Rajnath and No First Use: Tainting India's Image as a Responsible Nuclear Power

In case of a conflict between NFU powers, there is greater probability of political leaders stepping back from the brink – for they know that a nuclear war cannot be won.

On August 16, Rajnath Singh became the second defence minister to cast doubts about one of the cornerstones of India’s nuclear doctrine.

On the occasion of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first death anniversary, Singh visited India’s nuclear test site at Pokhran and subsequently tweeted, “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atalji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of NFU. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” The statement evoked a response that will continue this rekindled debate: Is India likely to jettison the ‘no first use’ (NFU) policy?

Earlier, in July 2016, the late Manohar Parrikar had categorically stated that personally, he did not believe that India should adhere to NFU. A few hours later, the defence ministry spokesman clarified that there was no change in the policy and it was a personal opinion. The residual impact of the episode is that it comes in handy for those who wish to cast doubts on India’s NFU policy.

The defence minister’s present statement is in the same mould, with the major difference that this statement has come from the official Twitter handle. “What happens in the future depends on the circumstances” is banal by itself, but loaded in the NFU context.

In the absence of a clarification from any other quarter so far, the first issue is whether such a statement is part of India’s strategic communication plan or is aimed narrowly to deter Pakistan, in view of the growing tensions post India’s initiatives relating to Jammu and Kashmir.

Watch: Have Nuclear Weapons Made India More Secure?

The major thrust of any Indian nuclear strategic communications plan should be aimed at downplaying the nuclear factor in the political and strategic equation with China and Pakistan. China too has an NFU policy and the Sino-Indian nuclear dynamic is not yet a cause for concern.

On the contrary, in Pakistan’s case there is a continuous attempt to increase the salience of nuclear threats so as to contain India’s reaction to terrorism and concurrently invite international attention. Singh’s statement increases the notability of the nuclear factor and works against India’s interests. It is therefore unlikely that the defence minister’s statement is part of a larger plan.

The statement seems to be specifically aimed at Pakistan and is problematic at several levels.

A first-use approach against Pakistan or even China lacks credibility, as it would involve nuclear weapon application for substantial destruction of the adversary’s nuclear and economic capabilities. Even if we succeed, the long term after effects of the nuclear fallout and climate change could pose existential threats not only to India and its neighbours, but  depending on the magnitude of nuclear explosions, it could result in an existential threat to humanity itself. Scientific studies indicate this possibility.

It could be argued that an Indian second strike on which NFU is anchored could also bring about a similar existential consequence. True, except that second strike and NFU have relatively greater credibility, because they are premised on retaliation. The notion that first use strengthens the power of deterrence is misplaced; it amounts to suicide for the fear of death.

Also read: Decoding India’s Nuclear Status

There is also an argument that by creating doubts about NFU, ambiguity is enhanced and deterrence is strengthened. But this argument overlooks that crisis stability is impacted, because once nuclear weapons are readied for delivery there is a larger scope of wanting to hit first due to the fear of greater damage that could be caused by being struck first.

But such notions erroneously embrace the idea that a nuclear war can be fought and won. Globally, political leaders know that it is not the case and though political rhetoric through nuclear threats are not uncommon, strategic caution thus far has been the practical path adopted. The Indian threat of nuclear use has rightfully been confined to the core deterrence role of retaliation against nuclear weapons, and also retains the option against biological and chemical weapons.

If India has to switch from NFU, it will have to make substantial changes to existing nuclear structures, alert levels, deployment and command and control arrangements. This will involve a sizeable increase in delivery systems and warheads. The pressure on India’s resources would also impact the buildup of other kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities.

The impulses within the Indian strategic community to jettison NFU is driven by the excessive focus on Pakistan, which in the post-nuclear era, barring geographically limited skirmishes and conflicts, has mainly posed terrorist threats. Pakistan does not pose a conventional threat that India cannot counter. Given that, they are likely to persist with terrorism, which is a low-cost option.

On the other hand, India’s conventional military power, shaped to fight a limited war, is challenged to impose its will under the nuclear shadow. Our foregoing NFU cannot prevent Pakistan from using terrorism as a tool of its India policy. On the contrary, it enables Pakistan to invite international intervention in what India maintains is a bilateral issue.

Watch: Menon: The Policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons Has Served India’s Purpose

The main advantage of NFU is that it minimises the probability of nuclear use. This is so because it enhances the possibility of containing the crisis before the point of no return when miscommunications, misjudgement, misperception or the fog of war may force either power to go first. Instead, if both are NFU powers, there is greater probability of political leaders stepping back from the brink – for they know that a nuclear war cannot be won.

NFU for India also presents an opportunity for cooperation with China to work jointly towards a Global No First Use (GNFU) order. Notably, there is considerable convergence regarding the belief of nuclear weapons being restricted to the political realm. India, therefore, should take the lead on seeking a GNFU policy instead of creating doubts about its own adherence to it.

The defence minister’s statement does not provide any benefits for national security. Instead, it taints India’s image as a responsible nuclear power. An official clarification could recover lost ground.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and former Military Adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat.