No First Use, simply stated, is that India would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into a conflict. Its nuclear resort would be ‘retaliation only’. The logic underlying this is has several dimensions – political, military and diplomatic.
India is a reluctant nuclear weapon state. This is in keeping with India’s strategic culture. On its political necessity internally, NFU serves the purpose of placating that part of the political spectrum that finds nuclear weapons’ possession and use, horrendous. Externally, India needs the weapons to deter other states from threatening India or restricting its strategic autonomy. These weapons are thus seen as political weapons, not meant for war-fighting. This is made explicit by the NFU postulate.
Militarily, India does not need to rely on nuclear weapons, either in the India-Pakistan or in the India-China conflict scenario. On both fronts, it is a status quo power and does not have an aggressive intent. It has adequate capability for conventional self-defence. On the Pakistan front, its conventional posture has acquired an offensive edge with ‘Cold Start’. While it has adequate conventional advantage over Pakistan to be able to operationalize the doctrine, it is making up for shortfalls in firepower etc. On the China front, it is moving towards ‘active deterrence’ from a ‘dissuasive deterrence’ posture, through the raising of formations and by creating infrastructure. There is little scope for nuclear use, since their introduction would neutralize India’s conventional advantage on the Pakistan front and be of little use in face of the asymmetry with China.
The moral and political high ground is proving to be of increasing importance in conflict. Both the US and Israel, who have fought conventional wars and faced an asymmetric counter recently, have had to exert to defend their case. Even though militarily effective, diplomatic shortfalls have made any gains ambiguous. Consequently, it can be reckoned that first use of nuclear weapons would place any state in considerable disadvantage on this score. The state would require proving the need for breaching the long standing nuclear taboo. This could have unaffordable diplomatic and political costs. Instead, responding to a nuclear strike through nuclear means would be easily defensible.
One circumstance in which first use makes sense is in preempting enemy first-strike levels of nuclear first use. This would amount to an attempt by the enemy to degrade India’s nuclear retaliatory capability to such an extent that retaliation is ruled out or made negligible. There are two ways to cope with this: one is going first through first strike doctrines as launch on warning, launch through attack etc; and second, deterring through punishment based on a second strike capability.
The former is more destabilizing since it requires higher alertness levels that can be mistaken by the enemy as first strike preparedness; thereby increasing his propensity, if any, for first strike. It lends itself more readily to vertical proliferation since a competition in numbers develops to make the first strike effective. It is argued that waiting to receive the grievous blow may prove fatal. The problems are two: first is the well known one of misperception and accident; the second is that a first strike in preemption need not prove effective. The enemy would retaliate with strikes designed to hurt with the fewer weapons he has left. Therefore, first strike makes little sense, especially when the opponents have already acquired second strike capability levels of nuclear ordnance.
India favours the latter. It is in the process of acquiring a second strike capability based on a triad of delivery means and sufficient numbers as to preclude successful first strike. An arms race need not necessarily result if measures that lend credibility, such as suitable basing, hardening, mobility, command and control arrangements and deception, are taken alongside. Further, misperception is precluded. Nevertheless, second strike, to quote General Sundarji, needs also to be ‘sensibly’ defined.
The argument so far has been that nuclear first use makes little sense for India. This does not necessarily mean that India needs to subscribe to NFU. It need not launch nuclear weapons first. It need not make a declaration to that effect. The critique that India’s unilateral NFU would be received with skepticism by its adversaries is understandable. However, their strategic assessment on India’s intent would lead them to the arguments made here that first use has no gains for India. Therefore, even if India was to withdraw from NFU, its doctrine would continue as ‘retaliation only’.
Nevertheless, making this explicit helps preclude the ‘use them-lose them’ dilemma brought on as suggested by Thomas Schelling by the logic: ‘He thinks we think he thinks we think…he thinks we think he will attack; so he thinks we shall; so he will; so we must.’ The NFU helps mitigate edgy nuclear thresholds.