Since the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945 there has been an ongoing debate centred on defining an appropriate role for nuclear weapons. Everybody agrees that these weapons are enormously destructive and should not be used. The question is whether the best way to prevent their use is to consider these as weapons for war fighting (just like conventional weapons but only more destructive), or to see them as qualitatively different, meant exclusively for deterrence. Different countries possessing nuclear weapons have evolved their doctrines based on the historical experiences shaping their world views, their threat perceptions and security obligations.
India’s Nuclear Doctrine consists of these key principles: “a) building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent; b) posture of ‘No First Use’, nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere; c) nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage; d) non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states; however, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons….”
The two key elements — a “credible minimum deterrent” and “no first use” — were first articulated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Parliament days after India had undertaken a series of five nuclear tests in Pokhran 1998 and declared itself a nuclear weapon state. Mr.Vajpayee stated that India did not see nuclear weapons as weapons of war; that their role was to ensure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion; that India will not engage in an arms race; and that India believes in a “no first use” policy and remains ready to discuss this with other countries, bilaterally or in a collective forum.
A nuclear doctrine serves multiple uses — it determines the nuclear posture, provides guidance for deployment and targeting, chain of command and control, communication and signalling to adversary and, in the ultimate, the use of nuclear weapons. Naturally, the last would happen once deterrence has failed. So far, the nuclear triad (aircraft, land-based mobile missiles and sea-based assets) which is to guarantee India’s assured retaliation remains a work in progress
India’s doctrine does not mention any country, but it is no secret that the Indian nuclear arsenal is to counter threats from China and Pakistan. China has maintained a ‘no first use’ policy since 1964 when it went nuclear, and the Chinese leadership has always considered nuclear weapons as political weapons.
Pakistan has adopted a first-use policy to ensure full-spectrum deterrence; in other words, it envisages a tactical, operational and strategic role for its nuclear weapons. Since it maintains that its nuclear arsenal is exclusively against India, it seeks to counter India’s conventional superiority at all levels. Recently, it has developed tactical nuclear weapons to hedge against a conventional military strike under the Cold Start doctrine.
The conventional criticism against a ‘no first use’ policy is that India would have to suffer a first strike before it retaliated. This criticism is valid but only highlights the need for India to ensure that deterrence does not fail, and that there is a clear communication to the adversary of the certainty of punitive nuclear retaliation. This can happen when India’s nuclear arsenal, its delivery systems and its command and control enjoy assured survivability.
Does this imply that till then, it is preferable for India to shift to a first-use policy? That might be an attractive option if India was certain that in a first strike, it could take out all of Pakistan’s (or China’s) nuclear assets so that it would escape any nuclear retaliation. That is highly unlikely, today and in the future. Even the U.S. with its vast arsenal, both conventional and nuclear, is unsure about denuclearizing North Korea which has a much smaller arsenal and capability.
Shifting to a first-use policy also has implications for the size of the arsenal, deployment posture, alert levels, delegation of command and control, defining red lines which would trigger a nuclear response and escalation management along the nuclear ladder. In short, it would mark a shift from deterrence towards nuclear war fighting. In short, it would lead to greater instability. The same instability would govern a situation of nuclear ambiguity. Given the short distances, it is impractical for India to envisage a ‘launch on warning’ posture even it developed and deployed a highly effective early warning system.
There is another key difference. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is totally under the military’s control, and by and large, the military approach to any weapon system is to find a use for it; it is difficult for the military to possess a weapon system and then conceive of a doctrine that aims at deterring its use.
Deterrence is a product of ‘technical capability’ and ‘political will’. In dealing with Pakistan, India has to define who is to be deterred and find ways of demonstrating the requisite political will even as we build up our technical capabilities. Israel is a classic example of a state possessing advanced technical capabilities and also having demonstrated political will. Yet, this has failed to deter rocket strikes and terror attacks on Israeli territory.
This is not to suggest that India’s nuclear doctrine cannot be changed. It should be periodically reviewed and updated, possibly every decade or so, taking into account technological developments and changes in the security environment. This is, however, not a simple issue of changing a few words here or there and casual remarks can only add to confusion.
Ultimately, deterrence is a mental construct which requires clarity in its planning. Even ambiguity needs to be a calculated ambiguity. Only then will the doctrine serve to reassure the Indian people even as it deters the adversary in order to safeguard India’s security.