India’s ex-SFC on nuclear doctrine

Lt. Gen. Nagal in January 2009 (photo via Shiv Aroor,

India’s Lt Gen. B.S. Nagal (retd) served as India’s Strategic Forces Commander (2008-2010) and, after his retirement, as head of a nuclear cell within the Indian Prime Minister’s Office that reportedly sought to mimic Pakistan’s nuclear secretariat, the SPD.

In the June edition of India’s Force magazine, he has written a fascinating and somewhat critical essay on India’s nuclear weapons titled ‘Checks and Balances’. His comments are noteworthy both because of the positions he has held – he’s sat at the pinnacle of the civilian and military institutions than deal with Indian nuclear weapons – and because they come at a time when many are expressing dissatisfaction with India’s nuclear doctrine (e.g. PR Chari here, the BJP’s manifesto a few months ago, and in The Hindu yesterday; others, it should be said, have been supportive of the status quo – like Shyam Saran last year).

Some excerpts from Gen. Nagal’s essay therefore follow, with my emphases underscored.

On No First Use (NFU):

The disadvantages of the NFU policy need deliberation. Firstly, NFU implies probable large scale destruction in own country, whilst a feeble argument can be made of limited strikes by the adversary on Indian forces in the adversary’s territory.

Secondly, in India there is hardly any debate on security policy issues, much less on the NFU policy. Inputs indicate that the Indian public in totality is not in sync with the policy. Some call it a cause of concern; others call it ‘the Panipat Syndrome’ of allowing the enemy to defeat us on our own soil. On the political plane, it was not put to public vote as India does not follow a system of referendum. The NDA government released the NFU policy in January 2003. The loss of the election by the NDA in 2004 did not politically validate the policy.

Thirdly, the nation has not been educated on the devastation of nuclear strikes and is psychologically not prepared to be destroyed.

Fourthly, to fight a war with constraints which jeopardise the future of a country is also morally wrong; no leadership has the right to place its population at peril without exhausting other options and opting only for NFU.

Fifthly, NFU policy cannot conduct a first strike on the adversary’s counterforce targets, thus allowing the adversary full capability to attrite own capability. In the current environment of mobile system on land and SSBNs at sea, the probability of destruction of the adversary strategic assets will be extremely low or negligible in a second strike, this therefore limits own retaliatory nuclear strikes to counter value targets, once again a moral dilemma.

Sixthly, NFU policy requires a very extensive and elaborate missile defence system across the country. However, cost and technology will allow it at select points, leaving the nation exposed to nuclear strikes.

A change of policy to ambiguity is recommended, as it encompasses four options including NFU. The benefits that accrue include deterring first strike on India. It may be called destabilising, but four other nuclear weapon states follow this policy. It enhances and improves the psychological state of the nation. A shift to a proactive policy is reassuring to the public. It does not allow destruction of the nation and strategic forces at the outset; hence the arsenal is intact for use. It provides a better range of options to launch decapitating and/ or disarming strikes to deal with the adversary leadership/ arsenal, and allows a proactive CBM policy.

On massive retaliation:

At times doubts are raised over the strategy of MR. Reasons to doubt its applicability are:

  1.  Gradual escalation/ quid pro quo will prevent large scale nuclear damage and is a pragmatic option;
  2. Response to a few or one tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) should not be disproportionate which could result in an all-out nuclear war;
  3. Escalation control should be practiced in conventional and nuclear war on moral and humanitarian considerations …
  4.  The strategy is not rational, our political leadership may not show resolve during crisis or at the time of decision.

[But] MR is the declared policy, and must be implemented. The nation has placed faith in political leadership and the leadership is expected to fulfil their responsibility. In case we vacillate on the issue or raise doubts about our commitment to the policy, we will send wrong signals to our adversary(s).

On nuclear signalling:

A more proactive public communication will help reassure the public, and it should be practiced in the future, especially when we are committed to NFU. A unique feature of nuclear deterrent signalling has been the role of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientists in speaking on strategy, development and employment philosophy. The statements by the scientists also prematurely release information on delivery systems, which later become embarrassing when time lines are overshot/ delayed. A deliberate and well-thought out nuclear signalling policy should be put in place to communicate with the nation and send the desired message to the adversary(s). The political leadership must speak on select occasions on India’s nuclear policy to display the resolve and credibility without conveying an aggressive posture. An open paper on national security including nuclear policy should be issued periodically. This will invite debate and suggestions and enrich the policy.


Future developments required are MIRV and MaRV capability. MIRV does provide a system to increase the number of targets destroyed by one delivery vehicle, overcome missile interception defences, deliver more on a single missile, thereby reducing the delivery vehicles. However, the disadvantage of MIRV delivery missile loss does worry planners with small arsenals. MaRV [Manoeuvrable reentry vehicle] is required to overcome missile interception defences, ensure assured strike and it also improves deterrence. Other aspects for future development are improved guidance systems, miniaturisation, bigger SSBNs, anti-satellite capability, space based sensors, earth penetrating systems and host of new technology required to overcome protection/ defensive systems.

On missile defence:

Para 5.4 of the draft doctrine stated ‘the survivability of the nuclear arsenal and effective command, control, communications, computing, intelligence and information systems shall be ensured’. Under the survivability clause one issue that can be evaluated is ballistic missile defence. To protect India with a ballistic missile defence is nearly impractical. However, critical elements of Command and Control, nuclear forces and important industrial/ populations can be protected.


However, there are differences of opinion on some aspects of the doctrine. The doctrine of strategic deterrence is sound, serves the objectives of deterrence and India would be ill-advised to shift to nuclear war-fighting. Credible Minimum Deterrent is a dynamic and flexible concept and serves Indian planners’ requirements. The most divisive feature is the NFU policy. As discussed earlier, there is a need to give greater space and options to India’s leadership by shifting to a policy of deliberate or studied ambiguity.

Ambiguity covers employment options from first use i.e. pre-emption, launch on warning, launch on launch and NFU, thus not defining the circumstances for use of nuclear weapons and complicating the adversary’s planning. The policy of massive retaliation is appropriate as long as India follows a NFU policy, but will undergo a change if India abandons NFU. Indian political leadership credibility comes under doubt at policy discussion forums. There is a need to conduct better nuclear signalling and obtain the confidence of the public on our nuclear doctrine.


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