New Delhi: While India has obtained a reasonable second strike capability with the operation of the first nuclear submarine called Arihant, there is still a long way to go before the country can claim to have optimized its deterrence capability. There is predominantly the issue of Arihant’s limited prowess which a former Indian naval chief has already highlighted. As good as a nuclear submarine is in build quality, endurance, stealth capability and so forth, its deterrence effectiveness depends on the missiles on board. The longer the range of missiles, the more deterrence power the submarine provides to the owner state. India’s second strike capability has to aim to cover great continental distances so that adversaries and enemies feel threatened from theoretically anywhere in the world. Naturally, such capacities will take one or more decades to fructify. So it is advisable in the interim not to exaggerate India’s second-strike capability. Deterrence works best when capacities are neither underplayed nor blown out of proportion.

Which brings to the crux of India’s problems with deterrence. India has not optimized the land aspects of deterrence (the air aspect has serious inbuilt limitations) and a big question mark hangs over the country’s thermonuclear capability. The Pokhran II thermonuclear device was a dud. The fission trigger failed to ignite the fusion device. Failures in the first stages of bomb-making are not unique to India and thermonuclear bombs are tricky. But India has covered up the Pokhran II failure badly and insists on being a thermonuclear power when it isn’t. The credibility of deterrence depends on world scientific opinion. If scientific consensus rejects a nuclear test, there is no alternative but to return to the drawing board and test again. The world situation is not conducive to a nuclear test but that does not provide India cover for the failure in Pokhran II. Without a tried and tested thermonuclear warhead, you simply cannot make effective intercontinental missiles. Thermonuclear warheads give more bang for the buck. And without the experience of making and deploying successful ICBMs, you cannot venture into the area of submarine-launched intercontinental missiles. This is over and above the challenges of making undersea platforms that can deploy continental missiles. A true second-strike capability is decades away for India.

And, finally, there is the existing land-based deterrence gap between India on one side and Pakistan and China on the other. Bomber-based deterrence is generally considered the weakest in the nuclear triad and assigned less weight in arms control negotiations. MIRVs and super-heavy ICBMs which the Soviets once specialized in and the US mainstay of sea-based deterrence are more highly valued. India’s problem is that it has not thought enough of land-based deterrence and in particular nuclear war-fighting. India faces the possibility of war on two fronts with Pakistan and China. A collusive Pakistan-China war against India will be multi-dimensional and it cannot even be deconstructed to the smallest degree till there is fuller appreciation of the nuclear war scenarios between India-Pakistan and India-China. Since Pakistan is militarily weaker than India in the non-nuclear realm, Pakistan has to deter India in the main, and it has done so with theatre nuclear weapons. Should Indian forces cross the border or the LoC and threaten Pakistan’s survival, Pakistan will counter with theatre nuclear weapons with full preparations for escalation. India’s weak response is massive retaliation. Robert McNamara saw through the chimera of massive retaliation and strategically well-versed Pakistanis do too. India has not revisited the nuclear doctrine drawn up in a hurry after Pokhran II. While no one could sensibly suggest abandoning the no-first-use policy, it still makes sense at least to review the doctrine for flaws and shortcomings.

The situation with China is in many ways the opposite of Pakistan. India is weaker to China in conventional military terms and China threatens the country’s northeast. The Doklam crisis revealed the particular vulnerability of the Siliguri Corridor which is India’s only land link with North East states. This writer has long advocated the “Pakistan solution” for the sector. In view of China’s constant threat, India should deploy tactical nuclear weapons there and be prepared for escalation. Deterrence works only when it is tailored to suit a country’s requirement. By itself, a second-strike capability will not guarantee India’s security till the other legs of the triad and particularly the land one are optimized. And without a credible thermonuclear capability, India’s deterrence capacity can never be taken to its full potential.