Will India abandon No-First-Use policy?

A nuclear strategist from the MIT, said, “There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first.” Since then, there has been speculation among the strategic circles that India might reconsider its no-first-use strategy. Let us analyse the different aspects of it.

 Evolution of India’s nuclear doctrine

  • Homi Jahangir Bhabha, the pioneer of India’s nuclear policy, made a decision in 1958 to extract plutonium from spent fuel at Trombay. And Estimates by several foreign countries – including the US – has been that India acquired nuclear weapon capability as early as the 1960s.
  • But India was not relentless in its pursuit of nuclear weapons during this period and had not tested by the time the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into being in 1968.
  • India conducted a “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 – too late to be considered a nuclear weapon state by the NPT – and, unusually, it did not immediately weaponise.
  • The decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapons program was only made in April 1979 in response to intelligence about Pakistan’s nuclear development, which accelerated following A.Q. Khan’s stealing of centrifuge technology from the Netherlands and a possible clandestine China-Pakistan agreement in 1976.
  • Throughout the 1980s, India made fitful attempts at developing nuclear weapon capability while pursuing disarmament objectives. At the same time, during the 1980s and early 1990s, China transferred fissile material, missile production facilities and uranium enrichment equipment to Pakistan. Additionally, in Pakistan, nuclear control fell into the hands of the military, causing further anxiety in New Delhi.
  • The decision for India to test a nuclear weapon was made in November 1995 by P.V. Narasimha Rao and preparations for a test began due to the following reasons
    • in the early 1990s that Pakistan had successfully weaponised with Chinese assistance and had the ability to produce at least ten bombs.
    • The perpetual extension of the NPT in 1995, which gave legal sanction to only five nuclear weapon powers, and negotiations towards a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would have prevented all countries from conducting nuclear tests.
  • India thus faced the very real prospect of two nuclear-armed adversaries (China and Pakistan) with which it had major territorial disputes. By being sandwiched between the NPT and CTBT, it also confronted an international regime that threatened to permanently legalise China’s arsenal, while denying India the right to conduct a nuclear test.
  • Under US pressure and heading into elections, fraught with other issues, PVN Rao delayed the order to test. Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power and after the Indian economy had strengthened itself enough to withstand international sanctions, bit the bullet and ordered the nuclear tests of 1998.
  • After 1998 nuclear tests, a semi-official body known as the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) was convened to deliberate a nuclear doctrine.
  • In January 2003, India’s cabinet committee on security issued a short summary of India’s nuclear doctrine.
Summary of the India’s Nuclear Doctrine

  • Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrenAt;
  • 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 comprises a Political Council and an Executive Council.

  • The Political Council is chaired by the Prime Minister. It is the sole body which can authorise 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.

Note: The full text of India’s nuclear doctrine has not been publicly release

Why is it now being said that India may abandon the No-first-use doctrine?

  • In a 2010 speech, then national security advisor Shivshankar Menon described India’s nuclear doctrine as “no first use against non-nuclear weapon states”. This suggested that India may use nuclear weapons was possible against another nuclear-armed competitor.
  • But this formulation was never repeated – and was, in fact, reversed in subsequent statements – suggesting that it is no longer a guiding principle.
  • In his 2013 speech, the then chairman of the NSAB, Shyam Saran firmly rejected the possibility of Indian doctrinal or strategic change as a response to Pakistan’s development of smaller nuclear weapons. A limited nuclear war, he stated, was not possible – “a contradiction in terms” – and whether the first weapon used was strategic or tactical was “irrelevant from an Indian perspective”.
  • He reiterated that “the central tenet of India’s nuclear doctrine was that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but that if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflect unacceptable damage on the adversary

The speculations have been put to rest, it has again come to the fore, the MIT strategist writes following as the evidence for his claim:

  • India’s focus on developing highly accurate missiles, acceleration of ballistic missile defence
  • The development of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (Mirv) capabilities for its missiles.

Does this claim hold any water?

None of these moves sufficiently explains a possible change in India’s nuclear doctrine.

  • The development of accurate missiles is being undertaken as India’s yield of nuclear weapons is 15-20KT (kilotons) for its fission warheads and 250KT for thermonuclear warheads. The destruction caused by nuclear warheads goes down exponentially as the distance increases from the centre of the blast, hence the move towards improving the accuracy of weapon delivery systems.
  • BMD is a defensive mechanism aimed at neutralizing a nuclear attack rather than conducting a counterforce first strike. A BMD forces the enemy to reassess the number of warheads it requires for destroying a target. This imposes costs in terms of producing more warheads, delivery platforms, and the cost of maintaining and securing them.
  • India is developing Mirvs not for first strike but to retain a credible second strike option if India loses some of its missiles to an enemy first strike. For example, if India has 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with 6 Mirvs, and 30% of them are taken out by an enemy in a first strike, India will still be left with sufficient missiles and warheads to strike back and impose unacceptable damage on the enemy.

Why there is no possibility of change in India’s stance?

  • The talk of counterforce first strike is destabilizing and dangerous.
  • Instead of deterrence, it moves to the realm of fighting a nuclear war and trying to win it. It means hundreds if not thousands of warheads on hair-trigger alert and the risks that come with it.
  • Any signalling to India’s adversaries that India is moving to a counterforce first strike doctrine will make them take countermeasures and increase their own arsenal and look to strike India first, leading to a destabilizing chain reaction.
  • The assumption that India is moving towards a counterforce first strike doctrine and the evidence cited for it are on weak ground.
  • The unnecessary undermining of India’s nuclear doctrine and strategy has the effect of empowering hawks in India, who advocate for much greater military spending and a larger nuclear arsenal. It thus serves the opposite of the arms control community’s intended objectives.

Conclusion

While India’s doctrine needs a revision to be in tune with current strategic realities, the claims that it is moving to a counterforce first strike are erroneous.

Calling into question India’s stated intentions when it comes to nuclear doctrine and strategy is therefore very serious, as it has important implications for India’s own security and rise, for deterrence stability in South Asia, and for military spending and civil-military relations in India.

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