 km) to Shaheen-III (2,750 km). There is little doubt that Pakistan has planned for all eventualities, from local battlefield use and to feed its desire to have a credible “Islamic” bomb capability, and for that its reach must include Tel Aviv.

Long after the Cold War ended, nuclear deterrence is still based on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This simply means that any sneak decapitating or debilitating first strike will be responded with massive retaliation, the fear of which should instill good sense. That after almost three quarters of a century when the nuclear genie was uncorked from the bottle, we have not had a nuclear war or weapon use is living proof of its robust common sense. So much so that when developments in ABM or BMD capability reached fruition, the two Cold War protagonists, the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union, had a treaty restricting these systems. Ironically, this was even well before they had a treaty on reducing the number of nuclear bombs.

The MAD doctrine was made painfully credible by the development of nuclear arsenal survivability by widespread deployment (at the peak of the Cold War, America and Russia each had over 30,000 nuclear bombs). This credibility got its biggest boost when submarines, initially diesel and then nuclear-powered, capable of firing nuclear armed missiles (SSBN) from the impenetrable dark recesses of the oceans, were introduced. The first of these submarines was the Russian Zulu class submarine capable of firing from underwater an early Scud missile (1955). The Americans were the first to deploy a long endurance, deep diving and very silent nuclear-powered submarine — the George Washington — in 1959. Since then MAD was ensured by the highly accurate missiles in the bellies of such submarines operated by the US, Russian, British, French, Chinese and Indian navies. Pakistan too is now reportedly testing nuclear-capable missiles fired from underwater on modified diesel submarines.

We need to learn from how nuclear weapons strategies evolved during the Cold War, instead of mimicking US and Soviet follies. The notion of deterrence between the US and the USSR was based on no escape from MAD. The march of the Cold War follies peaked with the two protagonists together deploying almost 70,000 warheads each aimed at a specific target. At the height of this madness almost every open ground was targeted as possible tank marshalling or military logistics areas. The last thing we therefore want is getting into a numbers game with Pakistan or China. Credibility depends on reducing the uncertainty of use from the opposite perspective. The Indian PAD missile defence system only increases them. India and Pakistan have ensured a modicum of confidence by not mating the warheads and delivery systems, giving a vital period to roll back the unleashing of Armageddon. But now both nations will have to evolve a launch on warning doctrine.

Clearly, the two South Asian nuclear powers have a local version of MAD in place. The Pakistani doctrine “commits itself” to use battlefield nuclear weapons if an Indian conventional assault threatens its essential nationhood, and thus it has steadfastly refused to accept the “no first use” (NFU) notion. The Indian doctrine emphasises NFU, but also makes it explicit that any Pakistani use of nuclear weapons on India or its forces will be responded with massive retaliation. India may have fewer nuclear weapons, not because it cannot make more, but what it has is enough to ensure the complete annihilation of Pakistan, which is geographically too a much smaller country. China has moved on from NFU to a doctrine now called “credible minimum deterrence”. But how much is credible?

Mercifully, nuclear doctrines these days are couched in such abstractions as MAD that requires a degree of predictability, ironically ensured by opacity. The United States’ “single integrated operational plan” (SIOP) began with the ominous words that its objective, after the outbreak of a general war with the then Soviet Union, was to turn it into a “smoking radiating ruin”. It was written by its certifiable US Air Force chief, Gen. Curtis Lemay Jr, based on whom the character played by George C. Scott in the Stanley Kubrick classic Dr Strangelove was created. But it was people like Gen. Lemay who gave MAD some credibility. Since no one of a sane frame of mind would even contemplate the enormity of the disaster of a nuclear war, uncertainty of use was a key element of MAD. It has been written that Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev used to have sleepless nights thinking of a man like Richard Nixon with his finger on the button.

India’s nuclear strategy documents in detail as to who the nuclear command would devolve to in the unlikely event of a decapitating first strike on New Delhi with the aim of eliminating its national leadership. It is said the chain of nuclear command keeps descending downwards to a major-general, a modern-day Raja Parikshit so to say who will perform the final obsequies. At last count, India had over 600 military officers at that level. Decapitating all of them is a near statistical and physical impossibility. It will take tens of thousands to precision nuclear weapons to annihilate India’s military chain of command, and it can be speculated whether even America or Russia can achieve that, let alone Pakistan.

Ironically, the evocative acronym MAD doctrine is eminently sensible. Good sense should tell us that enough of this madness, and leave MAD alone!

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