Did India Shift Nuclear Posture?

Do comments by Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon mark a shift to a first use nuclear posture?

A number of analysts have suggested recently that India has shifted its nuclear doctrine away from a no first use policy.

The publicly released summary of India’s 2003 official nuclear doctrine not only pledged there would be ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons, but added an additional ‘negative’ security assurance of ‘non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.’

However, last year, Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon delivered a speech to the National Defence College that emphasized ‘no first use against non-nuclear weapons states.’

Some analysts have interpreted this phrasing as a sharp departure from India’s official 2003 doctrine. According to this interpretation, the qualification that India abides by a no first use policy against non-nuclear weapons states implies that it no longer adheres to a similar pledge against nuclear weapons states, including Pakistan and China. Indeed, several scholars from these two nations have raised this very issue with me, arguing that the formulation represents a doctrinal shift toward a nuclear warfighting—as opposed to a purely retaliatory—posture.

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But there are two good reasons why this interpretation is likely wide of the mark. First, the new formulation isconsistent with India’s declaratory policy: India has always had a no first use policy against non-nuclear weapons states. So the language is not ipso facto a departure from official policy.

Regardless, it’s critical to remember that Menon didn’t state that India had abandoned its no first use policy for any subset of states. Indeed, if India were now attempting to deter conventional conflict by a nuclear-armed adversary by implying there’s a willingness to consider first use of its nuclear weapons, deterrence logic requires that it would have to make any such shift very public. After all, what good is a Doomsday device if no one knows you have it? Such a sharp shift in declaratory nuclear doctrine would, if it existed, therefore likely be more explicit than Menon’s statement, and certainly not buried deep within the External Affairs Ministry website.

Second, given that the context around the speech largely emphasized the minimalist nature of India’s nuclear doctrine, it seems unlikely that the national security advisor would at the same time be attempting to boldly change the core of India’s nuclear doctrine through subtle reformulations.

So what prompted the statement that has caused such a fuss? The most plausible explanation is simply that the NDC formulation was the product of an innocent typographical error in the text of the speech. It’s important to remember, after all, that the original 2003 clause was sometimes formulated as ‘no use against non-nuclear weapons states. ’With this in mind, then, it seems likely that this was the point that Menon was reiterating and emphasizing to the NDC.

There’s no question that India’s nuclear capabilities are evolving, particularly with respect to delivery vehicles and command and control procedures. But the striking feature of India’s nuclear posture has been the consistency with which it has adopted an assured retaliation orientation.

All the capabilities that India has developed over the past decade, and is seeking to develop in the future, are designed to bolster either the ability to retaliate against a range of key strategic targets in envisioned adversaries (e.g. the Agni III), or enhancing the assurance with which that retaliation would be meted out (e.g. the future SSBN). If anything, there has been increasing de-emphasizing of the short-range Prithvi family for nuclear missions—the delivery system most suitable for nuclear warfighting roles—in order to enhance crisis stability, focusing instead on systems with truly strategic capabilities such as the Agni family for deterrence. In short, India’s core nuclear posture, which emphasizes nuclear retaliation following WMD use on India or its forces, seems to have largely persisted.

Although there are some within India who might like to see it (and many outside, particularly in China and Pakistan, who are afraid that it might) move toward a nuclear warfighting posture, there’s no evidence that it’s contemplating doing so.

And, as I said earlier, nuclear deterrence logic requires that any shift to a first use doctrine to deter conventional conflict by a nuclear-armed adversary must be transparent and publicly articulated. Any interpretation suggesting that India is moving toward a more aggressive nuclear doctrine based on parsing what’s likely nothing more than an innocuous typographical error is almost certainly making much ado about nothing.

Vipin Narang is an assistant professor in MIT's Department of Political Science. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.