India has been a declared nuclear weapon power for almost two decades. And yet, in the intervening period, not very much information has come to light about its nuclear program. The absence of information is deliberate and may even be necessary. Ambiguity confers advantages, particularly when a country has a small nuclear arsenal. Whatever the exact numbers, India’s nuclear weapon stockpile is probably smaller than every declared nuclear weapon power, other than North Korea. This has helped to keep down costs and minimise security risks, while maintaining a basic nuclear deterrent.
But because a small nuclear arsenal has required a great deal of secrecy and ambiguity, the absence of information about India’s nuclear program has opened space for considerable speculation by observers, including in academic circles, both in India and abroad. Some of that speculation is informed, while much is extrapolated from scant statements made by current and former Indian officials. Some of the recent commentary on India’s changing nuclear strategy must be seen in this context. But it is important to highlight what we know about India’s nuclear strategy and why it matters, before analysing some of the present discussions about India’s future nuclear intentions.
India’s official nuclear doctrine and strategy
India was always a reluctant nuclear power. From the 1950s to the 1990s, there was considerable debate – both in public and at the highest levels of government – about the morality of acquiring nuclear weapons. Estimates by foreign governments – including the US – had India acquiring nuclear weapon capability as early as the 1960s. Homi Bhabha, the original driver of India’s nuclear policy, made a decision in 1958 to extract plutonium from spent fuel at Trombay. 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. Subsequently, 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. This was prompted by two main impetuses. The first was an assessment in the early 1990s that Pakistan had successfully weaponised with Chinese assistance and had the ability to produce at least ten bombs. The other was the risk of being caught between two opposing international developments – the extension in perpetuity 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, Rao deferred the order to test. But in hindsight, these international conditions meant that the 1998 nuclear tests – which were conducted immediately after Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the BJP had assumed power and after the Indian economy had strengthened itself enough to withstand international sanctions – were inevitable.
In the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests, a semi-official body known as the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) was convened to deliberate a nuclear doctrine. It produced a public draft report in August 1999, which posited that “India’s nuclear forces will be effective, enduring, diverse, flexible, and responsive to the requirements in accordance with the concept of credible minimum deterrence. These forces will be based on a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets.” The draft nuclear doctrine also described the first use of nuclear weapons as “constitute[ing] a threat to peace, stability and sovereignty of states.”
In January 2003, India’s cabinet committee on security issued a short summary of India’s nuclear doctrine. The key tenets included the building and maintenance of a “credible minimum deterrent,” civilian political control, a posture of “no first use,” with retaliation only against a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack on Indian territory or 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, although it is based on the 1999 draft doctrine.
There is one important wrinkle. 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 implied that a first use by India of a nuclear weapons was possible against another nuclear-armed competitor. At the time, the shift was meant to be subtle but deliberate. But the fact that this formulation was never repeated – and was, in fact, reversed in subsequent statements – suggests that it is no longer a guiding principle, but should be seen only as a momentary signal against India’s adversaries.
Nonetheless, there was considerable speculation over the next several years, both in India and abroad, about India’s intentions and changes in posture. In 2013, this prompted Shyam Saran, the then chairman of the NSAB, to deliver a speech “in the hope that there could be a more informed discourse…that is truly rooted in India’s own circumstance rather than influenced by external commentaries”. He faulted the “moral equivalence” drawn by “motivated analysts” between India and Pakistan, arguing that it “affect[ed] our proposed membership” of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Missile Technology Control Regime. He warned that “The ease with which motivated assessments and speculative judgments…invade our own thinking is deeply troubling”.
In part, Saran was addressing the notion that India might respond somehow to Pakistan’s development of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. Sceptics deemed India’s “massive retaliation” to Pakistan’s use of a small nuclear weapon disproportional and not credible. But the logical consequence is that India should either develop tactical nuclear weapons of its own, reconsider no first use, or move to a doctrine of proportional or assured retaliation. Although initially argued by some nuclear experts in the US, it subsequently found resonance with some Indian commentators. Examples include a recent article by Ajai Shukla, a commentary by Arka Biswas and even an editorial in Mint. But this view is dangerous. It begins to recast nuclear weapons as instruments of warfighting and thus opens up the frightening possibility of India believing that a nuclear war can be won – or at least remain limited or contained. This is the start of a slippery slope to a nuclear arms race, which ironically is what non-proliferation advocates have wanted to avoid.
In his 2013 speech, 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 also described how India, since 1998, had taken steps to move toward a triad of land, air and submarine-based nuclear forces and delivery system “to conform to its declared doctrine of no-first use and retaliation only”. India had also created a survivable command and control infrastructure and secure communications. Additionally, Saran asserted that the Indian armed forces were involved in the strategic decision-making process, but argued that the “exclusive military management of strategic forces” was not necessary for a “credible nuclear deterrent”. He outlined the structure of the National Command Authority. And 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 1999 draft doctrine, the 2003 statement by the Indian government and Saran’s officially sanctioned speech – all drafted and presented after careful deliberation – constitute almost everything about which we can be certain when it comes to India’s official nuclear doctrine and strategy. But it has not always satisfied many observers. India made a convenient scapegoat for an international nuclear establishment that looked the other way as China and then Pakistan proliferated their nuclear technology. In fact, India followed China’s nuclearisation and its pursuit of weaponisation followed Pakistan’s. The 1998 decision to declare a nuclear weapon capability was primarily a response to India’s external security environment and an adverse international regime, not simply notions of prestige and nationalism, as it is often portrayed.
The critics and their consequences
But critics of India’s nuclear program have not always seen things that way. They have rarely acknowledged India’s restrained post-test behaviour, its separation of civilian and nuclear programs, or its commendable non-proliferation record. Initially, they rubbished India’s no first use pledge as non-binding and essentially meaningless. Arms control groups overestimated India’s nuclear arsenal size in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was often assessed in the mid-2000s as 100, a nice round figure that remains suspiciously resilient. But it has variably been estimated as 50 (1998), 65 (2000), 80-100 (2012), 75-125 (2015) and 110-120 (2015). In fact, the numbers provided in some such estimates have sometimes even declined over time, which calls into question some of the assumptions and methodologies used. Critics have also exaggerated the number of threats made by India and projected a much more aggressive attempt by New Delhi at modernising delivery systems than was feasible. They made extraordinary attempts – using some creative leaps of logic – to tie India to Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan proliferation network. At the same time, they advocated that Pakistan derive the same benefits – in terms of access to civilian nuclear and dual use technologies – as India. And they unfailingly adhere to the continued centrality and inviolability of a regime in which China is a rule-maker, rather than recognise it as a rule-breaker.
Such efforts, based often on a great deal of guesswork about India’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, have had three effects. One, they have complicated India’s quest to be a normal nuclear weapons power: a state that can retain its nuclear weapon arsenal but with which civilian nuclear commerce is permissible. Although India’s entry into the NPT as a nuclear weapon state is all but impossible, it has largely been successful in achieving normal nuclear status, particularly with the 2008 unanimous waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – a 48-country cartel initially formed in response to India’s 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion. Nonetheless, India’s waiver remains subject to the whims of other countries, and NSG membership (rather than simply a waiver) represents a way of permanently consolidating India’s nuclear status by giving it a vote and a voice in the international nuclear order. In the run up to the 2016 NSG plenary, at which India’s membership was to be discussed, some countries evinced scepticism about India’s entry due to its being a non-signatory of the NPT. It is therefore important that India’s membership application continue to be assessed on its official behaviour, statements and intentions, rather than conjecture, hearsay, and questionable assumptions and logic.
Two, mischaracterising India’s nuclear program and exaggerating its belligerent intentions justifies Pakistan’s continued nuclear build-up. Already, the past few years have witnessed Pakistan’s shift to plutonium weapons, miniaturisation and the development of smaller ballistic missiles as delivery systems intended for battlefield use. The rapid expansion of nuclear weapons by Pakistan is incredibly destabilising, not least because it increases the chances of their loss, theft, sale, sabotage, or accidental use. It is also quite possibly meant to deter the US as much as India, coming on the heels of the US raid on Abbottabad and a sharp deterioration in ties with Washington. Nonetheless, India – especially when portrayed as an aggressive and irresponsible nuclear power – makes for a good foil. Overstating Indian intentions and abilities serves as ample justification for Pakistan today having the fastest growing – and one of the most dangerous – nuclear weapon arsenals.
Three, 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. And it prematurely opens the door to difficult questions about India’s military spending and priorities, and thorny civil-military issues, particularly as they relate to the command and control of nuclear forces. India has, to date, learned the lessons of the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War, which played loosely and recklessly with nuclear deterrence as part of their frenzied arms race. The misrepresentation of India’s own stated objectives increases the danger of India unlearning those lessons. Both India – and the international nuclear order – would be worse off for it.
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. This does not make India’s doctrine and strategy unquestionable, but simply means that considerable and watertight evidence needs to be marshalled to arrive at even tentative conclusions. Otherwise, the inadvertent beneficiaries are the Pakistan army, China and some of the more hawkish elements of India’s strategic community.
Nor does this mean that India should be given a free pass on its nuclear status. The fact is that it never has. India has had to develop its nuclear technologies – both military and civilian – despite adverse technology denials and has had to work incredibly hard since 1998 to assure the world about its intentions. This has required an open debate and public statement by the government on its nuclear doctrine and posture – which is very unusual – as well as a separation plan, a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and considerable diplomatic efforts with the US, Russia, Japan, France and a host of other countries. The Manmohan Singh government even put its future on the line on this matter in 2008.
Additionally, none of this means that India’s nuclear doctrine and strategy are set in stone. A running debate about its evolution and appropriateness is necessary and healthy. However, those that participate in that debate must remain mindful of India’s security needs, its limited technological and financial resources, and its domestic and international political considerations. They must also accurately interpret and assess the statements upon which their conclusions are based.
Assessing a non-controversy
Recent deliberation about India’s nuclear doctrine and strategy must be considered amid the backdrop of the progression of India’s nuclear development, its officially stated positions, the history of questionable assertions and the potentially dangerous consequences of such conjecture. Over the past several months, further speculation has arisen that India might be reconsidering its nuclear doctrine and strategy. At the very least, the perception has been created that this is the subject of a great deal of debate within India.
A few incidents have given rise to this perception. One involved the BJP manifesto for the 2014 general elections, which stated that the BJP 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.” Some interpreted the mention of revising and updating the nuclear doctrine as a signal that no first use would be abandoned. This was countered by then-prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who lauded Vajpayee’s commitment to no first use in an October 2013 speech and stated in an April 2014 interview that “‘no first use’ is a very good initiative of [Vajpayee] and there is no compromise on this. We are very clear on this.”
Another needless controversy was sparked by India’s former defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who was infamous for going off-script when speaking off-the-cuff. “A lot of people say that India has No First Use policy,” he said at a 2016 book launch. “Why should I bind myself to [it]… I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. This is my thinking. Some of them may immediately tomorrow flash that Parrikar says that nuclear doctrine has changed. It has not changed in any government policy but my concept.” Despite Parrikar stating clearly that government policy had not changed, the defence ministry subsequently clarified that the doubts raised about no first use were the personal opinions of the minister.
Along with these, other statements have been used to make the case that India is reconsidering no first use, including one made by former foreign and defence minister Jaswant Singh when he was a member of the opposition in 2011. Others point to comments made by Lt. Gen. B.S. Nagal – a former head of India’s strategic forces command – in a 2014 interview in Force, a minor defence magazine, where he suggests that rather than no first use, “ambiguity” leaves the option of “decapitating and/or disarming strikes”. In fact, Nagal details his views on this matter in a subsequent journal article and argues quite the opposite: “The most credible option while accepting an NFU policy is to use the weapons for effect, which India defines as “massive retaliation”… The design and strategy of [India’s] strategic forces are predicated on this doctrine.” Some critics even cite a comment by Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar, another former commander of strategic forces, as advocating a pre-emptive nuclear strike. This is confounding, because Shankar specifically discusses pre-emption using conventional – not nuclear – weapons, arguing that this would complement and support a no first use nuclear policy.
These statements all need to be properly assessed. The BJP manifesto made no explicit mention of revising no first use and was quickly negated by the party’s leader. Parrikar actually reiterated that no first use was India’s stated doctrine, even if he did not personally agree with it, and the defence ministry officially confirmed this. Jaswant spoke as an opposition leader, meaning to attack the Indian government of the day. Nagal was laying out scenarios as a retired official in an interview in a small defence magazine and Shankar, also retired, was discussing conventional pre-emption.
The latest round of discussion on the subject has emanated not from New Delhi, but in Washington. At a speech at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argued that “There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first [in a nuclear exchange]. And that India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes…but a full ‘comprehensive counterforce strike’ that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons”. This is caveated – “This would mark a major shift in Indian strategy if adopted and implemented” – but it is nonetheless a striking and bold claim. Some of the evidence that Narang employs comes from Parrikar and Nagal’s statements. But most of it derives from a recent book by Menon, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy. This is peculiar, because Menon’s primary point in the book’s relevant chapter is to offer a detailed explanation and justification of India’s adoption of no first use.
Nonetheless, it is important to address Narang’s argument. It relies solely on three short passages from the book, as well as another statement by Menon.
First, consider Menon’s statement that “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for.” Here, his essential point was that while holding out the threat of massive retaliation, necessary for deterrence at the highest levels, India’s current doctrine does not rule out other possibilities below that response. These other possibilities might extend beyond countervalue targets (such as major urban centres) and encompass counterforce targets (such as Pakistani nuclear-armed missile batteries). No first use and massive retaliation are not, in other words, incompatible with counterforce targets. Massive retaliation is indeed assured and could even be proportional, which renders that “debate” inconsequential. This is not a surprise and should have been clear from a close reading of Saran’s 2013 speech. But it is still a far cry from implying that India has adopted – or is considering adopting – a counterforce strategy (as Narang says), which would require it to develop a much larger nuclear arsenal and would make it responsive to the growing size and changing posture of Pakistan’s nuclear force. Plainly speaking, India’s adoption of a counterforce strategy would open up a true arms race with Pakistan (or China), something Indian nuclear planners are keen on avoiding.
A second passage – this time from the book – is at first glance more damning, because it appears to completely negate India’s no first use pledge: “There is a potential gray area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another NWS [nuclear weapon state],” Menon writes in Choices. “Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.” But Narang’s quoting of this passage obscures the context, because the lines preceding and succeeding are just as important. “A first strike doctrine is surely destabilizing,” Menon plainly states, “and does not further the primary purpose of our weapons of deterring blackmail, threat, or use of nuclear weapons by an adversary against India.” And he concludes: “India’s present public nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario.” One has to wonder why Narang failed to include this inconvenient context.
Third, Narang stresses Menon’s use of the past tense in the following passage: “[T]he logical posture at first was counter-value targeting, or targeting an opponent’s assets, rather than counterforce targeting, which concentrates on the enemy’s military and command structures.” This is in the past tense because Menon is describing a debate that took place in the past, during the 1990s (the section begins: “The no-first-use policy and assured retaliation concept naturally had several direct implications for India’s nuclear strategy and posture.”) Narang’s is thus a gross misreading, implying a past policy rather than past deliberations.
The key lines of a fourth passage, as Narang cites them, are as follows: “If Pakistan were to use tactical nuclear weapons against India [or believed to imminently prepared to do so], even against Indian forces in Pakistan, 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.” The use of this passage is staggering for two reasons. First, in the prepared text of his speech, Narang twice adds references to imminent use in brackets to this passage, although these do not appear in the original text. This serves to overstate the possibility of Indian pre-emptive nuclear strikes. Second, as is patently clear at the outset of the passage, Menon used “first strike” to describe a first Indian strike in response to Pakistan’s use of nuclear weapons. Yet, Narang characterises “comprehensive first strike” in a very different way, as an Indian pre-emptive strike, particularly with the insertion of “imminent use”. Comprehensive first strike does have a very specific meaning in nuclear jargon, but it is clear from the context that that is not how Menon is using it.
All of this clearly shows that Narang’s reading of Menon’s book has absolutely no basis, and the interpretation is often creative and incredibly misleading. He takes one passage entirely out of context, a second is completely misread, and a third is both embellished and misunderstood. Despite the caveats – that all of this suggests India’s thinking about the future, rather than a current reality – this reading inadvertently paints a much more sensationalistic picture, one that is already having detrimental effects. Reputable international publications have already carried stories on the subject. In The New York Times, Max Fisher writes that the assessment is “necessarily speculative” and “does not prove a policy shift,” but he then continues to paint an alarmist picture. In a report out of Islamabad, The Wall Street Journal goes even further, stating that the nuclear arms race in South Asia is “intensifying.”
Meanwhile, Pakistani security analysts and commentators have used Narang’s misrepresentation of India’s nuclear strategy as evidence of Indian “duplicity” and “double standard[s]”, a vindication of Pakistan’s “Full Spectrum deterrence” and a signal of India’s ability to launch an offensive nuclear attack (which, to be fair, is not what Narang says at all). While concurring with Narang’s analysis, Ankit Panda readily acknowledges that “with Pakistani concerns about an Indian disarming strike somewhat vindicated by [Narang’s] analysis, expect Islamabad’s nuclear stockpile – the world’s fastest-growing – to continue growing.” However much public policy analysts might argue that their only true purpose is academic objectivity, the fault for such dangerously misleading conclusions – however tentative – lie not in the stars but in themselves.
Continuity over change
India is a vibrant parliamentary democracy where elected civilian officials exercise control over its nuclear doctrine and strategy. Important changes to Indian doctrine and strategy will be debated – both internally and externally – and signalled appropriately. It will not be dropped in extemporaneous remarks by serving cabinet ministers speaking in their personal capacity. It will not be hinted after retirement by army officials in interviews with military magazines. It will not be mentioned on think tank blogs. Instead, it will have to take into account multiple inputs, including from Indian government scientists, the military, the diplomatic establishment, and bureaucrats from multiple ministries, as happened between 1998 and 2003. Today, there is simply no evidence that such a debate is taking shape. None.
Abandoning no first use has found few takers among Indian officials, including at the National Security Council Secretariat or at the upper echelons of the Indian government. George Perkovich and Toby Dalton confirm this, citing a former Indian official: “Pakistan is turning to Cold War tenets that were proved untenable before. Why should we follow them? The mainstream view here has been remarkably consistent.” No first use, credible minimum deterrence and the associated strategic logic have served India well, and it is important to underscore the benefits. India has managed to rejoin the nuclear mainstream, eventually attaining access to international sources of civilian nuclear technology, fuel and equipment. India has also been able to occupy the moral high ground. And it has avoided a potentially expensive nuclear arms race with either China or Pakistan, without truly compromising its security.
As Menon clearly writes, there is no guarantee that considerably revising the nuclear doctrine would render any benefits to Indian security. A first use policy would still not counter subconventional warfare by proxy by Pakistan. Instead, non-military solutions as well as military solutions below the nuclear threshold – such as the so-called ‘surgical strikes’ in 2016 – must be further explored.
The Indian establishment can be faulted for not always clearly articulating its approach or countering speculation. In part, this is a product of its deliberate ambiguity. But this has also had drawbacks. In the past, this required Saran – as chairman of the NSAB – to firmly repudiate critics. Perhaps it is time for the present government to do something similar.
Additionally, there is a dire need for a new generation of Indian scholars and analysts to reflect upon India’s past choices. This is not because those decisions are fixed or far-sighted, but because they were derived after careful and considerable deliberation and debate. Amid all the idle talk about scenarios involving nuclear exchanges, we must constantly remind ourselves that nuclear weapons are terrible, potent things. Even a small number can cause incredible damage, killing millions in a matter of minutes. Fighting a nuclear war is a horrifying prospect, because there are no winners. Nuclear weapons are political in nature and are meant to deter. For India, that is their only true purpose.
Dhruva Jaishankar is Fellow for Foreign Policy at Brookings India in New Delhi.