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

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.


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.