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Mission Divyastra: India's Leap Toward Maximum Nuclear Deterrence

Through Mission Divyastra, India Adapts Its Nuclear Strategy Amid Growing Regional Tensions and Strategic Competitions. The Russia-Ukraine War has Taught us the Value of Deterrence and its Reasonable Necessity in Today’s Conflict-ridden World.

By Srijan Sharma
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Mission Divyastra

Mission Divyastra | Representative image | Image courtesy: Special arrangement

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The nuclear threat is real; India needs an element of maximum deterrence in its nuclear doctrine—a push beyond credible "minimum" deterrence. The recent nuclear launch, Mission Divyastra, indicates an addition of more punch to the nuclear doctrine, necessitated by China's strategic increase in its nuclear tempo in South Asia and its clandestine nuclear nexus with Pakistan. At the same time, it must be underlined that reminiscences of nuclear politics during the Cold War have again started to become visible in the current nuclear landscape. A nuclear threat assessment also provides a glimpse of various nuclear triggers, which on one end fulfil a nation's security and strategic needs through deterrence, but on the other, set the stage for a nuclear race, putting global and regional theatres on a matchbox. Though nuclear triggers of many states may be a debatable issue in the realms of "nuclear deterrence," the Russia-Ukraine war has taught us the value of deterrence and its reasonable necessity in today's conflict-ridden world.

India's nuclear journey has come a long way from the first test in 1974, which was termed as a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion, to the second test in Pokhran in 1998 (Operation Shakti). Both tests paint their own understanding of the realities of the nuclear game at the global and regional levels. The first test, codenamed Operation Smiling Buddha, marked the beginning of the realisation of emerging nuclear anxiety in South Asia, and the second test was a security and strategic necessity. The Cold War era witnessed increased nuclear competition between the US and the USSR. The US's Operation Starfish Prime, which involved detonating a hydrogen bomb in space in 1962, to Operation Emery, which led to a series of nuclear weapon tests in 1970 and 1971, laid the strong groundwork for nuclear competition between the two rivals of the Cold War. The major nuclear trigger in South Asia came from China's Project 596 and China’s ambitious Two Bomb and One Satellite program, which led to a series of nuclear tests from 1964 to 1996.

Mission Divyastra: Triggers of the Nuclear Game

The triggers of the nuclear game are phenomena of believing that nuclear weapons are the ultimate tools of deterrence, which is true. However, a larger question involves the element of nuclear competition in increasing nuclear deterrence capabilities to offset one's ability to deter and coerce. Such attempts at offsetting are inspired by the thinking of using nuclear weapons to secure strategic and security interests in a situation of conflict or war, should it ever arise. This idea has, unfortunately, propelled states into a full-speed nuclear race, fueling security anxiety in the global security landscape. The Chinese leader Mao Zedong once said, "Now we're already stronger than we were in the past, and in the future, we'll be even stronger than now. Not only are we going to have more aeroplanes and artillery, but also the atomic bomb. In today's world, if we don't want to be bullied, we have to have this thing." This statement itself evidences that in advancing the idea of deterrence, states have led to the emergence of a paradoxical security situation, and such situations are even more serious if they are limited to regional security.

The Nuclear Axis in Global Politics

There are two major nuclear axes: first, US-China-Russia; second, India-China-Pakistan. The former has been in existence since the Cold War and has been increasing its nuclear tempo over the past few years. The actual driving force behind this increasing nuclear necessity is primarily based on the reasoning that China wants to deter the US in the Indo-Pacific theatre, a realisation of the American threat perceived by the Chinese leadership since the Vietnam War and Taiwan Crises. 

The second axis came into existence after two arch-rivals, India and Pakistan, became nuclear powers in 1998, opening the risk of a nuclear confrontation between them. During the Kargil War in 1999, when Pakistan moved ballistic missiles towards the border, White House officials and security experts in 2000 made the claim that India too was preparing five nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. The axis witnessed a slight shift when tensions between India and China became quite visible, especially after the 2020 border clashes. According to a report, China's nuclear arsenal more than doubled in the last three years, amid what a senior Pentagon official calls a “major expansion of their nuclear forces.” Apart from expansion, China has clandestinely cultivated its ties with Pakistan, helping the latter to increase its nuclear capabilities.

The Nuclear Threat Assessment

A real assessment of nuclear risk in both theatres has increased, but it must be analysed in two folds to get a clear picture of the nuclear threat assessment: strategic-based and security-based.

The scenario of US-China-Russia is strategic-based, where the US and China have locked themselves in to secure strategic interests through nuclear deterrence. However, since the Russia-Ukraine war, the Russian factor in the US-China nuclear axis has given rise to security anxiety in the European frontier, where Russia is attempting to secure its "security" from NATO's threat through nuclear blackmailing. 

The second axis of India-China-Pak is more security-oriented than strategic. Pakistan, with its unrestricted and India-centric nuclear doctrine, opens the frontiers of security anxiety in South Asia. A possible nuclear confrontation cannot be ignored between the two arch-rivals if Pakistan is losing, as it would surely resort to nuclear blackmailing. The strategic element comes into the picture with China, where deterrence is strategic-based. China's attempts to increase its nuclear arsenal aim to keep India's growing influence in check and increase its hegemonic sphere of influence in South and Southeast Asia. China's assessment for a long time has not considered India a serious nuclear threat, and therefore, China's nuclear posturing is strategic and aimed towards the effective assertion of its influence and interests in the region. However, ever since the clashes in 2020 and the increased security anxiety at the LAC, China must have given a second thought to its security considerations towards India, as the latter is strongly responding to China's strategic manoeuvrings.

Mission Divyastra: India Needs Maximum Deterrence

The nuclear threat is real, and India needs an element of maximum deterrence in its nuclear doctrine—a push beyond credible minimum deterrence. This need is guided by two main reasons. The first is the increased Pakistan-China clandestine nuclear cooperation. The recent interception of a boat from Karachi by the Indian Coast Guard, which led to the seizure of nuclear cargo, raises alarms. Therefore, deterring Pakistan from upgrading its nuclear arsenals is crucial. This can put Pakistan in a much more inferior position, thus weakening its stance in nuclear blackmailing. As Pervez Musharraf defines the nuclear game, "If we would attack India with one atomic bomb, then the neighbouring country could finish us by attacking with 20 bombs. Then the only solution is that we should first attack them with 50 atom bombs so that they cannot hit us with 20 bombs." Such statements, shaping Pakistan's Nuclear Doctrine with massive retaliation, put India in a difficult position in managing conflict escalation.

The second reason is China’s strategic nuclear threat. China is increasing its nuclear arsenal to enhance its deterrence capabilities and more effectively assert its strategic interests in the region. A recent report by SIPRI stated China now has 410 nuclear warheads, up from 350 in January 2022, while Pakistan has 170 and India 164. India needs to focus more on the China factor in South Asia’s nuclear game, as enhancing its nuclear capabilities would strategically deter China’s increasing sphere of influence in the region. This would also send a strong message to China, indicating India's vigilance and attempts to check its influence in the region.

The recent successful test of the nuclear ballistic missile AGNI V with Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) technology (Mission Divyastra) is a strong step in adding the “maximum” punch to the doctrine. The MIRV technology, which allows India to carry multiple warheads, will help increase second-strike capabilities and overwhelm the adversary’s Anti-Ballistic Missiles or responses. This technology harks back to the Cold War era, where Russia’s deadliest anti-ballistic system, Dead Hand or Perimeter, gave the Soviet Union massive second-strike capabilities by automating the launch of all nuclear weapons in case of a nuclear attack during a nuclear war. Such a launch would be so massive that anti-ballistic manoeuvres might have a high chance of failing, leading to the mass destruction of the adversary.

Today, nuclear weapons serve as a means of deterrence, but the horizons of deterrence and means are rapidly expanding. This is helping states secure their strategic and security interests but also opening the paradoxical nuclear race. Although nuclear triggers of many states may be a debatable issue in the “nuclear deterrence” realms, the Russia-Ukraine war has taught us the value of deterrence and its reasonable necessity in today’s conflict-ridden world.

The landscape of global nuclear politics is a complex tapestry woven with the threads of deterrence, strategic competition, and evolving threats. This perception highlights the need for India to adopt a doctrine of maximum deterrence like Mission Divyastra amidst the escalating tensions with its neighbours. The initiative does not merely symbolise an enhancement of military capability but signifies a strategic pivot in India’s defence posture, acknowledging the nuanced challenges of modern nuclear deterrence. The intertwining nuclear relationships between major global powers, especially in the context of South Asia's delicate balance, demand a recalibration of India's nuclear strategy. This recalibration is essential not just for maintaining regional stability but for asserting India's sovereignty and strategic autonomy in a multipolar world.

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