India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Is it moving from ‘no first use’ to ambiguity?

Gurmeet Kanwal
Gurmeet KanwalAug 21, 2019 | 11:58

India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Is it moving from ‘no first use’ to ambiguity?

While visiting Pokhran recently, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said though India is committed to the nuclear doctrine of ‘no first use’, “What happens in the future depends on the circumstances.” Later, he tweeted the same thing.


Earlier, speaking at the launch of The New Arthashastra: A Security Strategy for India, a book on India’s national security strategy, Manohar Parrikar, one of Rajnath Singh’s predecessors as the Defence Minister, had said that there should be an element of unpredictability in the country’s military strategy.

Former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had advocated an element of unpredictability in India’s military strategy. (Photo: Reuters)

Doing some thinking aloud while answering a question, he wondered whether India’s nuclear doctrine should be constrained by a ‘no first use’ posture. He mentioned the advantages of unpredictability and said, “If a written strategy exists… you are giving away your strength. Why should India bind itself (to no first use)? India is a responsible nuclear power and… (it should suffice to say that) we will not use nuclear weapons irresponsibly.”

The essence of the former Defence Minister’s introspection was that ambiguity enhances deterrence. This view has been expressed by several nuclear strategists. However, he emphasised several times that there was no change in India’s nuclear doctrine and that he was expressing a personal view. While he was criticised, there can be no doubt that fresh thinking is invaluable to the discourse on the subject.


There is no justification for the belief held by some that the nuclear doctrine should be debated only in government circles and not in public. Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, Thomas Schelling et al and, nearer home, K Subrahmanyam, Jasjit Singh and several others have made sterling contributions to advancing thought on nuclear deterrence.

With a pacifist strategic culture steeped in Gandhian non-violence, India is a reluctant nuclear power. Indians have tended to believe that nuclear weapons are political weapons, not weapons of war-fighting; and, their sole purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. India’s nuclear doctrine is built around ‘credible minimum deterrence’ and professes a ‘no first use’ posture.

India’s nuclear doctrine is built around ‘credible minimum deterrence’. (Photo: Reuters)

As a corollary, India is willing to absorb the damage that a nuclear first strike may cause and has declared its intention to launch massive retaliation to cause unacceptable damage in return. Consequently, India follows a policy of deterrence by punishment through a counter value targeting strategy aimed at the destruction of the adversary’s major cities and industrial centres.

A doctrine is a set of beliefs and principles that guide the actions of military forces in support of a nation’s objectives. According to Carl Von Clausewitz (On War): “Doctrine is a guide to anyone who wants to learn about war from books: it will light their way, ease their progress, train their judgement and help them to avoid pitfalls. Doctrine is meant to educate the minds of future commanders... not to accompany them to the battlefields.”


Nuclear doctrines are not written in stone and are never absolutely rigid. They are not binding international treaties that must be adhered to in letter and spirit. The purpose of doctrine is partly declaratory – that is, to enhance deterrence by making public one’s intentions; partly to provide the basis for organising a country’s nuclear force structure, including the command and control system; and, partly to reassure one’s own people and, where applicable, one’s allies.

If deterrence breaks down, publicly declared doctrine becomes irrelevant and goes out of the window. During a crisis involving nuclear exchanges, the essence of national military strategy would lie in preventing escalation and minimising civilian and military casualties and material damage while ensuring the survival of the state.

In India’s scheme of things, the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) will decide how to retaliate to a nuclear strike based on the advice given by the Executive Council, of which the army, navy and air force chiefs are members. The method and mode of the retaliation will take into account the prevailing operational-strategic situation and the likely responses of the adversary, especially the probability of further nuclear exchanges. The assessment will also include the reactions of the international community — the threats held out, the appeals made and the course of the discussions held in the United Nations Security Council.

Sixteen years have passed since India’s nuclear doctrine was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) after reviewing the progress in the operationalisation of nuclear deterrence. The doctrine was enunciated in the government of India statement issued on January 4, 2003.

Since then, many new developments have taken place, including the development of ‘full spectrum deterrence’ by Pakistan. Hence, a review of the nuclear doctrine is long overdue. In fact, a review should be carried out every five years. In its manifesto for the elections of May 2014, the BJP had promised such a review, but no move appears to have been made in this direction so far.

Credible minimum deterrence and the posture of ‘no first use’ have stood the test of time. There is no conceivable operational contingency that justifies a first strike, because it is guaranteed to result in the destruction of several great cities when the adversary retaliates with the nuclear forces that he will still have left in his kitty after absorbing India’s first strike.

India’s declaratory strategy is that of massive retaliation. Ideally, the retaliatory strategy should have been “punitive retaliation… to inflict unacceptable damage”, as envisaged in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of August 17, 1999, prepared by the first National Security Advisory Board headed by K Subrahmanyam. This would have permitted flexible response that offers a range of options.

India’s declaratory strategy is that of massive retaliation. (Photo: Reuters)

However, massive retaliation is a viable deterrence strategy that has served India well; any change now would not be beneficial. It would even deter Pakistani plans to use tactical nuclear warheads (TNWs) against Indian forces on Pakistani soil as they cannot possibly risk massive retaliation that would result in the destruction of all major cities and lead to the end of Pakistan as a cohesive nation state.

However, the credibility of massive retaliation needs to be enhanced through a carefully formulated signalling plan. Signalling should be based on an elaborate plan designed to showcase the preparedness of India’s nuclear forces and the firmness of its political will.

So, is India’s nuclear doctrine gradually moving from ‘no first use’ towards ambiguity — as several Western scholars have deduced from the statements made by the two Defence Ministers and others luminaries who have served in the nuclear command and control system? Probably not, as the doctrine is fundamentally sound.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was possibly sending a simple but blunt message to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan who had held out the threat of nuclear war over Kashmir: Don’t threaten India with nuclear weapons; we too have them and are prepared to use them as we consider appropriate.

Last updated: August 21, 2019 | 12:01
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