India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Time for a Review?

The fragile security environment in Southern Asia is marked by territorial disputes and radical extremism, among other threats and challenges to peace and stability. The security environment has been further vitiated by the proxy war being waged against India (and against Afghanistan) by the Pakistan army and the ISI – the ‘deep state’ – through terrorist organisations like the LeT and the JeM.

While the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks at Mumbai in November 2008 are still to be brought to justice by the authorities in Pakistan, recent terrorist attacks in India have occurred at Gurdaspur, Udhampur, Pathankot, Pampore and Uri. India’s patience had worn thin and the public outcry to punish Pakistan was growing by the day when the Indian army launched surgical strikes across the LoC in September 2016.

In case there is a major terrorist strike in India (on a politically sensitive target, with damage to critical infrastructure and large-scale casualties) with credible evidence of state sponsorship from Pakistan, the Indian government will have no option but to retaliate militarily. Though the Indian response will be carefully calibrated, any military retaliation runs the risk of escalation to a larger conflict with nuclear overtones.

Most Indian analysts believe that there is space for conventional conflict below the nuclear threshold as long as care is taken to avoid crossing Pakistan’s nuclear red lines (space, military, economic and political). Pakistani analysts aver that Pakistan has a low nuclear threshold and that Indian forces ingressing into Pakistani territory will be confronted with tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to stop their advance and force them to retreat.

It must be noted that the term ‘TNW’ is used in a colloquial sense as it is widely in use. There is no such thing as the ‘tactical’ use of nuclear weapons; their impact is strategic and their consequences are likely to be geo-strategic. Perhaps the term ‘battlefield’ use of nuclear weapons would be preferable.

Pakistan has been developing what it calls ‘full spectrum deterrence’ from the strategic to the tactical, from IRBMs (Shaheen 1, 2 and 3) and nuclear glide bombs delivered by fighter-bomber aircraft, cruise missiles (Babar and Ra’ad) to surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) launched from surface ships. The 60 km range, Hatf-9, Nasr SRBM is claimed to be tipped with a TNW.

India’s ‘credible minimum deterrence’ nuclear doctrine professing a ‘no first use’ posture is predicated on massive retaliation to a nuclear first strike. While the doctrine suffices to deter a first strike on Indian cities due to the certainty of massive retaliation, its efficacy in a contingency resulting in the use of TNWs against Indian troops on Pakistani territory needs to be debated. 

After the Pokhran tests of May 1998, a draft nuclear doctrine was prepared by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) headed by K Subrahmanyam. It was handed over to the government on 17 August 1999. The draft doctrine was debated within the government by various stakeholders. After several meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the government issued a statement on 4 January 2003, spelling out India’s nuclear doctrine and expressing satisfaction with the operationalisation of its nuclear deterrent. The government statement included the following salient features: 

• India will build and maintain a credible minimum deterrent; follow a No First Use posture; and, will use nuclear weapons only “in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere” 
• It was also affirmed that nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage
• Retaliatory attacks will be authorised only by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority
• Nuclear weapons will not be used against non-nuclear weapon states
• India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons in the event of a major attack against it with biological or chemical weapons
• Continuance of strict controls on export of nuclear and missile-related materials and technologies, participation in FMCT negotiations, continued moratorium on nuclear testing
• Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory disarmament.

In the decade and a half since the nuclear doctrine was unveiled by the government, several organisations and individuals have commented on it. Some of them have been critical of the NFU posture. Among them, Bharat Karnad (author of Nuclear Weapons and India’s Security, Macmillan, 2004) has consistently questioned the NFU posture. He has written: “NFU may be useful as political rhetoric and make for stability in situations short of war. But as a serious war-planning predicate, it is a liability. NFU is not in the least credible, because it requires India to first absorb a nuclear attack before responding in kind.”

Former PM Manmohan Singh, while speaking at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, on 2 April 2014, called for a global ‘no first use’ norm. He said, “States possessing nuclear weapons… [must] quickly move to the establishment of a global no-first-use norm…” This was followed by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) promising in its election manifesto to review India’s nuclear doctrine to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times…” and to “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostrategic realities.” Some BJP leaders hinted that the NFU posture would also be reviewed. However, sensing the international criticism that was bound to follow, Narendra Modi, BJP’s PM candidate, emphasised that there would be ‘no compromise’ on no first use. Regardless of election-time rhetoric, it is necessary that important government policies must be reviewed periodically with a view to examining and re-validating their key features.

Criticism of the nuclear doctrine has mainly been centred on the following key issues: 
• The NFU posture is likely to result in unacceptably high initial casualties and damage to Indian cities and infrastructure; 
• The threat of ‘massive’ retaliation lacks credibility, especially in retaliation to first use of TNWs against Indian forces on the adversary’s own territory; 
• Nuclear retaliation for a chemical or biological attack would be illogical, as such attacks could be launched by non-state actors with or without state support; 
• And, it would be difficult to determine what constitutes a ‘major’ chemical or biological strike.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said recently that 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 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 has been criticised, there can be no doubt that fresh thinking is invaluable to the discourse on the subject. 

As almost fourteen years have passed since the doctrine was first enunciated, in the debate that followed the Defence Minister’s comments on no first use, several analysts have suggested that the nuclear doctrine needs to be reviewed. In fact, a review should be carried out every five years. The government should initiate the process to review the nuclear doctrine, but the review should not be confined to official circles only. It should include a wider debate with participation by think-tanks and individual analysts. Each facet pertaining to the doctrine must be discussed.