by Pradip R Sagar

In November 2016, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar surprised everyone by saying that India should not bind itself to a 'no first-use policy' on nuclear weapons. Later on, he clarified his statement by calling it his 'personal opinion'.

But Parrikar believed that there should be an element of unpredictability in the country's military strategy. India's nuclear doctrine was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 2003. Since then, there have been demands to review it.

India faces two major nuclear-armed adversaries—China and Pakistan—as it has unresolved boundary disputes with both of them. Military experts believe that both China and Pakistan have also forged a collusive nexus to develop warhead technology and ballistic missiles and are likely to continue to cooperate against India for mutual benefit.

Counting the stockpile of nuclear warheads, China has about 260 nuclear warheads in its arsenal and has the capability to target all Indian cities with them. And Pakistan is reported to have acquired nuclear weapons capability in 1986-87 with covert help from China. It has a stockpile of approximately 130 nuclear warheads and is aiming to acquire 250 such warheads by 2025.

India is estimated to have around 120 warheads. With the Agni-2 and Agni-3 intermediate-range ballistic missiles having become operational and the Agni-4 and Agni-5 on the way, India will also soon have the capability to hit long-distance high-value targets.

“The Indian armed forces have built a robust defensive and offensive network of nuclear weapons, so that their unfortunate use would surely annihilate the adversary, if it makes the mistake of ever using such weapons either on the mainland or on any advancing column of the Indian Army or a ship flying the tricolour,” said vice admiral Shekhar Sinha, former chief of Integrated Defence Staff and commander in chief, Western Naval Command.

Sinha said that with deterrence having been achieved for the foreseeable future, the armed forces have rearranged their deployment pattern and added more non-contact weapons and a web of networks in the battle area for better area awareness to prevent accidental or unintentional war. They have also built more CBMs to calm a developing situation and have increased usage of drones for getting real-time battlefield imagery before launching an offensive.

“All this has been backed by a very formidable three-dimensional second-strike capability, which assures the armed forces that should they be exposed to a nuclear threat, the country will destroy the adversary. This has given them a lot more confidence and more room for conventional dispersed hybrid warfare,” Sinha added.

Lt general Anil Ahuja (retired), former corps commander and deputy chief of Integrated Defence Staff, thinks that amid two nuclear-armed neighbours, India, with its avowed 'no-first use (NFU)' policy maintains a “credible minimum deterrence” and possesses “massive (second strike) retaliation capability to cause unacceptable damage,” as its armed forces prepare themselves to fight conventional wars under a “nuclear overhang.”

“This entails careful planning of objectives, selection of appropriate protective equipment and resolute training to be able to fight through a contaminated tactical battle area, should the adversary, unethically, bring the nuclear weapons from realms of deterrence to the war-fighting domain,” Ahuja said.

He believes that with Pakistan, India is confronted with a peculiar security situation, wherein, on one hand, Islamabad uses terrorists for the state-sponsored proxy war against India, and, on the other hand, it threatens use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) on the battlefield, if its loosely stated thresholds (spatial, military, economic or political) are crossed.

“This leaves little space for conventional war, which is still considered the legitimate war-fighting domain. Even within the nuclear domain, while Pakistan does not have a declared nuclear doctrine, its pronouncements indicate that it follows a 'first use' policy against India,” Ahuja further said.

China, according to its nuclear strategy published in 2005, maintains a policy of NFU. This, however, is not applicable in areas considered by it to be part of China, that is Taiwan, South China Sea, Tibet and territories claimed in India.

China also experimented with TNWs in the 1980s, but this was rescinded in the 1990s. While the two countries maintain strategic deterrence, there seems to be little likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons (or TNWs) for war fighting. Also, India has not indulged in brinkmanship of touting its nuclear weapons to balance out conventional asymmetry, which rests in favour of China.

Retired brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal, in his recently launched book Sharpening the Arsenal: India's Evolving Nuclear Deterrence Policy, has argued that India must close the missile technology gap with both China and Pakistan as early as possible, or else the credibility of India's nuclear deterrent will remain suspect.

He quoted intelligence reports about the rapidly developing China-Pakistan nuclear and missile cooperation that led to then-prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri approving the development of a nuclear explosive device, which eventually resulted in the PNE (peaceful nuclear explosion) conducted in Pokhran in 1974.

Military experts believe that the Indian armed forces are trained and equipped with appropriate weapon systems and individual/collective protective gear, to achieve the desired operational results, even under the nuclear overhang.