Fashioning India’s nuclear posture
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh reiterated that “no first use” remained the governing doctrine for India’s nuclear weapons posture, but added “what happens in future depends on the circumstances.” Similar off-the-cuff remarks have come from Indian officials in the past. Some claim this reflects an evolving nuclear doctrine, in which New Delhi is moving towards an embrace of a nuclear first strike. However, India’s written nuclear doctrine and the delivery systems it is deploying remained geared to no first use. There is no real evidence that the strong consensus within the Indian strategic and political community in favour of no first use has changed.
Nonetheless, at times of crisis which involve Pakistan and China, the Indian leadership is prone to indirectly hinting that no first use may not be a hard and fast rule. Singh’s comment derives from the present shift in Kashmir policy and the possibility of an aggressive response by Pakistan and China. The primary reason New Delhi feels the need to let its neighbours be reminded of its nuclear arsenal is the lack of credibility of its overall defence situation. Nuclear deterrence assumes that all players understand that they cannot win in an exchange of mass destruction. But India cannot be wholly sure that this is accepted by its neighbours. Pakistan has a warhead hoard that is probably larger than India’s. China’s is obviously much larger. Numbers can be compensated with deployments designed to survive a first strike. The most survivable part of India’s arsenal is its submarines but that is an effective fleet of one.
All this is compounded with a conventional defence deficit caused by almost two decades of underspending on the armed forces. New Delhi fills this gap by making hints about its nuclear capabilities whenever it has security concerns about its immediate neighbours. The perfect answer is for India to spend more on its conventional defences and complete its nuclear triad. A United States and China do not need to flash their atomic sabres, their nuclear credibility is clear and present. However, given the costs involved, changes in technology and China’s rapid defence buildup, it could be decades before India reaches the state of comfort that allows it to firewall its nuclear posture from its conventional security problems. In the meantime, the best that India can do is to make sure its nuclear footnotes are extremely rare and understated, but always keeping in mind that cumulatively they undermine rather than enhance the credibility of its nuclear posture.