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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The latest kerfuffle on the nuclear front has been stirred up by comments made last month by a Harvard faculty member of Indian origin at a conference at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He opined that India has shifted or is shifting its nuclear doctrine from a retaliatory one to a one based on first-strike, which could well be in a preemptive mode. This means that India might well abandon no first-use, either soon as part of this shift or in face of provocation.
Anticipating the shift, a back of the envelop calculation done in this column two years back had it that at least 50 weapons would require to be dropped for setting back Pakistan’s retaliatory capability.
Presuming Pakistan manages to sneak in some of its own nuclear attacks timely and, later, its scattered nuclear forces fire off any remaining warheads in India’s direction, we could add some 20 nuclear strikes, not all of which will be impacting India since the early nuclear use by Pakistan might be in form of tactical nuclear weapons on its own territory against advancing Indian military columns. There would also be some knock-on detonations of Pakistani nuclear weapons subject to Indian strikes. Thus, we have a figure of about a 120 detonations, of which about a tenth could well be in India.
Though India would in this case receive strikes in the lower double digits, these might be tellingly directed at India’s nerve centers. 
A rough estimate is that India can expect up to 10 nuclear incoming strikes from the Arabian Sea. Assuming DRDO manages to down 5 of these, an overall 15 impacts would be the price to pay for ‘wiping Pakistan off the map’ in George Fernandes’ unforgettable phrase.
... assuming that two thirds of India’s strikes are airburst, about 25-30 Indian strikes will raise a dust, as would the 15 Pakistani bombs that manage to get through. Thus, we have a figure of about 45 mushroom clouds in the subcontinent, at least some of which would be in urban settings.
It is possible that given the dispensation currently in power in Delhi, there would be no compunction in eliminating Pakistan. Since the nuclear aftermath would provide an opportunity for gaining a firm grip over India, ostensibly to prevent chaos, there are incentives for a regime pre-disposed towards an authoritarian system.
Given this propensity, strategists would be well advised to think one-up. By selling first-strike as a doable proposition, they may end up with a political decision maker - with a self-belief in being a strong man and decisive - grasping the nettle.
How will this turn out?
India could well manufacture a nuclear trigger in the form of a chemical attack on its forces – a’la Tongking Bay incident that brought the US directly into the Vietnam war. Recently in Syria, purported chemical weapons used by the regime led to the US missile strikes. Similarly, attribution of chemical attacks to Pakistan could open it up for pre-emptive nuclear retribution, with information warfare later cluttering the truth.
Clearly, South Asia is closer to a nuclear conflict than strategists care to let on. They need to take nuclear scaremongering more seriously, and so must the prospective nuclear decision makers.
Given all this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be apprised of the possible dangers.
Firstly, Modi would be wise to query the numbers. He should double the numbers of Pakistani warheads credited here as striking India’s solar plexus. It would take considerably more chutzpah than he needed to face the critics of demonetization.
Secondly, he could be arraigned for genocide, if not in front of the International Criminal Court – which India has in anticipation taken care not to sign up to – but in innovative global criminal tribunals set up for accountability.
Thirdly, even if Pakistan is history, the saffronites’ ‘Muslim problem’ would not have gone away. Not only would Pakistani refugees inundate the border-states but they would be a conduit for a jihadi, hybrid war.
In this nuclear era, what should matter to the decision maker is not what we can do to the  enemy but what the enemy could do to us.