On the afternoon of May 11, 1998, India conducted a series of three nuclear explosions under the sands of the Thar desert. On May 13, two additional nuclear devices were tested. After announcing the Pokhran-II series of nuclear tests to the world, India finally declared itself a nuclear weapon state.
Now, exactly 22 years later, India’s nuclear arsenal has grown into a young adult, having stocked up, by some estimates, just over 130 nuclear warheads, along with over a dozen delivery vehicles. It has continued to maintain a policy of no-first use (NFU) since the publication of the nuclear doctrine in 2003 and has withstood the test of time.
The world around us, however, is changing, not to mention the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on national security. How should India’s nuclear arsenal evolve over the next two decades? To answer this question, we must first look at the challenges thrown at our nuclear policy.
Analysts and watchers of Indian national security, both casual and serious alike, are acutely aware of the debates around the country’s NFU posture. This debate went mainstream when the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar expressed his personal distaste towards NFU by saying, “Why should I bind myself? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it [nuclear weapons] irresponsibly.”
Through a careful reading of various writings of former high-ranking officials, scholars of nuclear policy have pierced together the evidence to highlight the underlying debates taking place behind closed doors of successive Union governments.
To add further confusion, defence minister Rajnath Singh in August 2019 tweeted that while India is firmly committed to its NFU doctrine, the future of the policy all depends on the circumstances. However, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha, the Ministry of External Affairs provided a clarification, stating that no change had been made to the NFU policy. This, however, does little to fix the damage.
Moreover, the question of which doctrine India follows has somewhat become a point of inflection. The intellectual exercise of putting together a nuclear doctrine for India began in 1998 by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). This semi-official body produced the Draft Nuclear Doctrine in 1999. As the name suggests, this was only a draft, and it contained lengthy paragraphs on the purpose and objectives of the doctrine. It laid down the foundation for the final nuclear doctrine which was released in 2003, in the form of a press release.
While the two documents share many similarities, they also share considerable differences both in the implicit wording as well as the explicit declaration. For example, the draft doctrine mentioned no caveats about the NFU policy, and it mentioned that India’s nuclear forces will be meant for “retaliation only.” The 2003 doctrine, on the other hand, puts a clear caveat on the NFU policy. It states that,
“[I]n 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.”
The Union government has stressed on the fact that the Draft Nuclear Doctrine is only a draft (as the name suggests), and does not reflect the official nuclear policy. Ideally, no confusion must arise from this fact. But we don’t live in an ideal world, do we? During a book launch event in 2019, a former commander-in-chief of Strategic Forces Command stated that the doctrine of 2003 must be read in conjunction with the draft doctrine of 1999. This statement complicated the doctrinal debate even further — one that had already become a heated exchange.
From the various debates, confusions and contradictions, it is evident that India’s nuclear policy is facing an identity crisis, similar to what a young adult may face. There is confusion about where its future lies and what direction it may take.
Debates around policy are not new to nuclear weapon states. Other powers such as the US and France have undergone this phase. India’s current identity crisis will become a problem only if its nuclear policy is formulated entirely behind closed doors and shrouded in secrecy.
As mentioned above, the process of putting together the draft nuclear doctrine was an intellectual exercise. The 22-member NSAB was composed of academics, former bureaucrats, military officers as well as scientists, and their output was disseminated widely and made open for debate. Some critiqued the very manner in which the draft was formulated, while others provided specific recommendations for nuclear policy. Overall, the process was democratic and transparent. It allowed domain experts to criticise policies which might have been detrimental to India’s national interest or, make suggestions and strengthen existing recommendations.
Unfortunately, despite the transparent nature of India’s nuclear policymaking in its early years, India’s openness on the subject has witnessed a remarkable decline since 2003. When the nuclear doctrine was made public, it set itself the goal of building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent. Building such a nuclear force is no simple task. As the US scholar Albert Wohlstetter has written, deterrence is not automatic. Simply possessing nuclear weapons does not guarantee deterrence. Maintaining a credible retaliatory force requires a country to overcome several hurdles. These include maintaining a survivable nuclear arsenal, a robust command-and-control system as well as other systems needed to support nuclear operations.
How credible is India’s retaliatory force? The truth is that we do not know. Indeed, these details are highly sensitive, and one can not expect to find the answers in the public domain. What about nuclear capabilities? How is the Union government shaping its acquisition policy? Is it in alignment with our doctrine and our necessities? These questions are far easier to answer. Much to our disappointment, successive governments have maintained a policy of secrecy and opaqueness concerning acquisitions and procurement of nuclear infrastructure. A recent study found that India’s nuclear delivery systems are more than sufficient to reach all targets in China as well as Pakistan. India’s nuclear arsenal could be well-off even without the Agni V ICBM. In such a case, why does India need an ICBM at all?
Surprisingly, the United States is remarkably transparent about its weapons acquisition policy and overall nuclear infrastructure. Such levels of openness have led to intense debates within the national security community which have helped shape US nuclear policy over the years.
The cabinet committee on security (CCS) has shown deep reluctance with regard to sharing any form of information, even within the confines of parliament – this, while invoking the openness of India’s nuclear doctrine heydays. Only in the rarest of cases has the CCS openly acknowledged that matters related to nuclear preparedness were too sensitive to be discussed openly. Therefore it would seem that India’s nuclear policy has become more introvert over the years, while the need of the hour is for it to be engaging with India’s expert community.
For the past 22 years, India’s nuclear policy has had steady growth and overcome many challenges thrown at it. Despite being called the most dangerous place, South Asia has remained relatively peaceful, without witnessing any form of strong nuclear sabre-rattling. At present, however, the challenges faced by our nuclear policy are compounded by Pakistan’s shift towards a “full-spectrum deterrence” posture by developing tactical nuclear weapons. At the same time, we are witnessing a steady rise in China’s nuclear as well as conventional capabilities.
The global nuclear order is also shifting steadily towards a more competitive and destabilising environment. The long-standing INF Treaty came to an end in August 2019, while both the US and Russia are in a race to develop a new range of exotic and warfighting weapons.
Given such a situation, it is worth asking, how should India’s nuclear policy evolve over the next 20-30 years? Furthermore, the question about India’s role in shaping the nuclear order is also worth asking. Thankfully, we do not have to look very far for answers.
In the section dealing with disarmament and arms control, the Draft Nuclear Doctrine states the following:
“Since no-first use of nuclear weapons is India’s basic commitment, every effort shall be made to persuade other States possessing nuclear weapons to join an international treaty banning first use.”
The fundamental goal of India’s nuclear policy must be to strengthen its NFU commitments at home and then export the concept abroad. The Union government must once again embrace openness and transparency and bring our country’s best minds together to strengthen our nuclear policy for the future. A serious effort must be taken to promulgate a discussion on NFU as a global risk-reduction measure, and steps to implement a global no-first use architecture.
Confusing and contradictory statements by high-ranking officials only thwart the objectives that India set for itself when it became a nuclear power, thus making matters worse for Indian security.
Pranav R. Satyanath is a Research Analyst at the Takshashila Institution. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @duke_notnukem