India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine of 2003 has predominantly been read to suggest the threat of massive countervalue retaliation – use of strategic nuclear weapons to target countervalue assets like population and industrial centers of the adversary. Critics have questioned the credibility of massive countervalue retaliation as a deterrent to Pakistan’s first use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). In response, senior Indian government and military officials have recently suggested that India’s nuclear response can be proportionate as well. Examination of India’s existing nuclear weapons capabilities and the procedures employed to operationalize them suggest that India can indeed proportionately retaliate to the first use of TNWs by Pakistan; it does not need its own TNWs for the same. This has implications for the deterrence-dynamics between India and Pakistan. With the perception of a paralysis in New Delhi’s ability to counter Pakistan’s nuclear threat, Islamabad has continued its proxy war on India under its nuclear umbrella without any fear of an Indian conventional reprisal. That India can proportionately retaliate to Pakistan’s first use of TNWs, and is considering the same, is bound to affect that perception.


India’s declaratory doctrine does not lay out the nuclear retaliatory threat explicitly. It merely states that India’s retaliation will be “massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage” - the phrase is ambiguous enough to have multiple interpretations.


Several factors, however, lead India’s nuclear retaliatory threat to be interpreted as massive countervalue retaliation. These factors include the Cold War-interpretation of “massive retaliation” as introduced first in 1954 by then US Secretary of State John F. Dulles; an unexplained shift from the use of “punitive” in the 1999 draft doctrineof India to “massive” in the 2003 declaratory nuclear doctrine in defining the scale of retaliation; the traditional view among the political elite in New Delhi according to which nuclear weapons are not tools of warfighting but political tools of deterrence; and reiteration of that view by the former Foreign Secretary of India, Shyam Saran in a speech given in 2013 while serving as the head of India’s National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), wherein he dismisses the concepts of “counterforce retaliation” and “flexible response.”


This interpretation of India’s nuclear threat has been argued by many Indian experts to fail in credibly deterring Pakistan’s first use of TNWs because of two primary reasons – such a strategy if executed by India will invite a similar response from Pakistan, with Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons remaining intact; and with the burden of escalation as well as the consequential costs to be incurred being high, no rational government in New Delhi will execute this strategy if challenged to by Rawalpindi.


In response, former National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon and former Commander-in-Chief of India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC), Lt. Gen (retd) B S Nagal have recently noted that India’s retaliatory threat, as captured in the declaratory doctrine, need not necessarily be massive countervalue retaliation. Menon, for instance, in his book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy notes that “[t]here is nothing in the present doctrine that prevents India from responding proportionately to a nuclear attack, from choosing a mix of military and civilian targets for its nuclear weapons.” This leads to questions like what qualifies as a proportionate retaliation to the first use of TNWs by Pakistan and whether India has the requisites for proportionate retaliation.


Experts like Bharat Karnad, Manoj Joshi, Brahma Chellaney, and Evan Montgomery and Eric Edelman, have suggested India to adopt a strategy of “proportionate retaliation” or “graduated response” and have often recommended India to develop and deploy its own arsenal of TNWs. Their recommendation is premised on the concept of escalation dominance. As Montgomery and Edelman explain, “[c]onfronting an opponent with its own battlefield nuclear weapons, Islamabad could not reasonably conclude that limited nuclear strikes against invading [Indian] ground forces would stop an invasion without triggering a nuclear reprisal,” and that this would thus deter Pakistan from using TNWs first.


There, however, are challenges which India would face in developing and deploying TNWs. These include the requisite increase in the size of India’s nuclear arsenal, leading to a possible nuclear arms race with Pakistan; requisite pre-delegation of the launch authority to military commanders in forward bases with consequential increase in the risks of accidental and unauthorized use of nuclear weapons; and the possibility that Pakistan may accept the cost of a proportionate retaliation by India against perceived prospective gains such as halting India’s conventional offensive.


But are TNWs a necessity for an Indian proportionate retaliation? Pakistan’s rationale for developing TNWs and deploying them to forward bases close to prospective battlefields on hair-trigger alert has been to deter low-intensity conventional attack by India. This forms Pakistan’s nuclear posture of asymmetric escalation, along with which come the ancillary risks of unauthorized and accidental use of nuclear weapons.


A proportionate retaliation, on the other hand, is congruent with India’s posture of assured retaliation as it essentially requires survivable capabilities and procedures to retaliate with nuclear weapons, albeit at a scale proportionate to the first use of TNWs by Pakistan on counterforce targets in Pakistan. Consequently, a proportionate retaliation need not be instantaneous and the target for retaliation need not necessarily be in the same battlefield where a TNW is first used by Pakistan, so long as the Indian retaliation is assured. Thus, proportionate retaliation does not necessarily require development of TNWs and their deployment to forward bases with pre-delegation of the launch authority – a requirement of asymmetric escalation posture, highly difficult to be met by India where the civilian authority retains assertive centralized control on all nuclear assets.


India’s existing nuclear weapons capabilities and procedures to operationalize those capabilities suggest that it can indeed retaliate proportionately to the first use of TNWs by Pakistan. It had already tested fission devices of sub-kiloton yields in May 1998 which parallel the yield of Pakistan’s TNWs. Meanwhile on delivery capabilities, since India is not required to retaliate in the same battlefield where Pakistan first uses a TNW and instantaneously, it could use its medium range ballistic missiles from the Agni-series as well as cruise missiles from the BrahMos series as delivery vehicles. Indian expert, Rajesh Rajagopalan interestingly also suggests that India could instead use its air bombers to deliver much smaller-sized warheads for a proportionate retaliation and thus avoid the “unpalatable” consequences of developing and deploying TNWs.


Meanwhile, New Delhi’s assertive centralized control over all of India’s nuclear assets does not inhibit India from retaliating proportionately. As Vipin Narang notes, while generally assertive centralized control, coupled with measures of component and organization dispersion to enhance the survivability of nuclear assets, has meant longer response-time, “India now appears to maintain its force at a range of readiness levels, with some systems almost fully ready during peacetime” – “particularly…those weapons designed for retaliation against Pakistan.”


India, thus, has the requisites for different kinds and scales of nuclear retaliations to the first use of TNWs by Pakistan, including both massive and proportionate retaliation. India’s declaratory doctrine is not an accurate indicator of what India can do with its nuclear weapons. However, New Delhi will have to think through the credibility of its retaliatory threats by contemplating the probabilities of escalation control and the prospects of escalation dominance following each of those retaliations in order to answer what India should do if Pakistan uses a TNW first.


The perception of the India-Pakistan deterrence equation that has prevailed among strategic thinkers and policymakers in not only Islamabad, but also New Delhi and Washington DC is that though India poses the threat of massive countervalue retaliation against nuclear first use of any scale or kind, New Delhi is unlikely to follow up on its threat due to the enormity of the burden of escalation as well as the improbability of dominating such an escalation. The consequential perception of Pakistan having a dominant nuclear deterrence might have encouraged Rawalpindi to engage in a proxy war against India without any fear of a conventional retribution. India’s existing abilities to proportionately retaliate to Pakistan’s first use of TNWs (as examined here in brief), coupled with reiteration of that fact by few senior retired Indian officials like Menon and Nagal, is bound to affect that perception of the India-Pakistan deterrence-equation.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.