Vipin Narang, an Indian origin nuclear strategist and a Professor at the prestigious MIT made a candid assessment of the emerging dynamics of India’s nuclear strategy at the Carnegie International Conference in Washington recently. He averred that there had been a perceptible paradigm shift in India’s nuclear posture towards Pakistan; moving from their oft professed “No First Use” dictum to nuclear first strikes to “preempt imminent nuclear strikes by Pakistan”. This preemption would aim to eliminate all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons obviating any retaliatory second strikes altogether.

This paradigm shift will be interpreted in Pakistan as at best a strategic feint and at worst extreme nuclear brinkmanship. Either way, it destabilises the strategic and operational environments irreversibly forcing countermanding reactions from Pakistan.

In pure strategic terms then, the new normal in the Indo-Pak military context henceforth will be a pre-emptive nuclear first strike. The nature and initiation of war in the subcontinent may have been irrevocably escalated from an essentially conventional dimention to a nuclear dimension by this game changing paradigm shift in Indian strategic thought.

Like the fanciful Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) this strategy too is based upon indeterminate and self serving assumptions intended to justify the ways and means to achieve the desired end state(s). The CSD intends to destroy Pakistan’s Armed Forces without breaching its nuclear thresholds! A more self-contradictory doctrine/strategy in aim, execution and consequences could not have been formulated. Now, based on similar self serving assumptions, they want to carry out nuclear pre emption assuming a nuclear attack by Pakistan was all but imminent.

How do the Indians make that determination infallible enough to justify launching nuclear weapons and risk a more than possible second strike by a MIRV- equipped (Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicle) and nuclear TRIAD toting Pakistan?

And what stops Pakistan from assuming the same and trying to beat India at preemption itself! It will all boil down to a function of intelligence, appreciations, assessments, critical timings and in the final analysis to extreme brinkmanship, nerves and decisive leadership on both sides. This change in India’s nuclear posture will cause both belligerents to prepare for war with even more sensitive and nervous hair trigger initiatives and responses. A serious miscalculation through faulty or incomplete intelligence or predetermined prejudiced assessments might in fact trigger a global nuclear winter with all its sordid ramifications!

The aims and objectives of this Indian paradigm shift appear to be manifold. This could be a spinoff from President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative against the then USSR which caused the latter to collapse through persistently incremental defense spending. India might be aiming to replicate it against Pakistan. It could also be a strategic feint by the Indians aimed at instilling doubt and ambiguity in the minds of Pakistani nuclear and military strategists and decision makers which may lead to strategic paralysis and indecision at critical times prior to and in battle. It could also be a vain attempt to deter Pakistan from using the Al Nasr/TNWs preemptively or otherwise in a possible Cold Start operational environment. It could be a tester as well to evoke a response from Pakistan to study the options it considers. The Indians might simply be expanding their strategic options, too.

The discriminatory imposition of international nuclear and missile regimes like the FMCT, NSG, MTCR and the Indo-US civil nuclear deal et al by the US-led West has totally upended the strategic matrix in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. This has led to an unrestricted conventional and nuclear arms and missiles race and the creation of nuclear cities like Challakere, in Karnatak, India. Challakere, its nuclear facilities and products (thermonuclear bombs, et al) encourage and add an extremely dangerous and apocalyptic dimension to this nuclear brinkmanship. The evolving regional geopolitical alignments of India and the US on one side and Russia, China and Pakistan ostensibly on the other make this extreme nuclear brinkmanship of India even more critical, ominous and potentially explosive.

However, one must understand that nations make policies and strategies based on the capabilities of their adversaries and not on their intents. Regardless of what intentions, policy statements or military doctrines the Indians might have been peddling all along no military worth its salt, let alone the Pakistani military, would have taken them on face value. Did the Indians really think that Pakistan or anyone else for that matter, really believed them when they coyly professed “No First Use” of nuclear weapons? The Pakistanis certainly did not. If the adversary has nuclear weapons in its arsenal then it always retains multiple and multidimensional options of using them. And how much time does it take to change one’s stance or intent in times of imminent or actual war? When, where and how an adversary can use its capabilities are all subject to exhaustive analyses and appreciations. Contingency plans to meet each and every option are normally strategised and countervailing responses mounted. One is sure that pre-emptive nuclear first strike options by India would have already been pondered over in detail, studied, dissected and war-gamed at the appropriate military and civil fora in Pakistan and the necessary responses contemplated, catered for and prepared.

There has been a serious escalation in the tit-for-tat acquisition of nuclear weapons, their delivery systems as well as anti ballistic missile systems by both India and Pakistan. Pakistan has striven hard to maintain a strategic balance in the sub continent matching India’s nuclear triad with the completion of its own. When India tested her exo and endo-atmospheric ballistic missile interceptors, the Pakistanis countered it through their MIRV capability. Military operations under India’s much publicized CSD were largely neutralized by Pakistan through a more dynamic defensive posture and the introduction of even more lethal defensive weapons systems led by Al Nasr/TNWs etc.

Pakistan must now strive for “assured full spectrum deterrence”. Period

Vipin Narang’s “disclosures” did not surprise Pakistan; it always keeps its powder dry. However, what Vipin did not reveal was even more intriguing and thought provoking - will this Indian strategy hold true against China as well?