Has India amended its Nuclear Policy?

In the past several months, there is a heightened discussion that India might be reconsidering its nuclear doctrine and strategy. The BJP manifesto during 2014 elections stated that “it would study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times and maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities”. In April 2014, before taking PM office, Narendra Modi in an interview had mentioned that “no first-use is a very good initiative and there is no compromise on it. We are very clear on this.”

We do not have sufficient evidence that India has started reconsidering its no first-use policy or any other major tenets in its public nuclear doctrine. Deliberation about any change in India’s nuclear policy and strategy must be considered against the backdrop of India’s nuclear development, its officially declared nuclear doctrine, history of questionable assertions, the dangers of speculations and the possible circumstances that may force India to adopt a launch before detonation.

Nuclear Development

India was always a reluctant nuclear power. From 1950s to 1990s, there was considerable public debate in India about the morality of acquiring nuclear weapons. The decision to test a nuclear weapon was made as late as November 1995 which was prompted by the assessment that Pakistan had successfully weaponised with Chinese assistance and the risk of being caught between NPT and CTBT. India confronted an international regime that threatened to legalise China’s arsenal while denying India the right to conduct a nuclear test. With this backdrop, the 1998 nuclear tests conducted after BJP came to power, were inevitable.

India is a vibrant, parliamentary democracy where civilian officials exercise control over its nuclear doctrine and strategy. Any changes to the doctrine will be debated and will take into account multiple inputs from government, scientists, senior military officials, diplomats, bureaucrats and ministries as it happened between 1995 and 2003. There is no evidence of any such debate today. The change in nuclear doctrine and strategy will also be signalled appropriately.

India’s nuclear weapons strategy is simple. By relying on minimum arsenal for deterrence, India offers a credible threat of a massive retaliation against an adversary that strikes first with nuclear weapons. India’s nuclear arsenal is as small as it should be to make the threat of a massive retaliation as credible as possible. With time, the size of the arsenal will vary depending on the requirement of credibility.

Official Nuclear Doctrine

In the aftermath of 1998 nuclear tests, a semi official body, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), was convened and it was only in January 2003 that India’s cabinet committee on security issued a short summary of India’s nuclear doctrine which included building and maintenance of a credible minimum deterrence, civilian political control, a posture of “no first-use” with retaliation only against nuclear, biological or chemical attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces. The retaliation to a first strike would be “massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage”.

The full text of India’s nuclear doctrine has not been publicly released. India’s public doctrine in (what it says and what it does not) seeks to combine restraint and resolve. It is a statement of restraint for two reasons. First, it announces that India is a responsible nuclear power with a public pledge to not use nuclear weapons first. Second, by laying down nuclear redlines and no first-use policy, India effectively promises an adversary that it will co-operate in terms of not using the nuclear weapons first as long as the adversary does not cross the redlines. The doctrine is also a statement of resolve as it does not deliberately spell out what would follow deterrence failure except the promise of a massive retaliation. But the targets of a retaliation is ambiguous.

Indian establishment can be faulted for not articulating its approach or countering speculation. In part, this is driven by deliberate ambiguity. In the past, NSAB had to issue clarifications. It really does not matter what India’s retaliatory doctrine is – a well-guarded national secret. Is the threat of a city-busting nuclear counter-attack indeed credible in deterring Pakistan’s use of tactical nuclear weapons ? It is unlikely that India would start destroying Pakistani cities if they were to fire a few short-range, low-yield nuclear weapons at Indian forces on Pakistani soil. The danger is that the Pakistani strategic and military elite might also believe this and cross redlines despite them being clearly laid down. To publicly signal that India’s retaliatory posture is not tied down to a single option would create further uncertainty in Pakistani’s calculations. Retaliatory ambiguity cannot be furthered through declaratory statements alone. India will have to publicly demonstrate it is making progress in developing the requisite intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems needed for counter-value targeting along with a controlled increase in counter-force weapons. As former National Security Advisor, ShivShankar Menon puts it himself “What would be credible is the message India conveyed by how it configures its forces.”

Abandoning no first-use has found few takers amongst Indian officials including National Security Council Secretariat, senior government officials and ministers at the highest level in the present government. This is confirmed by George Perkovich and Toby Dalton (https://defencenewsclub.in/2016/05/26/indias-nuclear-options-and-escalation-dominance-carenegie-endowment-for-international-peace-report/). They state that mainstream view has been remarkably consistent. “No first-use, credible minimum deterrence and the associated strategic logic have served India well. India has managed to achieve access to international sources for civilian nuclear technology, fuel and equipment. It has avoided a potentially expensive nuclear arm race with either China or Pakistan without truly compromising its security.”

Questionable assertions

In a 2010 speech, Menon described India’s nuclear doctrine as “no first-use against non-nuclear weapon states” implying that a first-use by India was possible against another nuclear-armed adversary. This was later reversed. In a 2013 speech by NSAB Chairman, Saran, rejected the possibility of a change in India’s nuclear doctrine as a response to continued build up of smaller nuclear weapons by Pakistan. He reminded that since 1998 India had taken steps to move towards a triad of land, air and submarine based nuclear forces and delivery systems which is consistent to its declared doctrine of “no-first use and retaliation only”.

At a book launch in 2016, India’s former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar sparked a controversy when he said “ why should I bind myself to no first use policy ? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. This is my thinking…. ” Despite Parrikar stating clearly that the government policy had not changed, the defence ministry clarified that the doubts raised about no first use were the personal opinions of the minister. 

Some cite a comment made by a former commander of strategic forces as advocating a pre-emptive nuclear strike. This is confounding as he was specifically discussing pre-emption using non-conventional – not nuclear – weapons, arguing that this complements and supports a no first use nuclear policy.

The latest round of discussions on the subject were by Vipul Narang at MIT who refers to the book by former Indian national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon and relies on three short passages. The interpretations made by Narang completely ignore the context in which Menon has made his observations and they are often creative and incredibly misleading.

Menon clearly writes that there is no guarantee revising the nuclear doctrine would provide any benefits to Indian security while making a reference to its no first use policy. Instead, non-military solutions and military solutions below the nuclear threshold such as the surgical strikes carried out in 2016 should be further explored

Dangers of speculations

Critics have rarely acknowledged India’s restrained post-test behaviour, its separation of civilian and nuclear programs to even its non-proliferation record. More often than not, the assessments have been made on mere guess works and speculation which has had 3 effects. One, they have made India’s quest to be a normal nuclear weapons power which can have not only nuclear arsenal but also have civilian nuclear commerce. Giving India NSG memberships (in addition to the mere waiver) would allow it to consolidate its nuclear status. Two, by overstating or making conjectures about Indian intentions and abilities serves as sufficient justification for Pakistan having the fastest growing nuclear weapon arsenals. Three, by undermining India’s declared nuclear doctrine the hawkish overtones get empowered in seeking greater military spending and a greater nuclear arsenal which saves the opposite if arms control.

Most western analysts take for granted that India is a benign power that will only act defensively. No first use was always a political statement by India that could change in wartime and / or a large scale terrorist attack on Indian soil emanating from Pakistan. It is worth recollecting the comment made by Menon “ India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for” implying flexibility that the present nuclear policy has to absorb the consequences of Pakistan-related contingencies without making any major changes to the doctrine.

However, speculating about India’s intentions when it comes to its nuclear doctrine and strategy has serious implications for deterrence stability in South Asia. Pakistani security analysts and commentators have used Narang’s misrepresentations of India’s nuclear strategy as evidence of Indian ‘duplicity” and “double standards”. Such commentaries can only result in Islamabad’s nuclear stockpile – the world’s fastest growing – to continue growing.

Is a launch before detonation even conceivable ?

It may be useful to consider circumstances that could force India to adopt a launch before detonation posture without completely breaking its no first use policy. One scenario is when Pakistan has already launched a strategic nuclear weapon and India does not have the ability to intercept and therefore prevent a nuclear attack on its soil. The public doctrine states “Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority.” If the incoming strategic missile happens to be aimed at the political leadership, then it is possible the prime minister will indeed authorise a retaliatory launch before detonation of the incoming weapon.

While India is moving towards completing the sea leg of its triad, Indian nuclear doctrine currently prohibits submarine commanders to launch nuclear missiles before express political authority. The 5 minute flight time for an incoming missile from Pakistan to India makes the situation challenging. So, the Indian leadership will either have to pre-delegate launch authority to the military for a second-strike capability in the event of a serious crisis or move towards a “retaliatory offensive strike” so that the launch is carried out before the first impact. While such a position will move India to a more qualifies no first-use pledge, it would depend on the need to secure a second-strike ability rather than carry out a pre-emptive nuclear attack on an adversary.

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