by SD Pradhan

The recent statement of our defence minister that the future circumstances would decide the applicability or non-applicability of “No First Use” (NFU) of nuclear weapons was propelled by the rapidly changing India’s nuclear environment.

A disquieting development is that Pakistan and China are increasing their nuclear arsenal and delivery systems rapidly as also modifying their nuclear doctrines, adversely impacting the Indian nuclear environment. The Sino –Pak nexus in nuclear and missile fields continues unabated. Their collaborative threat is fast acquiring serious dimensions and needs to be kept in our strategic calculus. The following factors deserve attention.

First, nuclear weapons production in both countries has substantially increased in the past few years. Pakistan is reported to be producing 12-21 nuclear weapons per year and this could increase further to 14-27 per year when its two reactors become fully operational. The current nuclear arsenal is around 130-140. It is assessed that by 2024, Pakistan may have more than France’s total number of weapons i.e. 300 nuclear weapons. Besides HEU, Pakistan is also producing plutonium-based nuclear bombs.

China too is increasing its nuclear arsenal rapidly. Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr. Director, Defence Intelligence Agency of the US stated that over the next decade, China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile. It is in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history. Its present arsenal is estimated at 290.

Second, both countries have acquired tactical nuclear weapons. This aimed at projecting that they could use weapons in the battlefields to strengthen deterrence. They also have delivery systems for this purpose. Pakistan’s NASR missile with 60 kilometre range falls in this category. China has also deployed India specific missiles.

Third, both the countries are also modifying their nuclear doctrines that indicate that they could use nuclear weapons first in a war. Pakistan has come up with its doctrine called “Full Spectrum Deterrence”. Lt. Gen Kidwai (Retd.) former Strategic Plan Division Head of Pakistan explained the concept of “full-spectrum deterrence” as the Pak mechanism to plug those tactical level gaps that allow shallow Indian penetration into the Pak territory with tactical nuclear weapons. He had also mentioned the new conditions for first use of nuclear weapons– (i) If India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory (space threshold); (ii) If India destroys a large part of its land or air forces (military threshold); (iii) If India proceeds to the economic strangling of Pakistan (economic threshold); (iv) If India pushes Pakistan into political destabilisation or creates a large internal subversion in Pakistan (domestic destabilisation).

Similarly, notwithstanding the Chinese official position, the authoritative writings and statements in China suggest that it could discard the “No First Use” of nuclear weapons under three conditions. First, if there is an all-out attack against the country by conventional forces; second, if China’s own territory is to be recaptured from an adversary; and third, in case of an attack on the Chinese nuclear weapons through conventional means.

In essence, the two neighbours have lowered the thresholds with the objective of widening the space below the nuclear war for their mischief, while ensuring no retaliation from India through instilling fear of consequences of a nuclear war. With India’s “No First Use”, the delicate balance of deterrence which existed earlier after the nuclear tests between India and its two neighbours has been undermined. A hard look at the current situation reveals that the different levels of thresholds now favours our neighbours and places India at a disadvantageous position.

Unfortunately, the Pakistan Army had drawn a lesson from the Kargil Conflict that India’s decision to respect the Line of Control as a result of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence. This was also strengthened by a lack of riposte after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Even after Pulwama and Balakot incidents, the Pak Army felt that its deterrence did not allow escalation to full-scale conventional hostilities and thereby limiting the conflict to Pakistan’s advantage. The Pak Army believes that Pakistan’s ‘full spectrum deterrence’ permits it to undertake bold attacks through terrorists on India or impose a limited war without fear of retaliation.

Pakistan is using the space available below the nuclear war by deploying terrorists to launch attacks in accordance with their policy of ‘bleeding India through thousand cuts’. China is using Pakistan to contain India besides occasional intrusions into our territory. Moreover, China claims our areas and in hypothetical case, China can first use nuclear weapons to capture those areas.

The main issue under the present circumstances is whether we should only deter the use of nuclear weapons or should we deter 26/11 types of bold terrorist attacks and intrusions in our areas. If our objective is the second one, then we should clearly indicate that preemptive use of nuclear weapons would be the consequence, if a certain threshold is crossed by our adversaries.

This would not change the nature of nuclear weapons as tools of deterrence. All countries with nuclear weapons have moved away from the “No First Use” doctrine except India and China only officially. The US and France had never believed in it. Russia after adopting it in 1982 abandoned it in the early 1990s. UK neither rules in nor rules out the first use of nuclear weapons. And despite this, no nuclear war has taken place as they continue to be weapons of deterrence.

The fact is that our nuclear environment, since 2003 when the Nuclear Doctrine was announced, has changed considerably. The NFU served the purpose earlier but now this is weakening our deterrence in the perception of our adversaries. Hence, we have to sharpen our deterrence which has three components-severity, certainty and celerity. Deterrence demands not the only the capability of inflicting unacceptable damage on the adversaries but also will and determination to use nuclear weapons when a certain threshold is crossed.

For this, we have to clearly define our thresholds in our declaratory policy. If we also lower our thresholds, the balance of deterrence would be stabilised and the space below the nuclear war for mischief would be narrowed down. Pakistan perceives that with NFU, India cannot contemplate a nuclear weapon based retaliation even if there are serious terrorist attacks or limited conflict. This perception needs to be removed. Two former Heads of India’s Strategic Forces Command and a former NSA have supported the change in the NFU in view of the changing strategic environment.

The bold and timely statement of our Defence Minister should form the basis of the change in our declaratory nuclear doctrine. Our nuclear decision-making system has the capability of taking strategically bold decisions. The inclusion of chemical and biological attacks on India or on the Indian Armed Forces anywhere in the threshold after debates at several levels in the declaratory policy is a testimony of this. Now we have to include in the threshold that any action harming our core national interest by our adversaries would trigger immediately preemptive use nuclear weapons.