On minimum credible deterrence

It’s not so much about bigger bombs. It’s about improving command & control.

In an op-ed in The Hindu today, K Santhanam & Ashok Parthasarathi make a compelling case that the thermonuclear bomb tested in May 1998 at Pokhran was not only fizzled, but “actually failed”. They also go on to conclude that “no country having undertaken only two weapon related tests of which the core (thermonuclear) device failed, can claim to have a (CMD or credible minimum deterrence).” They arrive at this assessment despite observing that “the 25 kiloton fission device has been fully weaponised and operationally deployed on (multiple) weapon platforms.” You will be forgiven for reading this article and believing that unless India has a 300kT or megaton thermonuclear bomb fitted on a 3500-km range missile, India’s nuclear deterrence capacity is not credible.

But back in July 2007, you would have reached the opposite conclusion. “On the national security front,” Dr Santhanam then wrote in Mint “there are reasons to believe that India’s Minimum Credible Deterrent (MCD) would not be affected by turn-key power reactors built by other countries. The accumulated weapons-grade plutonium in about 40 years of operating the CIRUS reactor (40MWt) and the relatively new Dhruv reactor (100MWt) has been estimated to be sufficient for the MCD.” What he didn’t say then, and is saying now, is that yes, we have accumulated sufficient weapons-grade plutonium for minimum credible deterrence, but was half the story. The other half is that we need to build more powerful bombs, which requires more testing.

Dr Santhanam’s 2007 intervention was in support of the India-US nuclear deal. His 2009 intervention is an initial salvo in the renewed domestic debate on India’s signing the comprehensive test-ban treaty (CTBT). His silence from May 1998 till this month was perhaps due to a combination of the official secrets act, loyalties, exigencies of service and regard for the national interest.

Now, unless Dr Santhanam has another twist in the tale to be revealed at a later date, the fact that he admits that there are 25kT fission bombs “fully weaponised and operationally deployed on multiple weapon platforms” should end the debate on whether India’s deterrence is credible. As argued earlier, India’s strategic adversaries are unlikely to rest any easier knowing that their cities are threatened by mere 25kT fission bombs. They are, with India, in MUD. In a two part essay in the Indian Express, K Subrahmanyam explains the logic of India’s nuclear doctrine and why a minimum credible deterrence can be had without the need for a thermonuclear bomb.

Developing, testing and deploying a thermonuclear bomb involves grand trade-offs. But those who are interested in ensuring that India’s deterrent capacity is robust should focus on an issue that is right in the backyard. Mr Subrahmanyam points out that “a continuity in respect of succession in both political and military commands” is the “most effective way of ensuring that the adversary will not succeed in his objective in carrying out such a decapitating strike.” Why is there no pressure on the UPA government to come clear on the lines of nuclear succession?

22 thoughts on “On minimum credible deterrence”

  1. I agree with you that bigness is not the sole determinant of MCD.

    However, it would be prudent for India to keep open all options as regards to testing. The need for testing is not simply related to newer and bigger forms of design, but also about ensuring that existing stockpiles continue to remain effective over time. Consequently, notwithstanding President Obama’s intentions on CTBT, it is more likely than not that there will yet be one more round of competitive testing around the world. India should certainly take no action that constrain it from acting likewise.

    I’m convinced that most nations with these capacities will test if given the right political cover. This could take the form of, say, an Iranian or a Japanese test. Ironically, the more the US moves towards ratifying the CTBT, the pressures on other nations to test ahead of such ill-considered action would be quite compelling. GIven all this, Buddha will most likely smile once again in the deserts of Rajasthan.

    Best regards

  2. Nitin, if one is to ignore capability of thermonuclear weapon, then the debate should be about the numbers of smaller weapons. But this debate about capability should be irrespective of chain of command and succession. I don’t think both are mutually exclusive. I do agree that operationalization gives time and space for pursing fool-proof execution.

    PR, Anil Kakodkar says DAE has testing simulation capabilities based on data from 70s testing by US. Not sure if this is sufficient as he claims. Even if we sign CTBT it should be based on reciprocity of P-5, unlike NPT.

  3. Primary Red,

    There are indeed good reasons not to sign CTBT and there are good reasons to do so. However, the argument that India doesn’t have a minimum credible deterrent and this is the reason we must not sign is invalid.


    Please do read K Subrahmanyam’s essay. It explains the relation between NFU, MCD and command & control.

  4. I don’t quite understand how “It’s not so much about bigger bombs”. We know MCD/CMD is all about the fear in the minds of adversaries; bigger the bomb, bigger the fear. In the age of anti-ballistic missiles, for taking out cities like Karachi or Beijing, it is wiser to fire smaller number of missiles with larger bomb than firing large number of missiles with smaller bombs. Given the fact that we have no-first-use, fear (not in our minds but in opp side’s) is the only guarantee that we won’t be hit. Bigger bombs means more fear which means more probability we won’t be hit. No matter whether we have second strike capability intact or not, no matter our Command & Control structures are good or not, ultimately fear triggered by bigger bomb is going to help..

  5. Who says a bigger bomb does not matter? K Sub is the expert? Isnt this the same person who was rubbish K Santhanam till the other day and dismissing all concerns about TN failure as jingoism and chauvinism?

    Gents, size does matter. The more people deny it, the more the truth holds.

    Please dont take what K Sub says or anyone says as the unvarnished truth, and apply your own critical thinking.

    You have x missiles, they have y warheads, for a given target, on any day you have (1-a)% XY warheads available, because (a)% will fail to take off, have errors etc.

    So you have (1-a) XY warheads. Now your opponent introduces ABM measures.

    So you have even lesser reaching the target, now tell me, does size matter or not?

    For a smaller size, you need more warheads. For more warheads, you need more missiles, more investment, more infrastructure, more economic strain to maintain the deterrence.

    Then comes the practicality aspect. TN are widely accepted to be a more efficient use of radioactive material. Now consider India’s stocks. What is better, making umpteen lower yield missiles using an inefficient process, or more effective larger ones, so that even if one goes through the opponent’s ABM screen it will work?

    Now, all this is admittedly simplification, but think these through.

    Finally, may I ask, for all of KSubs accomplishments, he still could not come up with any worthwhile strategy to deter Pak, or to even safeguard our citizens from the brazen terror being perpetrated on a constant basis.

    My point? KSub has a POV, its not necessarily the whole truth, and the entire debate is not well served by taking his words as such given they are not always right about strategic or defense affairs.

  6. This is a really important debate.

    If Mr. Santhanam’s revelations are merely the source of national embarrassment, not evidence of the absence of MCD, then this episode will fade away.

    BUT, were the revelations to imply that India lacks a MCD, then the people who covered up the reality should be liable for treason. Their actions clearly exposed Indians to an unacceptable level of risk. The consequences of such astonishing deception surely must be worse than the consequences for a spy who’d sell out national interests.

    The stakes are very high and the guilty will likely move swiftly to cover their tracks. This is why a great deal of skepticism needs to be attached to any argument made by people who were part of the establishment at the time of these tests.

    Best regards

  7. @invalid

    The risk that even one Indian warhead will scrape through the defences lies at the heart of deterrence.

    If someone thinks that risk is acceptable, it doesn’t matter how much of a bang we have.

    As K Sundarji said, more is not better if less is enough. Quoting Sundarji to illustrate a point, after applying own thinking, and not quoting him as an authority 🙂

  8. @primaryred

    Sir, you rock! Well said – and as you can see, no one seems to be addressing that point. The real question is not the yield, but people. As Nitin says, chain of command. As you say, the accountability and corporate governance of the men in labcoat.

  9. @Interested and @Invalid: Firstly there is good reason for an adversary to consider a 30 kT detonation in a densely populated city to be as unacceptable as a 1 MT detonation (Do half a million deaths matter greatly less than a million?). Secondly it is very easy to defeat ABM with cheap countermeasures and decoys so an adversary can be assured that a few warheads will always get through.

    Before the h-bomb was developed in the US, even right after Hiroshima the air force had plans targeting Moscow alone with 200 warheads. Even if this is overkill, this kind of a strategy will make both the size of the individual warheads and the existence of an ABM system, no matter how sophisticated, pretty much meaningless.

  10. Well, if getting past BMD is the objective, I’d fire a number of lighter warheads than a smaller number of bigger warheads, so that if one or two sneak through, the objective of causing “unacceptable damage” is accomplished. Moreover, lighter warheads may be more suitable for firing from submarine.

    But I’m not sure if bigger warheads dont have their own uses. Ultimately, deterrence is a psychological thing. It’s about what the other guy thinks, our calculations apart. What if the enemy guy who’s got his finger on the button thinks – just thinks – an enemy H-bomb is more unacceptable than a fission bomb? We cant just presume rational thinking on the part of the enemy. War is a situation that presents a lot of factors that may bias an individual’s decision making. Emotions, prejudices, biases, stress, they all factor in. Mistakes can happen.

    But there’s a larger issue. Dont you think BARC should come clean on the failure of the thermonuclear test in 1998? Isnt it worrying that we got to know about the failure a full decade after the test?

  11. Most of us assume that for considerable larger damage, we can fire more warheads. But would we have that much time and material, after the first detonation.
    1. We don’t have warheads in hundreds. Only in tens. We would have to fire a major chunk of the stockpile to do some damage while retaliating.
    2. We won’t even have time to fire in tens after the first attack. International pressure would stop us after firing one or two. Nobel peace prize wanting politician might even stop after firing one !!!

    May be smaller warheads might have some fear in Pakistani minds. Think of China, they have warheads in MT or atleast in 100s of KT. Would we explode 25KT device against China’s 100KT and claim that we gave back in same coin ?

    Many of us dream that India would wipe out Pakistan, if they explode one device in Indian soil. Well it would be in dream for ever, if we don’t have larger warheads. For Pakistanis, it would still be a victory as they have exploded one device (who knows, how many) in Indian soil while attacked by 10 25KT Indian devices. They would about that & celebrate for another hundred years.

    @ Udayan,
    “more is not better if less is enough”,
    The problem is we don’t find less is enough.

    “If someone thinks that risk is acceptable, it doesn’t matter how much of a bang we have. ”
    Why not have more bigger bang and increase the risk (if there any threshold in enemies mind) ?

    There should be an audit on TN device and the guilty should be expelled from the Command and control structure.

  12. Yes, if there is one thing that sets a nobel peace prize wanting politician apart from the rest, it is that the former would stop after firing one nuke while the latter would not.

    If one is allowed to run away with all sorts of assumptions, one might even just assume that any kind of nuke strike (in numbers or warhead size) will not be enough for the enemy. You know where that leads, right?

  13. Interested Observer,

    You should either use mathematics to capture the entire scenario, or none at all. And if you use mathematics, the formulae have to be correct. I’m afraid merely throwing around mathematical expressions doesn’t buy your argument minimum credibility. In the end, the best formulas on the best computers will give you a probability figure and a impact figure. Risk though is subjective. The deterrence game lies in the subjectivity of the risk, not the objectivity of the probability and damage calculations.

    You talk about missile defences, which today have very poor efficiency. But forget that, it is unlikely that an adversary will breathe easy if we had all of three warheads fitted on three airplanes. What if it slips through air defence?

    But I am amused to know that fewer missiles with bigger yields somehow do better against the same missile defences than more missiles with lower yields. In fact, having more missiles (and delivery mechanisms in general) – with or without nuclear warheads, without regard to the yield – generally improves deterrence.

    Finally, you should not presume that citing someone automatically means critical thinking has not been applied. K Subrahmanyam has been cited for illumination, not for support.

    Primary Red,

    Yes indeed. Calls for accountability are being voiced. Let’s hope this leads somewhere positive.

  14. The take-away from this discussion for me, as of now is the comment from Atlantean:

    “We cant just presume rational thinking on the part of the enemy. War is a situation that presents a lot of factors that may bias an individual’s decision making. Emotions, prejudices, biases, stress, they all factor in. Mistakes can happen.”

    We have seen many times how irrational the governments can get with their hatred, blind-ambition and paranoia.

    I can NOT guarantee that our adversaries would ever be satisfied with their minimum credible deterrence. Even now as we speak, they plan to decimate us by accumulating more weapons.

    Hence, I want my country to be ready with very best and most powerful weapons, because God forbid, if ever a time comes for a retaliatory nuclear strike, I want my country to strike-back in such a manner that the adversary be decimated and never rise again in living memory.

    Only a “disproportionate reaction” can scare the enemy. Thats the only minimum credible deterrence.

    Hence, I want my country to exhibit, instead of “minimum credible deterrence”, something like “maximum sh_t-scare”!

  15. @kedar

    Then it is unfortunate that that is the takeaway you have from the discussion. I hope you do see that Atlantean’s point is symmetric. The folks in charge of our nuclear arsenal are as likely to suffer from human failings as their counterparts elsewhere.

    If the time for a retaliatory strike comes despite having the bigger bombs, then those bombs failed to deter. Of course, we will have the satisfaction of wiping out the enemy, but it would still be a failure.

  16. My takeaway from this whole debate is :

    What should be public isn’t, what shouldn’t be is.

    Cant these gentlemen just take it inside and sort it out ? If not, what does that tell us about the tightness of the group of people in control.

    It is not helpful if the media dresses up the story with words like ‘dud’. There is wild speculation on TV, some calling into question the fission bombs as well. This is the real danger to our deterrent – which is all about mind games anyway. The enemy should be sure that we think our deterrent is foolproof.

    As for the specifics, there are multiple ways to skin a cat.

  17. Udayan:

    Countries gather nuclear warheads not just to deter the enemy, but also, more importantly, to actually press that red button one day (for whatever reason) that kills millions of people like you and me. This is no game. All these bania analyses (please forgive the term, no offense to anyone) are valid only to a point. After that, its kshaatra-teja that wins the day. Pure guts. Our enemies have already demonstrated their guts through 26/11. What about us?

    And war itself is violent. Nuclear or non-nuclear, people will die. Please discard the notion that –“one day, all the nations of the world will come together with wagons full of warheads to dump them into space and if we can just hold on to our real estate using our tiny ol’ MCD till that day, its enough.”

    I hope it ends that way. But I will not assume it ends that way.

  18. I think the real issue is not about whether the TN device worked or not – it has more to do with the reliability of the nuclear arsenal. And it not clear why just 2 tests – so far apart in time, 1974 and 1998 – are enough to weaponize even a fission bomb design. Would you trust even a conventional bomb and mass produce it if the prototype was tested just twice? Even for simulation tests you need a reasonable database. This info is not available unless one tests a good number of times. And no one seems to talk about the delivery system!

    Consider this: a situation arises where India is forced to use nukes against Pakistan or China. Given what we can expect – an extra quick international intervention and issues like radioactive fallout – it’s unlikely we’d have the time window to use more than a small fraction of the arsenal for this strike.

    Herein lies the point: Unless you are damn sure of the design and its delivery system, how would you know that a majority of the few weapons that you picked to use wouldn’t do its job? Suppose the bombs chosen don’t do well – say a 25 kT design yielded just about 5-10 kT, ie more like a tactical nuke. Or if some or them are shot down, or fall in the wrong place, the bomb would effectively be a dud.

    It is for this reason that you need :
    (a) Powerful (depending on how inaccurate the delivery system is), although not necessarily TN.
    (b) Reliable (since only a few units will ever be used)
    Delivery systems:
    (a) Accurate and reliable

    These being engineered systems, you can’t pull them out of a hat. The only way is to get your hands dirty – build, test, weaponize.

  19. Shri KS is one of the top strategic thinkers in India today but these proposals in the IE are not upto the mark [IMHO].

    Shri KS makes NFU imperative for India and connects it with other strategic plans such as a chain of command.

    First, the enemy here has already developed its own strike force like the various lashkars to strike deep within Indian territories while maintaining a state of deniability.

    Second, its nuclear arsenal has also become vast over time with a plethora of delivery platforms both supplied by China. And third, it is very willing to respond with nukes to a conventional military response from India to a mass terror strike.

    On the other hand, it is also developing plutonium based weapons – smart nukes most probably to be rigged with JDAMs supplied by the US under FATWAT.

    In such a precarious military situation, the guy who strikes first, wins. The quick decimation of enemy arsenal and its political/military complex is an absolute imperative if a decision on war is made.

    NFU is connected with the total death rate in a first strike by the enemy + total area of devastation [rendered uninhabitable] + the recovery process [the years taken to attain the pre-war state of existence]

    NFU would enable a determined enemy to hit us with full strength and take out 15 to 20 Indian cities with a death rate of over 25 million people and a recovery process that might extend upto more 30 years.

    Quick decimation of the enemy arsenel in a first strike might therefore help save 25 to 30 million Indian lives apart from saving our cities from complete destruction.

    There is a failure of imagination IMHO with Shri KS on this very difficult question. But Shri Karnad has been very direct. [Link ]

  20. -Suppose the bombs chosen don’t do well – say a 25 kT design yielded just about 5-10 kT

    Extreme conservatism in design could help address this issue. From this POV simple gun-type uranium weapons might be better. After all the Hiroshima bomb was not tested even once in spite of being the first nuclear weapon in history and yet it did deliver what its designers wanted, about 15 kT. The drawbacks would be the weight and size, but if testing is not to be done at all, then this limitation may not be viewed as a significant roadblock.

    The point about delivery systems is of course of paramount importance.

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