India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Need for a Review

Reluctant Member of the Nuclear Club

Faced with the prospect of having to confront nuclear-armed China and Pakistan, with both of which it had fought wars over unresolved territorial disputes, India conducted a series of nuclear tests at Pokhran, Rajasthan, on May 11 and 13, 1998, and declared itself a state armed with nuclear weapons. Before crossing the nuclear Rubicon, India had sought but had been denied international guarantees that nuclear weapons would not be used against it. As India was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, the country did not violate any treaty obligations.

It is well accepted in India that nuclear weapons are political weapons and not weapons of warfighting and that their sole purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by India’s adversaries. This was reflected in a statement made by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in Parliament in May 1998: “India is now a nuclear weapon state.... We do not intend to use these weapons for aggression or for mounting threats against any country; these are weapons of self-defence, to ensure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion.”

Until the May 1998 nuclear tests, almost nothing was known about India’s nuclear doctrine and force structure in the public domain. A draft nuclear doctrine was prepared by the National Security Advisory Board chaired by the late K. Subrahmanyam and handed over to the government on August 17, 1999.

After a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, the government issued a statement on January 4, 2003, spelling out India’s nuclear doctrine and the operationalization of its nuclear deterrent. The salient features of the government statement included the following: India will build and maintain a credible minimum deterrent; follow a no-first-use posture; and will use nuclear weapons only “in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.” It was also affirmed that nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage; retaliatory attacks will be authorized only by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority; nuclear weapons will not be used against nonnuclear weapon states; and India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons in the event of a major attack against it with biological or chemical weapons.

Ashley Tellis, well-known South Asia analyst, has written that India’s nuclear doctrine is “fundamentally conservative…” and that India’s retaliatory nuclear strike “is likely to…maintain its traditionally strict system of civilian control over all strategic assets; minimise the costs of maintaining a nuclear deterrent at high levels of operational readiness routinely; and, maximise the survivability of its relatively modest nuclear assets….” (“India’s Emerging Nuclear Doctrine: Exemplifying the Lessons of the Nuclear Revolution,” NBR Analysis, May 2001.)

Recent Calls for Review

In the decade since the nuclear doctrine was unveiled by the government, several organizations and individuals have commented on it. Some of them have been critical of the no-first-use (NFU) posture. Among them, Bharat Karnad (author of Nuclear Weapons and India’s Security [Macmillan, 2004]) has consistently questioned the NFU posture. He has written: “NFU may be useful as political rhetoric and make for stability in situations short of war. But as a serious war-planning predicate, it is a liability. NFU is not in the least credible, because it requires India to first absorb a nuclear attack before responding in kind.”

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh, while speaking at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, on April 2, 2014, called for a global “no-first-use” norm. He said, “States possessing nuclear weapons…(must) quickly move to the establishment of a global no-first-use norm….” This was followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promising in its election manifesto to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times…” and to “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostrategic realities.”

Some BJP leaders hinted that the NFU posture would also be reviewed. However, sensing the international criticism that was bound to follow, Narendra Modi, BJP’s candidate for prime minister, emphasized that there would be “no compromise” on no first use. Regardless of election-time rhetoric, it is necessary that important government policies must be reviewed periodically with a view to examining and revalidating their key features.

Criticism of the nuclear doctrine has mainly been centered on a few key issues: NFU may result in unacceptably high initial casualties and damage to Indian population, cities, and infrastructure; “massive” retaliation is not credible, especially against a tactical nuclear strike on Indian forces on the adversary’s own territory; nuclear retaliation for chemical or biological attack would be illogical, especially as the attack may be by nonstate actors; and it would be difficult to determine what constitutes a “major” chemical or biological strike.

Most recently, Lt. Gen. B.S. Nagal (Ret.), former commander in chief, Strategic Forces Command, and later head of the Strategic Planning Staff at the National Security Council Secretariat, has questioned the efficacy of the NFU doctrine. According to him, “It is time to review our policy of NFU…(the) choices are ambiguity or first use.” He gives six main reasons for seeking a change: NFU implies acceptance of large-scale destruction in a first strike; the Indian public is not in sync with the government’s NFU policy and the nation is not psychologically prepared; it would be morally wrong—the leadership has no right to place the population “in peril”; NFU allows the adversary’s nuclear forces to escape punishment as retaliatory strikes will have to be counter value in nature; an elaborate and costly ballistic missile defense (BMD) system would be required to defend against a first strike; and escalation control is not possible once nuclear exchanges begin. (“Checks and Balances,” Force, June 2014.)

The proponents of NFU agree with the government’s policy and offer persuasive arguments in its favor: India’s strategic restraint posture has provided major gains internationally, including the lifting of economic sanctions and the removal of technology denial regimes, civil nuclear cooperation agreements, and accommodation in multilateral nuclear export control regimes. Most of these will be frittered away if India opts for first use; complex command and control and sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems are necessary for a first-use posture; a first-use posture will deny India the opportunity to engage in conventional warfare below the nuclear threshold; first use will lower the nuclear threshold and make the use of tactical nuclear weapons more likely; and South Asia will again be dubbed a “nuclear flashpoint,” which will encourage international meddling and discourage investment.

However, the acid test of whether or not the NFU posture is justified should be to test it against the yardstick of military operations during war. The likely circumstances in which first use may be considered appropriate by its advocates and the counter arguments of its proponents are discussed briefly below.

The most common scenarios include first use by way of preemption based on intelligence warning or during launch on warning or launch through attack. In all of these, there are no easy answers to some obvious questions: What if intelligence regarding an imminent first strike is wrong? The (non)existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is a good example. Which targets will be hit in a first strike? Counter value or counter force or both? Is the destruction of the adversary’s cities justified on suspicion of imminent launch? In either case, the adversary’s surviving nuclear weapons will be employed to successfully target major Indian cities. Would it be worthwhile risking the destruction of Delhi, Mumbai, and other cities in Kenneth Waltz’s words “in the military pursuit of problematic gains”? (“Does India Need the Bomb,” The Times of India, January 26, 2000.)

Major military reverses are also said to justify the first use of nuclear weapons. In the land battle, the worst-case scenarios include the cutting off of the Pathankot-Jammu national highway NH-1A somewhere near Samba; an ingress by the Pakistan army over the forward obstacle system in Punjab or Rajasthan; and a major incursion into the Thar Desert. In none of these scenarios is the situation likely to become so critical as to justify escalation to nuclear levels by way of a first strike, as sufficient reserves are available to restore an adverse situation. Similarly, if an aircraft carrier and one submarine are destroyed or an important airbase with nuclear-capable aircraft is severely damaged, a first strike would not be justified. Hence, it emerges quite clearly that India’s NFU posture was justified when it was first announced and remains appropriate even today.

Deterrence is ultimately a mind game. The essence of deterrence is that it must not be allowed to break down. India’s nuclear doctrine must enhance and not undermine nuclear deterrence. The NFU posture remains feasible for India’s nuclear doctrine. However, the word “massive” in the government statement should be substituted with “punitive” as massive is not credible and limits retaliatory options. The threat of nuclear retaliation against chemical and biological attack should be dropped from the doctrine as it is impractical. Also, the credibility of India’s nuclear doctrine needs to be substantially enhanced through a skillfully drawn signaling plan.

Gurmeet Kanwal is a Delhi-based adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Gurmeet Kanwal