The software of nuclear deterrence

The need for a more sophisticated and multidisciplinary understanding of  India’s nuclear resources

Within fourteen years of the United States of America pioneering the creation and use of nuclear weaponry, a generation of American thinkers- such as Bernard Brodie, Henry Kissinger, and Herman Kahn- had produced a remarkable corpus of writing on the implications of this development for warfare and international politics. These were books about strategy. They asked and answered questions on the possibilities of limited wars and how a country could credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons.

It took longer, well into the 1960s, for the discussion to mature into something less abstract, and more about the moving parts, human and mechanical, of deterrence: what are the trade-offs between missiles and bombers? How do you secure civilian command over weapons but still keep them safe?

India, now fourteen years after its nuclear tests, is at a comparable stage of nuclear development to the United States of 1959. India has had its own lucid nuclear thinkers such as K. Subrahmanyam, Krishnaswamy Sundarji, and more recently Vijay Nair, Gurmeet Kanwal, Bharat Karnad, to name a few. These complement the talented foreigners, above all Ashley Tellis. But a new book by retired Admiral Verghese Koithara, “Managing India’s Nuclear Forces”, is perhaps the most important work on nuclear weapons to have come out of India in decades, because it makes the leap from abstraction to detail.

Koithara’s theory is simple. He states that nuclear weapons must be usable, else they will not deter. And to make them usable is fundamentally a human endeavour, less about the technical quality of missiles or warheads and more about how military officers are trained and prepared, under the great stress of crisis and war, to transport, prepare and operate the weapons when called upon to do so.

The actual course of Indian nuclear development has been meandering and unfocused. Koithara reveals that in 1982 the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) requested a Jaguar aircraft for dummy bomb trials without telling the Air Force about the state of weapons development. It took until 1994- well after India was widely assumed to be nuclear-armed for a fully instrumented bomb drop, and even years later the military had little idea of how many weapons India possessed and how exactly they would be used.

Koithara, like others, is scathing on the marginalisation of the armed forces. He argues that “there is a world of difference between a missile that is test fired, even by a military crew, and one that is fired under mobile field conditions and high stress”, and that- since Indian nuclear use is only plausible in the context of a conventional war- it makes little sense to separate nuclear from conventional commands. Moreover, the challenge is not just to ensure retaliation- it is to ensure “multiple, time-spaced strikes”, including “aim points … spaced optimally in relation to the target perimeter, population distribution and topography” within a given target city.

None of this is possible without exhaustive practice, close cooperation between scientists (who hold the warheads) and military officers (who control delivery systems), real-time command and control to enable the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) to execute strikes even if Delhi goes up in a mushroom cloud, and continuous coordination between Indian Army units that might be fighting on the ground and those who might be sending missiles over their heads.

Koithara’s charge is that, despite the creation of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) in 2003 and the beefing up of a nuclear cell in the Prime Minister’s Office, India is still not up to these tasks. Nuclear affairs remain characterised by “tight compartmentalisation of activities, a dysfunctional approach to secrecy, highly inadequate external audit, and a marked lack of operational goal setting”- problems which the new Strategic Forces Commander can’t fix without a proper secretariat, akin to the widely respected Strategic Plans Division (SPD) in Pakistan.

Koithara goes into admirable detail on issues that others would dismiss as trivial, but are in fact integral to the usability and credibility of nuclear forces. For instance, he warns that ballistic missiles must either have a large number of secure (actual and dummy) pre-surveyed launch points (and well-drilled crews who can assemble at these points rapidly) or expensive underground silos. But India’s topography and population density make it unsuitable for both.

By contrast, India’s long peninsular coasts make the sea-leg of its deterrent- in the form of the Arihant nuclear submarine and its anticipated successors- preferable. Koithara argues that India’s greatest advantage is that it (unlike China) doesn’t have to face American Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), and indeed can share information with Washington about Chinese submarines.

At the same time, this throws up difficult questions of how Indian civilians can retain control over launch authority, given that India lacks an Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) station of the sort that can send communications to the depths, at which nuclear submarines must operate, or an airborne command and control station with trailing antennae.

At the core of “Managing India’s Nuclear Forces” is the crucial insight that greater operationalisation, which makes nuclear weapons safer, is often confused with greater readiness, which does not. Perhaps surprisingly, Koithara is a minimalist in nuclear terms, and his recommendations- sticking with fission rather than thermonuclear warheads, shunning a ‘tenuous’ ballistic missile defence programme “driven by the institutional interests of the scientific community”, and avoiding an unnecessarily large arsenal- are anathema to those, like Bharat Karnad, who think in more ambitious terms.

For too long, discussions of Indian national security affairs have been dominated by questions of technology and platforms rather than the relationship between operations and strategy, and the human interface between those two. This engenders a fixation on hardware (not just the Agni or Brahmos, but also, say, the Gorshkov and Rafale) rather than software, machines rather than the institutions that operate them. That, in turn, impoverishes, Indian strategic thought. Koithara has performed a great service in turning the discussion back to software. Scholars of Indian seapower and airpower, take note.