Nuclear doctrine: Ramifications of India’s No-first Use policy

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Agni IV missiles displayed during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi. India today has more number of missiles and more accurate ones.(AFP)

by Dr. Rajkumar Singh 29 August 2019

An extraordinary situation has arisen in India -Pakistan relations since the Indian Government abrogated Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India. Although it has been done in the name of the development of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, it fuelled much internal and external reactions following the same. It brought both countries almost on war-path in diplomatic and strategic spheres. The new arrangements made by the Government of India is likely to continue but Pakistan is not getting any relief from any side and is anxious over its  decade-long policy of promoting proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir. In the circumstances, it often threatens to use even nuclear weapons against India, an option neither possible nor feasible for a country like Pakistan. At the juncture, India has also hinted to reconsider its  No-first Use policy made earlier in the light of changing regional equation and its tense relations with both-China and Pakistan.

Background of the policy

On 19th March 1998,  Atal  Bihari Vajpayee became the Prime Minister of India as a head of the  BJP-led  coalition government and  fulfilled the  promise of nuclear test made in the election  manifesto. After  24  years India had   conducted successfully on 11th and  13th May 1998 five nuclear tests, three and two  respectively. Going  by  numbers, most experts have projected the Indian capability to build  nuclear weapons to be somewhere between 15  to  60  Hiroshima-type warheads. The  Indian Prime Minister in an announcement said, ‘‘today  at 3.45  pm conducte d  three e underground nuclear tests in  the Pokharan range. The  tests conducted were  with the fission  device,  a low-yield  device  and  a thermonuclear device.  The  measured yields  are in line  with expected  values.’’  The  opposition leaders, the former Prime Ministers : V.P. Singh, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Inder Kumar Gujral and other prominent leaders were  stunned by Vajpayee’s daring gamble but at the same-time unwilling to differ with him.

Vajpayee’s government had  perhaps tested India’s nuclear weapons in order to enhance the  country’s security in the  face o f  m o u n t i n g  e v i d e n c e  o f  S i n o – P a k  c o l l a b o r a t i o n  i n  t h e development of nuclear weapons and missile. This time Pakistan not only criticised bitterly India for explosions, but  as expected, evened its nuclear test account with India by  exploding five nuclear test on 28th May  1998.  Islamabad exploded one  more test on 30th May 1998, and became ahead of India in this regard. Shamshad Ahmed, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary in a statement said  that Pakistan was  willing to enter in talks to resolve all issues, including prevention of nuclear proliferation in the region. Pakistan’s decision to exercise nuclear options is only  for self- defence and  to deter aggression. In general, Pakistan had  two basic  compulsions for this nuclear tit-for-tat. First, Islamabad had  to prove  to India in particular and  the world  at large that its nuclear capability was not a fib but very  real. Second  and far more  vital to the survival of Nawaz Sharif government, was the dire  need  to reply  to India’s test with  an  exactly identical display of nuclear prowess.

Policy of No -first Use

In  India’s policy  of no-first use  and  retaliation only  the survivability of our arsenal is crucial. This  is a dynamic concept related to the strategic environment, technological imperatives and  needs of national security. The  doctrine aims at clearly stating in unambiguous terms that any  threat of use  of nuclear weapons against India shall invoke measures to counter that threat and  that any  nuclear attack on India and  its forces  shall result in  punitive retaliation with  nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor. With  this aim  in view, several experts consider that there are good reasons for creating a  nuclear triad, which  simply refer s to the three legs  that comprise most nuclear  forces, the land-based international ballistic missiles (ICBMs),  strategic bombers, and  submarine- based long-range missiles. All  nuclear powers have   had, or aspire to  create such  nuclear triads. Despite their individual advantages and  disadvantages taking together they tend to cancel  out the  various disadvantages to create a robust, safe, and relatively invulnerable deterrent force.  For example, land- based strategic bombers are  large and  soft targets. Land-based missiles are similarly vulnerable, because their locations can be  kept secret from energy spy-satellites. But land-based missiles, usually deployed in underground soils, can be hardened to a certain degree so that they can survive anything but a direct hit.  Likewise, a  submarine-based nuclear deterrent force  has also  advantages and  disadvantages: Submarines, especially nuclear missile submarines which  rarely come  to the  surface, are notoriously difficult to detect and  track, which  makes them the most invulnerable leg of the nuclear triad. Thus, a nuclear triad, which  includes all  the legs  of the triad, reduces the dangers, vulnerabilities and  insecurity associated with any single leg.  Because India will  never see  any  merit in  using nuclear weapons to strike first, it is fundamentally crucial for us with  our defensive doctrine and  a no-first use  philosophy to e n s u r e  s u r v i v a b i l i t y  o f  t h e  n u c l e a r a r s e n a l  t o  e n a b l e retaliation. It is this capability which  will deter the aggressor from  taking recourse to war  and  hence provide deterrence and peace and  tranquillity so essential to  the  development of the nation.

The draft of India’s nuclear doctrine issued in August 1999 was  subsequently formalised with  some  modifications in 2003. It  explicitly  stated that  the country is  pursuing nuclear deterrence though this was  qualified as  a minimal one.  It also warns that “nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and  designed to  inflict unacceptable damage.”  Unacceptable damage, in  plain English, means that these nuclear weapons would  be  dropped on  cities, each  killing lakhs  or millions of innocent people. But India, unlike the cold warriors of the fifties, embarked on  making nuclear weapons not as  a  war fighting arsenal  or for use  in  a  massive first strike, but only  as  an instrument of minimal nuclear deterrence. This deterrence was to  be  achieved with “……sufficient nuclear  weapons to  inflict destruction and   punishment that  the aggressor will  find unacceptable….”  This  policy  has  been  repeatedly underlined and  reiterated several times by  the government of the day.