by Kanti Bajpai

Defence minister Rajnath Singh’s musing remark on reconsidering India’s no first use (NFU) posture on nuclear weapons has caught attention. The implication of his utterance is that India may have to use nuclear weapons first. When exactly? And would it be effective?

Rajnath Singh’s intervention prompts us to recall the distinction between nuclear first use and nuclear first strike. Nuclear first use usually refers to the use of tactical nuclear weapons against conventional forces which are threatening to break through one’s defences. Nuclear first strike means the use of nuclear weapons to attack the other side’s nuclear arsenal to preempt an imminent nuclear strike or to prevent a nuclear strike sometime in a longer-term but foreseeable future.

When the defence minister mused about rethinking no first use, he was presumably not suggesting that India would use nuclear weapons first against Pakistani or Chinese nuclear weapons, either pre-emptively or preventively.

Pre-emption and prevention go against current doctrine. Contemplating a nuclear first strike posture implies moving policy from the threat to use nuclear weapons against population centres (in a retaliatory strike) to the threat to hit the other side’s nuclear weapons (before they hit us). The defence minister should clarify whether he is considering changing this other element of nuclear doctrine as well.

Presuming the minister’s reference was to first use, India could use tactical nuclear weapons if it faced a conventional military breakthrough by Pakistani forces. In what circumstance could this happen given India’s military superiority in conventional forces?

Unless India’s military is incompetent, there is only one theatre in which it is possible – Kashmir. One could imagine a situation where deeply alienated Kashmiris in the Valley combine with jihadis and militants with support from Pakistani irregulars (as in 1948) and later Pakistani regulars to encircle Indian forces. Is the situation in Kashmir, after revocation of Article 370, that dire?

A second first-use circumstance is if China attacked India in strength. Given force numbers, terrain, and infrastructure in Tibet, Chinese forces could push Indian forces back to some depth along a broad front. Or, China might make a more localised grab, say for Tawang (given that the monastery there has significance for Chinese control of Tibet). Or worse, China might push past the border to the plains of India.

Let’s leave aside whether these scenarios with China are at all likely. Certainly, a Chinese thrust into the plains would be military madness given the logistical challenges and India’s ability to devastatingly counterattack. India argues that against Pakistan it has escalation dominance and can choose to raise the level of violence: Islamabad should therefore be held in check. In confronting a more powerful China, India will find roles reversed: China will have escalation dominance in relation to India. Would Delhi choose first use against the PLA in this situation?

A third circumstance is a two-front war in which India fights Pakistan and China simultaneously. A first-use strike against either Pakistan or China (or both) could give India breathing space or jolt Islamabad and Beijing into terminating hostilities.

The problem here is that if China by itself has escalation dominance against India, how much worse would the situation be for India in a two-front war? The strategic uncertainties of first use against either adversary or both in a two-front war are so great that it boggles the mind. What kind of strategic calculations about first use would make any sense? Is it even likely that hostilities would be confined to India, Pakistan and China? Would it ever get to the point of a two-front war given the interests of the US and Russia?

The government has stirred the pot on several issues in the past five years. Rajnath Singh’s musings on NFU is another stir. Is it time for a formal review of India’s nuclear doctrine instead of offhand public remarks? It would seem so.