Dealing with the Darned Dragon-IV: Exercising (with) the Nuclear Option

Four days from now, September the 26th will mark the 37th anniversary of an event that, beyond a sliver of doubt, averted a nuclear war. On that day in 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defence Forces was the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret command centre outside Moscow monitoring its early-warning satellites over the United States when alarms went off––computers warned that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base.

Colonel Petrov was a very important link in the decision-making chain. His superiors reported to the general staff, who would consult the Soviet leader, Mr Yuri V Andropov on launching a retaliatory attack. Since there was no rule about how long the observers were allowed to think before they reported a strike, Petrov took his sweet time absorbing the deluge of incoming information and ‘felt’ that the launch reports were ‘probably’ a false alarm. He, therefore, reported ‘a system malfunction’. “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he told a newspaper later. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

Petrov’s nuclear dilemma

Every second of delay on that day took away valuable time that the Soviet military and political leadership would have needed to absorb the inputs and react. Petrov told an interviewer, “… I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.” It was at best a 50-50 guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and the relative paucity of missiles that were launched. He could afford the luxury of sleeping mulling over the inputs because 25 long minutes would elapse between launch and detonation. Petrov attributed his judgment to his training and his intuition. He had been told that a nuclear first strike by the Americans would come in the form of an overwhelming onslaught.

Training and Intuition… where does India stand?

A typical military exercise––conducted at many of the military training institutes/ colleges/ establishments––has a Blue Force (India) and a Red Force (the adversary––Pakistan or China, implied or explicit). The exercises are realistic with full freedom to the participating officers––with 3 to 30 years of commissioned service; sometimes, including bureaucrats, diplomats and scientists––to let go of their imagination to plan and execute military operations until… someone in the Red Force threatens to use the nukes.

The exercise is paused and the director of the exercise (or the umpire) steps in and enlightens the attendees. Put in different words and with varying intensity, depending on the personality of the guru, the gist of what is repeatedly sermonised and hammered into the craniums of the participants is: “Like India, China has a No-First-Use (NFU) policy––therefore, use of a nuclear weapon by China against India is not a likely proposition. As regards Pakistan, although their leadership talks and acts insanely, they are not mad. Nuclear sabre rattling by Pakistan is, but a hollow threat. Pakistan cannot dare to strike India with a nuclear-tipped missile because even with a ‘second strike’ option, India has the capability to turn the whole of Pakistan into rubble…. We can cause unacceptable damage to any adversary if we are struck with nukes….”

The punch line delivered (invariably) with theatrical emphasis and the air of a political leader seeking to hold a moral high ground at a peace conference at the UN General Assembly reads somewhat:

“Nuclear weapons are not meant for fighting; they are there (only) for deterrence.”

This has now been going on for decades since the legendary Mr K Subrahmanyam drew up the draft of India’s Nuclear Doctrine, which communicated, along with India’s NFU status, the spirit that:

“Nuclear weapons are the weapons of last resort; they’ll be used only in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian Territory or on Indian forces anywhere.”

As can be seen, there is a subtle difference between what the genius, Mr Subrahmanyam enunciated and what the later gurus interpreted, communicated and taught to the lesser mortals––the military personnel and the scientists––people who would be expected to ‘handle’ the nukes when ordained by the political leadership. Over the years, the people, who would some day play Colonel Petrov in India’s case; have been getting inoculated with a different vaccine than should have been ideally prescribed.

An ambiguity at a crucial moment––nuclear weapons being weapons of last resort or being meant only for deterrence––borne out of years of training, can cost India dear because it would take just about five to ten minutes from a launch (in Pakistan or China) to detonation (in India). In a situation like Petrov’s, Indians would not afford the luxury of time. It is therefore, imperative that people who would some day be in the decision making chain and those who would be executing a political big decision (particularly the men in uniform and the scientists) be educated and trained to act decisively without dithering like Colonel Petrov.

Need to unlearn and re-learn

The need to unlearn and relearn the nuances of the Indian Nuclear Doctrine is also mandated by the recent behaviour of our neighbours. Let’s look at it this way. Pakistan knows that its nuclear sabre rattling does not perturb India, for India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff twice recently––one, by carrying out surgical strikes across the border after Uri terror attack; and two, by executing airstrikes against terror camps at Balakot in response to the Pulwama Terror Attack. In both those cases, Imran Khan first blabbered about the heightening tensions and the possibility of ‘inadvertent’ use of nukes, then ate a humble pie.

Humiliated at home and abroad on those counts, and coupled with a messed up economy and a battered national prestige (because of Pakistan’s terror links), the Khan is vulnerable to arm-twisting by three agencies––Pakistan Military; Pakistan-based terror outfits; and a Shylock-like China, whose debt makes Pakistan cringe. China is capable of using several levers to instigate its stooge, Pakistan to surprise India. Considering these mounting pressures, the cricketer turned puppet of a politician, might be forced to reconsider and carry out his nuclear bluff. The probability, although infinitely low, is not equal to zero. Therefore, it would be prudent on India’s part to cater for a ‘mistaken’ use of a nuke by Imran’s Pakistan.

To sum up, security, and nuclear security in particular, is a dynamic concept; its doctrines and understanding of the same by every link in the chain needs periodic review and refreshing. Exercising realistically with the nuclear option will convey a stronger ‘resolve’ to the adversaries and work as a more meaningful deterrence without changing anything on the ground.

Related Posts

Dealing with the Darned Dragon: Preface

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-I: Border Infrastructure

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-II: Escape Hatch

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-III: A Lesson from Pearl Harbour

Dealing with the Darned Dragon-V: Time to Kowtow!?

Modi’s Rabin Predicament and a Belligerent China

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s short speech this afternoon (June 17, 2020) to the nation on the border skirmish with China can be summed in just one word: “R-E-S-O-L-V-E”. “Our Jawans died fighting; their sacrifices will not go in vain,” he had said. One was reminded of a similar resolve when he had displayed exactly the same emotion after the Pulwama Terror strike and…

Resolute in Crisis

And Balakot happened.

Modi’s speech catapulted me back in time to a historical event. In July 1976, another Prime Minister in another country was faced with a crisis of similar intensity but a different dimension. A hundred and four Israelis were held hostage by terrorists at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. They were demanding release of a number of Palestinians held in Israeli jails on charges of terrorism. The deadline was fast approaching at the end of which, they had threatened to kill the innocent civilians.

The rescue operation 3000 odd kms away from Israel entailed flying through hostile Arab territories. An error of judgement could cost lives: lives of the hostages, lives of the rescue team. So he––supported by his Cabinet, and the opposition led by Menachem Begin––decided to capitulate to the terrorists.

For Rabin, 104 Israeli lives were precious. He also knew that his decision (to capitulate to the terrorists) would mean the collapse of Israel’s policy of not surrendering to terror––a policy it had taken years to build, at a formidable cost in innocent blood (Note: Israel has swapped terrorists for hostages in extremely rare cases). Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was caught between the devil and the deep sea.

Yitzhak Rabin

While the preparations were still on to negotiate the release of the hostages, Rabin ordered his men in uniform: “Bring me something we can implement.” Circumstances pushed the terrorists’ deadline back by a few days and the military came up with a daringly dangerous, but workable plan. There could be up to 20 casualties (hostages) under normal circumstances. But, if the terrorists had even a minute’s notice, everyone could be killed, including all the commandos.

While giving a go ahead to the military, Rabin kept the Israeli parliament informed. Without doubt, it was one of the toughest decisions ever taken by any Israeli government. Rabin made it clear that if the raid (Operation Thunderbolt, later rechristened, Operation Netanyahu) failed, the government would have to resign. But when the final vote was called––kudos to a very sensible and well-meaning opposition––all hands were raised in favour of the Prime Minister’s decision. None doubted his intentions; none asked him to pledge his head.

Rest is history.

Returning to the India-China standoff in the Galwan Valley. China has orchestrated the standoff at a time when the world, including India, is busy fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. China thought that it would be able to get away with ‘murder’. It was a miscalculation, for if, one were to go by unconfirmed media reports, China too has suffered substantial losses.

The Chinese Foreign Minister is now talking of de-escalation. Going by the antecedents, any such Chinese suggestion needs to be taken with extreme caution. In fact, looking at China’s most recent belligerence, it would be prudent to carry a gun in one hand when the other one holds out an olive branch. It has become imperative to prepare militarily for a long haul. While at it, the diplomatic corps could get into overdrive and help China arrive at its Champagne Moment (read post titled “China’s Champagne Moment”). Now is the time!

Think of it… today Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s situation is not much different from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s. In this moment of crisis, he (Modi) has displayed great resolve. We, the people need to stand by him. While the military and the diplomatic corps go for the dragon’s jugular, the least that the rest of us can do is: “TO-BE-OUR-BEST-SELVES.”

Need that be elaborated?

Again, like the Israeli parliamentarians in 1976, the elected representatives of the people of India will have an opportunity to prove their worth when they meet on Friday, June 19, 2020 to discuss the standoff at the behest of the Prime Minister. History will judge them (and Prime Minister Modi) by their actions on that day.

Postscript

After reading this post, one of my dear friends concluded that I was suggesting that the opposition parties must support Modi and that they would be judged in the future on that basis. He did not agree with the suggestion for the opposition parties to prove themselves. In his opinion, Modi must first win the trust of the people. He added that lately he has taken the people for granted. He has the penchant for being in the limelight at the expense of everything and wants people to believe that he can do no wrong. He needs to learn to be humble, promise less and do more. He can’t keep experimenting with lives of the people without being accountable.

Is Mr Modi listening? People aren’t just looking up to you; they are ‘watching’ you.

To my concerned friend: When I said ‘Modi’, I meant ‘the Prime Minister’. I would have made the same suggestion (to support the man in that office/ chair) had the PM been Mr Rahul Gandhi, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Mr Kejriwal, Mr Surjewala, Ms Mayawati, Ms Rabri Devi, or anyone else for that matter. I feel that it does no good questioning the leadership in the midst of a grave national crisis (two in this case: Covid-19 pandemic and the standoff with the Chinese). If people feel let down today or in the future, they’ll have an opportunity to replace him in the next general election. Let’s not forget, when time came, the docile Indian democracy showed the door to the likes of Mrs Indira Gandhi. My suggestion to the parliamentarians is to stand by Modi, the PM (not Modi, the man) when it comes to make a difficult choice in national interest. Remember, Winston Churchill was shown the door by the British people despite England’s victory in WW II.

Balakot Airstrike & the Art of Drawing Lessons

A scientist placed a frog on a table and yelled, “Frog, jump!” The frog leapt forward two feet to the middle of the table. The scientist adjusted his spectacles, read the information flashing on the digital displays of the sophisticated equipment placed in the vicinity and scribbled some observations. He then picked up the amphibian and put it back at the starting point. Without any emotions, he removed (read “chopped”) its hind legs with surgical precision and yelled again, “Frog, jump!” The incapacitated being did not move an inch. “Eureka!” The heart of the jubilant scientist took a leap; he flipped open his notepad and wrote this inference: “The amputation of the hind limbs of an amphibian at an ambient temperature of 27ºC affects its tympanic membranes so that there is a hundred per cent loss of hearing (at 100 db, 25,000 Hz).

Drawing conclusions, inferences and lessons is an art.

Imran surrenders to a moustache

It is inappropriate to talk of a scientist and a frog when the flavour of the day is the airstrike by the IAF across the border at Balakot in Pakistan.

An expert with a TV channel has made an observation that Wing Commander Abhinandan took a hundred and thirty two steps in seven minutes to cross the Attari-Wagah border. Another one has concluded that Imran (Pakistan) surrendered to a moustache (that of Abhinandan).

That was for dark humour.

MiG-21 outwits F-16

On a serious note, a conclusion that some are drawing is that an F-16 aircraft is no match for a MiG 21 Bison. Perhaps it is a conclusion that has been reached a little too early by “experts” sitting in the cosy comforts of their drawing rooms. The fog of war has not cleared yet. Abhinandan’s version of the story is yet to become public.

This is a time for restraint; time to hold the horses and to avoid jumping to conclusions. Drawing inferences, conclusions and lessons is an art, a rare art. It better be left to the real experts.

For now, the question is:

Would the availability of a state of the art fifth generation fighter aircraft in IAF inventory have deterred Pakistan from daring to enter Indian airspace?

An expert is not needed to answer that question.

Pakistan, India & the Art of War

Dictionaries left by the British in the government offices at the time of India’s Independence were torn apart so that a country could take the pages with the alphabet from A-L and the other could own those with M-Z. That was the level of mutual antagonism between India and Pakistan on the eve of partition in 1947 as per Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The hostility has compounded over the years. While Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sought to wage a war for a thousand years, General Zia ul Haq was determined to bleed India through a thousand cuts.

India-Pakistan

The two neighbours have pursued different Arts of War over the years. Pakistan has bled India for over three decades through covert operations. India has borne the brunt of acts of terrorism sponsored by Pakistan without retaliating decisively against that country, or against those orchestrating the attacks from its soil. The terror strike at Uri, and the one at Pulwama that left over 40 CRPF men dead, has changed the status quo. It has made India deviate from a path of reconciliation and take the path of retaliation.

The Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi gave the armed forces a “free hand in choosing the time, place and the nature” of the response to Pulwama Terror attack. He added that each drop of tear of the families of the martyrs would be avenged. The Rubicon had been crossed. The pre-emptive airstrike by IAF fighters on the terrorist training camps at Balakot (Pakistan) twelve days after the Pulwama terror attack, left Pakistan stunned, as if struck by an earthquake.

In effect, the aftershocks have been no less spectacular. India withdrew the “Most Favoured Nation” status accorded to Pakistan, and raised the excise duty to 200%. India’s action to re-commence work on the dams on the Indus and other rivers has jolted Pakistan. Although indirect, the withdrawal of security to the separatist leaders in J&K has also been a setback to Pak interests. To the detriment of Pakistan, all the opposition parties in the Indian Parliament have also pledged support to the government. Through conscientious diplomatic effort, India has managed to get Pakistan isolated on the world stage. Even China, its all-weather friend has since maintained graveyard silence. The US called on Pakistan to immediately end the support and dismantle the safe haven provided to the terrorist groups operating from its soil. The invitation to India as the ‘Guest of Honour’ to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Meeting in Abu Dhabi has been the proverbial last straw that has broken the camel’s (read Pakistan’s) back.

Pakistan released Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the IAF pilot who had landed up in Pak custody after ejecting from his fighter aircraft. Although, Imran Khan said that it was a goodwill gesture to promote peace, the fact is that an isolated Pakistan has succumbed to the cumulative pressure created by India.

With its economy in shambles, Pakistan cannot afford to wage a full-scale war. Besides, a full-scale war can lead to its dismemberment; trouble is brewing in the country’s northwest. Pakistan now knows well the consequences of waging a proxy war against India. In one of his televised addresses recently, Imran Khan had spoken of possible ‘miscalculation’ by either side. If he was obliquely hinting at the possible use of nukes, he is also aware of India’s ability to absorb the first strike and India’s capability of a second strike. For sure, he is well aware of the asymmetry, too.

The Art of War

Sun Tzu says: “When you surround an army (read enemy), leave an outlet free. This does not mean that the enemy is to be allowed to escape. The object is to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair.

Has India left a road to safety for Pakistan? What’s it?

India has left an option for Pakistan. Pakistan’s road to safety (and peace for its people) is through handing over the likes of Masood Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim to India, and to dismantle the terror training camps flourishing in its backyard.

A Black Swan at Balakot

Black Swan: Rarity, impact & predictability

A Black Swan event has three attributes. First, it is (most) unexpected; cognition excludes any likelihood (at all) of its occurrence. Second, its outcome is spectacular. And the third, despite its unexpectedness, people get down to concocting explanations to justify its occurrence. These can be summed as rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective predictability. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book, The Black Swan explains the concept.

Air raid on the terror camps in Balakot (Pakistan) by IAF fighters in the wee hours of February 26, 2019 displays these three attributes of a Black Swan event. The event was unexpected, keeping the feeble Indian response to similar provocations in the past: the Parliament Attack (2001), the Mumbai Terror Attack (2008), and the Pathankot Terror Strike (2016)… the list is long. And, even after the recent terror attack on the CRPF convoy in Pulwama, there was a view that India lacked the will to respond to such provocations. On that occasion, as always, whether India had a Strategic Culture to respond to provocations became a point of intellectual debate. I too had contributed my anna bit to the discourse (Read Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture).

The Balakot Air Strike

Let alone the outcome, which is being questioned by Pakistan, the very act of the IAF fighters crossing the border and releasing ordnance over the terror camps is a spectacular act. It was unimaginable until it happened; how it stunned everyone needs no further elucidation.

Volumes can be written on the third attribute––on the retrospective predictability. People attribute the happening of Balakot Air Strike to so many reasons: The political will, the pressure from the people, the moral high ground, the economic and military power that India wields today, and its recent diplomatic achievement in isolating Pakistan…. There are as many explanations as the number of armchair strategists.

In retrospect, the surgical strike by the Indian Army after the Uri Attack was a Black Swan event too.  

In the immediate present and now, Uri and Balakot are a thing of the past. The success of those raids/ attacks has raised the bar for India––several notches in one go. Now, a stage has been reached when perhaps even a Neptune Spear type raid (killing of Osama Bin Laden) by the Indian Special Forces to eliminate any of the terror leaders hiding in Pakistan will not come as a surprise, not even for the Pakistan’s military. Thus, even if it were to come to pass, a raid to eliminate the terror leaders, it would not qualify to be a Black Swan event. By implication, its success might be iffy.

For sure, Uri and Balakot are a thing of the past. The return gift from Pakistan for India’s Black Swan––another Black Swan––is a much anticipated and awaited thing. And, for sure, no amount of preparedness would be enough to fully absorb a true Black Swan event.

So?

Let the political and the military leadership and the diplomatic corps of the day have their way. They have pulled it this far; they definitely have plans for the future. While they are doing their bit to restore some semblance of normalcy in the region, they are also prepared, to the extent possible, to meet the retaliation on all fronts. The noise and din in the streets and in the media can only distract them.

Prudence demands that they be allowed to concentrate.