The issue that needs reflection is whether our nuclear arsenal, shaped by our nuclear doctrine, adequately caters for a nuclear exchange that commences with use of TNWs.


Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (Retd) 


On 25 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Moscow’s intention to deploy Tactical Nuclear Weapons or TNWs in Belarus. He added that Russia was doing what has been a norm for North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Periodically, during the Ukraine war, Putin and some members of Russia’s senior hierarchy have been bringing up the topic of nuclear weapons to keep the nuclear threat alive. The strategic effect sought to be achieved is to warn NATO member countries and reduce their role in the war. The Russian nuclear threats have probably not had their intended effects, considering the increase in the supply of military wherewithal to Ukraine, including offensive weapons like fighter aircraft, tanks, and missiles. The Belarus deployment is probably indicative of Russia adopting a different route to achieve the same intention. From the reaction of the NATO, it seems this threat would also not work to the degree that Russia expects.

The role of TNWs or low-yield nuclear weapons was highlighted in December 2019 when the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734), with a new W76-2 low-yield (5 KT) warhead on some of its Trident missiles, carried out a deterrent patrol in the Atlantic Ocean. This was consequent to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which described that such a capability was necessary as the US lacked a prompt and usable nuclear capability to deter Russia’s use of TNWs.

For India, which is also threatened by Pakistan’s and possibly China’s TNWs, the issue that needs reflection is whether our nuclear arsenal, shaped by our nuclear doctrine, adequately caters for a nuclear exchange that commences with the use of TNWs.


The Indian argument

The Indian nuclear doctrine prescribes that nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or against Indian forces anywhere, and the retaliation will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage. Such a prescription leaves no room for any role for TNWs.

In India’s nuclear theology, any use of nuclear weapons, of lower or higher yield, will have strategic effects. Therefore, TNWs is an erroneous theoretical construct that ignores the greater danger of escalation when the other party still has free will and could react with nuclear weapons. India believes that the political and psychological ambience that would prevail during the use of nuclear weapons — within a tit-for-tat framework — would not tolerate such moderation to permit a strategic dialogue through controlled nuclear exchange. It believes that such notions ignore political and military realities that would dictate decision-making in an environment of heightened distrust, danger, uncertainty, and fear.

The counter to the Indian argument is that TNWs could, however, provide some hope, though limited and certainly preferable to anything leading to a full-blown or massive nuclear exchange. This argument has some theoretical merit and flows from the first-use policy even though it is uncertain that TNWs, when used against nuclear powers, won’t result in mutual suicide.


Pakistan’s TNWs

The proponents of TNWs relate these weapons to grave reverses suffered in a conventional war, and they view them as being able to compensate for such losses. Pakistan’s TNWs are supposedly meant to serve such a purpose. They are expected to provide Islamabad with some degree of psychological assurance that would strengthen its deterrence and prevent India from launching a conventional war. Meanwhile, India believes that despite the mutual possession of nuclear weapons, limited war is feasible. The danger, therefore, inheres in the differing beliefs of both countries.

The possibility of a limited war shapes India’s military preparations against Pakistan. But so far, in practice, military force application has been constricted in terms of geography, political objectives, time, and quantum. It seems the nuclear shadow has thus far shortened the contours of a limited war in such a manner that it has never approached the nuclear threshold. Pakistan, though, in every crisis/confrontation, has wielded nuclear threats not only in the hope of restraining India but also to invite third-party intervention, especially of the US.

India’s political leadership have little choice but to react to terrorist attacks with the full knowledge of the risks involved but also by the confidence borne of its strength, capabilities, and experience. Whether Pakistan understands this dynamic and modifies its use of terror as a foreign policy instrument, only future events will reveal.


No ‘big fight’ from China

China has not admitted to the possession of TNWs. In the case of India-China nuclear dynamics, the mutual possession of nuclear weapons will perhaps shape the type of wars that they fight. We would be mistaken if we draw a parallel with the Ukraine war and resurrect the possibility of the ‘big fight’. This is so because Russia has invaded a non-nuclear power and its nuclear threats are aimed at NATO’s interference. But more importantly, one must relate the use of Beijing’s force on the China-India border to its political objectives. A prolonged confrontation with periodic spikes of localised use of force should be expected.

If the political objective is about forcefully occupying Indian territory across the Himalayas, only then will China attempt the ‘big fight’. But such an objective will surely tax its capabilities, considering the formidable terrain and India’s military capability to defend. The ‘big fight’ is not likely to be a strategic choice. Moreover, any such confrontation in the Himalayas could have an adverse impact on China’s capacity for force application against Taiwan.

The question is: Should India develop TNWs to compensate for China’s military capability that can be applied in the Himalayas or even in the maritime domain? The answer is a clear no as long as India adheres to its no-first-use (NFU) doctrine. Should India rethink its NFU policy, if China forgoes it own? The answer again is negative unless India changes its foundational belief that nuclear weapons have no military role.

In most nuclear powers, it is when the political leadership is captured by military thought processes — intolerant of the notion that one should not be struck first — that the first-use stance retains its ascendancy. How much of such military thinking has invaded China’s rationale on nuclear weapons will decide whether it will continue to adhere to its NFU policy.


Massive to Punitive Retaliation

Whatever the nuclear weapons-related quantitative, qualitative, and postural changes of our adversaries, there is no reason for India to revise the central tenets of its nuclear doctrine that is based on civilian control, NFU, and second strike capability. The last of the three provides room for shaping the arsenal and posture to cater for changes.

There is perhaps the need to modify the semantics of India’s doctrinal prescription on retaliation, which now reads: “Massive retaliation to cause unacceptable damage”. India could go back to K Subrahmanyam’s original formulation of ‘punitive retaliation’ that provides greater flexibility and takes better care of the possible use of low-yield weapons by our adversaries. It would be a semantic move that could strengthen deterrence and stability by promoting flexibility in India’s response without sacrificing the core beliefs on which its nuclear doctrine rests.