Over the nuclear threshold

Indian Army Chief’s statement on winning the conventional war, undeterred by a Pakistani nuclear strike, signals a paradigm strategic shift.

Today’s The Tribune features a very interesting interview with the Indian army chief, General VK Singh. There is one particular answer by the army chief in the interview which stands out among all the other usual ones. It is about fighting a conventional war with a nuclear-capable Pakistan.

There is also a nuclear dimension with Pakistan having acquired the capability as well?

We have been looking on this threat for quite sometime. It is not that suddenly it has come, we knew at the capabilities of our neighbourhood and what was happening over there and we have been talking about it, we have been training for it and we have been looking at our own concepts and doctrine etc so far as this particular issue is concerned. As an Army, we are prepared to fight dirty which means not dirty in the sense of street fighting, dirty in the sense of fighting through our area which has been contaminated by a nuclear strike. We are confident that we will get through in such contaminated areas and this is part of our training methodology, doctrine and our concept.

It is not that somebody is going to say I will drop a bomb and therefore you stop on your track. Sorry, it does not happen that way, it is not going to happen.  We will take the war to its logical conclusion whether it is a nuclear strike or no nuclear strike. I am quite confident of our nuclear capability. We are clear that as a nation we will be able to withstand whatever comes our way and retaliate in adequate measure.[Tribune]

Last year, the then army chief, General Deepak Kapoor had cautioned that the possibility of a “limited war under a nuclear overhang” was a reality in the sub-continent. This meant that India was constrained to fight a limited war below the nuclear threshold which restricted the punitive military options available to India vis-a-vis Pakistan. Now, for perhaps the first time, an Indian Army chief has openly spoken about fighting a conventional war, undeterred by the threat of a nuclear strike by Pakistan. He says, “We will take the war to its logical conclusion whether it is a nuclear strike or no nuclear strike.” Significant words these. For this signals a paradigm strategic shift — a significant step-up in terms of attitude, approach and mindset of the Indian Army, and by extension, the Indian state.

India has a publicly declared No-First Use doctrine — enunciated first in 1999 and then revised in 2003 — for its nuclear weapons. This means that India will not be the first to initiate the use of a nuclear weapon. It will only retaliate with nuclear weapons if such weapons are first used against India [see Dhruva Jaishankar's blogpost on No-First Use]. K Subrahmanyam, who was then the convener of India’s National Security Advisory Board, had explained it thus:

The Indian no-first-use doctrine is not just a declaratory policy unrelated to deployment and command and control. It is rooted in the perception that the core of deterrence lies in the uncertainty about the adversary’s likely capability to cause unacceptable damage to oneself after the initial use of nuclear weapons against him. The survivability of the assets to strike back in retaliation constitutes deterrence and not the provocative forward and risky deployment as was carried out by the nuclear weapons powers.[link]

In contrast, Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine essentially revolves around the first-strike option. It means that Pakistan will use nuclear weapons if attacked by India even if the attack is with conventional weapons. As a Pakistani military analyst has explained:

In a deteriorating military situation when an Indian conventional attack is likely to break through our defences or has already breached the main defence line causing a major set-back to the defences, which cannot be restored by conventional means at our disposal, the government would be left with no other option except to use Nuclear Weapons to stabilize the situation. India’s superiority in conventional arms and manpower would have to be offset by nuclear weapons. The political will to use nuclear weapons is essential to prevent a conventional armed conflict, which would later on escalate into a nuclear war.[link]

Indubitably, Pakistan has, over the last two decades, used its nuclear capability to prevent an Indian military retaliation against Pakistan’s sustained and active usage of jehadi terror as a strategic weapon against India and Indian assets — largely in Jammu & Kashmir, but also in other parts of India and in foreign lands like Afghanistan. The Indian army chief’s statement suggests that India is no longer willing to allow Pakistan to continue with its profitable strategy of asymmetric and sub-conventional warfare against India. While India may still be able to endure a terror strike in Jammu & Kashmir, the stakes have perhaps been raised prohibitively for Pakistan in the event of another Mumbai-like terror strike elsewhere in India in the future.

By upping the ante, General VK Singh has delivered the clearest warning yet to a nuclear-capable Pakistan about the damaging consequences of continuing to use jehadi terror as an instrument of state policy against India. One trusts that adequate attention is also being paid to the tactics, operational capability, equipping and training, in case Indian Army is forced to deliver on the words spoken by its chief. Although one hopes that such a ghastly eventuality never becomes a reality, hope, as they say, is not strategy.


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12 Responses to Over the nuclear threshold

  1. buzz October 17, 2010 at 10:46 pm #

    Army still seems to be completely pakistan-centric. Incredibly Army chief even seems to suggest that army equipment are not obsolete or old because same is true for pakistan! I guess if Pakistan only had slings and bow and arrows India’s equipment will look space age.

  2. Anthony Mitchell October 18, 2010 at 6:33 am #

    The Indian Army is a long way away from having the tools or the training to fight through a nuclear strike zone without sacrificing its troops. I would question the ability of even the civilian authorities to monitor and model the fate and transport of contaminants that would be released in a limited use of nuclear weapons.

  3. Team SAI October 18, 2010 at 6:39 am #

    Nice reportage and analysis. That is the spirit which can help us win wars without ifs and buts

  4. arun sahgal October 18, 2010 at 9:29 am #

    Remarks of the Army Chief are interesting and do in fact indicate a shift from mere deterrence as a political tool to a nuanced “war fighting doctrine”.
    There are two issues here; one the first striker has a dilemma particularly if he is aware that massive retaliation will follow if he were to venture crossing the nuclear threshold. Problem is that Under the circumstances he may be forced to launch a massive first strike and not follow what is termed as a graduated response paradigm.
    Second issue is that the statement appears to suggest that the so called “Red Lines” and thresholds which used to encumber Indian politico military thinking in terms of punitive retaliation to proxy war no longer operate or have seized to be a deterrence. If this is indeed so then it is a major development and presumably part of Army’s transformation doctrine which talks about ‘holding forces’ and large reserves of capability forces backed by enhanced battlefield transparency.
    All in all an extremely significant development and shift in strategic thinking; hope the political class appreciates and accepts?

  5. Mixpherion - Tumbam Nergayil October 18, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    “seized to be a deterrence.”
    Frdn slip

  6. Anthony Mitchell October 18, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    US Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College found that during Kargil, Pakistan’s leadership was not operating according to traditional doctrines of mutually assured destruction (MAD). They were not hindered by prospects of MAD. I see no indication that this approach has changed in any significant way.

    As with China, friendly diplomacy and constructive engagement is essential for backing away from unsustainable postures.

  7. docjoe October 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Some points here:
    1. The Army’s intent to fight under NBC conditions are not freshly born just because the COAS has articulated it. NBC warfare training has formed part and parcel of every single Army unit ever since we acquired the means, however elementary, to engage in it.

    2. It would be interesting to know about the conclusions of the various war games that the Army has conducted about such scenarios. When (not if) Pakistan strikes first, will India retaliate? My reading, bolstered by interactions with people who know something of this says an unequivocal NO. Why? Simply because the political and diplomatic damage to India will be far far greater than the dust bowl it creates of Lahore/Islamabad/Karachi whatever. Ditto the China angle. Humphrey Hawksley was deadly right in his “Dragon Fire”. So, India’s nuclear arsenal is just window dressing. Accept it and prepare for its NON-USE is what the three ‘wise” men should do lest a typically fractured, venal and self-serving govt lets them down when the time comes to press the button: they will NEVER, EVER do it.

    3. The COAS is a political appointee first and the seniormost Army officer second. The general public gets an idea about govt military policy through such utterances of the head of the service so there is no need to go all gaga over it. If the govt had not cleared him to say it and he did do so, the govt will make a “Bhagwat” of him without the slightest compunction; after all, there are others waiting in the wings for just such a thing to happen…And sorry, the Army, Navy and AF are just too sensible to stage a coup – none of them want anything other than higher ranks and privileges, such ambitions are way beyond their level.

    4. Moving thru contaminated areas is fine to say to a journalist of the 40′s and 50′s, even 60′s. If that journalist of 2010 asks, “But General, even a rudimentary gas mask is not standard issue for your troops?”, then what happens? Everybody in the Armed Forces is aware of the NBC training issue, so lesser said the better.

    6. Prags, I thought you were wiser than to give this irrelevant tit-bit of news so much importance? “Suitably domesticated” by the Army, have you been?

  8. .. October 21, 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    “none of them want anything other than higher ranks and privileges, such ambitions are way beyond their level”


  9. murty October 22, 2010 at 1:45 am #

    The chief’s interview reflects the government’s policy on nuclear deterrance and Pakistan’s terror as foreign policy.This is what exactly Indian people are looking for.Allthese years Indian people were left to live in sacred envoronment,since the Government neither taken any action on Pakistan’s terror attacks,nor issued stern warnings in the form of destroying the terror training camps.Over and above our Foreign Minister and Foreign secretary were showing over enthusiasm in having dialogue with Pakistan,and giving statements like”there is no way but to have talks”.Our Foreign policy on Pakistan and China are utter failures since Nehru times.The external affairs Ministry has not learnt a lesson.In the light of above Chief’s ststement is a big welcome to the people of India.

  10. k_ram October 22, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    Talk, it is said, is cheap! The statement of the COAS is probably more for domestic consumption than for our adversaries. It would be worth the while if military leadership aggressively pursues the modernisation programmes of weapon platforms that are hanging fire for the past ten years rather than articulating such extreme philosophies. Intentions can be changed at a moment’s notice but capabilities take a long time to build up.
    Fighting in a dirty environment is not a plain issue of providing NBC suits or gas masks as both are useless against radiation. The N of the NBC is clearly a misnomer as the suit provides protection against B and C only. We need to build up on reconnaissance and transportation capabilities which will enable troops to negotiate dirty terrain. It is better to build capacity rather than indulge in articulation of intentions as former speaks far louder than the latter.

  11. @aroradush June 14, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    more must read http://t.co/TXYRL1y


  1. Tweets that mention Pragmatic Euphony » Over the nuclear threshold -- Topsy.com - October 17, 2010

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by pragmatic_desi, Center Right, Vishal Zade, N.James, N.James and others. N.James said: Over the nuclear threshold http://bit.ly/cqdfjL Gen.VK Singh delivers the clearest warning to a nuclear-capable Pakistan by @pragmatic_d [...]

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