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India’s ‘No First Use’ Nuclear Doctrine

Dr Rajiv Nayan is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • September 16, 2019

    The August 16 statement of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has once again brought India’s ‘no first use’ (NFU) nuclear doctrine into the limelight. This was his first public statement on the issue after he assumed charge as Defence Minister in the second government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reelected in May 2019.

    Earlier in November 2016, then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had also made a statement on India’s NFU policy, 1 which was twisted by sections of the media. Parrikar became a victim of an uninformed media trial. What he stated had been in discussion among sections of the strategic community for a long time. The idea of doctrinal change was mute but not completely absent during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government. As the UPA Government was committed to mainstreaming India in the nuclear non-proliferation regime, any down blending of NFU policy was considered akin to diluting India’s image as a responsible state. Although mainstreaming India in the global non-proliferation regime was an important task, the Indian policy making process failed to strike a balance between foreign policy and security imperatives.

    Parrikar had merely articulated the subdued sense of unease prevalent in the strategic community, which gradually realised that the nuclear doctrine proclaimed just after the 1998 Shakti series of tests, basically to mollify the hostile international public opinion, needed a relook. A section of the armed forces was also in favour of reviewing the NFU doctrine. However, there were reservations among sections of the diplomatic community on the issue. The UPA regime thus was clearly hesitant to review India’s NFU doctrine.  

    It was finally the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which in its 2014 election manifesto promised to “study in detail India's nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” The BJP, however, was careful in formulating its intention to revise the doctrine. The manifesto for instance did not specifically refer to the ‘no first use’, though it was generally thought that the BJP Government will change the NFU doctrine to please the armed forces lobby.  

    The Modi Government in its first term did not take much initiative towards revising the nuclear doctrine. Instead, the government chose the status-quo despite frequent Pakistani provocations. In fact, Pakistan continued to blackmail the world by threatening to introduce nuclear weapons if India took any step in this regard.

    This leads to the question, whether Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s August 16 statement signifies a move towards revision of the nuclear doctrine? To be precise, he stated that “Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘no first use’. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” 2 He was clearly not stating anything unusual. In fact, he was categorical that NFU is India’s nuclear policy. An unnecessary controversy, however, erupted relating to the second part of his statement.  

    The thinking behind “what happens in future depends on the circumstances” is also reflected in the text of the official doctrine released by the Government of India on January 04, 2003. The press release issued at the time informed that the Cabinet Committee on Security has reviewed “the existing command and control structures, the state of readiness, the targeting strategy for a retaliatory attack, and operating procedures for various stages of alert and launch.” 3

    The review of the operationalisation of the nuclear doctrine was done and aspects of the doctrine were delineated in January 2003. What is implicit in a review process is revisiting of the existing arrangement and if required, changes are recommended and undertaken. The review may also entail maintaining the status-quo if the existing arrangement is found in order. The January 2003 document was India’s first official pronouncement regarding its nuclear doctrine, though components of the doctrine were earlier announced by the government on different occasions after India became a nuclear weapons power in 1998.  

    The role of a review is fundamental to the doctrines of the nuclear weapons countries. The United States (US) has its famous Nuclear Posture Review(NPR) which led to the induction of the term ‘sole purpose’ of the US nuclear weapons – implying US nuclear weapons’ sole purpose is to deter enemy nuclear weapons, which was a change from the earlier warfighting posture of the US nuclear doctrine. The 2018 NPR envisaged the use of nuclear weapons relating to the new scenarios. Similarly, the Soviet Union had conducted a review of its nuclear doctrine in the late 1960s and thereafter as well. The Russian Federation too adjusted the country’s nuclear doctrine to the changed circumstances. China is also reviewing its nuclear doctrine by bringing in new command and control elements. Nuclear doctrines across the world have been a dynamic, and not a static, phenomenon. 

    Quite naturally, the current Indian Government is free to review and suggest or not to suggest changes in its nuclear doctrine on the basis of ‘circumstances’, which signify a changed strategic or security environment. In his recent statement, the Defence Minister has reiterated the long prevalent idea of a review, amply provided for in the nuclear doctrine itself, and as practised by all the nuclear weapons countries.

    What is pertinent is to gauge the need for a change of doctrine or comprehend circumstances which might require changes in the nuclear doctrine, including in the NFU policy. Admittedly, for more than a decade, Pakistan was able to back its terror attacks with a nuclear blackmail. Its threat to use nuclear weapons to deter India’s conventional intervention led many to think that India’s NFU doctrine has undermined India’s security. Even some of the strongest supporters of the NFU have been questioning efficacy of the doctrine vis-à-vis Pakistan. 

    However, the February 2019 Balakot strike exposed the hollowness of Pakistan’s nuclear first use posturing. Through the strike, the Indian Government has demonstrated its determination to proactively call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. Pakistani authorities have since been stating that nuclear weapon is not a weapon of war. Responding to a query during a press conference held on February 22 earlier this year, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, Spokesperson of Pakistan Armed Forces, had stated: “This is a weapon of deterrence and this is a political weapon. The responsible countries, responsible nations, they do not talk about this. This is insane. It is insane to talk about this.” He added, “It is not about the weapon that you have, it is not about the war potential that you have. It is about the confidence that you have as a nation.” 4

    Pakistani officials have frequently admitted that their policy makers are aware of the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons; and so, Pakistan would not be using nuclear weapons. Strangely, some Indian analysts have innovated or imagined nuclear ‘redlines’ for Pakistan even as Pakistan retracted on nuclear use or first use. Recently, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan went to the extent of renouncing the policy of nuclear first use. On September 02, addressing a gathering of Sikhs at Lahore, Prime Minister Imran Khan stated that “We both are nuclear-armed countries. If these tensions increase, the world could be in danger. There will be no first from our side ever.” 5 However, he was immediately contradicted by the officials from his own government. That very day, Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release stating that “Prime Minister's comments on Pakistan's approach towards conflict between two nuclear armed states are being taken out of context. While conflict should not take place between two nuclear states, there’s no change in Pakistan’s nuclear policy.”6 Notwithstanding clarification/contradiction, it is quite obvious that the Pakistani establishment understands the limitations of its first use policy/posture.

    Therefore, in the current circumstances, the whole idea of reviewing India’s NFU doctrine has lost its vigour. Defence Minister’s recent statement basically underlines the fact that India’s nuclear doctrine is working well. His statement had nothing to do with ‘creatively reinterpreting’ India’s NFU as was seen by some. In fact, India needs to creatively reinterpret its entire nuclear doctrine, not just the NFU, taking into account the emerging or the future strategic environment.  The existing nuclear policy or doctrine has more to do with foreign policy than security imperatives. Needless to add, Pakistan is not the only country of concern for nuclear India. The Indian strategic community thus needs to enter into a debate about making India’s nuclear doctrine more effective keeping in view potential future scenarios.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.