India’s Nuclear Doctrine and Policy

Abstract - India's "minimum credible nuclear deterrence" doctrine and "no first use" policy are based on the concept of deterrence by denial, rather than deterrence by punishment. Should deterrence ever break down, India will have to pay an enormous price for a nuclear first strike by an adversary before launching massive punitive retaliation. Nuclear doctrine has to be ultimately tested in the crucible of operational reality. Across the entire spectrum of conventional conflict, the first use of nuclear weapons by India does not make sound strategic sense. The real distinguishing feature of India's nuclear doctrine is that it is anchored in India's continued commitment to global, verifiable and non-discriminating nuclear disarmament. The object of deterrence is to persuade an adversary that the costs to him of seeking a military solution to his political problems will far outweigh the benefits. The object of reassurance is to persuade one's own people, and those of one's allies, that the benefits of military action, or preparation for it, will outweigh the costs. — Michael Howard

Strategic Analysis | Feb 28, 2001

Deterrence by Denial

India’s nuclear policy is underpinned by a categorical and unambiguous commitment to “no first use” of nuclear weapons against nuclear armed adversaries and the non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states. This is rooted in a deeply ingrained cultural belief that the use of force to resolve inter-state disputes is a repugnant concept. Even though India was subjected to numerous invasions throughout the second millennium, particularly through the Khyber Pass in the northwest, India’s strategic approach continued to be rooted in a philosophy of defensive-defence.[i] Offensive strategic concepts such as the Great Game played by the British in Central Asia during the Raj were alien to Indian thinking and were quickly discarded by Jawaharlal Nehru India’s first Prime Minister, in favour of a doctrine of peaceful co-existence’ Independent India’s leaders were quick to realise the vast potential of nuclear weapons to stoke political fires and for over 50 years India followed a consistent approach to rid the world of nuclear weapons Many decades before Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev came to the conclusion that nuclear wars cannot be won and therefore should not be fought, total, universal nuclear disarmament was a key objective of India’s foreign policy.

Though India had the potential to develop nuclear weapons since the first nuclear explosion at Pokhran in 1974, India steadfastly refrained from exercising its nuclear option and, despite a deteriorating security environment, chose instead to work for nuclear disarmament. Reflecting a strong strand of Indian public opinion (though never a majority view), Prime Minister Morarji Desai had said in an interview to Barbara Walters of American Broadcasting Company (ABC) that he would never go in for nuclear weapons “even if the entire country is destroyed in their absence” When supreme national security interests eventually dictated that India had no option but to go further down the nuclear road, India adopted a purely defensive no first use nuclear policy. This policy is not only consistent with its strategic culture, but also extremely responsible and mindful of the horrendous destruction that nuclear weapons can cause. India also opted to develop only a credible “minimum” nuclear deterrent due to the widespread recognition that nuclear weapons are political weapons and not weapons of warfighting and their sole purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. There is a broad national consensus on the development of a credible minimum nuclear deterrent capability and the doctrine of no first use. Minimum deterrence may be defined as “a small force of survivable nuclear weapons (that) would deter an adversary from initiating military action that would threaten a nation’s vital interests.”[ii] India is not looking at establishing any capability beyond this level of deterrence.

The concept of deterrence by denial, rather than deterrence by punishment, is central to Indian strategic thinking. However, by voluntarily renouncing its sovereign right of the first use of nuclear weapons to defeat nuclear threats and to prevent nuclear blackmail, India has made an immense strategic sacrifice and imposed a heavy burden upon itself. The government and key decision-makers recognise that should deterrence ever break down, India will have to pay an enormous price for a nuclear first strike by an adversary before retaliating in kind. Hundreds of thousands of Indian lives will be lost and more than one e city may be turned into rubble. Hence, India’s no first use doctrine demands a robust, infallible and potentially insuperable nuclear deterrent capability to ensure that India never has to suffer a nuclear strike.

India’s May 1998 nuclear tests were followed by many policy pronouncements in rapid succession. In an interview with India Today soon after the nuclear tests, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that there was no need to cover the nuclear explosions “with a veil of secrecy… India now is a nuclear weapons state.”[iii] On May 27, 1998, Atal Behari Vajpayee, India’s Prime Minister, stated in Parliament- suo motu Statement of the Prime Minister in Parliament): “We do not intend to use these (nuclear) weapons for aggression or for mounting threats against any country; these are weapons of self-defence, to ensure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion. We do not intend to engage in an arms race.” On May 29, 1998, the day following Pakistan’s nuclear tests at Chagai, Prime Minister Vajpayee announced in Parliament that India had declared a voluntary moratorium on further nuclear testing,  was ready to engage in negotiations for an FMCT, had undertaken to exercise stringent export controls on nuclear and missile related is technologies as well as those relating to other weapons of mass destruction a and had offered to discuss a no first use agreement with Pakistan and other countries, bilaterally or in a multilateral forum.[iv]

The government also affirmed that India’s nuclear threat perceptions were not country specific. On December 15, 1998, Prime Minister Vajpayee spelt out the principal elements of India’s nuclear policy in a statement in Parliament:[v] India’s resolve to preserve its nuclear independence, minimum nuclear deterrence, no first use, non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers, and a firm commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The Prime Minister also reiterated India’s willingness to sign the CTBT and re-stated India’s readiness to work towards the successful conclusion of the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). At the Non-Aligned Summit in Durban in 1998, the Movement accepted India’s proposal for an international conference to arrive at an agreement on a phased programme for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons. At the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in September 2000, the Indian Prime Minister asserted that India’s policy is based on “responsibility and restraint” and that India would continue to press for universal, verifiable nuclear disarmament with undiminished commitment, even while safeguarding “our strategic space and autonomy in decision-making. International peace cannot be divorced from the need for equal and legitimate security for all.”[vi]

Before examining India’s draft nuclear doctrine, it would b instructive to take a look at the nuclear doctrines of its two region neighbours.


China’s nuclear deterrence doctrine has been in synchrony with its conventional warfighting doctrine. It was initially based on self-defence during the era of “people’s war”. It gradually shifted to one of minimum nuclear deterrence during the 1960s and 1970s and now appears to have stabilised at limited nuclear deterrence, which includes nuclear coercion China’s limited deterrence may be defined as a concept of “having enough capabilities to deter conventional, theatre and strategic nuclear war, and control and suppress escalation during a nuclear war.”[vii] However, China’s nuclear force structure reveals capabilities that go well beyond the requirements of minimum deterrence. For minimum deterrence, it would be sufficient for China to have long-range ballistic missiles that are capable of delivering effective nuclear strikes against the other four nuclear powers. China’s shorter-range ballistic missiles such as CSS-2s and CSS-5s (1,700-km range) can only be used against its immediate neighbours. Gregory S. Jones is of the view that China clearly has a more complex nuclear policy that does not rule out a nuclear first strike against it neighbours under certain circumstances.

China still continues to insist that it will abide by its doctrine of no first use of nuclear weapons. Sha Zhukang, China’s Director-General of Arms Control and Disarmament, reiterated China’s no first use policy’ in March 1999: “Because of our own bitter experience of being blackmailed, we have declared to the world we would never be the first to use nuclear, weapons.”[viii] China also observes a policy of “negative security assurances implying that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries. However, China has lately added several caveats and qualifications to its professed doctrine. The most important of these is that China’s military planners do not consider the use of nuclear weapons on their own territory as violative of their no first use doctrine.[ix]obviously, as China claims Taiwan as its own territory, it would be logical to assume that the Chinese may resort to the first use of nuclear weapons during a war over Taiwan. Similarly, China lays claim to the entire Indian sr, of Arunachal Pradesh (approximately 90,000 square Kilometres In area) and India would need to vector this factor into its strategic calculation. China is also yet to formally recognise the accession of Sikkim to India.

China’s leaders have repeatedly emphasised that the fielding of a NMD system by the US or the deployment of Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) systems by Japan and Taiwan will be considered extremely detrimental to China’s national security interests and China will take all steps that are necessary to enhance the effectiveness of its nuclear weapons. Tang Jiaxuan, China’s Foreign Minister, has stated that, ”The development and research of NMD exerts a negative impact on the global and regional strategic balance and stability… I wish to point out emphatically that if some people want to include Taiwan in the TMD, then that would amount to an encroachment on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”[x] Besides unilaterally abrogating some of its nuclear weapons-related treaty obligations, China can be expected to substantially increase the number of ICBMs in its nuclear armoury and also graduate to MIRVs for increasing the number of targets that would be presented to NMD and TMD systems so that its nuclear warheads have a relative!, better rate of survival after launch. China may even abandon its decades old no first use commitment and adopt a more aggressive nuclear doctrine Which way China will ultimately go is at present too close to call, but it is to China’s credit that besides India it is the only other NWS that stands for no first use.


As Pakistan’s military rulers have so often emphasised, Pakistan’s rationale for its nuclear weapons is not only to deter the threat of India’s nuclear weapons but also to counter India’s conventional military superiority. Even during the short interludes when duly elected civilian Prime Ministers have ruled the country, Pakistan’s foreign and military policies have been crafted in the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) at Rawalpindi, particularly the policies relating to India. Ever since the inception of its nuclear programme, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have been in military custody and the country’s civilian rulers have had no control over them. It is, therefore, no surprise that Pakistan has adopted a first use nuclear doctrine. Its military and political leaders have repeatedly stated that Pakistan would resort to the early use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict to prevent its comprehensive military defeat at India’s hands and to ensure that its survival as a viable nation state is not threatened.

Among others, Pakistan’s rationale for its first use doctrine has been cogently spelt out by Lieutenant General Sardar F. S. Lodhi. Writing in the Pakistan Defence Journal, General Lodhi states:[xi]

In a deteriorating military situation when an Indian conventional attack is likely to break through our defences or has already breached the main defence line causing a major set-hack to the defences which cannot be restored by conventional means at our disposal, the government would be left with no option except to use nuclear weapons to stabilise the situation. India’s superiority in conventional arms and manpower would have to be offset by nuclear weapons…

Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine would, therefore, essentially revolve around the first strike option. In other words, we will use nuclear weapons if attacked by India even if the attack is with conventional weapons… Pakistan would use what Stephen Cohen calls an ‘option enhancing” policy. This would entail a stage-by-stage approach in which the nuclear threat is increased at each step to deter India from attack. The first step could be a public or private warning, the second a demonstration explosion of a small nuclear weapon on its own soil, the third step would be the use of a few nuclear weapons on its own soil against Indian attacking forces. The fourth stage would be used against critical but purely military targets in India across the border from Pakistan – probably in thinly populated areas in the desert or semi-desert, causing least collateral damage… Some weapons would be in reserve for the counter value role.

Brigadier Saeed Ismat of the Pakistan Army also expresses similar views and propounds the first strike doctrine to checkmate an Indian offensive which almost all Pakistani defence analysts appear to believe will be aimed at dismembering Pakistan:[xii]

There could be many scenarios (of Indian offensive strikes into Pakistan) but just to illustrate this point, let us visualise if an Indian military invasion came through the Rajasthan desert directed towards the Grand Trunk road near Rahimyar Khan, in a matter of days, India could cut off our north-south communication, divide and dislocate our military forces and divide the country in two. The capture of this critical space could act as a springboard to launch further manoeuvres of exploitation towards areas in depth. If they choose to limit their objectives, they could consolidate and retain these spaces. This action by itself can cause strategic division and isolation of our forces leading to ultimate defeat and break up of the nation. In conjunction with (ground) offensives in other areas as well, they could prolong the war and go for our areas in depth. Pakistan’s options would have foreclosed – except one! We should have a well defined and declared strategy of using our ultimate choice of nuclear weapons aimed at the destruction of those military forces, which have intruded in our territory.

Pakistan’s policy planners and military leaders have always gone out of their way to try to convince India that Pakistan’s nuclear threshold is low. Quoting Abdul Sattar (now Pakistan’s Foreign Minister), Agha Shahi and Zulfiqar Ali Khan’s jointly authored article in Dawn on October 5, 1999, C. Uday Bhaskar has written: “The exigency under which Pakistan may use nuclear weapons is spelt out as: ‘Although the precise contingencies in which Pakistan may use nuclear weapons have not been articulated or even defined by the government, the assumption has been that if the enemy launches a war and undertakes a piercing attack to occupy large territories or communications junctions, the weapon of last resort would have to be invoked.”[xiii] This may actually be rhetoric designed to deter India through a doctrine of irrationality rather than a carefully considered policy option that can be executed when the chips are down. If Pakistani military and political analysts think things through, they will be forced to conclude that while Pakistan may initiate a graduated nuclear response, as General Lodhi recommends, and achieve short-term tactical gains, India is likely to retaliate massively as per its declared nuclear doctrine of punitive retaliation and Pakistan would cease to exist as a viable nation state. In an interview with CBS TV in October 2000, General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, asserted that Pakistan could use its nuclear bomb against India if its security is jeopardised. It is a suicidal policy indeed for Pakistani defence planners and policy makers to glibly talk of initiating nuclear exchanges with India without having an escalation dominance capability and knowing fully well that their country would be wiped out from the map regardless of how much damage their nuclear weapons may cause to India.

India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine

In April 1998, the Indian government had constituted a Task Force to recommend the establishment of a National Security Council (NSC). The Task Force submitted its report in June 1998 and, in November 1998, the government constituted a three-tier NSC with a full time National Security Advisor and a National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). Although the first task that was planned to be originally entrusted to the NSAB was to conduct a strategic defence review, because of post-Pokhran compulsion, the NSAB was asked to first formulate India’s nuclear doctrine. The NSAB submitted a draft nuclear doctrine paper to the government that was released to the public for wider debate on August 17, 1999. The key features of the proposed nuclear doctrine are reproduced below:[xiv].

India shall pursue a doctrine of credible minimum deterrence. In this policy of ‘retaliation only’, the survivability of our arsenal is critical. This is a dynamic concept related to our 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 peacetime posture aims at convincing any potential aggressor that:

  • Any threat of use of nuclear weapons against India shall invoke measures to counter the threat; and
  • Any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.

The fundamental purpose of Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use threat of use of nuclear weapons by any state or entity against India and its forces. India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.

India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against states that do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapons powers.

The draft nuclear doctrine, while generally following the policy guidelines enunciated by the Prime Minister in Parliament, fleshed out his pronouncement and “provides a broad framework for the development and employment of India’s nuclear forces.”[xv]  The draft paper proposes that India should establish a credible, minimum nuclear deterrent capability comprising sufficient, survivable and operationally ready nuclear forces based on the principle of no first use of nuclear weapons. It emphasises that the level of India’s nuclear capability should be consistent with maximum credibility, survivability, effectiveness, safety and security. It provides for the establishment of effective intelligence and early warning systems. It recommends that India’s nuclear forces be based on a triad of strategic bombers, land-based ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).Though a sea-based nuclear capability will take many decades to develop, the requirement of SLBMs is considered inescapable due to their relatively lower vulnerability. Nuclear forces that need to survive a first strike have no option but to ensure that at least 50 to 60 per cent of the arsenal is made comparatively invulnerable by being maintained as SLBMs. The draft paper proposes that India’s nuclear strike capability be configured to inflict punitive retaliation the consequences of which would be unacceptable to a potential adversary who will therefore be deterred from doing the unthinkable. The doctrine highlights the cardinal supremacy of civilian control over India’s nuclear weapons and proposes that the final authority for the release of nuclear weapons must vest with the Prime Minister or his designated successor(s).

The proposed doctrine also rejects the concept of nuclear warfighting and does not, hence, consider it necessary for India to match its nuclear warheads and delivery systems with those of its potential nuclear adversaries. A small number of survivable nuclear warheads and delivery systems that can inflict damage which would be unacceptable to the adversary are considered adequate for the purposes of deterrence. Although the paper has left some ambiguity by not clearly rejecting the need for tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons in India’s context, the tenor of the paper and its emphasis on a retaliatory policy appear to rule, out any thinking towards tactical nuclear weapons. However, the real distinguishing feature of India’s nuclear doctrine is that it is “… anchored in India’s continued commitment to global, verifiable and non-discriminating nuclear disarmament…”[xvi] that has been described as India’s national security objective. The use of nuclear weapons is considered “the gravest threat to humanity and to peace and stability in the international system.” The doctrine paper clearly points out India’s desire to see the world completely rid of nuclear weapons.

As expected, the draft doctrine initiated a major debate in the country about its nuclear policies. Amitabh Mattoo called it “an unapologetic realpolitik articulation of the principal raison d’être of India’s nuclear weapons and the requirements needed to lend credibility to the country’s deterrent posture.”[xvii] While agreeing with the thrust of India’s nuclear policy, he wrote that India’s primary quest appeared to be to acquire the strategic autonomy necessary for making independent decisions in an often unfriendly world and to pursue economic and political development without fear of external threats. R. Prasannan called the draft doctrine a wish list attached to the collective speeches of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues.[xviii] Bharat Wariavwalla criticised the draft doctrine on the grounds that the definition of minimum deterrence would be very different vis a vis China and Pakistan and, hence, the term is much too loose to pass off as doctrine.[xix]

Many analysts and even foreign governments have sought to raise doubts about India’s draft nuclear doctrine. It did not help matters that the doctrine was unveiled the week after the Indian Air Force had shot down a Pakistani Atlantique reconnaissance aircraft that had intruded into Indian territory.[xx] The US government rejected the Indian desire to develop a nuclear arsenal.” The Indian tests also spurred fears of a new Middle East arms race.[xxi] However, not all Western powers denounced India’s attempts to establish a credible weaponised nuclear deterrent. France welcomed the release of India’s draft nuclear doctrine as a “logical and indeed wanted step”.[xxii] The most surprising criticism of the draft doctrine is that it conjures up dark visions of a nuclear arms race in Southern Asia. If all nuclear weapons states were to follow a no first use policy, it would be logical to assume that there would gradually be a net reduction in the size of nuclear arsenals – an arms race in reverse! Jasjit Singh offers the following explanation:[xxiii]

The concerns about a potential arms race reflect a perception arising out of the prism of Cold War mind-sets where first strike (and even “launch on warning”) was the order of the day. This necessitated large arsenals and potentially pre-emptive strikes with nuclear weapons. The result was the peak of 67,000 nuclear warheads. But China did not follow the same route and relied on minimum deterrence concept with a no first use commitment. There is no evidence that China’s nuclear posture led to any arms race. Even in future, China’s nuclear arsenal is likely to be dictated by the size of US/ Russian arsenals and issues like ballistic missile defences etc. rather than the defensive doctrine of India.

The worst criticism of the draft doctrine has been that opting for a triad of nuclear forces is not indicative of a minimalist posture but of a maximalist one, particularly as sea-based nuclear weapons have been envisaged to form part of the nuclear force.[xxiv] This criticism fails to take into account the fact that the credibility of a nuclear deterrent that is limited to retaliatory strikes only hinges around the ability of the nuclear force to survive a first strike in sufficient numbers to inflict unacceptable punishment in retaliation. Since submarines offer the best survival potential, India has to rely on a small number of SLBMs for credible deterrence. Raja Menon has also criticised the proposed doctrine:[xxv] “…There is a serious dysfunction between ‘minimum deterrence’ and a tri-Service arsenal. The two cannot go together, and is (sic) akin to yoking a horse and camel together.” However, surprisingly, he finds no use for aircraft-delivered nuclear bombs and states that “to even consider the role of the army in nuclear deterrence, minimum at that, is truly distressing.” His hypothesis is that an arsenal for minimum deterrence requires only second-strike weapons, which can only be based on SSBNs.

Some critics have averred that the nuclear threats have not been enunciated and that the draft document does not define the nuclear force levels that India considers “minimum”.[xxvi] Others have protested that the costs of India’s nuclear deterrent have not been spelt out. The critics of the draft document forget that doctrine defines only a set of beliefs and guidelines on which policy and strategy is based. In the Preamble of the draft paper it is clearly stated in Para 1.6 that “this document outlines the broad principles for the development, deployment and employment of India’s nuclear forces.” Details regarding the targeting philosophy, nuclear force structures and the finer nuances of command and control cannot be expected to appear in a paper on nuclear doctrine.

The exception in the draft doctrine that India’s non-use of nuclear weapons policy against countries that are not nuclear weapons states does not apply if they are militarily aligned with nuclear weapons states, has also been criticised. This exception would include non-nuclear members of NATO and the military allies of the US such as Japan. Rajesh Rajagopalan explains the reasons behind such exceptions:[xxvii]

Two reasons could be suggested for this exception, one practical and the other strategic. The practical reason is that the Negative Security Assurance (NSA) of various nuclear weapons states, around which this non-use policy is based, makes similar exceptions. In fact, the exceptions there are broader and the NSA does not apply to countries that have refused to sign the NPT or are suspected of nuclear weapons ambitions…

The strategic reason… (is that) a good number of non-nuclear countries still host the nuclear arms of nuclear weapons states and share in the command and control infrastructure of nuclear powers. Theoretically, a nuclear attack on India could be mounted by the nuclear forces hosted in third countries. Excluding these countries would mean that no retaliation could be mounted on the bases from where such attacks are launched…

Rajesh Rajagopalan points out that ‘minimum deterrence’ is mistakenly characterised as doctrine whereas it actually refers to the nuclear force structure. He states that the Indian doctrine is one of ‘assured retaliation’ and this is to be given effect by a minimalist nuclear force as “an assured retaliation posture is premised on the belief that no one will start a nuclear war if they are assured of a nuclear retaliation, even if it is a weak retaliation. In other words, for an Indian nuclear deterrent to work effectively against China or Pakistan, it is not necessary to threaten them with complete destruction: even retaliating with a few nuclear warheads will create unacceptable costs to both”.[xxviii] While the interpretation is no doubt technically correct, it is also true that a policy of assured retaliation, combined with a small nuclear force built on the principle of sufficiency, could overall be characterised as minimum deterrence. However, it is a finely nuanced distinction that must be noted.

Pakistani government spokesmen and scholars have been particularly critical of India’s no first use doctrine on the grounds that it is only a declaratory policy and can be easily changed when the need arises. They have failed to take note of the fact that a country’s nuclear force structure, command and control system, alert status and its deployment posture are based on its nuclear doctrine. First use doctrines require hair trigger alerts, launch-on-warning and launch-through-attack strategies and elaborate surveillance, early warning and intelligence systems with nuclear warheads loaded on launchers and ready to fire. Nuclear armed aircraft would need to be ready on runway alert, if not constantly airborne as in the case of the erstwhile US Strategic Air Command. India cannot ever resort to any of these measures without Pakistan learning about them almost immediately. What the Pakistanis also forget, or deliberately ignore, is that India has offered to negotiate a mutual no first use treaty with Pakistan that would be binding and verifiable. India’s track record of adherence to international treaties has been exemplary. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of India’s neighbours who have violated numerous treaties with impunity, including the NPT and the MTCR.

The charge that India’s nuclear doctrine would initiate an arms race in the Southern Asian region is specious and unjustified. China’s gradual moves towards a nuclear triad over a period of three and a half decades have not forced India to play “catch up”. Even now India does not feel it necessary to match China’s 400-plus nuclear warheads, or to follow China and develop multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). India has decided to base its deterrent on a small force of survivable nuclear warheads and delivery systems for a retaliatory strike that can inflict punitive damage on a handful of value targets. There is no reason why Pakistan should feel compelled to match India’s nuclear warheads and missiles, particularly as it has opted for a first strike doctrine and does not have to worry about the survival of its nuclear forces. With a first use doctrine, even for deterring conventional war Pakistan does not need to match India warhead for warhead and missile for missile. Kenneth Waltz has argued that the distinction between nuclear forces designed for war fighting, that need to be compared with one another, and those designed to deter the use of nuclear weapons, must be clearly understood. Forces designed for deterrence need not match the adversary’s nuclear forces as long as they can do unacceptable damage to the adversary with unacceptable damage sensibly defined. Putting it most appropriately, he has said that “more is not better, if less is enough.”[xxix] Hence, those who are raising the bogey of a nuclear arms race in Southern Asia need to review their alarmist views.

It emerges quite clearly that most of the criticism of the proposed nuclear doctrine stems not from any genuine disagreement with India’s no first use doctrine and its professed need to establish a credible minimum nuclear deterrent, but from the desire of many Western countries that India should “cap, reduce and eliminate” its nuclear capability and sign the NPT and the CTBT as a non-nuclear weapons state. Since India’s nuclear tests and its declaration of the weaponisation of its nuclear deterrent were based on substantial national security interests, the cap, reduce, eliminate mantra is unlikely to now get anywhere.

Efficacy of No First Use

The concept of no first use logically flows out of the current conventional wisdom that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons, if they have a purpose at all, is to deter the use of nuclear weapons. As is well known in nuclear theology, Bernard Brodie had argued many decades ago that the advent of nuclear weapons had fundamentally altered the relationship between war and national policy and that nuclear weapons were so destructive that their only real purpose could be the avoidance of war itself. On the other hand, many other strategists saw nuclear weapons as simply one more addition to a nation’s or even a military commander’s arsenal, though a very destructive one, and convinced themselves that the use of nuclear weapons could be incorporated into warfighting strategies. Those who saw nuclear weapons as serving a military purpose in real combat naturally opted for first use and pre-emptive nuclear strategies and developed complex wartighting doctrines while the others saw no real purpose except that of deterrence and adopted deterrence strategies, including no first use.

India’s declaration of its no first use doctrine has once again focussed international debate on the efficacy of no first use policies, even though India has repeatedly re-iterated that it is willing to negotiate no first use treaties bilaterally or multilaterally with all nuclear weapon, states including China and Pakistan. It is often mistakenly believed that the concept of no first use is China’s contribution to international peace and stability. In fact, the no first use formulation goes back to 1925 when the international community concluded a no first use treats on chemical weapons and toxins in the Geneva Protocol.[xxx] Though enormous stockpile of chemical weapons were produced during the Second World War, neither side used them. This was because mutual deterrent continued to operate among the nations that had chemical weapons stockpile till these were finally delegitimised by the 1993 Chemical Weapon, Convention. However, in situations of asymmetry, deterrence did not operate and chemical weapons were used on several occasion, `By the Italians in Ethiopia, by the Japanese against the Chinese and finally by Saddam Hussain against the Iranians.”[xxxi] It could be concluded that a no first use policy works best during conditions of mutual deterrence.

A no first use commitment is not merely a verbal or even a negotiated assurance, it can and must be seen to be reflected in the nuclear force structure, the deployment patterns, the types of surveillance asset in place and the state of readiness of a country’s nuclear forces. China announced a no first use commitment immediately after its nuclear test in October 1964. In recent years it has diluted this policy emphasising that such a declaration does not apply to territories that belong to China While Taiwan falls in this category, so does Arunachal Pradesh in India which China still claims as its own territory. Hence, it can be plausible stated that China could contemplate the use of nuclear weapons during, a war over Taiwan or a border conflict with India in Arunachal Pradesh. The former Soviet Union had also subscribed to the no first use policy. As far back as 1955, the Soviet Union had proposed a no first use pledge by all nuclear weapons states. However, Russia’s recently declared military doctrine has withdrawn that pledge and Russia is now committed to a first use nuclear policy even against conventional military threats. Several US thinkers, some of them important former members of the US military establishment such as Robert McNamara and George Kennan, have repeatedly called for a no first use pledge. Despite the end of the Cold War, the US and its NATO allies and friends, including the United Kingdom and France have refused to heed such wise counsel. In fact, the US has said that it would consider the use of its nuclear weapons against chemical and biological weapons and NATO, under US leadership, has developed “an out of” area strategic concept that undermines peace and stability in the international order.

Rooted in its strategic culture as it is, India’s no first use doctrine is not a hastily formulated policy designed to win brownie points from the international community after upsetting the non-proliferation apple cart. It is a carefully thought through policy that has taken decades to mature, even if it was not publicly well articulated. Jaswant Singh has written: “No other country has debated so carefully and, at times, torturously over the dichotomy between its sovereign security needs and global disarmament instincts, between a moralistic approach and a realistic one and between a covert nuclear policy and an overt one.”[xxxii] K. Subrahmanyam had written in 1986: “Today the international system is dominated by nuclear dacoits who are refusing to disarm and there is nothing unethical if India were to secure for itself necessary self-protection capabilities to ward off coercive use of nuclear diplomacy… If India is to make a serious intervention in the disarmament debate and contribute to nuclear disarmament, acquiring nuclear capability is a fee that has to be paid.”[xxxiii] Even during the mid-1980s, defence analysts like General K. Sundarji and K. Subrahmanyam were advocating a minimum deterrent capability for India and had ruled out the need for tactical nuclear[xxxiv] weapons as these were meant for nuclear warfighting — a concept that India did not subscribe to.[xxxv] Hence, minimum deterrence is not a new concept in the Indian context that has been thrust on an unsuspecting nation by the government and the NSAB.

The No First Use Dilemma

Ever since the May 1998 nuclear explosions and the Indian government’s advocacy of the doctrine of no first use and a minimum credible deterrent, a major debate has been raging in the strategic community in India on the issue of no first use of nuclear weapons. Many analysts have averred that India has gained nothing and has unnecessarily elected to bear the horrendous costs of a nuclear strike by choosing to adopt a purely retaliatory nuclear policy. Rear Admiral Raja Menon asks: “Will India… be committed to absorbing a nuclear strike in case deterrence fails?” And answers: “Hardly, because in the event that an intelligence warning of a ‘definite’ nuclear strike is received, the NCP (National Command Post) will have to consider, among other options, a first launch.”[xxxvi] To advocate no first use and then consider first use as soon as the alarm bells are sounded would be duplicitous and worthy of the strongest possible condemnation. It is argued that after all India’s no first use doctrine is only a declaratory doctrine and if other nuclear powers are not willing to accept India’s offer of a negotiated no first use treaty, why should India subject itself to the ravages of nuclear destruction? It is likely that eventually one or more NWS (including Pakistan) will come around to accepting India’s offer of a negotiated bilateral or multilateral no-first-use treaty. Given the groundswell of public opinion against the continuation of nuclear weapons almost all over the world, it may happen sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, some hard questions need to be asked. Is India likely to be faced by situations occasioned by operational realities when it might become necessary for the Indian political leadership to order the first use of nuclear weapons? When will the situation become operationally so critical that India might be forced to do the unthinkable? So, is India’s no first use doctrine merely rhetorical nonsense or is it based on sound operational reasoning? These issues pose a strategic dilemma and present a complex challenge that is not at all easy to rationalise.

It is now universally accepted that nuclear weapons are political weapons and not weapons of ‘warfighting’. However, the close link between nuclear weapons and a nation’s conventional military capabilities is undeniable. If a nation’s conventional capability is extremely low vis-a-vis a nuclear armed adversary, it may be necessary for that nation to adopt an in extremis ‘first use’ strategy to thwart a conventional military offensive that may threaten to undermine its territorial integrity and lead to its break up. This is the situation that Pakistan finds itself in at present. While India may have no intentions of launching a major conventional offensive into Pakistan, given India’s conventional superiority (no matter how slender the edge may be), Pakistan has based its national security strategy on the first use of nuclear weapons to prevent its comprehensive military defeat like in 1971 and, consequently, its disintegration as a nation. It is for this reason that Pakistan does not accept India’s offer of a bilateral no first use treaty as a nuclear confidence building and risk reduction measure.

Though overall China’s conventional military forces far outnumber India’s, due to China’s problems in inducting, deploying and logistically sustaining large forces in Tibet, India enjoys a reasonable defensive capability at present and therefore does not need a ‘first use’ nuclear strategy to deter a conventional Chinese offensive backed by nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles deployed in Tibet. However, India’s existing defensive capability is being quickly eroded as China is rapidly modernising its armed forces, raising rapid deployment divisions and improving the logistics infrastructure in Tibet while exhibiting extreme intransigence in resolving the outstanding territorial and boundary dispute with India. If India continues to neglect the upgradation of its conventional military capability and military modernisation by investing the grossly inadequate sum of less than 2.5 percent of its GDP for defence, as it is doing at present, the nation may again have to suffer the ignominy of large-scale military reverses, should China choose to fight even a limited border war after completing its military modernisation by 2005-2010.

While nuclear doctrine must undoubtedly be based on sound theoretical underpinnings, it has to be ultimately tested in the crucible of operational reality. The proponents of a first use strategy for India need to more deliberately ponder the threat scenarios that might justify the unthinkable. Some plausible scenarios are worth considering in this context. Starting at the lower end of conventional conflict with low intensity conflict (LIC) and Pakistan’s ongoing proxy war with India, would the use of a Stinger or Unza surface-to-air (SAM) missile by Pakistan-supported mercenary Islamists to bring down an Indian Airlines aircraft over Kashmir Valley justify an Indian nuclear strike? Or, would a pro-active punitive response across the Line of Control (LoC) with massive artillery and air power sustained over a few weeks be more desirable? In another scenario, would a battalion or even a brigade size attack by the Pakistan army across the LoC, or even Kargil-type intrusions on the Indian side of the LoC, that result in major gains for Pakistan, justify the first use of nuclear weapons by India when their retaliatory use by Pakistan would be a certainty? Or, would a punitive ground and air forces conventional response across the LoC (and perhaps across the international boundary by the IAF) in another sector yield better dividends? After all, it is well known that there are areas on the LoC where Indian forces could be heading for key value objectives in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) within days of the outbreak of hostilities in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

In case such exchanges across the LoC escalate to a larger conventional conflict, as they well might, Pakistan may launch its Army Reserve North (ARN) through the Shakargarh Bulge in the Sialkot sector and threaten to cut off Kashmir’s lifeline NH-1A between Pathankot and Jammu. If Pakistan achieved initial success, such an offensive would pose a grave danger to the security of J&K. Would the first use of nuclear weapons be a rational choice for India under such circumstances? Or would it perhaps be more prudent to launch one or more Indian Strike Corps counter-offensives across the International Boundary in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, as General Harbaksh Singh did in 1965 with Lal Bahadur Shastri as Prime Minister, to make the Pakistanis recoil from their offensive in the Jammu sector? Surely, the launching of sizeable counter offensives into Pakistan’s heartland would be a better way to relieve pressure on J&K.

Another option favoured by military analysts is the “zero warning” option in which Pakistan is given the credible capability of launching what may be termed as a “cold start” conventional war due to the proximity of its cantonments to the International Boundary, or by concentrating strike formations under the garb of training exercises. While there may be some merit in the initial military viability of such an option, unless India strengthens its technological intelligence and humint capabilities, what needs to be considered is the “day after” impact of India’s counter moves to checkmate such a Pakistani offensive. With the IAF in full flow within hours and army formations closing in rapidly on the ingressing Pakistani units, while also simultaneously sealing the border behind them, the invaders would be hard pressed to ensure their own security and would eventually be destroyed in detail. International opinion would also be firmly on India’s side. Any well prepared army or air force can achieve tactical surprise, as the Egyptians did during the Yom Kippur war against the Israelis in 1973; the acme of military skill lies in being able to sustain the offensive logistically beyond 48 hours and holding on to the initial gains in the face of the adversary’s reaction. It should be clear to perceptive observers that Pakistan has learnt the right lessons from its strategic blunder in Kargil during the summer months of 1999 and is unlikely to repeat such hara-kiri in a hurry.

Inherent in an Indian nuclear first strike option, as advocated by the opponents of no first use, is the Pakistani nuclear retaliation that would inevitably follow on Indian cities and military targets. Cities like Jodhpur, Bikaner, Ahmedabad, Jalandhar, Ludhiana and perhaps even New Delhi and Mumbai would be the likely targets of a retaliatory Pakistani nuclear strike. In 311 the above scenarios, given the limited gains that an Indian first strike may achieve and the real possibility of successful Pakistani nuclear retaliation, the resounding answer to the first use nuclear option by India is no. An Indian nuclear first strike would not be justified as the costs of Pakistani retaliation would be prohibitive. Nor would it be operationally expedient. In none of the above scenarios India’s survival as a nation-state is likely to be seriously threatened. Various other even more pessimistic scenarios could be considered but the result would be the same.

It clearly emerges that across the entire spectrum of conventional conflict, the first use of nuclear weapons by India does not make sound strategic sense. Besides, a first use doctrine would invite international opprobrium, seriously undermine India’s efforts towards total nuclear disarmament and be prohibitively costly to implement. It is not generally well appreciated that a first use doctrine requires a massive investment in surveillance and target acquisition infrastructure by way of satellite and aerial reconnaissance and human intelligence to execute ‘launch on warning’ and ‘launch through attack’ strategies, with the nuclear forces being maintained on permanent hair trigger alerts. A first use doctrine also requires quick political decision-making and decentralisation of the control of nuclear weapons to theatre commanders in the armed forces. Hence, such a doctrine is inherently more nsky and more likely to lead to the accidental, even unauthorised, use of nuclear weapons.

It would, of course, be far better to mutually negotiate a no first use treaty with adversarial nuclear armed states as that would be the best nuclear risk reduction measure. Russia and China have signed a mutual no first use treaty. In case India’s nuclear-armed adversaries continue to be recalcitrant in signing a binding no first use pact, it would be worthwhile for India to consider some essential qualifications to India’s unilateral no first use doctrine. The first is to clearly spell out that a nuclear strike on Indian soldiers even within Pakistani territory would be deemed to be a nuclear strike on India and would invite massive punitive nuclear retaliation. The absence of this rider would negate India’s conventional edge over Pakistan as the army would be forced to plan on launching only shallow limited objective offensives to avoid risking nuclear strikes on the mechanised spearheads leading India’s advance. Only the capability of executing deep offensive strikes can ensure conventional deterrence and present viable policy options to prevent Pakistan’s predilection for attempting salami slicing in J&K.

The second caveat should be that even a conventional bombing or missile attack on India’s nuclear establishments and nuclear weapons storage sites during war, that results in casualties due to a nuclear explosion or even radiation leaks, would invite a nuclear response. Though India and Pakistan have signed an agreement on not targeting each other’s nuclear facilities, such agreements have little value when war is declared. Also, state-sponsored acts of terrorism or sabotage of India’s nuclear establishments and storage sites should also result in nuclear retribution against the sponsoring country. With better surveillance systems and improvements in the intelligence gathering apparatus, it should be possible to accurately determine the identity of the originator of such heinous crimes. Without these inescapable qualifications, with others to be added when necessary, it would be extremely difficult for India to implement a credible no first use doctrine.

Key Features

Even though the draft nuclear doctrine formulated by the NSAB is yet to be formally debated in Parliament, there is a broad national consensus on its central facets. According to Jasjit Singh, the following essential elements constitute the key features of India’s nuclear doctrine:

  • Firstly, India’s nuclear weapons are meant to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons against India. “But unlike most other nuclear weapon states, India’s nuclear weapons are not meant to deter the use and threat of use of conventional weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons or a generalised formulation of protecting national interests any time anywhere. The doctrine requires that the nuclear policy should seek to deter rather than fight a war with nuclear weapons. The orientation of the doctrine is thus quite narrowly focused on the need to defend India through deterrence against nuclear weapons threat.” However, India recognises that nuclear weapons cannot provide deterrence in all circumstances and limited conventional conflict remains possible even under the overhang of nuclear weapons. This was borne out by the 1999 Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan.
  • Secondly, India’s nuclear doctrine is firmly anchored on the principle of “no first use” even against nuclear threat or use. “India’s use of its nuclear weapons would be predicated on failure of deterrence, that is, if and when an adversary uses nuclear weapons against India. This severely circumscribes the potential development, deployment and employment of the nuclear arsenal.”
  • Thirdly, India’s no first use doctrine is a defensive doctrine that limits the use of nuclear weapons to retaliation only Hence, it is only a precaution against the use of nuclear weapons against India and is in total harmony with the UN Charter. “Article 51 of the Charter under Chapter VII clearly endorses ‘the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations’ (emphasis added)… In fact, UN Security Council Resolution 1172 is a gross violation of the UN Charter since it seeks to deny India the right enshrined in the Charter (by seeking) elimination of the capabilities that the permanent members of the Security Council themselves possess and jealously guard by disregarding their treaty obligations of nuclear disarmament.”
  • Fourthly, the doctrine is based on the concept of minimum deterrence that implies that India’s nuclear policy, strategy and posture would be guided by the minimalist principle. “The emphasis on “minimum” deterrence clearly defines this principle in relation to the capability sought, the size of the arsenal, costs involved, the level of retaliation required and the nuclear posture in peace time and in times of crisis and active threat.”
  • Finally, “India’s nuclear doctrine emphasises that global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament is a national security objective. This is to be expected from a country that has pursued the goal of complete abolition of nuclear weapons for decades in order to remove its own security dilemma as well as ensure greater prospects for international peace and security.”

India’s desire to develop a credible minimum nuclear deterrent against nuclear blackmail and the threat of use of nuclear weapons, is an eminently justifiable national security imperative. India’s no first use, retaliation-only nuclear doctrine is not only morally befitting and worthy of India’s civilisational heritage, it is also operationally sound strategy. However, deterrence hinges on credibility and India is still far from demonstrating strong political resolve to execute a massive retaliatory nuclear strike. Only when India’s adversaries are convinced that India has both the necessary political and military will and the hardware wherewithal to respond to a nuclear strike with punitive retaliation that will inflict unacceptable loss of human life and unprecedented material damage, will they be deterred. Only then will the nuclear monster remain tightly leashed in and around India’s neighbourhood. The adoption of graduated or flexible response strategies will weaken the quality of India’s deterrence and may tempt its adversaries to test India’s resolve and capabilities. As long as offensive nuclear deterrence continues to be so unabashedly practised by most of the other NWS, India’s defensive nuclear deterrence policies are totally justified.


[i]               K. C. Pant, “Philosophy of Indian Defence,” in Jasjit Singh and Vatroslav Vekaric (eds.), Non-Provocative Defence: the Search for Equal Security (New Delhi: Lancer International, 1989), pp. 215-233.

[ii]               Robert L Gallucci, “Limiting US Policy Options to Prevent Nuclear Weapons Proliferation: The Relevance of Minimum Deterrence”, in James C. Gaston (ed.), Grand Strategy and the Decision-making Process     (Washington D.C.: National Defence University Press, 1991), pp 110-111.

[iii]              “India is Now an N-weapons State: PM”, The Times of India, May 16, 1998.

[iv]              “PM’s reply to Discussion in Rajya Sabha on Nuclear Tess May 29, 1998)”, Strategic Digest, October 1998,     pp. 1583-1585.

[v]               Rahul Bedi, “India Confirms Nuclear Policy”, Jane’s Defence Weekly (London), December 23, 1998.

[vi]              Address by Mr. Atal Behan Vajpayee, Prime Minister of India, at the Millennium Summit of the United           Nations, Strategic Digest, vol. XXX, no. 10, October 2000, pp. 1431-1435

[vii]             Alastair Johnston, cited by Ehsan Ehrari, “China Eyes NATO’s Nuclear Doctrine”, four’s Intelligence Review,   London, April 1999.

[viii]             China Denies Posing Threat to India, Calls for Dialogue”, The Times of India, March 22, 1999.

[ix]              Swaran Singh, “China’s Nuclear Weapons and Doctrine” Nuclear India (New Delhi: Knowledge World, in   association with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 1998),152.

[x]               Greg Seigle, “Russia and China Worried over US Plans for NMD System”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, London, March 24. 1999.

[xi]              Lieutenant General Sardar F. S. Lodhi (Recd, Pakistan Army), “Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine”, Pakistan  Defence Journal, 1999.

[xii]             Brigadier Saeed Ismat (Retd, Pakistan Army), “Strategy for Total Defence: A Conceptual Nuclear Doctrine”,   Pakistan Defence Journal, March 2000.

[xiii]             C. Uday Bhaskar. “Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy”, The Hindustan Times, December 24. 1999.

[xiv]             See Paragraphs. 2.3, 2.4 and 2.5 of “Indian Nuclear Doctrine”, a Draft Paper proposed by the NSAB. (Publicly released by the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi on August 17, 1999.

[xv]             Matin  Zuberi. -The Proposed Nuclear Doctrine”, World Focus, no. 244, April 2000.

[xvi]             Ibid.

[xvii]            Amitabh Matto, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: In Search of Strategic Autonomy”, The Times of India, August 19, 1999

[xviii]           R. Prasannan, “No Clear Policy”. The Week, August 29, 1999.

[xix]             Ninad D. Sheth. -Flaws Dog Nuclear Doctrine Draft”, The Hindustan Times, August 18, 1999.

[xx]             Seems Guha, -N-Doctrine Invites G-8 Wrath, Sanctions Stay: It’s Our Business Alone, Asserts India”, The Times August 20, 1999.

[xxi]             Ed Blanche, “Nuclear Reactions”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, London, June 17, 1998

[xxii]            France Welcomes India’s N-doctrine”, The Hindustan Tones, August 27, 1999

[xxiii]           Jasjit Singh, “Indian Nuclear Doctrine: A Framework for Restraint and Strategic Stability”, Paper presented    at the international conference on “Nuclear Weapons and Global Security Challenges for the New Millennium” at The Hague, May 10-12, 2000. Cited with the author’s  permission.

[xxiv]           “N-doctrine Speaks of Credible Deterrence, Stoke Capability”, The Economic Tones, August 18, 1999.

[xxv]            Rear Admiral Raja Menon (Retd.), “The Nuclear Doctrine: Yoking a Horse and Camel Together”, The Times    of India, August 26, 1999.

[xxvi]           “India Spells Out Draft N-doctrine”, The Hindustan Times, August 18, 1999.

[xxvii]           Roesh Rajagopalan, “India’s No First Use Policy”, World Focus, no. 244, April 2000.

[xxviii]          Rajesh Rajagopalan, “For an Assured Retaliation”, The Hindustan Times, December 8, 1998.

[xxix]           Kenneth Waltz, “What Will the Spread of Nuclear Weapons do to the World?” in John K. King (ed.)                 international Political Effects of the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Washington D. C.: US Government, April 1979). Cited by General K. Sundarji, “Nuclear Deterrence Doctrine for India”, Trishul, December 1992, vol.   5, no. 2, p. 48.

[xxx]            K. Subrahmanyam, “No First Use Stand”, The Economic Times, August 6, 1998.

[xxxi]           Ibid.

[xxxii]           Jaswant Singh, “Against Nuclear Apartheid”, foreign Affairs, vol.77, no.5, September/October 1998.

[xxxiii]          K. Subrahmanyam, “Introducation”, in K. Subrahmanyam (ed.), India and the Nuclear Challenge (New             Delhi: Lancer International, 1986), p.10.

[xxxiv]          Ibid., pp. 275-279.

[xxxv]           Rear Admiral Raja Menon (Retd), A Nuclear Strategy for India (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2000), p.248.

[xxxvi]          Jasjit Singh, n.39.