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There have again been speculations recently about India’s nuclear doctrine and the value of its no first-use-posture. The reason for the kerfuffle this time are a couple of sentences in former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s book, Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy. Menon writes,

There is a potential grey area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another NWS (nuclear weapons state). Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.

This has been interpreted to mean that India’s no-first-use posture is not credible, which would implicitly exonerate Delhi from the charge – if it is made – that it has quietly changed its nuclear doctrine. Instead, this understanding of Menon’s words suggests that the Indian no-first-use policy was a sham from the very beginning.

Menon also writes,

…proportional responses and deterrence were not the preferred posture in the initial stages of the weapons program, for it might tempt adversaries to test the space available below the threshold for full nuclear retaliation… Instead, the logical posture at first was counter-value targeting, or targeting the opponent’s assets, rather than counter-force targeting, which concentrates on the enemy’s military and command structures.

Here, the object of interrogation is the past tense (emphasis mine) that Menon uses; does he mean to indicate that India initially settled for a massive retaliation against an enemy’s cities but later may have surreptitiously modified its doctrine as its weapons systems became more sophisticated in terms of detection and destruction? However, the context of his objectionable grammar is the historical evolution of Indian nuclear thinking from the mid-1980s. Menon is talking about the inter-test years (1974-1998) when India had not publicly weaponised its peaceful nuclear explosion and therefore obviated the need for a nuclear doctrine.

However, the former NSA is not nuclear-shy once red lines have been crossed. As he explains the rationale,

There would be little incentive, once Pakistan had taken hostilities to the nuclear level, for India to limit its response, since that would only invite further escalation by Pakistan. India would hardly risk giving Pakistan the chance to carry out a massive nuclear strike after the Indian response to Pakistan using tactical nuclear weapons. In other worlds, Pakistani tactical nuclear weapon use would effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan.

Essentially, under India’s massive retaliation strategy, military as well as civilian targets would be considered. A purely counter-value massive retaliation by Delhi would leave Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal intact and capable of raining nuclear fire on Indian cities. The sudden realisation that the Indian military could potentially go after Pakistani nuclear assets as well as its infrastructure has caused a bit of a stir in some circles.

There are several problems with this sudden alarmist tone. The most obvious is that this is not a new observation. Aside from the fact that scholars have gleaned every nuance out of India’s nuclear policy already, the doctrine itself – what is publicly available – specifically states that its retaliation only policy is dynamic. In the words of the National Security Advisory Board,

India shall pursue a doctrine of credible minimum nuclear deterrence. In this policy of “retaliation only”, the survivability of our arsenal is critical. This is a dynamic concept related to the strategic environment, technological imperatives and the needs of national security. The actual size components, deployment and employment of nuclear forces will be decided in the light of these factors.

India’s policy is clearly stated to be to only retaliatory, which is again emphasised in the next section: “India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.” Nonetheless, this position is dynamic in that it is conceivable that imminent use of nuclear weapons against India – fuelling of missiles, field deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, delegation of launch authority – especially from a state that has repeatedly declared a willingness, almost an eagerness, to strike first with nuclear weapons, will be treated as an attack and liable for Indian retaliation. As many Indian strategists have wondered, what is the morality of awaiting certain destruction just to satisfy a dictionary definition of no-first-use?

Such use – anticipatory self defence – may not be to the satisfaction of semanticists but is nonetheless considered just under international law if it fulfills the criteria of the Caroline rule: instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation. Thus, as Menon himself noted, more flexibility – ambiguity? – has been built into the Indian nuclear doctrine than is realised. As a side note, it is interesting that the same Caroline rule that bears out Indian views on nuclear strikes objects to the dilution of NFU by extending it to chemical or biological weapons as India and other nuclear states have done.

The composition of India’s nuclear arsenal and its status should belie any fears about preemptive counter-force targetting. Most nuclear observers agree that the Indian arsenal is still rudimentary compared to mature nuclear states such as the United States, France, or China. By the benchmarks of those in whose footsteps it follows, India has conducted far fewer (hot) tests to confirm design parameters that would affect miniaturisation, maximise yield, or assure successful detonation in unconventional circumstances to be capable of precise, proportionate strikes. Although the exact composition of the Indian arsenal is classified, the mainstay may be assumed to be improved versions of its 1974 prototype that was tested again in 1998, a ~15 kT Hiroshima-style device and hardly an ideal choice for a surgical counter-force strike. The sub-kiloton designs, ideal for mating with the Brahmos missile for tactical strikes, are not as reliable as their larger brother. The real concern, then, and a more familiar one for Indians, is that their bureaucrats and politicians might be promising more than their military can actually deliver.

It is also worth noting that in regions with population density as high as in the Indian subcontinent, it is very difficult to achieve a purely counter-value or counter-force strike. Military bases are almost always near population centres or important infrastructural nodes out of necessity. Even if Delhi’s policy of massive retaliation was purely counter-value, it would inevitably damage or destroy vital military assets. Despite such collateral damage, the doctrine can then hardly be called counter-force. Yet, as the former NSA points out, it would be ludicrous to leave the enemy’s nuclear arsenal intact for the sake of doctrinal purity.

The newly rediscovered ambiguity in the Indian nuclear doctrine may perhaps carry more salience because not only does it come from a former official who had a large role in shaping Delhi’s nuclear policy but in view of certain “personal” comments former defence minister Manohar Parrikar recently made. Speaking at a book launch in Delhi in November 2016, the then defence minister calmly eschewed India’s no-first-use policy although he immediately clarified that there had been no change in government policy. With two former senior officials casting doubt on India’s intentions, should the international community consider Delhi’s NFU to be diluted?

It needs to be stressed that Menon merely explained India’s long-existing doctrine and did not reformulate it. With regard Parrikar’s comments, seen in their entirety, there can be no doubt that Indian nuclear policy has not changed. At most, the former defence minister’s comments indicate that there may be discussions going on in South Block in very small circles on updating India’s nuclear doctrine. Surely, this cannot be a surprise when the Bharatiya Janata Party had even announced its intention to do so in its election manifesto in 2014. Indeed, the present government may change India’s nuclear policy but it is absurd to expect that policies are static and eternal – especially when even nuclear warheads are upgraded.

Some observers have wondered at the opportune timing – the Nuclear Suppliers Group plenary is just around the corner in June – of a sudden panic attack on Indian nuclear no-first-use and counter-force posture. This is unlikely to have been a factor for several reasons: 1. the United States, India’s supporter in the forum with the most clout, does not seem willing to twist arms on India’s behalf as it did in 2008; 2. India has found it difficult to bring into its confidence the several smaller states on the moral high horse; 3. China would be relied upon to veto Indian membership in the consensus-seeking group unless Pakistan were simultaneously admitted. The strategic dimension of NSG membership in South Asia should not be underestimated.

So if not a shift in doctrine, has there been a change in strategy? With improving capabilities, it would be myopic not to expect refinements in strategy. However, none of it – the apprehension about anticipatory self-defence or counter-force targetting – adds up to a new phase in Indian nuclear posture. The nuclear doctrine has long offered these options and at best, India’s material realities might be quietly catching up with its lofty ambitions. No matter, this whole affair has been an exercise in making mountains out of molehills.


This post appeared on FirstPost on March 23, 2017.

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