writings of ali ahmed ...with due acknowledgement and thanks to publications where these have appeared. Views expressed are personal and may not be associated with any organisation. Follow on twitter: @aliahd66
Also blogs at - www.subcontinentalmusings.blogspot.in
That India's No First Use policy is under threat of the axe in any future review of the nuclear doctrine is apparent from the election time controversy over the mention of a nuclear doctrinal review in the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The reference - subsequently toned down - was possibly an attempt by the conservative party to live up to its image as a strategically assertive replacement of the Congress Party.
No First Use (NFU) is taken as among the cardinal principles of India’s nuclear doctrine; the others being “credible” and “minimum”.1Even as developments in India’s deterrent posture, specifically, in the number of warheads, its variegated missile capability and operationalisation of the deterrent, have led to the “credible” potentially superseding the “minimum”, the NFU is also seemingly under threat of eclipse. This is best evidenced by the recent controversy that attended the release of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto promising to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine. While the manifesto did not anticipate which pillars of the doctrine would face the axe, the very mention led alert nuclear commentators to pre-emptively pitch for continuation of India’s NFU.2
The reaction was prompted by BJP functionaries initially alluding to the NFU as a prospective area of change.3 The BJP probably was reacting to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s call at a Pugwash-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) conference in New Delhi for adoption of NFU as a new “global no-first-use norm”.4 Since the speech was the government’s swan song on nuclear matters, it is possible that the BJP was reluctant to have its strategic space tied down by the Congress-led administration’s last minute initiative. In the event, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, seemingly in response to the criticism in strategic circles,5 put a lid on the topic by maintaining that he would give NFU credence since it had the imprint of the BJP stalwart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose moderate image he, Modi, was emulating during the electoral campaign under way.6
FOR FULL ARTICLE SEE http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2014_49/20/No_First_Use_Nuclear_Policy.pdf
(Ali Ahmed, PhD (JNU) is author of India’sDoctrine Puzzle:
Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). He blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in.)
That India’s NFU is under threat of the axe in any future
review of the nuclear doctrine is apparent from the election time controversy
over the mention of a nuclear doctrinal review in the BJP manifesto. The
reference was possibly an attempt by the conservative party to live up to its
image as a strategically assertive replacement for the effete incumbent.
Nevertheless, the juncture provides an opportunity to revisit NFU. Though it is
taken as a pillar of the declaratory nuclear doctrine, India has hedged its NFU
pledge. The direction of India’s deterrent has been such that rescinding NFU
can easily be done, for the structure of a ‘first use’ posture is partially emerging.
This article is a timely biography of India’s NFU that may well end up serving
as it epitaph.
No First Use (NFU) is taken as among the cardinal principles of
India’s nuclear doctrine; the others being ‘credible’ and ‘minimum’.
Even as developments in India’s deterrent posture, specifically, in numbers of
warheads, its variegated missile capability and operationalisation of the
deterrent, have led to ‘credible’ potentially superseding ‘minimum’, the NFU is
also seemingly under threat of eclipse. This is best evidenced by the recent controversy
that attended the release of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto promising
to ‘revise and update’ India’s nuclear doctrine.
While the manifesto did not anticipate which pillars of the doctrine would face
the axe, the very mention led alert nuclear commentators to pre-emptively pitch
for continuation of India’s NFU.
The reaction was prompted by BJP functionaries initially alluding
to the NFU as a prospective area of change.
The BJP probably was reacting to the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh’s call at
a Pugwash-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) conference in New
Delhi for adoption of NFU as a new ‘global no-first-use norm’.
Since the speech was the government’s swan song on nuclear matters, it is
possible that the BJP was reluctant to have its strategic space tied down by
the Congress led administration’s last minute initiative. In the event, BJP’s
prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Modi, seemingly in response to the criticism in
strategic circles, put a lid on the topic by
maintaining that he would give NFU credence since it had the imprint the BJP
stalwart, Mr. Vajpayee, whose moderate image he, Modi, was emulating during the
electoral campaign underway.
While a review by itself is unexceptionable, the concerns
voiced in wake of the manifesto owed in part to the precedence of the reference
in the BJP manifesto of March 1998 to a strategic review including India’s
nuclear path. Then, the nuclear tests of May 1998 took the world by surprise by
short circuiting the promised strategic defence review.
Therefore, the BJP’s utterance set off a small storm in strategic circles.
Consequently, the BJP, having gained mileage as a party attuned to national
security, but wanting to project a sober image on that score, has stepped back.
Nevertheless, the contretemps indicates the shadow over NFU. While
NFU in the declaratory doctrine is useful, it is more important that the
posture must itself be evident in the operationalisation of the deterrent. There
are apprehensions that developments in nuclear technology and direction of operationalisation
make NFU less than credible. The problem this gives rise to is that it would
make nuclear trigger fingers itchy in case the recurrent ‘push’ of subcontinental
crises comes to conventional war ‘shove’.
NFU was first broached in the strategic context of thinking
in the sixties on whether India should go nuclear. Writing anonymously in the
late sixties on a ‘strategy for India for a credible posture against a nuclear
adversary’ for the IDSA, the writer, possibly K. Subrahmanyam, then director of
programs at IDSA, advocated a push for delegitimizing nuclear weapons use.
The measure to this end was to be an NFU treaty for all nuclear powers, requiring
their combined response to any breach of the treaty by any nuclear power. It is
notable that four decades on the prime minister’s Pugwash-IDSA speech
reiterates this idea of a multilateral framework by all nuclear weapons
Today, as a reckonable nuclear power, the NFU has come to the
‘central tenet’ in its doctrine. Shyam Saran, currently head of the National
Security Advisory Board, in his ‘Subbu lecture’ in April 2013 in honour of late
K. Subrahmanyam, describes it thus: ‘… India will not be the first to use
nuclear weapons, but that if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage
in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict
unacceptable damage on the adversary.’
This formulation echoes the Draft Nuclear Doctrine put out by the 1998-99
edition of the Advisory Board that had been chaired by Subrahmanyam which
stated NFU as: ‘India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but
will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail (Para 2.4).’
While seemingly straightforward, ambiguity crept in with the
Draft adding a caveat: ‘India will not resort to the use or threat of use of
nuclear weapons against States which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapon
power (emphasis added to its Para 2.5).’The intrusion of the caveat referring to nuclear use
against a non-nuclear state aligned to the hostile nuclear power also contradicted
India’s ‘unqualified’ negative security assurance further down in the Draft
(Para 8.2). In effect the caveat qualifies both
the NFU and the negative security guarantee.
NFU in the 2003 official nuclear doctrine is phrased as: 'A posture of "No First Use": nuclear weapons will only be
used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian
forces anywhere (Para 2 ii).’ However, NFU was yet again with a caveat,
specifically: ‘…in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces
anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of
retaliating with nuclear weapons (Para 2 vi).’ This can be attributed to the
influence of global strategic culture with India emulating the US which had
stated something similar in the run up to the Iraq War II.
It bears noting that a decade on, Shyam Saran in his lecture retains this
caveat, stating that nuclear retaliation would be against use of ‘such’
weapons, meaning weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological
These caveats suggest a discomfort with NFU. This is best
evidenced by psychological slips such as the National Security Advisor’s gaffe in
his 2010 address to the National Defence College fraternity at its golden
jubilee. He worded NFU as: ‘No first use against non-nuclear weapons states.’
Vipin Narang, a knowledgeable nuclear watcher, dismissed this as significant,
stating, ‘the most plausible explanation is that the NDC formulation was simply
the product of an innocent typographical or lexical error in the text of the
speech.’ The point is telling slips
like this are one way to gain a measure of India’s nuclear policy.
Adversaries are surely alert to these. They also no doubt
listen in on the debates within the strategic community where there are strong
voices for jettisoning NFU altogether.
Karnad argues that attempting to fashion a counter strike after receiving a
debilitating first strike may be too much to expect from an India that even
faces problems from the monsoons! This would be inevitably so for any country
on the receiving end of a first strike attempt. However, first strike – the
attempt to degrade enemy counter strike ability - is not the only manner of
first use. Therefore, a counter strike is very much possible. Recognising this
enables preserving the utility of NFU.
Currently, NFU suits India strategically since there is
little incentive for India to use nuclear weapons. The Draft of 1999 had
required India to maintain ‘highly effective conventional military
capabilities’ in order to raise ‘the threshold of outbreak both of conventional
military conflict as well as that of threat or use of nuclear weapons (Para
2.7).’ There is an internal contradiction in this requirement. India’s
conventional strength when leveraged by its limited war doctrine has led to
Pakistan’s lowering of the nuclear threshold.
For Pakistan, nuclear weapons are also meant to deter
conventional war, in the fashion of the NATO in the Cold War era. This is
distinct from India’s concept that these deter not war, but nuclear weapons, as
was articulated most recently by the prime minister, thus: ‘that the sole
function of nuclear weapons, while they exist, should be to deter a nuclear
attack.’ Being at variance
conceptually, Pakistan has emulated the NATO in its induction of the Nasr,
a tactical nuclear weapon to attempt checkmate India’s ‘Cold Start’.
Raising the threshold entails getting Pakistan to accede to
NFU. It is possible that India’s efforts since early nineties in this direction
are prompted by this need. Since Pakistan has studiously avoided such commitment,
India may be using the threat of abandonment of NFU as last ditch pressure to
get Pakistan to sign on. In a hark back to the 1994 non-papers by JN Dixit,
then foreign secretary, one of which was on NFU,
most recently India reiterated the NFU in Saran’s offer that stated, ‘An
agreement on no first use of nuclear weapons would be a notable measure….'
His warning alongside of ‘inexorable’ escalation, yet another hangover from the
Subrahmanyam era, is to use India’s doctrine of ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation
to bring to bear on Pakistan the dangers stemming from introduction of nuclear
weapons into a conflict. Since the threat held out first in the 2003 official
nuclear doctrine has not worked, perhaps India is using NFU abandonment as
Pakistan, by not adhering to NFU rules in ‘first use’;
thereby, worrying India. This brings to fore the option of ‘first use’ for
India since Pakistani first use preparations may prompt pre-emptive nuclear
strike thinking on India’s part. Among the implications is a jettisoning NFU.
Arguably this is when NFU would be most needed, so as not to be stampeded into
nuclear decisions by possibly false or misleading intelligence of Pakistani
preparations. Also, a display of nuclear preparation will form part of nuclear
signalling in conflict. An NFU can tide India through, with the risk being
The thrust in India may however be towards yet another
possible next step out of the strategic cul-de-sac. The possibility has been brought
out by a former chief of the Strategic Forces Command: ‘This (introduction of
tactical nuclear weapons) provides the incentive for use and a reactionary (sic)
generation of a first strike capability or an anti-ballistic missile competence
or counter-force potential on the part of the adversary.’
The three capabilities he mentions are not necessarily acquired in reaction.
India has been variegating its arsenal and structure even prior to Pakistani
introduction of TNWs. What Pakistani action provides is a handy rationale for a
capability for all three: first strike, ABM and counter force. The third feeds
into the first, forming a closed loop, with the ABMs providing a nuclear shield
to attempt escape the target state’s nuclear counter strikes. Given the
precedence in India going overtly nuclear when it was technologically able to
India could also move away from NFU when all the pieces are in place.
For India that ‘credible’ supersedes ‘minimum’ is already
apparent. It is in the middle of
demonstrating technological capability in all dimensions: missile defence,
nuclear submarines, submarine launched ballistic missiles, multiple
independently targetable re-entry vehicles, ballistic missiles, command and
control measures such as the national command post, warheads ranging from 200Kt
to sub kiloton levels, cold tests, silo based and mobile delivery systems,
miniaturisation, military surveillance and communication satellites etc. Though
a step behind in numbers, it has the capacity for a warhead surge, given that
it has over eight tons of reactor grade plutonium that can also be used to
The surveillance capability and the numbers of warheads it could reach when
combined with the missile defences and an invulnerable nuclear submarine based
second strike capability enables a potential first strike capability. This by
definition impacts NFU negatively, enabling abandonment when India gains a
sense of escalation dominance through these efforts.
The impending review will at best be an interim one and will cover
the pros and cons in relation to India’s security interests. Among the
advantages of retention is, firstly, NFU is morally compliant and can help
retain the moral, and at one remove, the political high-ground once a nuclear
conflict is terminated. It has strategic dividend in that India could keep a
conflict non-nuclear and thereby use its conventional power to its advantage.
NFU can also serve as a buffer that can be rescinded at an opportune time.
Doing so at the crunch can be useful to convey a message that escalation could
result if a conflict continues in a direction unfavourable to India.
But, ironically the instrumental uses of NFU for national
security institutions makes it more saleable. It provides cover for simultaneous
nuclear and conventional preparation. Conventional preparedness can continue
under the rationale that since nuclear weapons are not to be considered,
strategic aims have to be met by non-nuclear means. Nuclear build up can keep
pace with the excuse that given that the enemy has the nuclear initiative India
has to cater for the worst case which could be a first strike attempt, defined
as an attempt to take out one’s retaliatory capability. A second strike
capability can then be pursued involving both vertical proliferation and
sub-surface capability, besides missiles defences. This will permit a
distancing from NFU if and when needed.
On the cons side of the equation, militarily, NFU is seen as
positioning military forces at a disadvantage. They would not only require
bearing the burden of a strike in case they are targeted but to also continue
operations in a nuclear environment. In the run up to such a situation, the
military would certainly bid for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the
threatening nuclear assets being readied by Pakistan for first use. India is
attempting to gain the capability for such detection and targeting. In the
event of a conflict, it will likely pursue non-nuclear measures to degrade
tactical nuclear weapons with Pakistan, which can prompt its nuclear first use
under the ‘use them or lost them’ logic. India’s discarding of NFU would help
alleviate this problem in the expectation that Pakistan would be less inclined
to be nuclear trigger happy. This would reduce India’s pursuit of Pakistan’s
nuclear weapons through conventional means.
Politically, it is seen as an expression of India’s strategic
culture that has been overly restrained. This is taken as emboldening India’s
adversaries. Fashioning of a new strategic culture has been underway over the
past quarter century involving a move towards an assertive India that is not
averse to proactive and offensive deployment of military power. The NFU has
faced attacks from the segment of strategic community so inclined. Reportedly
the C. Rangarajan headed 2003 NSAB had recommended a move away from NFU.
Though important to retain so as to prevent the aggressive
subculture in India’s strategic culture from gaining an upper hand, this
subculture is likely to be energised with the possible advent of the Hindu
nationalist party, the BJP, in government. The last time it was at the helm it
moved India’s strategic culture further towards assertion, best exemplified by
its banging its way into the nuclear club. This time round it would likely want
to make similar waves since its leader, Mr. Modi, may wish to project his ‘56
inch’ chest. The NFU is a readily available issue that also provides an
opportunity for adherents of the assertive subculture to take over the reins of
strategic policy and the dominant position in the strategic community. Declaring
NFU void will be a consequential signal to Pakistan that India means nuclear
India’s NFU pledge is therefore in an existential crisis. While
BJP may not abandon NFU since escalation dominance capability is not quite in
place yet, a review is certain since India’s nuclear doctrine saw two
iterations in its last tenure as against none during the Congress reign and the
changed circumstance since its adoption entail review. Since there are two
potential areas of change over: a distancing from ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation
and the NFU, it is possible that both may be done simultaneously. In order to
keep deterrence on even keel, a step back from ‘massive’ nuclear retaliation
can be compensated by abandoning NFU. What needs doing alongside is reminding
the nuclear establishment that even if NFU does not figure in the declaratory
doctrine, it could continue to inform operational doctrine. This will preserve the
one element that could preserve South Asia from a nuclear fate brought on by Nobel
laureate Thomas Schelling’s conceptualisation famously put as: ‘He thinks we
think he thinks… he thinks we think he will attack; so he thinks we shall; so
he will; so we must.’
 Anonymous, ‘A strategy for
India for a credible posture against a nuclear adversary’, New Delhi: IDSA,
1968. It is fairly certain that the anonymous writer was Mr. K. Subrahmanyam,
who as a serving IAS officer was director of programs at IDSA was perhaps not
permitted by the government in the context of the debates in the run up to the
non-proliferation treaty to voice the strong view for nuclearisation carried in
 Scott Sagan, ‘Evolution of
Pakistani and Indian nuclear doctrine’ in Scott Sagan et al (eds.), Inside Nuclear South Asia, Stanford
University Press, 2009, pp. 247.
 Scott Sagan, ‘Evolution of
Pakistani and Indian nuclear doctrine’ p. 248. The US in the classified
National Security Presidential Directive 17 in September 2002
reportedly stated that "the United States will continue to make clear
that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force--including
potentially nuclear weapons--to the use of WMD against the United States, our
forces abroad, and friends and allies." See, ‘U.S. "Negative Security Assurances" At a Glance’, Factsheet,
Arms Control Association, http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/negsec
(accessed on 25 February 2014).
 Speech of NSA Shivshankar
Menon, ‘The Role of Force in Strategic Affairs’, delivered on 21 October 2010
is available at
(accessed 17 March 2014).
 Rajesh Basrur states that
minimum deterrence in India ‘has tended to lose its moorings’. See his, Minimum Deterrence and India’s National
Security, Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 2.
Mian and MV Ramana, ‘Wrong Ends, Means, and Needs: Behind the U.S.
Nuclear Deal With India’, Arms
Control Today, 36: 1, 2006,http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_01-02/JANFEB-IndiaFeature (Accessed on 10 April
2014). They estimate that 1100 bombs can be made from this material since India
has reportedly tested a bomb made from this in May 1998.
 The Rediff Special,
‘Abandon No First Use policy, experts tell government’, http://www.rediff.com/news/2003/jan/09ia.htm (accessed 2 March
Air Marshal Patney, who was member of the NSAB then, dismisses this
(intervention at a lecture attended by this author in New Delhi in circa 2010)
stating that the matter never came up for discussion.
 Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Harvard:
Harvard University Press, 1980, p. 207.