Redefining the Nuclear Equation: Modernization and Strategic Wisdom in India-China Dynamics

Given the intricate interconnection of modern geopolitics, emerging technology and changing military strategy, a longstanding assumption about numerical superiority being an effective deterrent can prove to be obsolete in the context of nuclear dynamics between India and China.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailCopy Link

There has been a longstanding assumption in the nuclear strategic community that numerical superiority of nuclear weapons results in effective deterrence and victory on the battlefield. Subsequently, this dominant thought has convinced several countries to stockpile nuclear arsenals in the belief that the size of their nuclear force would be advantageous to them in the event of a nuclear standoff. This was widely observed during the Cold War period when the two superpowers engaged in a massive nuclear arms race to outnumber each other. Given the intricate interconnection of modern geopolitics, emerging technology, and changing military strategy, this traditional understanding can prove to be obsolete in the context of nuclear dynamics between India and China.

While parity in the number of nuclear weapons may not result in effective deterrence against a numerically superior adversary, there is a notable gap between India and China when it comes to the size of their nuclear arsenals. According to recent estimates, India currently has 164 nuclear weapons while China has 410 nuclear weapons. In addition, India, flanked by another nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan, is facing the challenge of maintaining a fine equilibrium in how it utilizes its own nuclear capabilities.

A closer look at the nuclear dynamics between these two regional competitors in recent years points towards a widening gap between both numerical and technological nuclear capabilities. This includes the difference in the number of China and India’s war heads, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), new Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear missiles (SSBNs), and robust second-strike capabilities supported by China’s People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). This highlights the need for India to reevaluate its strategy to prioritize strategic planning, scientific advancement, and nuclear modernization, which may strengthen India’s nuclear deterrent against a numerically superior opponent.

(Date Source: SIPRI 2023)

The threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD), where numerical parity frequently takes precedence over qualitative factors such as deployment of modernized delivery systems like Multiple Independently-targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), has blurred our understanding of nuclear deterrence in the past. But as the geopolitical landscape changes and regional dynamics shift, this rudimentary viewpoint is now in question. The Galwan valley incident that occurred in 2020, saw aggressive confrontation between India and China’s armed forces, which led to significant casualties on both sides. After the confrontation, the relationship between the two is still in a complete stalemate. In fact, India recently reiterated that its relationship with China is not ‘normal’. Therefore, India and China’s changing strategic postures following the Galwan Valley incident require a paradigm shift in the strategic thinking of India, as the risk of a nuclear escalation is growing too large to ignore.

China also has a nuclear arsenal that is both qualitatively and quantitatively superior to India’s, so India must carefully navigate how it maintains a credible deterrent against China. As it aims to achieve strategic stability, India’s conventional approach encourages a race to nuclear parity with China. For example, recent satellite images suggest that China is potentially preparing to resume nuclear testing with the intention of developing even more lethal nuclear weapons capabilities. In response to this development, some in India’s strategic community are advocating for the expansion of its nuclear warheads. However, such a limiting strategy is not only insufficient but might even be counterproductive against India when confronted with the nuclear threat by a contemporary, technologically advanced China. India’s approach to a strong deterrent strategy must be developed more deeply; it must go beyond the traditional emphasis on numerical parity and adopt a sophisticated, modernized, and tactically sound approach to establish nuclear deterrence.

The traditional understanding has often framed China’s numerical supremacy in the nuclear domain as an incontrovertible strategic advantage. However, a critical look prompts us to question whether this numerical edge truly translates into assured battlefield success. Recent events, notably post the Galwan Valley incident, and the discernible shifts in the military capabilities of both India and China, cast doubt on the efficacy of this simplistic perspective. It is within this context that we explore scenarios beyond numerical considerations, unraveling the complexities that underscore the need for a more nuanced and comprehensive approach to nuclear deterrence.

Case Scenario 1: Deterrence in Case of a Border Disputes

In a situation where tensions escalate along the disputed India-China border, there’s a potential risk of conventional conflict with a possibility of nuclear confrontation. In this scenario, a modernized Indian nuclear force could serve as a potent deterrent against any escalation or threat of escalation to the nuclear level by China. While China does not see India as a potential nuclear adversary, the credibility of a sophisticated and precise Indian nuclear response could discourage China from pursuing aggressive actions along the border, reinforcing stability and preventing the conflict from escalating.

Case Scenario 2: Maritime Dominance in the Indian Ocean

Consider a situation where India strengthens its sea vector capabilities and asserts maritime presence in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). A credible naval power with a robust nuclear submarine fleet equipped with second strike capabilities could alter the strategic dynamics. The presence of advanced nuclear-armed submarines could act as a significant deterrent against any Chinese naval expansion in the Indian Ocean and the surrounding region providing India with sea based nuclear deterrence. According to the Indian Navy’s Maritime Security Strategy (2015), the sea-based component of India’s nuclear triad, particularly nuclear-powered submarines equipped with ballistic missiles (SSBN), embodies the crucial principles of credibility, effectiveness, and survivability that underpin the nation’s nuclear deterrence.

Case Scenario 3: Strategic Partnerships and Regional Alliances

Strategic partnerships and regional alliances with friendly foreign countries concerned about China’s provocative intentions can help. This can include regional security cooperation, infrastructure & connectivity projects, military assistance etc. In this case, a militarily superior Indian nuclear force could contribute to a broader regional balance of power in the region and beyond. If India collaborates with nations in the region to share intelligence, coordinate defense strategies, and conduct joint military exercises, it could enhance the collective deterrent against China. This collaborative approach could discourage China from pursuing aggressive nuclear strategies, promoting stability in the region and beyond.

In understanding the evolving nuclear dynamics between India and China, a fundamental reassessment of India’s approach emerges as imperative. This necessitates a strategic pivot that underscores the pivotal role of technological modernization. In the current scenario, where the quantity of warheads remains a factor, the predominant emphasis shifts decisively towards the quality and sophistication of the nuclear arsenal. India’s commitment to modernization assumes not merely a strategic choice but evolves into a compelling need—a prerequisite to ensuring not just parity but a credible deterrent against a numerically superior China.

Understanding of nuclear strategy in general has undergone a profound transformation, catapulted by technological advancements that redefine the parameters of strategic considerations. In this re-calibration, certain elements come to the fore, establishing themselves as linchpins in the quest for nuclear prowess. Robust command and control systems, advanced delivery systems, cyber resilience, and precision weaponry emerge as the vanguard of strategic importance. These capabilities allow nuclear-armed states to reliably control their arsenals and, if needed, deliver precise strikes that limit escalation risk while achieving strategic objectives. Each of these components plays a crucial role in fortifying India’s nuclear arsenal and reshaping the contours of deterrence.

The Galwan Valley clash not only demonstrated the risks associated with conventional conflicts spiraling into nuclear dimensions but also spotlighted the evolving nature of India’s military strategy. The shift towards “fighting short high-intensity wars” highlights the urgency of a nuanced and multifaceted approach to managing escalation risks and preserving strategic stability. It is within this context that the role of strategic planning takes paramount significance.

India must ramp up its existing nuclear modernization efforts to maintain strategic advantage amid shifting nuclear balances. Rather than numerical parity, India should deliberately prioritize advanced delivery systems, precision weapons, robust command/control, and cyber resilience. These calculated capabilities will ensure credible deterrence and diminish escalation risks that undermine strategic objectives.

The development of multiple-warhead missiles, commonly known as MIRVs, represents a strategic leap that moves beyond the simplistic notion of a mere numbers game. MIRVs enhance the potency of India’s nuclear arsenal by allowing a single missile to carry multiple independently targetable warheads, effectively multiplying the deterrent effect. This capability introduces a layer of complexity for adversaries, making interception and defense a more intricate challenge. Similarly, the pursuit of anti-satellite weapons aligns with the contemporary demands of modern warfare. In an era where space-based assets play a pivotal role in strategic communication, navigation, and reconnaissance, possessing the ability to neutralize or impair an adversary’s satellites becomes a potent tool. India’s investment in anti-satellite technology is not a quest for numerical supremacy but a strategic move to level the playing field and disrupt the technological advantage that a numerically superior adversary might possess.

India’s relentless pursuit of nuclear modernization transcends the confines of national borders; it unfolds as a strategic play with far-reaching geopolitical implications. The apprehensions voiced by Chinese analysts regarding the collaboration between the United States and India accentuate the need for India to tread cautiously in the realm of external partnerships. While such collaborations hold the promise of enhancing India’s technological capabilities, equilibrium must be maintained to safeguard strategic autonomy and prevent unintended consequences that could contribute to regional instability.

FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailCopy Link