Massive retaliation is a siren song that appeals to states that cannot afford a nuclear competition but can afford to let an adversary cross the nuclear threshold first. It’s a money-saver, and it sounds persuasive, until the threat of massive retaliation is actually tested — when a nation’s nuclear bluff is called. What national leader would actually respond to the use of a single nuclear weapon, or just a few, with massive retaliation?

Of course, a single thermonuclear weapon targeted on a major city might be considered massive retaliation when compared to the use of a low-yield, tactical nuclear weapon. Great Britain and France are postured to do far worse – one of the consequences of relying on MIRVed missiles aboard submarines — but it’s hard to imagine their bluff being called, because plausible tripwires are so remote.

No nuclear doctrine can be persuasive when the use of nuclear weapons seems incomprehensible. States possessing nuclear weapons are therefore obliged to suspend disbelief and draw up plans for the unthinkable. Planning occurs in a vacuum until another mushroom cloud appears on a battlefield, whether by accident, inadvertence, or design. Only then will doctrine and declaratory policy be tested. But no possible test can be aced by the option of massive retaliation. Massive retaliation is the antithesis of nuclear planning. Yes, I remember that Lawrence Freedman defined all nuclear strategy as an oxymoron, but massive retaliation makes other nuclear employment options seem downright thoughtful.

The best-laid plans tend to go awry in conventional warfare, and we can only imagine how badly the execution of nuclear planning could go awry. Flexible response and graduated nuclear punishment were conceptualized to make greater sense of weapons in bloated arsenals. The problem was that no one could make a convincing case of escalation control in the smoking, irradiated ruin of a nuclear battlefield. The more rungs of graduated response that Herman Kahn conceptualized, the more he became an object of ridicule.

The Samson option is for losers, not for states with important equities, especially states that can afford to compete. Recoiling from the Korean War, the Eisenhower Administration briefly adopted a declaratory policy of massive retaliation as a deterrence booster and a money-saver. To refresh memories, here are the key passages from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s famous speech, delivered to an august assembly of the Council on Foreign Relations on January 12, 1954:

We need allies and collective security. Our purpose is to make these relations more effective, less costly. This can be done by placing more reliance on deterrent power and less dependence on local defensive power… What the Eisenhower administration seeks is a similar international security system. We want, for ourselves and the other free nations, a maximum deterrent at a bearable cost… Local defenses must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power. A potential aggressor must know that he cannot always prescribe battle conditions that suit him…

The way to deter aggression is for the free community to be willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing… So long as our basic policy concepts were unclear, our military leaders could not be selective in building our military power…

But before military planning could be changed, the President and his advisers, as represented by the National Security Council, had to take some basic policy decisions. This has been done. The basic decision was to depend primarily upon a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our choosing.

This declaratory policy began to be qualified soon after Dulles delivered his speech. The United States could afford to compete, but couldn’t afford to have just one, world-ending declaration of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear doctrine is supposed to be credible – a tall order under the best of circumstances – and massive retaliation failed this test, at least for the United States.

Which brings us to India. India’s “draft” nuclear doctrine, prepared by an eclectic group of advisors in 1999, stated that “any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.” Perfectly reasonable language. Then, in 2003, the Indian Government put its imprimatur on the draft doctrine, highlighting several refinements. One was that “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” The word “massive” might have been chosen to stiffen Indian deterrence, but it opened a trapdoor by either narrowing New Delhi’s options or undermining its credibility.

India, perhaps more than any other state possessing nuclear weapons, might actually have its nuclear doctrine put to the test. One possibility is if, in a limited war, a weapon detonates when struck by conventional means because it lacks adequate safety mechanisms. Another is a breakdown of command and control in the fog of war. A third is if Pakistani military authorities use a detonation to demand stoppage of an Indian advance.

None of these scenarios might come to pass. Previous Indian governments have demonstrated great restraint after suffering attacks originating in Pakistan, preferring to go about the business of economic growth rather than to engage in retaliatory military strikes. The Indian Army’s “Cold Start”-like military plans have many weaknesses and might be left on the drawing boards. And Pakistani military and intelligence authorities might prove capable of preventing the usual suspects from carrying out new explosions on Indian soil during a very hawkish Indian government. These suppositions are conceivable. They are also about as reliable as declaratory nuclear doctrine.

The peculiarity here is that India, unlike the United States facing the Soviet Union, enjoys conventional military advantages over Pakistan – advantages that will grow over time. Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine threatens first use because of India’s conventional edge. This is understandable. But why has New Delhi adopted a posture of massive retaliation? Is it to save money or sound tough, like the Eisenhower Administration? How credible is this posture, and will New Delhi revamp it? And if New Delhi does vocalize the possibility of limited nuclear options, will this be good or bad for deterrence stability and escalation control?