No First Use Nuclear Policy

The Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement about India’s ‘No First Use’ of nuclear arms pledge has raised the questions on whether India is revisiting its No First Use Policy on Nuclear Weapons.

What did the Defence Minister Say?

A tweet by the Defence Minister stated that “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atalji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of NFU. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.”

Nuclear Doctrine of India

The last nuclear doctrine of India released in 2003 based on the draft 1999 doctrine summarized India’s nuclear doctrine as follows:

  • Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent;
  • A 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;
  • Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.
  • Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority.
  • 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;
  • A continuance of strict controls on the export of nuclear and missile-related materials and technologies, participation in the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty negotiations, and continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests.
  • Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.

The Nuclear Command Authority in India comprises a Political Council and an Executive Council. The Political Council is chaired by the Prime Minister. It is the sole body which can authorize the use of nuclear weapons The Executive Council is chaired by the National Security Advisor. It provides inputs for decision making by the Nuclear Command Authority and executes the directives given to it by the Political Council.

India: A Responsible Nuclear Power

The policy of No First Use has many upsides which go beyond nuclear weapon aspects:

  • Despite being a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, India’s declared NFU pledge has contributed towards legitimising itself as a nuclear power, evinced in the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver and Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement.
  • The current policy ensures the nuclear program is not a disproportionate drain on the country’s defence budget which is already grossly inadequate in meeting the military’s acquisition and modernisation requirements.

A New Doctrine?

Various possibilities include:

Pre-emptive counterforce strategy

The Pre-emptive counterforce strategy targets nuclear war-fighting facilities. This would mitigate the threat of nuclear attack, but for it to be successful, colossal investments are required for C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance).

India may not have the technological know-how to develop this strategy efficiently, and it certainly does not have the funds to sustain this doctrine.

Escalation dominance

The Escalation dominance strategy relies on proportionate retaliation. It may allow conflict short of full-blown nuclear exchanges, but it lowers the threshold for nuclear use, while also expecting both sides to have a clear understanding of the opponent’s ‘redlines’ for further escalation. This seems extremely unlikely during the ‘fog of war’, especially in a dyad as volatile as India-Pakistan’s.

Also, there exists several other strategies and combination of strategies that India could turn to, with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Need of Hour

There is an imminent danger that the minister’s remark could spark off a nuclear arms race, given the strategic paranoias that have been at work. A possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors in Pakistan cannot be brushed aside. Even in such scenarios which warrant pre-emptive action, a nuclear strike cannot be a viable option.

Hence to end this uncertainty over the enigmatic remark the defence minister must elaborate on his thoughts so that a debate could place. In a nuclear circumstance, it is much better to convey the overwhelming nature of the deterrence than to keep the potential adversary guessing. In this respect it is a good idea for the government to make public any periodic review in its strategic posture.

The no-first-use policy comes with being a confident nuclear power. In matters of nuclear doctrine, it is important to put things in black and white and nothing must be left to interpretation.

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