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With the release of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto on April 07, a spurious news story appeared in Reuters that claimed that the BJP was reconsidering India’s nuclear “no first use” policy. The article does not attribute the information to anyone, except to say that “sources involved in drafting the [manifesto]” revealed the NFU policy to be under consideration. The BJP’s manifesto, for its part, only states that the Party plans to study, revise, and update India’s nuclear doctrine to make it relevant to current challenges – a reasonable goal, considering that the present policy was formed over a decade ago. While some have recoiled in horror at the suggestion, it is hard to imagine the abnegation of NFU as a destabiliser in South Asia amidst the already volatile situation.

India’s present position on NFU was adopted soon after its Shakti nuclear tests in 1998. The Draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine (1999) commits the country’s nuclear arsenal to a purely retaliatory function and a posture of credible minimum deterrence (2.3). The doctrine also states that India will not threaten use or use nuclear weapons against states that do not possess nuclear weapons of their own and are not part of a nuclear alliance with another power (2.5).

There has been some criticism that India’s continuing advances in missile technology and production of fissile material indicates a departure from the stated posture of credible minimum deterrence. However, the doctrine clearly explains that ‘minimum’ is a dynamic concept that is dependent upon technological imperatives and the strategic environment (2.3). Furthermore, India ensures credibility by maintaining “sufficient, survivable, and operationally prepared nuclear forces” along with a “robust command and control system,” intelligence, planning, and training (2.6). Finally, the DIND seeks credibility in second strike capability, a goal achieved by maintaining a nuclear triad (3.1).

As of the present, India and China remain the only two nuclear weapons states that have an explicit NFU policy, though there have been some doubts about China’s nuclear posture in the past couple of years. No other NWS – Britain, France, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, or the United States – gives such a guarantee. Understandably, some strategists in India have asked why Delhi should remain an outlier in this regard.

It is worth considering under what circumstances India would be provoked into using or threatening the use of nuclear weapons to understand the utility of NFU. The most obvious situation is to respond to an opponent from using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons against India. In fact, not doing so would indelibly destroy all credibility in the Indian deterrent. The NFU commits India to the development of a second strike capability that can survive any nuclear strike by an enemy. Ironically, the NFU that is intended to dampen nuclear zeal fuels it by way of the pursuit of technology to miniaturise nuclear warheads, develop launch capabilities from the sea, and mating multiple warheads onto a single missile.

A second reason to use nuclear weapons would be to preempt an enemy’s imminent CBRN – chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear – strike against Indian assets. This is not outside the scope of the DIND: Section 2.3(a) states that appropriate measures shall be invoked to counter even the threat of release of nuclear weapons. Critics persuasively argue that a preemptive nuclear strike will convert a potential enemy first strike on India into an assured attack; therefore, “appropriate measures” should not include a nuclear preemption. However, supporters of a preemptive strike argue equally persuasively that it is equally if not more immoral for India to stand by and absorb the first strike at the cost of critical infrastructure or the lives of tens of thousands of its citizens.

A third circumstance for the use of nuclear weapons would be to retard a massive conventional onslaught. This is unlikely in India’s case: despite the sorry state of its military, India maintains a theoretical conventional superiority over Pakistan. Against China, India is aided by the treacherous terrain of the Himalayas. If China can move tens of thousands of soldiers with tanks and artillery support across the rooftop of the world and into the Gangetic plains, a NFU would be the least of the things ailing Indian defence.

A fourth use would be, of course, the fantasy “splendid first strike.” The term was coined by Herman Kahn to describe a situation when a state could preemptively strike its opponent and eliminate its war-fighting potential or at the very least significantly degrade it by destroying the enemy nuclear arsenal. This scenario, eschewed even by Hollywood, is plagued by uncertainty of success and the consequences of failure. Part of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is road-mobile, making up-to-date intelligence very difficult and the window to act on it minuscule.

There are many arguments in favour of the NFU. One is that it strengthens the Non-Proliferation Treaty by giving fewer reasons for member states to rethink their decision to accede to the treaty. While caution is certainly advisable regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it is difficult to support a treaty that institutionalises what Indian diplomat VM Trivedi called nuclear apartheid; as long as the Nuclear 5 do not take their Article VI disarmament obligations seriously, the NPT stands on weak legs.

Another argument in favour of NFU is that the use of nuclear weapons weakens the nuclear taboo. In a state of crisis, however, one suspects that the weight given to nuclear customs is not much. If such is the faith put in the psychological status of leaders during wartime, an argument can also be made to reverse effect that the use of tactical nuclear weapons will not spiral out of control and that escalation dominance can be achieved.

A third reason to maintain NFU is that in a crisis, a potential first strike gives the enemy less reason to hold back on its punitive strikes against India. Fearing a first strike by India, a weaker state like Pakistan would have an incentive to strike first before an Indian strike destroyed a substantial part of its nuclear arsenal. Though theoretically sound, this argument fails in the South Asian context because Pakistan has made it abundantly clear that in any conflict with India, nuclear weapons would not be their weapons of last resort but of first response. Islamabad’s subscription to this dangerous, low-threshold tripwire is fuelled by Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth geographically to absorb, halt, and repulse an Indian invasion. Thus, any potential benefits of crisis stability are washed away.

A fourth point made in favour of NFU is that such a policy obviates the need for complex command & control systems, tactical nuclear weapons, and strategies for fighting a nuclear war. This seems like wishful thinking. The lack of readiness to fight a nuclear war erodes the credibility of nuclear deterrence, and tactical nuclear weapons may just as easily be used in a second strike against smaller counterforce targets; once war has been undertaken, no peace is made by pretending there is no war.

Ultimately, NFU is a declaratory policy that cannot be verified. Some have suggested that India’s recessed deterrence – the de-mating of nuclear warheads from missiles – provides sufficient verification of Delhi’s continued adherence to NFU. However, de-mated warheads are difficult to maintain once India’s sea leg of the triad becomes operational. A purely declaratory NFU holds little meaning for a cynical and suspicious enemy; the policy can be violated and rationalisations found just as easily as NFU can be declared.

In face of a conventionally superior opponent, NFU might make little sense. Israel and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation serve as such examples. However, India is not in such a position – Pakistan is conventionally weaker and China is kept at bay by geography. Nonetheless, on the battlefield, India has little to gain by adopting a no first use policy. Given Delhi’s problematic policy of massive retaliation, it has nothing to lose either.

What little benefit might be accrued to India comes in the realm of diplomacy. A NFU posture is seen as a sign of maturity and responsibility – strategic weakness and restraint usually are – and an Indian commitment to NFU bolsters its image as a restrained and serious power in contrast to a reckless Pakistan.

Given the negligible benefits of abandoning NFU, it is unlikely that the BJP will do so despite the rumours. If the BJP is serious about bolstering India’s nuclear deterrence, it might start by heeding Lt. Gen. BM Kapur’s words: “If range, target, yield, and mobility of nuclear weapons are made known to the enemy, that is the beginning of deterrence. Openness is itself deterrence.” Or to put in pop culture terms, “the whole point of a Doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret.” By abandoning NFU, the BJP will not make India any safer. Its only achievement will be the exposure of hapless newspaper readers to endless apocalyptic editorials about India and its nuclear programme.


‡: The DIND formed the basis of the Indian Nuclear Doctrine that was adopted in January 2003. However, the text of the IND has not been made public.

This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on April 08, 2014.