Media speculation has been rife regarding India’s potential shift in its nuclear doctrine — specifically moving from no-first use (NFU) to either a first use or first strike nuclear policy. Current and former policymakers in India such as former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon and ex-defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who is the current chief minister of Goa — have advocated for such a shift, arguing that this change would act as credible deterrence to non-state actors plotting against India. Such statements have further fuelled rumours that a potential departure from a NFU policy is under serious consideration, despite no official confirmation from New Delhi. These developments have raised quite a few eyebrows in Pakistan — most recently, the Foreign Office of Pakistan termed this potential change “highly irresponsible and dangerous” and reiterated that India’s insistence upon NFU is “nothing more than an empty political statement.”
Adoption of a first use, or first strike, nuclear policy is highly unlikely for three reasons. Firstly, India’s nuclear policy has always been aimed at China. India has always argued for a position of Credible Minimum Deterrence towards any potential Chinese aggression. India has maintained that any acts of aggression from Pakistan would be met by massive conventional retaliation, a concept truly captured by India’s Cold Start doctrine. This makes the Indo-Pak security relationship completely asymmetric, as Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal solely serves the purpose of “existential deterrence” towards India but India’s deterrence towards Pakistan is based upon its superior conventional capability.
Secondly, promise of a first use or first strike will not credibly deter any misadventures by non-state actors within India’s borders. If India is to carry out a preemptive nuclear strike (first strike) or reactive nuclear strike (first use) against Pakistan in retaliation for any non-state actor perpetrated attack, there will most definitely be a retaliatory strike by Pakistan. In such a scenario, is it plausible that India will risk a nuclear strike on one of its important military installments or urban centres because of an insurgent attack? As this serves to be a highly unlikely situation, the nuclear threat to deter non-state actors’ misadventures in India is not the most credible.
Lastly, in order to make a first strike more effective, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) estimates that India will need to strike an estimated 30 different targets in Pakistan to render any potential retaliation ineffective. To hit all these targets simultaneously, ORF also estimates the deployment and subsequent use of about 60 nuclear warheads. India currently maintains a nuclear arsenal of about 110 warheads. If a first strike is initiated, India will be left with about 50 nuclear warheads — a number that does not act as Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD) to China. Therefore, to maintain CMD, India will need to ramp up the production of its nuclear arsenal. However, significantly increasing the production of nuclear warheads is very unlikely because of the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement, according to which India will receive nuclear technology only if it uses the technology for civilian purposes. The United States has already come under massive criticism for striking up this deal, as India currently is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). An increase in the production of nuclear weapons will amount to Vertical Proliferation — a development that will seriously damage the United States’ reputation as non-proliferator. To that end, it is inconceivable that the United States will allow India to indulge in additional production of nuclear warheads. For all these reasons, it is highly unlikely that India will be changing its nuclear policy from no-first use.
That being said, it is also interesting that despite such media hype, India has not come out with an official confirmation or denial regarding any potential shifts in its nuclear strategy. One suspects that Indian policymakers are well aware of the pitfalls of a departure from NFU policy. However, not officially commenting on the speculation keeps the ambiguity around the issue. Such ambiguity plays well for India’ recent policy of creating an illusion of a hard foreign policy stance towards Pakistan — one of the promises on which the Modi-led BJP contested the 2013 general elections. After the finger pointing at Pakistan in the aftermath of Pathankot and Uri Base attacks, mentioning Balochistan in India’s Independence Day speech, and claiming to have conducted surgical strikes across the Line of Control, India has slowly but successfully built such a perception among its domestic audience.
Having a raging media debate as to whether the government of India is seriously considering a first use or a first strike policy to deter non-state actors will only further solidify this image. To that end, the utility of maintaining ambiguity plays well for the BJP-led government, especially when 2019 general elections are not too far out in future.
The threat of a potentially more aggressive Indian nuclear posture has put an additional strain on an already rocky India-Pakistan relationship. However, it must be understood that these talks are mere signalling and the odds are that they will not amount to any concrete policy shifts. In any case, Pakistan must keep on engaging India on issues of contention between the two countries, especially through Track II diplomacy as India keeps on refusing to engage publicly to ensure that a further escalation does not take place in hostilities.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2017.2017-04-07