What is the truth about India's No First Use nuclear strike policy?

The nuclear doctrine is robust. It requires no review.

 |  5-minute read |   24-03-2017
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At a recently held Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, the issue at center-stage was whether India was tweaking its stated nuclear doctrine based on No First Use (NFU) backed by massive retaliation by a pre-emptive strike doctrine in the face of imminent nuclear strike by the adversary.

The point in debate related to former national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon's purported claim in his book that India’s nuclear doctrine has a potential grey area in the use of nuclear weapons against another NWS (nuclear weapons state). He has articulated that the circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, if India was certain that an adversary’s launch was imminent.

These remarks come in the backdrop of earlier comments of former defence minister Manohar Parrikar who contended (in his personal capacity) that India should make its nuclear policy ambiguous by not declaring whether it has NFU policy.

These remarks read in conjunction with the earlier contention of Lt-Gen BS Nagal, former Commander in Chief of Indian Strategic Forces, wherein he has questioned NFU doctrine by positing whether it was possible for India’s leadership to accept huge casualties by restraining its hand, well knowing that Pakistan was about to use nuclear weapons.

Western nuclear analysts have interpreted these remarks as a major doctrinal shift in terms of India moving away from its stated doctrine of massive retaliation to a pre-emptive strike. Logic being that were India to make a determination of imminence of nuclear strike by Pakistan in a conventionally adverse situation, it will not hesitate to pre-empt by its own counterforce strike aimed at taking out its deployed systems.

These contentions and their interpretation raise two fundamental issues. One that there is a shifting belief in Indian nuclear establishment about the viability of India’s nuclear doctrine. Even more important is the fact that pre-emption under circumstances of imminent use is a preferred option.

pakistan-embed_032417015806.jpg The logic of the Indian doctrine lies in dissuading use of nuclear weapons. Photo: Reuters

India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine is based on the concept of NFU backed by a policy of assured massive retaliation. The overall aim is to convince any potential aggressor that:

1) Threat or use of nuclear weapons against India shall involve measures to counter the threat; and

2) Any nuclear attack on India and its forces anywhere shall result in massive retaliation, inflicting unacceptable damage to the aggressor.

Following from the above, it is clear that the Indian doctrine is based on the concept of deterrence by denial. This in turn implies to put the adversary on notice that use of nuclear weapons will imply massive retaliation. The doctrine purposely leaves vague the nature of retaliation and even what constitutes massive.

It follows from above the doctrinal rational is to send a clear message to military-led Pakistani NCA that, be assured of Indian retaliation and more importantly it makes no distinction regarding nature of nuclear weapons, be it tactical or strategic, leaving no chance of misperception on the adversary’s mind. It is further implied that once the nuclear deterrence breaks down, all bets are off.

Therefore the logic of the Indian doctrine lies in dissuading use of nuclear weapons and not as implied by some above for retaliation either pre-emptive or as a riposte.

In a number of strategic gaming exercises, with Pakistan and others in critical contingencies, there is a great degree of posturing of shallow thresholds but seldom has the Pakistani side ventured actual use.

Yet, another aspect is that given the credibility of vastly improved Indian ISR, we will get a fair degree of warning about Pakistani deployments as indeed Pakistan would be ably assisted by its all-weather friend, China.

Thus a state of advanced or even hair-trigger alert is going to prevail when such a pre-emptive use would be contemplated. This means that in the event of deterrence breakdown by either side there would be an immediate response.

Strike calculations based on simulations highlight that it is virtually impossible to take out all weapons through a pre–emptive strike, more so in the case of India-Pakistan where precision strikes are constrained by the accuracies of geo-reference systems.

Under the circumstances, a launch on warning type of pre-emptive strike to degrade opponents' nuclear capability is foolhardy, to say the least.

Given the aforementioned logic, political countenance of a massive pre-emptive strike is unlikely and runs the risk of escalation. Cold War history points out that pretensions of massive strikes to pre-empt Soviet Union attack on continental US would have resulted in massive Russian retaliation, engulfing the entire European continent into radioactive clouds.

Efficacy of credible pre-emptive strike is too much of a chance unless the country is prepared for an all-out nuclear war. Such a chance both Indian and Pakistani leadership are unlikely to take.

It follows therefore that Indian NFU doctrine is robust, credible and dissuasive to prevent the adversary from acting foolishly. Having been in nuclear dialogue with Pakistani generals for the last five years, it can be said with credibility that cold logic applies in their calculations not impulsiveness.

In short, these presumptions or assumptions of Indian doctrinal changes are speculative at best and not based on analysis or functional understanding of its core beliefs.

In short, the Indian nuclear doctrine requires no change or review.

Also read: Pakistan will not get into a nuclear war with India that easily

Writer

Arun Sahgal Arun Sahgal @brigarunsahgal

Founder Director Net Assessment, Integrated Defence Staff, Ministry of Defence. Presently Senior Fellow Delhi Policy Group.

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