India and “No First Use”

Earlier this year, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in Delhi released a document, India’s Nuclear Doctrine: An Alternative Blueprint, intended as a “constructive critique” of India’s existing doctrine.

India’s first draft nuclear doctrine in 1999 was a rush job, designed to alleviate international pressure after the previous year’s nuclear tests. In 2003, a more formal document was issued, one which basically accepted India’s “No First Use” pledge and promised “non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states” i.e. negative security assurances. (Scott Sagan has a nice overview).

In the decade since, most of the debate has been on whether India’s promise of massive retaliation should change to something more credible, such as “assured retaliation” or “flexible response”. There has been comparably little debate over whether India should retain NFU. Last year, former foreign and defense minister Jaswant Singh called for the policy to be reconsidered. See also Reshmi Kazi here and Ali Ahmed here.

The IPCS doctrine, which has an impressively diverse range of authors (many of the other Delhi think-tanks are represented), has an interesting take on this.

It states that:

In adherence to a policy of no first use, India will not initiate a nuclear strike.

The ambiguous use of “strike” is unhelpful. The term has a specific meaning in orthodox deterrence theory, usually referring to a specific type of nuclear first use – preemptive counterforce (see Quinlan, p6, para. 5).

But even more curious is its clarification of what “initiate” means: “‘Initiation’ covers the process leading up to the actual use of a nuclear weapon by an adversary. This would include mating component systems and deploying warheads with the intet [sic] This will enable the Prime Minister to gain the flexibility to decide upon an appropriate response”.

The unfinished sentence aside, this is a fairly … bold definition. It means that if Pakistan mates its warheads to missiles as part of nuclear alerting during a crisis, it can be understood to have “initiated” a nuclear strike. That denudes NFU of all meaning.

The IPCS doctrine also alters negative security assurances a bit: “India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against states that do not possess nuclear weapons, but such states shall be deemed nuclear weapons states if they ally with or assist nuclear armedstates against India, and/or assist them during hostilities”.

If India had a strict NFU pledge, then these assurances are irrelevant – how would a non-nuclear state initiate a nuclear strike on India in the first place? But, with this definition, you can just about craft a scenario whereby nuclear preparations by a nuclear-armed state count as “initiation”, which then doctrinally permits Indian nuclear use against any non-nuclear ally or co-belligerent of that first state. This is pretty fanciful stuff, but then the nature of nuclear doctrines is that they are supposed to cater to a wide range of scenarios.

There are some other interesting aspects to the document. “This document also does not speculate on the complicity of states in the motives and actions of sub and non-state actors” i.e. we have absolutely no idea what to do if Lashkar-e-Taiba gets a dirty bomb. The authors also, understandably, take a pop at the non-credibility of massive retaliation:

Ethically, the punishing of a whole population for the decisions of its leadership is unsustainable. Moreover, executing massive retaliation would expose India to risking international isolation. There is also the operational consideration, that territories captured or in dispute will be destroyed and rendered uninhabitable for a long time. The suggested alternate wording provides flexibility, while a doctrine based on reflex massive response curtails India’s options.

This – flexibility – certainly seems the direction in which India’s nuclear posture is, slowly, headed.


One response to “India and “No First Use”

  1. Pingback: India linkage: Manmohan Singh at 80, nukes, infrastructure, China cooperation and more

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