India is said to be working on a Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) platform

by Samanvya Hooda 

The Narendra Modi-led government has offered several paradigm changing case studies for the field of strategic studies and international relations this year, such as the Balakot airstrike and abrogation of Article 370. Now, with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement about India's 'No First Use' of nuclear arms pledge on Friday, many observers in and outside India (especially Pakistan and China) are bound to be scurrying to consider the various implications of his statement.

India’s official nuclear doctrine is codified in a 2003 document, which takes cues from the 1999 draft doctrine. Since then, there has been no official communiqué about India’s nuclear policy from the government, with developments primarily being discussed on the basis of one-off statements by ministers, retired bureaucrats and military officials. Since 2003, India’s nuclear doctrine has had three primary components:

1. No First Use: India will only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack on Indian territory, or Indian forces. A caveat is made about their possible use in response to a chemical or biological attack.

2. Massive Retaliation: India’s response to a first strike will be massive, to cause ‘unacceptable damage’. While the doctrine doesn’t explicitly espouse a counter-value strategy (civilian targets), the wording implies the same.

3. Credible Minimum Deterrence: The number and capabilities of India’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems should merely be sufficient to ensure intolerable retaliation, also keeping in mind first-strike survival of its relatively meagre arsenal.

India's nuclear threat environment consists of two countries with vastly different nuclear postures. China espouses a doctrine similar to India's, that of 'assured retaliation', with a small number of nuclear weapons and an arsenal designed to survive a nuclear first strike. While the two countries are the only nuclear weapon states with a No First Use (NFU) policy, China espouses a limited, ‘unacceptable’ strike on civilian targets, and not 'massive retaliation' like India. Despite the NFU pledge, India is naturally concerned about Chinese strides in technologies like the DF-17, a hypersonic glide vehicle platform designed to render missile defence redundant, among others. Pakistan on the other hand utilises a combination of proxy warfare (support to terrorist groups) and the threat of nuclear weapons to offset India’s superior capabilities in conventional warfare. It makes no claims to No First Use, and in fact depends completely on its nuclear deterrent to safeguard its strategic goals.
Though the three components mentioned earlier are the primary tenets of India's nuclear doctrine, they are the subject of much debate and criticism. For instance, nuclear weapon use by Pakistan is likely to be in the form of 'tactical' nuclear weapons (low-yield/battlefield nuclear weapons) against Indian forces advancing in Pakistani territory, in response to a 2001 Parliament/2008 Mumbai style terror attack. Will the Indian Prime Minister have the wherewithal to order the nuclear bombing of Pakistani cities in response to this 'tactical' nuclear attack on military forces in Pakistani territory? As it would not be a proportionate response, is massive retaliation in this context credible?

Some scholars believe that the caveat (regarding chemical and biological attacks) to NFU mentioned earlier already dilutes the pledge significantly. The problem associated with NFU pledges is also whether any opponent would actually take them at face value, especially during the ‘fog of war’. Similarly, India’s policy of credible minimum deterrence also raises questions, as it has to deal with two nuclear armed adversaries with different postures and capabilities. As Vipin Narang has pointed out – "What is 'credible' toward China will likely not be minimum toward Pakistan; and what is minimum toward Pakistan, cannot be credible toward China.”

Coming back to Rajnath’s tweet, one must consider carefully the timing of his statement. Singh tweeted his remarks after visiting Pokhran, ostensibly to offer tribute to Atal Bihari Vajpayee on his first death anniversary; not quite the occasion to announce a major policy shift. The ambiguity of his statement suggests an external stimuli is what would pressurise an overhaul of India’s nuclear doctrine. Partly an effort at posturing directed at Pakistan, the government may well be pre-empting an increase in proxy warfare in lieu of the recent Article 370 announcement. To a lesser degree, China will also take note of the less-than-subtle hints in Singh's tweet, keeping in mind China's reaction to the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir.

Is his statement enough to indicate India is discarding No First Use policy? Certainly not. Is it part of a pattern reflecting a need to critically evaluate India’s nuclear doctrine, as voiced by other defence ministers and retired bureaucrats and military officials? One can hope so.

If India is on the cusp of changing its nuclear doctrine, what other options would be viable? A preemptive counter force strategy, targeting nuclear war-fighting facilities? This would mitigate the threat of nuclear attack, but for it to be successful, colossal investments are required for C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). India may not have the technological know-how to develop this strategy efficiently, and it certainly does not have the funds to sustain this doctrine. Escalation dominance, utilising proportionate retaliation? It may allow conflict short of full-blown nuclear exchanges, but it lowers the threshold for nuclear use, while also expecting both sides to have a clear understanding of the opponent’s ‘redlines’ for further escalation. This seems extremely unlikely during the ‘fog of war’, especially in a dyad as volatile as India-Pakistan’s. Similarly, there exist several other strategies and combination of strategies that India could turn to, with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Whether we have to turn to these different strategies, or simply make minor changes to our existing doctrine remains to be seen. Our policy of No First Use has many upsides, not all of them related to nuclear conflict. Despite being a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, India’s declared NFU pledge has contributed towards legitimising itself as a nuclear power, evinced in the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver and Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement. Additionally, the current minimal posture ensures the nuclear program is not a disproportionate drain on the country’s defence budget, already grossly inadequate in meeting the military’s acquisition and modernisation requirements.

Unlike countries such as China and the US, India does not regularly release publications detailing its nuclear doctrine, or shifts therein. This ambiguity has some advantages of its own, but some further clarity pertaining to this subject is desperately needed. The official doctrine today exists merely as a press release summarising eight points, with all other statements made offhand, with no great depth to them. One can hope the tweet that prompted this debate is indicative of a larger effort of comprehensively evaluating India’s nuclear doctrine, and not only posturing. Failing this, Friday's statement and the nuclear doctrine’s ambiguity may well be mistaken for the boy who cried wolf.

The author is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi