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Why New Delhi Should Revise Its Nuclear Doctrine

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The Pulse

Why New Delhi Should Revise Its Nuclear Doctrine

It’s time for India to rethink its no first use policy.

Why New Delhi Should Revise Its Nuclear Doctrine
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Antônio Milena

A nuclear doctrine is a pretty important document. While most military white papers or laid down doctrines serve the exclusive purpose of guiding a nation’s defense forethought in matters of strategic and national security, a nuclear doctrine offers an additional function — deterrence, by making a nation’s position and retaliatory intentions publicly known to its adversaries. As such, a robust nuclear doctrine, which is in tune with pertinent geopolitical narratives and national posturing, is to be desired by any nation state. It’s also advantageous to carry out a calculated revision of nuclear doctrine within time-stamped periods, or on an ad hoc basis as required. This will ensure that the doctrine continues to fulfill its intended functions in the dynamic environment of global and regional security, and signal a nation state’s intention to remain relevant.

However, for the very same reasons, a nuclear doctrine should never be revised just for the sake of revision, lest it sends out a contrary message. This also becomes an issue when a nation state like India, whose nuclear doctrine is inherently restrained in nature, takes a call to revise that doctrine.

Unfortunately, that is a risk New Delhi should be willing to take, and sooner rather than later. The present world order offers India sufficient buoyancy from international backlash and insulation from any potential trade embargoes. India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group bid is, to put lightly, in cold storage for now. Furthermore, even though India’s restrained development and deployment of nukes contributed somewhat to its accepted status as a responsible nuclear weapon state, it is ultimately its stellar non-proliferation record which affords India this recognition. Revising India’s nuclear doctrine will not result in an absolute U-turn from the international community.

All nuclear weapon states, including the ones which subscribe to no first use of nuclear weapons (NFU), face an inherent conundrum. Nuclear weapons are not conventional weapons, to be used in a war; they are a last resort option. As such, for the state concerned, it is pertinent to demonstrate that it possesses a nuclear war fighting capability — that after absorbing the damage of a first strike, it possesses the ability and resolve to inflict massive destruction on the attacker.

Various caveats of the Indian nuclear doctrine have been criticized time and again since the Vajpayee government of 2003 unveiled the first (and only) public statement on the salient features of the doctrine and the operationalization of nuclear deterrence. The Indian doctrine revolves around three core pillars: developing and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent; an unconditional pledge of no first use (of nuclear weapons); and a warning of massive punitive retaliation. These are further augmented by the government’s decision to put all nuclear authority into the hands of a civilian leadership, and working toward deploying a substantial second strike capability.

While its doctrine allows New Delhi to retain its long standing abolitionist stance on nuclear weapons, it does not make for a credible deterrence policy. Whatever intended functions India’s nuclear doctrine served 15 years ago have been rendered redundant by the dynamically evolved regional and global geopolitical narratives. If nukes were weapons of polity back then, they are anything but that now.

The most inveighed component of the nuclear doctrine is New Delhi’s vow of no first use. NFU makes for a compelling argument against nuclear weapons in general, and, by extension, against proliferation in the wider sense. It only stands to reason that a nation state that abhors the concept of nukes would ensure non-proliferation as a priority. India has stuck to this covenant through the war of 1999, the stand-offs in 2001 and 2008, and countless other border skirmishes.

Unfortunately, NFU comes with a chilling caveat: should perceived deterrence fail, a nation state is guaranteed massive loss of human life and infrastructure. As per the doctrine, for the clause of massive punitive retaliation to kick in, an aggressor must actually nuke Indian territory first. Given its high density cover and widespread infrastructure and settlement establishment, India is certain to be subjected to unjustifiable loss of life in that first strike.

Add to that the uncertainty of the strike coverage and the damage incurred, and there is the significant possibility of New Delhi not having enough surviving assets operational to retaliate, let alone chase punitive damages. If an aggressor does take the nuclear option first, it will only be in their interest to inflict maximum damage, rather than leaving retaliation to chance.

Following this argument, a case is evident for New Delhi to ditch NFU, and adopt a policy for retaining the option to strike first. This does not necessarily signal a shift toward a more belligerent stance on India’s part. Rather, this will afford New Delhi a strategic ambiguity, which will further accentuate its intended deterrence. Furthermore, it is critical for India to make this switch in times of relative peace, instead of bringing it about as a knee-jerk reaction to another one of Islamabad’s cross-border terrorism antics.

Will this hamper the bilateral peace dialogue, or further the arms race in the subcontinent? Of course it will. But the impact would be akin to the fallout from any other incident of perpetrated terrorism or border skirmish. Timing is of the essence. And the sooner it is done, the more space it gives New Delhi to dictate the regional security paradigm on its terms.

The argument for shifting to a first use policy is also tied in with the state of India’s deterrent asset development and deployment. The essential prerequisite for nuclear deterrence is as much the sufficiency of retaliatory capacity as the surety of response. This hinges on the size and nature of the arsenal and delivery systems, their survivability in the event of a preemptive attack, and the realization by a potential adversary that the costs of attack outweigh the gains. To ensure a true second strike capability, India aims to operationalize a nuclear triad — the capability to launch nuclear warheads from aircraft, extensive rail and road launching silos, and deep-deployment submarines. Currently, India has only two out of three operational legs of the triad. A Strategic Forces Command (SFC), acting under the auspices of India’s Nuclear Command Authority, is responsible for maintaining its delivery options. It presently consists of the short-range Prithvi missile series and the medium range Agni-I and Agni-II. A more intermediate, as well as an intercontinental, range version of the missile has been developed, but not yet deployed. Thus, the SFC’s primary mode of delivery is still fighter aircraft capable of carrying a nuclear payload. However, all of these aircraft (squadrons of Dassault Mirage 2000H, Sukhoi Su-30MKI, MIG-29, and SEPECAT Jaguar) do not belong exclusively to the SFC, and are instead borrowed from the Air Force when required.

India’s first indigenous ballistic missile submarine, the INS Arihant, has reportedly finished sea trials and is now awaiting commission. However, the K-4 SLBM developed for the Arihant is still undergoing tests, while the Sagarika K-15 SLBM, although ready, only has an operational range of 700 km, greatly diminishing its intended utility as a second strike option. Also, given its 7,500 km long coastline, India will require a whole fleet of SSBNs to actually deploy a credible second strike capability. This will arguably take a considerable amount of time.

In the meanwhile, India continues to depend on a deterrence rhetoric which it does not yet fully command. Given the readiness of its operational and intended nuclear assets, it is all the more important for New Delhi to shift its stance from a defensive deterrence to an offensive one.

Amit R. Saksena is a security consultant, and a geopolitical analyst based out of New Delhi. He tweets @arsaksena.