Folly of an Indian Nuclear Shift

Recent Features

Features | Security | South Asia

Folly of an Indian Nuclear Shift

Whatever the headlines over Pakistan’s nuclear build-up, India should stick to its no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons.

When one of the senior lawmakers from India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party—and a former External Affairs Minister—calls on the government to re-examine its doctrine of no-first-use (NFU), it’s bound to turn some heads, at home and abroad.

The rationale behind Jaswant Singh’s suggestion is the increasingly multi-pronged security concerns facing India. According to Singh, the NFU doctrine—formulated by the National Democratic Alliance government in 1998—is ‘yesterday’s policy.’

In calling for it to be revisited, Singh has emphasized the security concerns over Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is reportedly in possession of 100 to 110 nuclear warheads— double India’s nuclear stockpile of approximately 50 to 60 warheads. Italso has good delivery systems, which it reportedly received from China and North Korea. This combined with the reality that Pakistan is a state in turmoil run by a powerless government that has little control over the terrorist groups operating within its territory, makes it clear why there is some cause for concern.

But it’s not only concerns over Pakistan that have apparently been playing on Singh’s mind—he has also pointed to China’s rising influence in Nepal’s internal affairs to substantiate his claim that Beijing poses a long-term threat to India.

Does the Indian government agree with the veteran politician’s assessment? Certainly not officially. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna has publicly asserted that there will be no revision of the NFU policy by the government. But the seriousness of the issue means that policymakers can’t dismiss Singh’s points as the concerns of a single politician.

Sceptics question the efficacy of the NFU policy on the grounds that it has little relevance as a strategic tool against Pakistan—they see it as a declaratory policy, rather than one with binding legitimacy. Pakistan’s military establishment, meanwhile, appears suspicious about whether India would actually follow through with its NFU doctrine if push comes to shove. After all, the policy is a unilateral decision that can be revoked at any time if the situation demands.

But does India really need to depend on a nuclear threat against Pakistan and China? India’s strategic culture clearly demonstrates that it is a status quo power devoid of any aggressive intention. Besides, India’s conventional strength is more than adequate to defend it against Pakistan. This conventional advantage is further reinforced by India’s offensive policy of ‘Cold Start,’ which seeks to circumvent any nuclear response from Pakistan. The Cold Start doctrine is independent of the NFU pledge, meaning India can use it to neutralise any conventional aggression by Pakistan.

China’s expansionist policies also can’t be countered by revising the NFU (and changing the stance would anyway be seen in Beijing as a deliberate provocation, thus undermining India‘s image overseas by making it look like the aggressor).

But abandoning the NFU policy would also limit the space for conventional warfare below the nuclear threshold and would severely corrode India’s ability to limit Pakistan’s offensive tactics and policies at the conventional level. India would be better served by gradually revising its posture of ‘active deterrence’ in favour of‘dissuasive deterrence,’ by building up its infrastructure along the border, and improving the surveillance and warning capabilities, the mobility of land-based missiles, survivability of the airborne retaliatory force,and increased force levels.

Pakistan’s nuclear dalliances are, of course, still a concern. According to estimates by Prof. R. Rajaraman and his colleagues at the International Panel on Fissile Material, by 2010 Pakistan was believed to be in possession of 1.5 to 3 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU)—enough fissile material for 60 to 120 weapons—and approximately 100 kilograms of plutonium, which would be enough for 20 bombs. But with so many questions surrounding the security and proliferation potential of this stockpile, India’s withdrawal of its NFU policy would mean it would risk losing the high ground of a responsible nuclear power.

More broadly, abandoning NFU would undermine India’s commitment to the universal goal of nuclear disarmament and upset the regional balance onthe sub-continent—the doctrine is too much a part of India’s nuclear status to be discarded. India forswears brinkmanship by avoiding the deployment of weapons on hair-trigger alert, thus helping keep any arms race in check. Ditching NFU would risk undermining all of this.

The fact is that India’s no-first-use policy is premised upon an assured second-strike capability, meaning the country should aim to survive a first strike and retain sufficient warheads to launch massive retaliation upon an adversary. As long as this second strike capability isn’t degraded, there’s no reason to abandon the NFU posture.

Whatever the headlines might be about Pakistan’s expanding nuclear stockpile, there is still no evidence that this has degraded India’s nuclear retaliatory capability. With this in mind, a change with such far-reaching consequences just doesn’t make any sense.

Reshmi Kazi is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.