Why is India’s no first use policy under so much strain?
In 2014, the election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) included a promise to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine. It gave rise to speculations that the Narendra Modi government, upon being elected, would consider revoking India’s pledge of no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. In an interview to ANI, Modi quelled those speculations by asserting that NFU won’t be revoked. “No first use is a reflection of our cultural inheritance,” Modi added.
Not just a politician like Modi, but scholars too had once tried to explain India’s nuclear posture using arguments of culture. Rajesh Basrur, an expert on South Asian security, had argued that minimalism and restraint are part of India’s “nuclear-strategic culture”. Culture can certainly be one of the factors but nuclear postures are first and foremost decided on the basis of structural realities.
As another scholar, Kanti Bajpai, argued in a 2000 paper, India’s nuclear posture after the 1998 tests evolved through a debate between three different schools of nuclear thinking: rejectionism; pragmatism; and maximalism. The final posture corresponds to the school which is more aligned with structural realities at that point of time. That India chose NFU in its draft nuclear doctrine (1999) and official nuclear doctrine (2003) was a result of structural factors favouring pragmatists.
However, in recent times, we have seen a number of statements from sitting and retired senior members of the nuclear security establishment questioning the NFU policy. No less than the then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, expressed doubts over the utility of NFU in November 2016. Most recently, Lt Gen (retd.), BS Nagal , former commander-in-chief of the Strategic Forces Command, has called the NFU policy a “formula for disaster” and argued for dropping it forthwith.
It is true that India still officially sticks to a NFU policy but it is hard to deny that the consensus around NFU has weakened and that the maximalist position has grown stronger.
How have structural factors diluted the NFU consensus? In three ways.
First, NFU policy suits a power which wants to deter just nuclear wars. In other words, if a nuclear weapons state is comfortably placed on a conventional (or, more broadly, non-nuclear) front with respect to its adversaries, it does not need to threaten first use of its nuclear bombs. India was, and continues to remain, a stronger conventional power compared to Pakistan. While China was conventionally stronger, India felt somewhat protected due to difficult terrain on the Himalayan border. Now, China’s impressive infrastructure and massive military modernisation have effectively eroded the Himalayan buffer. Now, the conventional disparity between India and China is not just huge but also more palpable. This is putting immense pressure on India’s NFU policy.
Second, India’s conventional advantage has been blunted by Pakistan through a clever use of sub-conventional assets (read terrorists) and threat of using tactical nuclear weapons against any Indian conventional response to a 26/11 type of an attack. India’s nuclear doctrine, that professes massive retaliation even against use of midget nukes, does not help. Pre-emptive counterforce (CF) strikes, if they can be executed, seem to be a way out of this problem. Nagal has openly advocated this strategy and Shivshankar Menon, the former national security advisor, has indicated openness to the idea.
Third, India today has access to much better technology than it had in 2003 when it released its nuclear doctrine. In their forthcoming paper, “India’s Counterforce Temptations”, two US-based scholars, Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang, list out the technologies that enable a CF posture for India. New Delhi now has more missiles and more accurate ones. It has high quality surveillance platforms. It can access commercially available remote sensing technologies. It is developing MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles) and investing in missile and air defence systems. While most of these developments may be relevant for China, they also make India more capable than ever before of executing CF strikes against Pakistan. However, it should be noted at this point that India is still a long way away from possessing the capability of executing successful CF strikes. And it may never reach there because Pakistan is rapidly increasing its arsenal size and improving the survivability of its nuclear weapons.
India’s solid fuel missiles have enabled it to move towards canisterised systems for storing its land-based ballistic missiles. Such systems can reduce turnaround times — earlier India used to rely on physical separation of components to prevent unauthorised use — and hence are suitable even for pre-emptive strikes in case the rival is shown to be readying its nuclear assets for use. Canisterisation has further enabled India’s nuclear deterrent to move to the seas. With INS Arihant, a nuclear propelled ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), India has a credible sea-based deterrent. With a couple of more SSBNs, it can boast of a genuine nuclear triad. But SSBNs involve pre-mating of warheads with ballistic missiles, and hence increase the strain on command and control, especially with the NFU policy intact. Both canisterisation and sea-based deterrence thus increase the strain on NFU policy.
These three changes have created a more propitious ground for nuclear maximalists. There is no single strategic culture that is immune to changes in structural realities.