China is a bully, and like all bullies, the communist dictatorship only understands the language of force. In 2017, when the Indian and Chinese militaries were engaged in a Mexican standoff in Doklam, China’s state councillor Yang Jiechi and India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met to discuss the presence of Indian troops at Doklam. Yang asked: “Is it your territory?” Doval replied that the territory belonged to Bhutan, and said: “Does every disputed territory become China’s by default?” The Chinese got the message and backed off.
About the Chinese, it is said that they hate the West (its former oppressor), fear Japan (its ancient conqueror) and despise India. The reason for having contempt for Indians is due to the Chinese belief that India was never truly an independent country but merely an extension of the Anglo-American empire. The communist regime in Beijing could never understand why India after independence remained within the Commonwealth, retained British colonial street names, and continued to retain English as its primary language. The Chinese thought the British exit from the subcontinent was merely an act and that in reality, London continued to rule New Delhi through its proxies. The slavishly pro-British behaviour of Indian leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru only reinforced those beliefs.
India’s perceived slavishness towards the West is the reason why China is loath to accept the country as an equal. Chinese geopolitical thinking is shaped not only by the legendary strategist Sun Tsu but also by communist dictator Mao Zedong’s famous statement: “Power flows from the barrel of a gun.” In contrast, Indian leaders and diplomats were fond of making grandiose – and laughable – statements that New Delhi’s defence and foreign policies would be dictated by Gandhian principles of non-violence. The defining example of this mindset was Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s 1978 interview with American journalist Barbara Walters where he said he would never go in for nuclear weapons “even if the entire country is destroyed in their absence”. Because of such startlingly ludicrous statements, the Chinese viewed India as a weak and rudderless country full of people lacking self-esteem.
The repeated attempts to salami-slice Indian territory and the ongoing support to Pakistan and its terrorist organisations engaged in jehad against India are a manifestation of this contempt for India. Not even India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons – nor the recently acquired ability to deliver these weapons to downtown Beijing – has altered Beijing’s mindset. This is due to the vast asymmetry in military power, especially the nuclear forces, of the two countries.
Saying No to NFU
India adopted the No First-Use (NFU) policy in 1999, a year after the Pokhran blasts. This doctrine emphasizes credible minimal deterrence, use of nuclear weapons only in retaliation, and non-use against non-nuclear-weapon states. In the words of Shyam Saran, former convener of the National Security Advisory Board, “India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective.”
NFU was never popular with India’s strategic community, which believed it reinforced the country’s image as an adherent of strategic passivity and political idealism. However, the policy was dictated primarily by India’s desire to be a responsible international actor, and it served the country well in the years after the 1998 Pokhran tests. Both the US-India civilian nuclear agreement in 2005 and the 2008 waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group cemented India’s status as a nuclear weapons state.
The problem with NFU is that it provides India’s adversaries with a sense of assuredness. Since NFU is based on credible minimum deterrence, it implies there won’t be an indefinite expansion of India’s nuclear arsenal. While some may argue it establishes confidence among rivals, NFU also means both China and Pakistan are off the hook. Knowing that India’s nuclear forces are purely defensive, China is able to fully concentrate on the bigger threat of the US forces in the Pacific. This is a luxury that India should no longer provide China.
The bad news for Beijing is that with the arrival of a nationalist party, India has signalled its intentions to address the imbalance in asymmetry between the two Asian giants. In 2019, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said at Pokhran: “Till today, our nuclear policy is No First-Use. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi later said at an election rally: “Every other day, they used to say ‘we have a nuclear button, we have a nuclear button.’ What do we have then? Have we kept it for Diwali?” In fact, back in 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said: “If they (Pakistan) think we would wait for them to drop a bomb and face destruction, they are mistaken.”
Chinese ICBM expansion spree
China’s minimum deterrence posture had historically kept the number of nuclear launchers at a low level. But that’s history now. In August 2021, US analysts using commercial satellite imagery discovered that China was significantly expanding its nuclear forces and building hundreds of new missile silos. Currently, the dragon has around 100 ICBMs, with 20 in silos and 80 being road-mobile missiles. Its total nuclear stockpile is estimated at 350 nuclear warheads deployed across different platforms.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says: “The number of apparent missile silos under construction is similar to the total number of nuclear warheads in the current Chinese stockpile; it exceeds the number of missile silos operated by Russia; it is approaching the number of silos operated by the United States, and it constitutes the largest silo construction since the United States and Russia established their ICBM forces during the Cold War.”
Since the American nuclear arsenal dwarves China, the US isn’t immediately threatened by the sudden expansion of the Chinese strategic missile force. However, it impacts India’s national security. New Delhi’s nuclear stockpile is estimated at 150 warheads, which are deployed on air, sea and land-based platforms. With the new missile silos and the expected corresponding increase in Chinese nuclear warheads, the strategic asymmetry in the Sino-Indian nuclear relationship will become even starker.
This is a window of vulnerability that India cannot afford to ignore. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists comments, “The scale of the Chinese missile silo construction is unprecedented in Chinese nuclear history….It underscores that China’s nuclear posture has entered a new dynamic phase that requires new attention from the international community.”
Playing catch up with China
The defining nature of the Chinese nuclear deterrent has been defensive. Currently, Beijing keeps most of its ICBMs in silos while the nuclear warheads are ‘de-mated’ — meaning that the warheads are kept separate from their fissile cores and their delivery systems. This is done in order to avoid setting off alarm bells in the Pentagon and entering a missile race with the US. The Chinese reasoning was that an arms race is meaningless and wasteful, and a credible minimum deterrence is enough to ward off the first strike by either the US or Russia.
Since going overtly nuclear in 1998, India has adopted the same policy towards China that the Chinese had towards the US and Russia. Having lived under the shadow of the Chinese bomb for decades, India did not treat the Chinese nukes as a major threat. At any rate, India’s economy wasn’t big enough to pump vast resources into building a massive nuclear arsenal required to devastate the entire Han heartland. Therefore, a minimum deterrence capability (currently estimated at 50 Agni ballistic missiles) was considered enough.
The situation is different now with India’s turbocharged economy experiencing nearly double-digit growth even during the pandemic years. With a number of inefficient public sector companies slated to go private, and the private sector giants expanding into global companies, India is on the cusp of moving from a developing to an industrialized, technology-based economy. As per a World Bank report, India has almost eliminated extreme poverty. This economic bonanza provides the government ample flexibility to funnel resources into defence.
Requirements for ending NFU
India faces the unique threat of not one but two nuclear-armed adversaries. Both these countries have not hidden their hatred of India and at least one of them (Pakistan) has openly talked about its desire to nuke India.
Against this backdrop, India must plan for a two-front war in which New Delhi must conclusively deal with the smaller foe before taking on the larger enemy. Going by NFU, if Pakistan uses tactical battlefield nukes against the Indian Army on Pakistani territory, India will unleash a massive counter-strike on Pakistani nuclear sites, ballistic missile sites and warhead storage depots. If Pakistan responds with its second strike elements (presumably naval assets) on Indian military sites, India then goes for the apocalyptic option of erasing Pakistan from the map by nuking all its major cities. The result is a world without Pakistan but also an India with possibly tens of millions dead and key cities wiped out.
The alternate option is to unleash everything on Pakistan in a massive strike that leaves Islamabad without the capacity or time to retaliate. In both scenarios, India will end up using a significant portion of its nuclear stockpile. That leaves India in a precariously disarmed situation against China. Beijing would be seething at the loss of its only vassal state that it uses as important leverage against India. Knowing that India has used up a large portion of its strategic missiles against Pakistan, the Chinese are likely to be emboldened to launch a counterstrike against India. This is the defining reason India needs to vastly expand its nuclear stockpile and its missile force.
How many do you need?
The question of how many nuclear warheads and missiles a country needs is a difficult one to answer. While the generals may argue there is no such thing as too many nukes, the exchequer will look at how few are enough. A Slate article titled ‘How Many Nukes Does It Take To Defend America?” lists out the various stages of analysis the US goes through to estimate how many warheads and missiles are required for waging nuclear war.
In the first stage, the Department of Defence (the Pentagon) and other agencies prepare a report that informs the US president of the status and needs of the nuclear programme. “The president then issues vague guidelines to the secretary of defence about the purpose of the nuclear weapon programme, such as whether a pre-emptive strike might ever be employed. Finally, the Pentagon issues a confidential set of strike options detailing how we might be willing to use our nukes.”
Next, the strike options go over to the US Strategic Command, where military planners apply them to hypothetical conflicts with different adversaries. “Within each simulation, the planners count up potential targets in four categories: 1) military forces; 2) weapons of mass destruction infrastructure, like launch bases and storage facilities; 3) military and national leadership; and 4) war-supporting infrastructures, such as factories, rail lines, and power plants.”
“The number of warheads necessary to destroy or cripple these targets is calculated, taking into account the possibility of mechanical failure. (Planners assume that 15 per cent of nuclear weapons will turn out to be duds.) The calculations also take stock of the need for redundancy, so there will be enough nukes for an attack even in the aftermath of a disabling first strike by an opponent.”
While the plans do not envision simultaneous nuclear conflict with all adversaries, the military does plan for the possibility that one nuclear power might take advantage of the conflict between two others, either through blackmail or an actual strike.
Currently, India has enough fissile material stockpiles to produce nearly 2,500 warheads. India’s Strategic Forces Command Its ballistic force possesses around 50 launchers including the Agni-I, Agni-II, Agni-III, Shaurya and the Army’s variant of the Prithvi missile family – the Prithvi-I. Additional variants of the Agni missile series include the 5000 km range Agni-V, which is being deployed. Also under development is the Agni-VI, with an estimated range of 8000 km and features such as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) or manoeuvrable reentry vehicles (MARVs).
It is also important to note that the failure rates for ballistic missiles can be unacceptably high for a country with a limited arsenal. As the Slate article adds, “A missile can’t be recalled once launched, no matter how successful last-minute diplomatic talks may be. It’s marginally safer to have the bombers circling.” Since an Indian Bomber Command seems unlikely in the near future, a cheaper and more effective option would be to build air-launched nuclear-tipped cruise missiles with the range to hit China’s eastern seaboard.
Whether India requires 150, 300 or 1,000 warheads and 100 or 500 launchers depends on the threat perception and the money available. But it can no longer sit idly with 50 launchers when the Chinese are going for 300 or perhaps more. The Hans only know the language of brute force and India must convey by its actions that we have the means and the will to match the dragon warhead for a warhead.
Upping the nuclear ante
There is no guarantee that raising the stakes in the game of nuclear poker will help India defeat China. But if New Delhi doesn’t build a counterstrike capability and allows China to get away without paying a price for its decades-long efforts to destabilize India, it is guaranteed that Beijing will become emboldened to do something worse – such as a collusive China-Pakistan attack on India.
According to Sanjana Gogna of the Observer Research Foundation: “India’s concerns with regard to China are neither imaginary nor baseless. India faces grave security challenges from Pakistan, and China has actively assisted the latter. China’s assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme is the most consequential source of instability in the region.”
The point is that both Pakistan and China are implacable enemies. While the Indian political leadership has acknowledged China as India’s prime adversary, New Delhi’s actions still have a Pakistan focus, which is understandable since Islamabad is wedded to the idea of Islamic jehad and India’s destruction. However, the road to dismantling Pakistan passes through China. As long as China doesn’t feel the heat from India, it will use Islamabad to box India within the subcontinent.
Only when India’s Strategic Forces Command has acquired the capacity to rain down nukes throughout the dragon’s eastern seaboard; when every Chinese city is in the crosshairs of multiple Indian ICBMs; when every Chinese command centre is targeted by earth penetration ballistic missiles that can turn Chinese mountains into valleys, then the Hans will come to the negotiating table. And you can take that to the bank.
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda