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Did India Change its Nuclear Doctrine?: Much Ado about Nothing

Vipin Narang is Assistant Professor at the MIT Department of Political Science.
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  • March 01, 2011

    A recent concern has broken out amongst some analysts that India has shifted its nuclear doctrine away from no first use. The publicly released summary of India’s 2003 official nuclear doctrine pledged “no first use” of nuclear weapons and an additional negative security assurance of “non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.”1 On 21 October 2010, India’s National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, gave a speech to the National Defence College in which the text employs the formulation that India’s nuclear doctrine emphasizes “no first use against non-nuclear weapons states.”2

    Some analysts—and, as of this writing, even the relevant Wikipedia entries!3 —have interpreted this phrasing as a sharp departure from India’s official 2003 nuclear doctrine. According to this interpretation, the qualification that India abides by a no first use policy against non-nuclear weapons states implies that it no longer adheres to a similar pledge against nuclear weapons states. That is, if India now pledges to abide by a no first use policy against only non-nuclear weapons states, it thereby suggests that it reserves the option to use nuclear weapons first against nuclear weapons states, including Pakistan and China. Indeed, several scholars from these latter two states have raised this very issue with me recently, arguing that the formulation represents a doctrinal shift toward a nuclear warfighting—as opposed to a purely retaliatory—posture.

    However, this is probably an erroneous interpretation for two reasons. First, the formulation is, in itself, consistent with India’s declaratory policy: India has always had a no first use policy against non-nuclear weapons states. So, the language is not ipso facto a departure from official policy—it is the qualification seemingly restricted, by implication, to non-nuclear weapons states that has triggered alarm. But, critically, the National Security Advisor did not state that India had abandoned its no first use policy for any subset of states. And if India were now attempting to deter conventional conflict by a nuclear-armed adversary by threatening the first use of nuclear weapons, deterrence logic requires that it would clearly have to make any such shift glaringly public. After all, to paraphrase a classic, what good is a Doomsday Machine if you keep it a secret? Such a sharp shift in declaratory nuclear doctrine would most likely be more explicit and certainly not be buried deep on the MEA website.

    Second, given that the surrounding context of the speech largely focuses on the minimal nature of India’s nuclear doctrine, it is unlikely that the National Security Advisor was attempting to boldly change the foundational core of India’s nuclear doctrine through subtle reformulations. Indeed, the most plausible explanation is that the NDC formulation was simply the product of an innocent typographical or lexical error in the text of the speech. The original 2003 clause was sometimes variously formulated as “no use against non-nuclear weapons states” and, given the context, it is likely that this was what the National Security Advisor was reiterating and emphasizing to the NDC. All the available evidence suggests that India does not discriminate between nuclear and non-nuclear states insofar as its no first use policy is concerned. Against non-nuclear weapons states, India’s nuclear doctrine continues to pledge a further negative security assurance that it will unconditionally refrain from using nuclear weapons against them. If one simply drops a single “first” from the text of the speech, it is perfectly consistent with India’s officially declared nuclear doctrine. Furthermore, with respect to no first use, on 11 January 2011, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao publicly used the traditional formulation that “India has a no-first use policy,” without qualification, suggesting that there has been no revision to India’s nuclear doctrine.4

    There is no question that India’s nuclear capabilities are evolving, particularly with respect to delivery vehicles and command and control procedures. But the striking feature of India’s nuclear posture has been the consistency with which it has adopted an assured retaliation orientation. All the capabilities that India has developed over the past decade, and is seeking to develop in the future, are designed to bolster either the ability to retaliate against a range of key strategic targets in its envisioned adversaries (e.g. the Agni III), or enhancing the assurance with which that retaliation would be meted (e.g. the future SSBN). If anything, there has been increasing consideration to de-emphasize the short-range Prithvi family for nuclear missions—the delivery system most suitable for nuclear warfighting roles—in order to enhance crisis stability, focusing instead on systems with truly strategic capabilities such as the Agni family for deterrence.5 In short, India’s core nuclear posture which emphasizes nuclear retaliation following WMD use on India or its forces seems to have largely persisted.

    Although there are some within India who might like to see it—and many outside, particularly in China and Pakistan, who are afraid that it might— move toward a nuclear warfighting posture, there is no evidence that it is contemplating doing so. There is certainly nothing publicly available to suggest that revisions are being made in stewardship or command and control procedures that would support a nuclear first use policy against any state. And, as noted earlier, nuclear deterrence logic requires that any shift to a first-use doctrine to deter conventional conflict by a nuclear-armed adversary must be transparent and publicly articulated. As such, any interpretations that India is moving toward a more aggressive nuclear doctrine based on parsing what is likely nothing more than an innocuous typographical error is almost certainly making much ado about nothing.