Nuclear Implications of the ‘Two Front’ Formulation ---- Ali Ahmed
India professes No First Use as a principal plank of its nuclear doctrine, one diluted to an extent by the tenet of consideration of the nuclear option in case also of a major CBW attack. China also subscribes to the NFU, though believed to be qualified by it reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first on its own territory. In case territories it claims are taken by it as its ‘own’ then these would not be covered by the NFU. The Indian perspective of the Chinese NFU has it that it does not apply to Indian areas claimed by China. Pakistan, on the other hand, not having declared its nuclear doctrine, is believed to be preserving the option of ‘first use’.
For the single front phase in this scenario, with respect to an India-Pakistan initial phase, deterrence stability has been assessed as existing up to a point. The arguable expectation is that Pakistan’s high nuclear threshold permits limited Indian conventional attacks. In case of an initial phase of an India-China confrontation, war expansion would be against grand strategies of both states that privileges economic growth. But in case China, nursing superpower ambitions and out to ‘teach India a lesson’, is met with a face-altering bloody nose by India, it could find in its NFU caveat an opening for nuclear resort. In the reverse scenario, in case of Chinese ‘hordes’ poised to sweep into the plains along the rivers Brahmaputra or Teesta, a repeat of Nehru’s speech leading to evacuation in Tezpur is unlikely. Instead India in self-defence may rescind its self-imposed NFU as a first step, thereby giving itself the option of nuclear first use.
In the collusive case, the two adversaries would attack under the perception of relative advantage. Nuclear use would not likely figure in their initial calculus. India, under pressure, could contemplate rescinding the NFU with the intent of nuclear signalling. This may be the minimum necessary in case the adversaries apply nuclear pressures by also brandishing the nuclear card. This would have operational dividend in making any enemy advances cautious and thereby slower. Declaring nuclear thresholds may deter the enemy threatening these, depriving them of war gains of significance. Balancing nuclear capabilities of allies could deter enemy nuclear use. However, the danger is in tempting a joint first strike, leaving India only a much degraded second strike capability. However, any semblance of even victory subsequent to nuclear use may be a worse outcome than losing the war. Therefore, restricting any nuclear resort to the lowest possible level makes sense. This has implications for the Indian deterrent based on the promise of infliction of ‘unacceptable damage’, needlessly disadvantageous in a two front situation.
In the second scenario of war expansion from two to three powers, in case of an initial India-China conflict, NFU, howsoever qualified, of both can be expected to hold since in the middle term future only limited border wars can be envisaged. Neither state would wish to let the dangerously escalatory nuclear card enter into the equation. In case of Pakistan joining in hyena-like, it would rely on its conventional capability since the nuclear card would be dependent on the senior partner’s intent. India, if pressured, may resort to nuclear signalling at best, since it cannot reasonably prefer the alternative of limited nuclear war that may result.