Interview with Vice Adm. Vijay Shankar (Retd.) at the CIRIL-IPCS Symposium

On the sidelines of the CIRIL-IPCS Symposium, The Envoy caught up with Vice Adm. Vijay Shankar (Retd.). Vice Adm. Shankar has been the commander of the Strategic Forces Command which is tasked with deploying and maintaining India’s nuclear weapons. He was also commander-in-chief of the Joint Services Command based in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  His operational experience is backed by active service during the Indo-Pak war of 1971, command of INS Himgiri during Operation Pawan and as Chief of Staff, Southern Naval Command during Operation Vijay in 1999. Adm. Shankar  is a specialist in Navigation and Direction, he holds an MSc in Defence Studies and is a graduate of the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, India, the Naval Higher Command Course from the College of Naval Warfare, Karanja, Mumbai, and the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, USA.

The Envoy: The United States recently announced that the United States Pacific Command is going to be re-christened as the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). Is it a symbolic move? What do you think it indicates in terms of India’s changing alliance with the United States?

Vice Adm. Vijay Shankar: It is not symbolic. You must understand that before the Second World War, and in the post Second World War era; all trade, commerce, movements and strategic developments were in the European continent. That is why when this announcement was made, the strategic rebalancing to occur in the Western Pacific is indicative of a couple of things.

Almost 65% of all commerce is running around in this area. 60% of all energy, that is in terms of oil flows and tanker movements are in this part of the world. Close to some 1/3rd of the world’s GDP was here, and is increasing; added to that are the two economies that are growing at close to double digit rates – 7 and 10%. That is why the strategic pivot of the world actually moved into an area where the Indian Ocean overlapped with the Western Pacific, and that is why Indo-Pacific.

It is not symbolic. Remember when the US defence department actually came out with this statement that if this place had to be secured in the sense that the routes had to be covered, the narrows had to be covered, that they would require almost 800 ships. No navy could afford that. Therefore there had to be some sort of a coalition of the willing. The willing were those whose economies were most affected.

The Envoy: To change subjects a bit and talk about nuclear weapons, several calls have been made for India to reconsider its stated policy of no-first use of nuclear weapons and instead opt for a more “flexible” approach. Do you think that India should consider a departure from its policy of no-first use?

Vice Adm. Vijay Shankar: No. All civilized, evolved societies try and affirm the idea that one must have laws that govern wars, where war yields to humanity. Now, with First Use you are getting very far away from that. Mr. Shiv Shankar Menon is fully entitled to his view. My own view, having been very close to the subject, I always asked myself under what conditions would you use your nuclear weapons first? Ask yourself this. You’ll find that there are very few conditions under which you would use it first.

Anyway, between the trigger and the blast, there are talks, there are negotiations, there are conventional weapons, and you can go to the table instead! First use would imply that you would have to develop your arsenal in a totally different way. You may well end up with tactical nuclear weapons, command and control of which will not be with the Nuclear command authority. It goes to a field unit. That field commander will insist that he controls it, which is at it should be. Knowing the army and the navy and the air force, we are groomed on the idea that I’m going to fight to the last goli. I’ll be there till the last bullet. Then you may get me. The last bullet may well be this, and it can’t be controlled by a Major. That’s the problem. That is the dilemma. Will I decentralize to the extent that the man can use it? We are not going to. We don’t have the wherewithal to control it, so what’s the point.

Secondly, on First Use. If I am to use the weapon first, I must be prepared for a retaliation which may not do the same thing! My adversary may go for a population centre. Are you willing to put a population centre at risk? Just to give you some idea, with a simple 20 kiloton airburst at a height of 600 metres over a city like Karachi which has a population density 24,000 per sq. km, the casualties would run into 5 lakhs. Secondary casualties, in terms of people who are injured, radiation, fallout and so on may well be double that! Just to give you another example, Chernobyl was not an explosion, and yet radiation leaks did occur. The increase of casualties due to thyroid cancer between 1986 to date is 2,500%. That is the level of casualties, the kind of horrific damage that can be caused.

If you have this perspective, you wouldn’t even consider First Use! Deterrence is served by its mere possession rather than actively using it. The message is that if you use that small tactical nuclear weapon my friend, you’re going to lose the city. That is the threat. So, I’m not clear on how we are moving away from No First Use.

The Envoy: What do you think would be the impact of the recent Pakistani elections on India’s security and foreign policy?

Vice Adm. Vijay Shankar: None at all. Remember, the foreign policy in Pakistan is run by the army. Get that straight. Having been on a couple of these Track II dialogues, having met with a lot of people who are there, they are clear about it! How come we aren’t?

There’s going to be no change in Pakistan’s foreign policy, in its policy on Kashmir, in its interaction with India. It is unmistakable that these policies are made by the army. The fact that Imran Khan’s way to the Prime Minister’s chair was paved by the military ought to make that clear. Let us not forget what has happened. The fact is that Nawaz Sharif was put behind bars for offences that are not half as serious as those of some of the other politicians. The defection of the large number of PML-N candidates to the PTI was orchestrated by the army!

The Envoy: Our last question was more from an operational perspective. In your experience, how does international humanitarian law and the international law of the sea play out in naval encounters? Are these laws taken into consideration when you’re giving orders?

Vice Adm. Vijay Shankar: They don’t! Look at China. One should be very clear that they rubbish every one of these laws. The creation of artificial islands, the act of maritime zones – they don’t believe in all that. The 9-dash line which takes over the entire South China Sea was made by them on a map in 1949.

One of the most disparaging things to be called on a naval ship is to be called a sea lawyer! You have your orders, your Standard Operating Procedures, your rules of engagement, your fighting instructions – they are all reasonably clear. That the gun will be fired from the shoulder of your commanding officer is also reasonably clear. But to start debating points of law while at sea, well that doesn’t happen.

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