Implementation of India’s ‘No First Use’ Doctrine—Need for Some Inescapable Qualifications

Strategic Analysis | Apr 10, 2000

Impact of Conventional Capabilities on Nuclear Doctrine

For some time now a major debate has been raging in the strategic community in India (or the ‘strategic enclave’, as George Perkovich calls it in his book India’s Nuclear Bomb) on the issue of India’s proclaimed doctrine 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 first strike from its nuclear-armed adversaries by choosing to adopt a purely retaliatory nuclear policy. On the other hand, the proponents of the no first use doctrine highlight its immense moral and diplomatic value and affirm that its proclamation has considerably assuaged the anguish of the international community at India’s nuclear tests and its declaration of itself as a state with nuclear weapons. The issue poses a strategic dilemma and indeed presents a complex challenge to rationalise.

It is now universally accepted that nuclear weapons are political weapons and not weapons of ‘warfighting’. Nuclear weapons can have only one rationale justifying their possession and that is to deter adversarial use of nuclear weapons against a state. However, there is a close link between nuclear weapons and a nation’s conventional military capabilities. If a nation’s conventional capability is extremely low vis a vis a nuclear-armed adversary, it may rationalise the need to adopt a ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons 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 appears to find 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 actually be), Pakistan has based its national security strategy on the first use of nuclear to prevent its comprehensive military defeat like in 1971 and, consequently, its disintegration as a nation.

It is for this reason that Pakistan appears to be in no position to accept India’s offer of a bilateral no first use treaty as a confidence building and nuclear risk reduction measure. And, it is for this reason that Pakistani analysts, military leaders and politicians repeatedly proclaim that Pakistan will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if its territorial integrity is threatened. Whether the Pakistanis have thought through the consequences of escalating a conventional conflict to all-out war by resorting to the first use of nuclear weapons and risking total annihilation in view of India’s arguably superior nuclear and conventional capabilities, is altogether another matter.

The Sino-Indian nuclear equation is weighed heavily in China’s favour. However, India does not at present face a situation of conventional military inferiority vis a vis China. 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 even though it may be backed by nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles deployed in Tibet. However, India’s existing defensive capability on the Himalayan ridgelines bordering Tibet is being rapidly eroded as China is rapidly modernising its armed forces, raising rapid deployment divisions and improving the logistics infrastructure in Tibet while dragging its feet on resolving the outstanding territorial and boundary dispute with India. If India continues to neglect the upgradation of its conventional capability and military modernisation, including the upgradation of the infrastructure in the border areas, by investing the grossly inadequate sum of around 2.5 percent of its GDP for defence, the nation may again have to suffer the ignominy of large-scale military reverses, should China choose to fight a border war after completing its military modernisation by 2005-2010.

Non-viability of First Use Scenarios

While nuclear doctrine must undoubtedly be based on sound theoretical underpinnings, it has to be ultimately tested in the crucible of reality. The proponents of a first use strategy for India need to more deliberately ponder the threat scenarios that might justify the unthinkable. A number of questions need to be asked. Starting with low intensity conflict (LIC) and Pakistan’s ongoing proxy war with India, would the use of a Stinger or Unza surface-to-air missile by Pakistan-sponsored mercenary Islamists to bring down an Indian Airlines aircraft over Kashmir Valley justify a nuclear strike? Would a battalion or even a brigade size attack by the Pakistan army across the Line of Control (LoC), or 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 conventional response across the LoC in another sector yield better dividends?

In another scenario, such exchanges across the LoC may escalate to a larger conventional conflict and Pakistan may launch its Army Reserve North through the Shakargarh Bulge in the Sialkot sector and threaten to cut off NH-1A between Pathankot and Jammu. Such an offensive would pose a grave danger to the security of Jammu and Kashmir. Would the first use of nuclear weapons be a rational choice for India? Or, would it perhaps be more prudent to launch 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? In all these cases the resounding answer is no. In none of the above scenarios India’s survival as a nation-state is seriously threatened. Various other still more pessimistic scenarios could be considered but the result would be the same.

It clearly emerges that across the entire spectrum of conventional conflict, from LIC at the lower end to full-scale war of the 1965 and 1971 variety at the upper end, 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 risky and more likely to lead to the accidental, even unauthorised, use of nuclear weapons.

Need for Essential Qualifications

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. However, it is difficult to see such a pact becoming an early reality in the Indian context as Pakistan now bases its national defence on the first use of nuclear weapons and China does not even recognise India’s status as a state with nuclear weapons. In the absence of such a binding pact, it is worthwhile considering 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.

The second condition should be that even a conventional attack during war on India’s nuclear establishments and nuclear weapons storage sites, that might lead to casualties from a nuclear explosion or even radiation leaks, would invite a nuclear response. Without such a declared stance, India’s adversaries are bound to be tempted to destroy strategic nuclear installations and weapons storage sites through a preemptive strike. Finally, state-sponsored acts of terrorism or sabotage of India’s nuclear establishments and nuclear weapons storage sites should also result in nuclear retribution against the sponsoring country. 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 and to ensure the survival of strategic nuclear installations and weapons storage sites.