Revisiting India’s nuclear doctrine

Lethal: “Despite being banned, chemical weapons have not gone away.” An UN investigation team in 2013 takes samples from sand near a part of a missile that was likely to be a chemical rocket, in Ain Terma in Damascus, Syria.

Lethal: “Despite being banned, chemical weapons have not gone away.” An UN investigation team in 2013 takes samples from sand near a part of a missile that was likely to be a chemical rocket, in Ain Terma in Damascus, Syria.   | Photo Credit: AP

No First Use as a nuclear deterrent without additional caveats should work well enough

Calls for reassessing India’s nuclear doctrine are a regular feature of our strategic landscape. Depending on where the person asking for this reconsideration sits on the strategic spectrum, the demand for revision rests either on scepticism about India’s commitment to a No First Use posture or the intention to retaliate massively to any nuclear first strike, no matter what the yield of the weapon used first. What seems to receive much less attention, however, is the declaration that India reserves the right to nuclear retaliation “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons”. In doing so, we are clubbing together nuclear first use — which has not occurred since 1945 — and biological and chemical first use which, especially chemical, continues to occur sporadically, whether by state or non-state actors. The further question of degree, as in “major attack”, only further muddies these already murky waters.

Use of chemical weapons

The dramatic assassination in Malaysia last month of North Korean Kim Jong-nam by the chemical agent VX, which was almost certainly orchestrated by elements within the North Korean state, adds another layer to questions about making sponsors of chemical attacks accountable. The ease with which deadly chemicals can be transported across state borders, as demonstrated by the assault, gives further pause. This is not to try to equate a political assassination with a military attack using chemical weapons. The fact remains, however, that the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention has succeeded in only partly making their use utterly reprehensible; their use is beyond the pale but will not alter the course of history in the manner that we expect will follow a nuclear explosion. Quite simply, there is a fairly strong norm governing the non-use of nuclear weapons; the norm against the use of chemical and biological weapons is still coalescing.


Despite being banned, chemical weapons have not gone away. They have cropped up frequently in Syria and Iraq, where their recent use has been attributed to the Islamic State. The murder of Kim Jong-nam was the stuff of a spy thriller: two young women approached the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and poisoned him with VX, a nerve agent so deadly that a drop on exposed skin is lethal. The execution was breathtaking in its simplicity: the women delivering the VX were apparently duped into believing they were taking part in a reality TV prank.

This was, however, not out of the pages of a spy thriller, but from the playbook of a regime that appears not to fear the consequences of using an internationally banned chemical substance for a political assassination on foreign soil. Analogous methods might be employed to use other chemical and biological weapons by other players. If a roughly similar attack were carried out against Indians, whether military personnel, politicians or indeed civilians, how would New Delhi define “major”? This is, of course, assuming India could definitely pin the blame on a state. It might be worth recalling that Bashar al-Assad used the nerve agent sarin against civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013, killing over 1,400 people. And yet, former President Barack Obama, having famously invoked a ‘red line’ about the movement of chemical weapons in the region in unprepared remarks a year earlier, eventually stepped back from a military response to that attack.

All the rhetoric issuing from Washington in the year between Mr. Obama’s statement on the red line and the Ghouta attack led observers within and away from Washington to expect punitive military action against Mr. Assad. However, at the very last moment (by some accounts, the day before the expected air strikes), Mr. Obama stopped short of authorising military action. A diplomatic solution was eventually found with the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin; Syria agreed to give up and dismantle a stockpile of 1,300 tonnes of chemical agents and acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (though Damascus’ adherence to the Convention has been patchy, to say the least).

By most standards, the surrendering and destruction of such a massive stockpile would be chalked up in the ‘success’ column of international diplomacy. Yet, Mr. Obama’s handling of Syria’s chemical weapons will remain a question mark, if not a blemish, on his foreign policy record. But had he not drawn that red line and still achieved the same results, the analysis would probably be quite different. For those inclined to criticise him, Mr. Obama had weakened American credibility by appearing to threaten military action and then walking away from it.

Credibility – that will-o’-the-wisp of international dealings upon which so much is said to rest — can be a straitjacket that limits a government’s options for creative diplomacy in times of crisis. Mr. Obama was able to step back in part because it soon became apparent that the American public had no appetite for military retribution for a chemical attack against foreigners on foreign soil. However, would New Delhi be able to resist popular pressure for decisive retaliation if Indians suffered a chemical or biological attack, especially when India appears to have committed itself to considering a nuclear response to such an attack?

A game changer

Nuclear weapons deter other nuclear weapons. To require them to do more is to imbue these weapons with even more political meaning than they now carry. This ultimate weapon is already a political force: from the limited number of states who can possess them, to the devastating generational and environmental consequences of their use, nukes are, in the late K. Subrahmanyam’s words, “the million pound note” that is not to be squandered lightly. That is why a policy of No First Use works well: it builds stability into deterrence by credibly promising nuclear retaliation in the face of extreme provocation of a nuclear first strike by one’s adversary. It promises to take both you and your adversary to the abyss and raises the cost of the adversary’s first strike immeasurably. That is all we need these weapons to do militarily.

At the end of the day, nuclear weapons are not just another weapon in the military toolkit but a game changer. The toolkit approach to deterrence treats them like different drill bits to ensure that one can drill the correct hole in whatever material one is attempting to breach. A nuclear strike, however, with all the attendant effects that go with the uncontrolled splitting of the atom is not the making of a hole but the bringing down of the entire wall. You don’t need different drill bits for this. And you need to be very clear that the action for which this is taken is worth the losing of the entire wall.

Priyanjali Malik is a London-based independent researcher focussing on security in the Indian subcontinent.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 1:08:07 PM |

Next Story