Since the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945 there has been an ongoing debate centred on defining an appropriate role for nuclear weapons. Everybody agrees that these weapons are enormously destructive and should not be used. The question is whether the best way to prevent their use is to consider these as weapons for war fighting (just like conventional weapons but only more destructive), or to see them as qualitatively different, meant exclusively for deterrence. Different countries possessing nuclear weapons have evolved their doctrines based on the historical experiences shaping their world views, their threat perceptions and security obligations.
Indian conceptualisation of weapons
India is no exception and on January 4, 2003, it issued a statement regarding the decisions taken by the Cabinet Committee on Security on operationalising India’s Nuclear Doctrine. This statement summarised the key principles: “a) building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent; b) posture of ‘No First Use’, nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere; c) nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage; d) non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states; however, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons....”
The two key elements — a “credible minimum deterrent” and “no first use” — were first articulated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Parliament on May 27, 1998, days after India had undertaken a series of five nuclear tests in Pokhran and declared itself a nuclear weapon state. Mr. Vajpayee stated that India did not see nuclear weapons as weapons of war; that their role was to ensure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion; that India will not engage in an arms race; and that India believes in a “no first use” policy and remains ready to discuss this with other countries, bilaterally or in a collective forum. These elements were further developed in the draft report of the National Security Advisory Board released by then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra on August 17, 1999.
The 2003 statement, with some minor (but significant) changes, was consistent with what India had maintained since 1998. These were reiterated in Parliament on September 5, 2008 by the then External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and were critical to the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s decision to grant an exceptional waiver to India.
The BJP manifesto in 2014 had declared that it would “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine and revise and update it, to make it relevant to the challenges of current times, (and) maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostrategic realities”. This generated speculation that India was preparing to change its “no first use” policy but it was put to rest in August 2014 when in a series of interviews, Prime Minister Narendra Modi categorically stated that there was no change in policy and “no first use” remained India’s nuclear doctrine.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s unexpected response to a journalist at a book launch function in Delhi on November 10, 2016, reopened the issue when he said about India’s no-first-use policy: “Why should I bind myself [to it]? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it (a nuclear weapon) irresponsibly.” He added that these were his individual views, but since he is a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security as also a member of the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority, the Ministry of Defence felt it necessary to follow up with a statement that this “was his personal opinion”, and not official position: “What he said was that India, being a responsible power, should not get into a first use debate”.
Debating the ‘No First Use’
A nuclear doctrine serves multiple uses — it determines the nuclear posture, provides guidance for deployment and targeting, chain of command and control, communication and signalling to adversary and, in the ultimate, the use of nuclear weapons. Naturally, the last would happen once deterrence has failed. So far, the nuclear triad (aircraft, land-based mobile missiles and sea-based assets) which is to guarantee India’s assured retaliation remains a work in progress. Mobility for the land-based missiles is being ensured through canisterisation but the sea leg of the triad will take time before India is able to field adequate numbers of nuclear submarines with long-range nuclear-tipped missiles (SSBNs and SSNs). Some delays are inevitable as we seek to master the complex technologies involved.
India’s doctrine does not mention any country, but it is no secret that the Indian nuclear arsenal is to counter threats from China and Pakistan. China has maintained a ‘no first use’ policy since 1964 when it went nuclear, and the Chinese leadership has always considered nuclear weapons as political weapons.
Pakistan has adopted a first-use policy to ensure full-spectrum deterrence; in other words, it envisages a tactical, operational and strategic role for its nuclear weapons. Since it maintains that its nuclear arsenal is exclusively against India, it seeks to counter India’s conventional superiority at all levels. Recently, it has developed tactical nuclear weapons to hedge against a conventional military strike under the Cold Start doctrine.
The conventional criticism against a ‘no first use’ policy is that India would have to suffer a first strike before it retaliated. This criticism is valid but only highlights the need for India to ensure that deterrence does not fail, and that there is a clear communication to the adversary of the certainty of punitive nuclear retaliation. This can happen when India’s nuclear arsenal, its delivery systems and its command and control enjoy assured survivability.
Does this imply that till then, it is preferable for India to shift to a first-use policy? That might be an attractive option if India was certain that in a first strike, it could take out all of Pakistan’s (or China’s) nuclear assets so that it would escape any nuclear retaliation. That is highly unlikely, today and in the future. Even the U.S. with its vast arsenal, both conventional and nuclear, is unsure about denuclearising North Korea which has a much smaller arsenal and capability.
Implications of a policy change
Shifting to a first-use policy also has implications for the size of the arsenal, deployment posture, alert levels, delegation of command and control, defining redlines which would trigger a nuclear response and escalation management along the nuclear ladder. In short, it would mark a shift from deterrence towards nuclear war fighting. Further, declaring a first-use policy would create an incentive for either side for pre-emption because of the ‘use it or lose it’ syndrome brought on by hair trigger alerts. In short, it would lead to greater instability. The same instability would govern a situation of nuclear ambiguity. Given the short distances, it is impractical for India to envisage a ‘launch on warning’ posture even it developed and deployed a highly effective early warning system.
A shift towards nuclear war fighting also blurs the dividing line between conventional and nuclear. Today, the biggest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal is the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) with an explosive yield of 15 tonnes equivalent of TNT. This is one-thousandth of the 16kt bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and today’s nuclear devices are hundreds of times larger. Tactical nuclear weapons can be smaller but will remain much larger than the MOP, with the addition of long-lasting radiation fallout. Weapons designers are working on ‘dial-a-yield’ systems and pure fusion devices without radiation fallout, but till that time, blurring the nuclear and conventional dividing line is inadvisable.
The difference with Pakistan
There is another key difference. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is totally under the military’s control, and by and large, the military approach to any weapon system is to find a use for it; it is difficult for the military to possess a weapon system and then conceive of a doctrine that aims at deterring its use.
Deterrence is a product of ‘technical capability’ and ‘political will’. In dealing with Pakistan, India has to define who is to be deterred and find ways of demonstrating the requisite political will even as we build up our technical capabilities. Israel is a classic example of a state possessing advanced technical capabilities and also having demonstrated political will. Yet, this has failed to deter rocket strikes and terror attacks on Israeli territory.
This is not to suggest that India’s nuclear doctrine cannot be changed. It should be periodically reviewed and updated, possibly every decade or so, taking into account technological developments and changes in the security environment. This is, however, not a simple issue of changing a few words here or there and casual remarks can only add to confusion.
Ultimately, deterrence is a mental construct which requires clarity in its planning. Even ambiguity needs to be a calculated ambiguity. Only then will the doctrine serve to reassure the Indian people even as it deters the adversary in order to safeguard India’s security.
Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat and served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014; he is presently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.