India’s Nuclear Doctrine: The Changing NFU Strategy?

By Syed Qamar Rizvi.


There are current reflections that advocate the impression that India might be reconsidering its policy of no first use of nuclear arsenal. This revisionist approach echoing in the mind of Indian policy makers is a peace caveat for South Asian region that is already under fire because of Modi’s ultra nationalist-cum-extremist policy ventures in the region, particularly its ongoing tense relationship towards Islamabad.

India’s no-first-use policy was originally declared by the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance government after it conducted the May 1998 nuclear tests. The prime minister at the time, Atal Behari Vajpayee, stated thereafter that India would pursue a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons vis-à-vis other nuclear-armed states and would not use these weapons against nonnuclear countries. This restraint was also embedded in the BJP’s draft nuclear doctrine, declared in August 1999, which took several years to be finalized. It was finally endorsed by the Cabinet Committee on Security and officially promulgated in January 2003. Consequently, India’s no-first-use policy and its nuclear doctrine are BJP formulations. The Congress party adopted them and, with Singh’s April speech, simply sought to extend no first use globally. This makes the BJP’s concern with its own no-first-use policy and nuclear doctrine part of the mystery of Singh’s proposal.

India’s no-first-use declaration cannot be separated from the country’s overall nuclear doctrine as it has been articulated since 1999. Inadequate as it is, this doctrine deserves to be reviewed in the light of changes over the past fifteen years.

The current nuclear doctrine dictates that nuclear retaliation against a first strike would be “massive” and designed to inflict “unacceptable damage” upon the attacker. This is an unrealistic certitude because, ethically, punishing large numbers of noncombatants contravenes the laws of war. Besides, threatening massive retaliation against any level of nuclear attack, which would inevitably trigger assured nuclear annihilation in a binary adversarial situation, is hardly a credible option. No doubt, it raises a ticklish question: Would India then favor a counterforce or countercity strategy? India’s stated adherence to an assured and massive second strike suggests the latter.

However, in addition to the other infirmities of a massive retaliation response, the uncomfortable reality is that the trade winds in May–September associated with the southwest monsoon blow from Pakistan into northern India. Consequently, secondary and tertiary radiation from a nuclear attack launched by India against Pakistan in these months would blow back into India’s agriculturally rich Punjab and Haryana states and, indeed, into New Delhi. India therefore faces a huge time constraint to mount a massive nuclear attack into Pakistan. Operationally, too, destroying the territory in dispute is feckless.

In a nuclear adversarial situation, moreover, the inevitability of mutual destruction must also be considered. Is a counterforce attack on the adversary’s military formations and assets the answer? The issue of uncontrollable escalation then arises, for which there is no reassuring answer. Leaving the problem of how India should retaliate to a nuclear first strike to the discretion of the prime minister would provide greater flexibility to mount the counterattack instead of threatening assured nuclear annihilation, which is just not credible.

The possibility that India might use nuclear weapons first directly contradicts the key pillar of Indian nuclear thinking since the publication of its official nuclear doctrine in 2003: a no first-use policy. Successive prime ministers — including Narendra Modi, not exactly a dove — have affirmed this. Indeed, a major revision of India’s public doctrine will fly in the face of it’s long history as a reluctant nuclear power. On the other hand, the evidence Narang marshals to support this astounding claim is scant and centers around a couple of paragraphs from a book by a former Indian national security advisor Shivshankar Menon who retired three years ago, before Modi came to power.

Despite Narang’s claims, we still do not have sufficient evidence that India has reversed its no first-use policy or — for that matter — any other major tenets in its public nuclear doctrine. Indeed, at a time when there are growing calls inside India to revisit its nuclear doctrine, it is worth keeping in mind that India’s doctrine already allows considerable space for innovation. As Menon put it to a journalist, “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for.” In other words, India’s extant doctrine can absorb the consequences of future Pakistan-related contingencies without any major changes.

Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s take on India’s No First Use (NFU) pledge in his recent book has led some nuclear thinkers to offer an exciting interpretation of India’s changing nuclear doctrine. As Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently suggested, India may conduct a preemptive first strike if the use of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal appears imminent. This first strike would decapitate Pakistani arsenal to the effect that its ability to retaliate further is taken out of the equation. In short, India’s NFU policy is up for major revisions.

That has not been the official story, however. Critics are right in pointing out that since 2003, India has conditioned its NFU, its former strategic forces commanders have openly questioned NFU and Manohar Parrikar as Defence Minister had recently raised doubts on the desirability of NFU (in his personal capacity).

Yet, in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had unequivocally asserted that India’s No First Use (NFU) policy is not open to change. In view of some policy experts, the most important take-away from the current debate is that such rethinking on India’s nuclear behaviour cannot be restricted to ideological leanings of any particular government in power.

The current doctrinal shift appears to have been in place since 2008 when the UPA government was in power. Menon’s writings suggest that India’s national security considerations are not defined either by Hindu or by secular nationalism. They are merely a response to its changing security requirements. However, it also necessitates that the Indian government should officially review its nuclear doctrine in order to convey deterrence more effectively. Narang, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specialises in nuclear proliferation and strategy, said in his prepared remarks that there was increasing “evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first”. George Perkovich, vice president of Carnegie and an opponent of the 2008 India-US nuclear deal, said ultimately it was about “psychological mind games” and sending signals. He questioned India’s capacity to conduct a “comprehensive” strike while warning of the massive costs involved in developing such capabilities.

Sameer Lalwani, deputy director of Stimson Center’s South Asia programme, said in an e-mail response that the risks of India changing its posture were worrisome. Pakistan would try to find ways to make its nuclear arsenal survive an Indian strike by “expansion of its missile arsenal, putting strategic nuclear weapons at sea, increasing arsenal readiness or reducing the timeline for launch”.

Given the herein above-mentioned arguments, one thing is clear that what so ever remain the strategic exigencies or political expediencies regarding India’s nuclear doctrinal change, a revisionist Indian approach is a reflection on BJP’s realpolitik doctrine that has already been poisoning the peace future of South Asian region.

What Next?

Recent Articles