External Affairs

Is the Indian Nuclear Doctrine Evolving?

India’s nuclear doctrine may appear to be undergoing a shift towards conducting a ‘counterforce strike’ against Pakistan, but some experts see this as “mind games” that could set off a worrying chain of events in the region.

India's Agni III missile is seen during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi January 26, 2008. Credit: Reuters

India’s Agni III missile is seen during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi January 26, 2008. Credit: Reuters

Washington: If India fears imminent use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, will it go first, upending its doctrine of ‘no first use’, and conduct a comprehensive first strike, taking out Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?

In other words, has India’s nuclear doctrine undergone a shift? Vipin Narang, a respected expert, raised the possibility at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, causing a stir. The conference, held every two years to discuss nuclear weapons, proliferation and associated topics, is a gathering of the world’s top nuclear strategists.

Narang, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specialises in nuclear proliferation and strategy, said in his prepared remarks that there was increasing “evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first”.

India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries that can carry tactical nuclear weapons, but a full “comprehensive counterforce strike” that attempts to “completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons” so that India doesn’t have to expose its cities to nuclear destruction, Narang said. A counterforce strike refers to an attack on a country’s nuclear assets.

The analysis caused shock and awe among the nuclear elite, many of whom remain deeply suspicious and wary of India’s nuclear programme. George Perkovich, vice president of Carnegie and an opponent of the 2008 India-US nuclear deal, said ultimately it was about “psychological mind games” and sending signals. He questioned India’s capacity to conduct a “comprehensive” strike while warning of the massive costs involved in developing such capabilities.

Sameer Lalwani, deputy director of Stimson Center’s South Asia programme, said in an e-mail response that the risks of India changing its posture were worrisome. Pakistan would try to find ways to make its nuclear arsenal survive an Indian strike by “expansion of its missile arsenal, putting strategic nuclear weapons at sea, increasing arsenal readiness or reducing the timeline for launch”.

Such countermoves could increase instability in a crisis, rapidly escalate an arms race and eventually “start to erode deterrence stability with China,” Lalwani added.

Panelists at the 'Beyond the Nuclear Threshold: Causes and Consequences of First Use' session. Credit: Youtube

Panelists at the ‘Beyond the Nuclear Threshold: Causes and Consequences of First Use’ session. Credit: Youtube

But has India’s doctrine really changed or is everyone guessing? Narang thinks there are strong indications from key players to show things are no longer as they once seemed. He connects the dots from the writings and statements of India’s former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar and former chief of strategic forces command, Lt. Gen. B.S. Nagal to argue that the strategy has shifted.

Speaking on Monday (March 20) on “Beyond the Nuclear Threshold: Causes and Consequences of First Use,” Narang said conventional wisdom on how nuclear weapons might be used in South Asia no longer applied.

He cited Menon’s recently released book, Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy, to argue that India’s doctrine appeared to have moved from “counter-value” strikes to “counter-force” strikes. In other words, from targeting population centres to aiming at Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Menon, who as NSA was involved in decisions on targeting of nuclear weapons, talks of counter-value targeting in the past tense, saying it was the “logical posture at first,” implying it may no longer be. Menon goes on to say that if Pakistan were to use tactical nuclear weapons against India or appeared to be preparing to do so, it would “effectively be opening the door to a massive Indian first strike, having crossed India’s declared red lines.”

“There would be little incentive, once Pakistan had taken hostilities to the nuclear level, for India to limit its response, since that would only invite further escalation by Pakistan. India would hardly risk giving Pakistan the chance to carry out a massive nuclear strike after the Indian response to Pakistan using tactical nuclear weapons. In other words, Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons use [or imminent use] would effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan,” Menon writes.

Narang said that this suggests that the country most likely to go first in South Asia “may not be Pakistan, but India,” if and when it believed that Pakistan was ready to cross the nuclear threshold. But Pakistan won’t sit idle in this scenario and would want to go first and massively, creating a dangerous instability.

Menon’s elaboration adds to what Lt. Gen. Nagal wrote in an article questioning the morality of a no first use policy and how the Indian leadership could accept significant casualties if it knew Pakistan’s use of nuclear weapons was imminent. He asked for change.

Last year, Parrikar, who was India’s defence minister at the time, said that India should not bind itself to a no first use policy and only stress that it will always act responsibly. He later clarified the comment, saying it was his “personal opinion,” further surprising nuclear experts.

The BJP manifesto for the 2014 national elections also hinted broadly at evolution. It promised to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine but so far no public announcements have been made.

The publicly stated Indian doctrine remains one of not using a nuclear weapon first and not using one against a non-nuclear state. Pakistan does not have a no first use policy.

More to the point, if India decided to conduct a massive strike now, does it have the capacity to? Narang’s answer is “almost certainly not”. Currently, India doesn’t have the number of required warheads or missile defences but it is working on both fronts.

Narang also says there is little evidence that India can “find, fix and destroy Pakistan’s nuclear forces in real time” on land or sea. It’s unclear whether India has “a good fix” on all the locations of Pakistani strategic forces.

But it stands to reason that the Indian government would not reveal the exact nature or state of its nuclear arsenal, targeting abilities and quality of intelligence in its possession to outside experts. Ambiguity has been the hallmark of all things Indian.

But in Narang’s opinion, the various iterations on India’s nuclear doctrine show “confusion” not “ambiguity”.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.