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Weighing the Benefits of Recalibrating India’s Nuclear Doctrine

Any shift in India’s doctrine cannot be based on Pakistan’s actions and neither will the consequences remain confined to the Islamabad-New Delhi dyad. There is a more formidable nuclear state to consider – China.

A surface-to-surface Agni V missile is displayed during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, in this January 26, 2013 file photo.Credit: Reuters/B Mathur

A surface-to-surface Agni V missile is displayed during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi, in this January 26, 2013 file photo.Credit: Reuters/B Mathur

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement questioning India’s adherence to the no first use policy on nuclear weapons is, notably, not an example of his usual foot-in-mouth rhetoric. This is a carefully articulated statement, though we may ask whether it was prudent to have Parrikar, a member of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), make the statement.

Speaking at a book release, Parrikar said that there was often talk of India’s commitment to the no-first-use policy, “A lot of people say India has a no-first-use nuclear policy, but why should I bind myself? I should say I’m a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. This is my thinking.”

A defence ministry spokesperson later said that the minister’s remarks must be taken as “his personal opinion and not his official position.”

Nuclear signalling is a fine and subtle art, but relying on Parrikar, who has a reputation for making off-the-cuff remarks that later have to be modified or even denied, as the vehicle for India’s position is not the best move.

First things first, when it comes to a member of the NCA, there is no such thing as a “personal opinion” because it is impossible to tell when an NCA member is speaking as an individual and when he is a representative of the apex authority on nuclear weapons.

Public memory being short, people have forgotten that in April 2014, the BJP election manifesto for the 16th general elections said there was a need to study “in detail” India’s nuclear doctrine and “revise and update it to make it relevant to [the] challenges of current times”. The  party committed itself towards maintaining a “credible minimum deterrent” that was “in tune with changing geostrategic realities.” Given that the BJP’s 1998 manifesto forewarned of a nuclear weapons test, the party’s 2014 election manifesto has commanded a considerable amount of interest.

Tweaking India’s nuclear doctrine

Some analysts interpreted the 2014 manifesto’s comments on the country’s nuclear doctrine to mean that India would alter its stated commitment to the no first use policy.

But the language used in the manifesto was clearly moderate in its intention and message. Narendra Modi, who was a prime ministerial candidate at the time, responded to speculation about the BJP’s platform by declaring during an interview in mid-April 2014, “No first use was a great initiative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee – there is no compromise on that. We are very clear. No first use is a reflection of our cultural inheritance.”

However, during a visit to Japan in August 2014, Modi, by then our prime minister, revealed a more nuanced position on India’s nuclear doctrine. He told Japanese journalists, “While every government naturally takes into account the latest assessment of strategic scenarios and makes adjustments as necessary, there is a tradition of national consensus and continuity on such issues. I can tell you that currently, we are not taking any initiative for a review of our nuclear doctrine.” The operative word being “currently”.

At the time, the older nuclear doctrine, whose central tenet was the no first use posture, was facing a lot of criticism. Former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh, who had helped develop the key points of India’s nuclear policy in the late 1990s, argued before the Lok Sabha in 2011 that “the situation that warranted the enunciation of… [the current nuclear doctrine]…has long been overtaken by events.” He added, “You cannot continue to sit in yesterday’s policy.”

Some forceful critiques came from former officials. Writing in Force magazine in June 2014, former Strategic Forces Commander Lt. Gen. (retd.) B.S. Nagal, who now heads the army think tank Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), said that while ideas such as a “credible minimum deterrent” were fine, no-first-use was virtually tantamount to inviting “large-scale destruction in [one’s] own country.” Instead, Nagal called for a doctrine of ambiguity, covering the range from possible “first use, to launch on warning, launch on launch and NFU (no first use).”

A former official, P.R. Chari, who is a well-known supporter of disarmament and an advocate for building good ties with Pakistan, has acknowledged that perhaps India’s no first use posture had encouraged Pakistan “to adopt its present adventurist strategy.” He has also laid out the policy’s other limitations, notably its failure to address the problem of non-state actors.

In April 2014, as the general elections got underway, Satish Chandra, the former deputy to the national security advisor, who had worked for the BJP-led government from 1999 to 2004, said bluntly in an article for the IDSA that “an important element behind the call for revisiting our nuclear doctrine emanates from a lack of confidence in our deterrent and in our willingness to resort to the use of nuclear weapons in a massive second strike in response to an attack on us with tactical weapons.”

Ajit Doval, the national security advisor, has also signalled the possibility of changes in the policy. At the sixth Munich Security Conference Core Group, held in New Delhi in October 2014, he told attendees that “India is shifting its posture from credible minimum deterrence to credible deterrence,” without elaborating what that meant.

Doval’s other job, it may be noted, is being the head of the Executive Council of the NCA.

A nuclear neighbourhood

Parrikar’s remarks, therefore, are part of a policy that has obviously been given some thought. The reason for it is also apparent. There is frustration in New Delhi that Islamabad has managed to successfully stymie India’s conventional superiority by threatening the first use of its nuclear weapons. In turn, analysts say that New Delhi’s strategy of “massive retaliation”, whose only public articulation is a press release dated January 4, 2003, is not credible.

Yet, in April 2013, India’s commitment to “massive retaliation” received indirect confirmation when the convener of the National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran, said in a well publicised speech that India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but regardless of the size of the attack, Indian retaliation “will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary.”

India would hardly destroy Lahore if one of its armoured formations were struck inside Pakistan. Further, as Nagal hinted, if Pakistan were to be threatened by massive retaliation because it had used theatre nuclear weapons against an Indian army group, it may as well be encouraged to go the whole hog and attack India with everything it has. In other words, India was making itself the target for a massive pre-emptive nuclear attack.

Nuclear weapons are serious and dangerous things. Talking about them loosely is not a good idea and Parrikar’s past statements and behaviour are not particularly reassuring in that respect. However, it needs to be noted that India’s nuclear posture has been generally moderate and responsible so far.

This cannot be said of Islamabad, which threatens use at the drop of a hat and brazenly uses the nuclear threat to conduct a covert war against India using non-state actors. Responsibility is a two way street. Unfortunately, somewhere in the din and chaos of India-Pakistan relations we have lost track of our original effort to try and separate the nuclear issue from all our other quarrels and to discuss the deployment and possible use of nuclear weapons in a rational and calm manner. This was part of the decisions taken during the Lahore summit in 1999, which were later blown to smithreens by the Pakistan army’s Kargil adventure.

Yet any shift in India’s doctrine cannot be based on Pakistan’s actions and neither will such a shift’s consequences remain confined to the Islamabad-New Delhi dyad. There is a more formidable nuclear state with whom we also have difficult relations – China. Despite everything, China maintains a no first use policy, though there are elements of ambiguity in it. As China modernises its arsenal and confronts the US, it is also under pressure to modify its doctrine. Some modifications could arise out of technological change such as multiple independent targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV) or the fact that China now has a reliable submarine launched ballistic missile in its arsenal. For this reason, there is need to step carefully in this area and not do anything which could have negative longer term consequences.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation and parts of this article draw upon his essayThe credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent,’ in Michael Krepon et als eds. Deterrence Instability & Nuclear Weapons in South Asia, (Washington DC, Stimson, 2015)