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The reference to India’s nuclear doctrine in the BJP’s manifesto has resulted in a virtual storm in the strategic community. While the manifesto only makes the point that the BJP will seek to review the nuclear doctrine, there has been a rash of commentary with pre-emptive intent in favour No First Use (NFU). Setting up a straw man, most strategists have taken pot shots at the BJP’s intent to abandon NFU, even though the BJP has reiterated that they are not averse to NFU.
To strategists concerned with the possibility of jettisoning of the NFU, it is necessary to retain into the foreseeable future at least until India’s credible second strike capability is ready against China. Since the Agni V and the nuclear submarine are as yet under trials, there is little need for India to go about resetting the central pillar of its nuclear doctrine. Assuring the adversaries of having no intent to go first with nuclear weapons, India will prevent nuclear pre-emption in a first strike mode on their part. Politically, it continues to convey that India, a late entrant into the nuclear club, is a mature and responsible nuclear weapons state.
The fear is that known nuclear hawks in the strategic community, who may have the nationalist party’s ear, may influence it by riding their favourite hobby horses. Rescinding the NFU would be an easy initiative since the commitment has been under considerable criticism lately. Strategic cover is with the argument that Pakistan’s projecting a low nuclear threshold with its Nasr tactical nuclear missile system and the danger of its nuclear weapons falling to Islamists. An NFU would tie India down at the crunch.
It may make political sense to the BJP wanting to embellish its difference with the preceding dispensation widely taken as ‘soft’ on defence. The BJP has already indicated its disinterest in being tied down by the prime minister’s initiative late last month of attempting the impossible of elevating the NFU to a new global nuclear norm.
However, critics have alongside suggested that BJP should instead concentrate on other aspects of the doctrine. In their sights has been the introduction of the term ‘massive’ into India’s nuclear doctrine in relation to the quantum of nuclear retribution India intends to visit on an adversary introducing nuclear weapons into a conflict in any manner. The recommendation made is to water this down by reverting to the earlier formulation of ‘assured retaliation’ with sufficient quantum to impose punitive and unacceptable damage.
Movement away from massive nuclear retaliation is useful in light of Pakistan having crossed the three figure mark in number of warheads. This implies it can well hurt India back grievously; in effect, the numbers give it second strike capability. Further, for India to take out this retaliatory capability, with its marginally lesser number of warheads, is impossible and risks nuclear winter, as a recent study on affects on global climate of a hypothetical nuclear exchanges of up to half the India-Pakistan arsenal taken together, has pointed out.
Therefore, while jettisoning the intent to go ‘massive’ is necessary, going about it requires ensuring that deterrence is not endangered. Taking care of this implies buttressing deterrence by other measures such as withdrawing the NFU without necessarily going down the first use route.
By no means does stepping back from the pledge imply a first use intent. India can yet choose to wait out the other nuclear power since it can afford to do so. With respect to Pakistan, it has marginal conventional advantage that can translate as local ascendance. Against China, it has raised two divisions in a defensive role and is forming a mountain strike corps to address any conventional asymmetry. Therefore, since India does not need nuclear first use to be militarily on even keel, it does not need to resort to nuclear weapons other than in a retaliatory role.
Therefore, even if there is no NFU pledge, India’s nuclear posture does not need to change. Removing NFU does not necessarily imply a first use posture. Such a posture is rightly feared by critics since it conjures up a Cold War picture of ever expanding nuclear forces on hair trigger alert. However, a posture aligned with NFU can yet be retained without an NFU pledge. India does not need to say it out loud but to just do it.
Moving away from NFU is seemingly at little cost.The danger is in mistaking the lack of an NFU pledge as implying a first use posture. Technological advances impelled by institutional interests of the nuclear establishment already amount to pressure on this score. Pursuit of a missile shield in league with advances on the surveillance front in terms of military and remote sensing satellites, sea leg of nuclear triad, MIRV technology based on multiple satellite launch capability etc are some pointers to the potential direction towards first use. Adversaries wary of India’s word watch its actions. They are already less than persuaded, in particular Pakistan for it fears that India could at will move to first use once the pieces are in place or in case push comes to nuclear shove. Its nuclear second strike capability based on warhead numbers could be offset by India’s missile shield after an Indian first strike renders its retaliation a broken backed one. Therefore, India would need to be more watchful, as Vipin Narang warns that its technological demonstrations are sending a message contrary to its declaratory nuclear doctrine. This makes the adversary suspect an operational doctrine that is quiet at variance with the declaratory nuclear doctrine.
Therefore, a move away from NFU for bolstering deterrence in order to create the conditions for a step back from ‘massive nuclear retaliation’ to flexible nuclear retaliation should not result in adoption of a ‘first use’ doctrine instead. While the recommendation here is for declaratory doctrine to be adjusted to match the operational nuclear doctrine, that is surely already cognizant of the need for limited nuclear strike options, this does not imply that NFU needs being abandoned. NFU should instead be retained in the operational doctrine even if for political reasons it is felt that India can do without an NFU pledge in its declaratory nuclear doctrine.