India’s Defense Minister on No First Use: What Did He Mean?

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India’s Defense Minister on No First Use: What Did He Mean?

Manohar Parrikar admitted he personally questions the wisdom of NFU.

India’s Defense Minister on No First Use: What Did He Mean?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ National Nuclear Security Administration

Speaking at a book release function, India’s defense minister, expressing his personal opinion, questioned India’s No First Use (NFU) pledge. Manohar Parrikar suggested that it would be sufficient for India to maintain that it would use its nuclear weapons responsibly rather than being tied down by an NFU policy. This, to him, did not imply that India would use its nuclear weapons first, and further, he clarified, that his words did not amount to a change in the nuclear doctrine.

Parrikar is reported to have stated, “I am not saying that you have to use it first just because you don’t decide that you don’t use it first. The hoax can be called off.” His argument against NFU is not entirely clear. However, even if this is a personal opinion, given that he sits in on the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority in his capacity of defense minister, his is a consequential view.

India’s Political Council is charged with nuclear decision-making, the input for which is provided by the Executive Council headed by the national security adviser. The exact composition of the Political Council is not known, though it is believed to comprise of members of the National Security Council. The defense minister would be required to provide his considered view, one dependent on the coordinates of the developing conflict situation. This is unexceptionable since strategy is distinct from doctrine, and, though informed by doctrinal tenets, strategy is not necessarily dictated by doctrine.

In case India’s NFU pledge is in question, its doctrinal benefits and its effect on nuclear strategy should be differentiated to understand whether it serves India’s purpose or needs being abandoned.

In peace time, NFU has fulfilled the purpose of projecting India as a responsible nuclear power. Though there is a nuclear arms buildup in South Asia, the pace does not amount to an arms race; this can be attributed in part to the benign effects of India’s NFU policy. It is also useful in relation to China, since China is also pledged to NFU. For these reasons India has persisted with NFU despite periodic challenges from within India’s strategic community questioning its utility.

The primary argument against NFU is that in conflict it allows the nuclear initiative to be seized by Pakistan, thereby placing India and its forces in an adverse situation. Since Pakistan has not subscribed to NFU and has by acquiring tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) projected a low nuclear threshold, Pakistani first use could blunt India’s conventional advantage. To deter Pakistan and (in case deterrence appears to be failing) preempting Pakistani nuclear first use, India would need to abandon NFU.

Currently, NFU requires a configuration of India’s nuclear forces in accordance with the retaliatory philosophy written into the official nuclear doctrine adopted in January 2003. India’s formulation is that retaliation would be “massive” and aimed at inflicting “unacceptable damage.” The phraseology is suggestive of counter value targeting. This implies a nuclear force configuration largely comprising strategic weapons. This leaves India with little choice but to escalate, even in face of the more likely manner of Pakistani nuclear first use with TNW.

Rescinding the NFU would enable an option of India nuclear first use in the form of preempting TNW use by Pakistan. Stalling Pakistan’s resort to TNW would require similar TNW use by India. This would enable both states to keep any ensuing exchange(s) non-strategic. Even if this implies a breakdown in deterrence, escalatory use can be prevented. In-conflict deterrence would remain in place, with the threat of higher-order, more hurtful, strikes held in reserve, akin to the “no cities” option of nuclear use advocated once by Nobel prize winning game theorist, Thomas Shelling.

This could furnish an exit point in the conflict, permitting nuclear exchange termination and conflict termination at a lower threshold of nuclear destruction than would otherwise be the case should India opt for default strategic strikes as currently envisaged in its declaratory nuclear doctrine.

The problem with this line of argument is that a non-strategic response does not require stepping away from NFU but can be better provisioned by instead tweaking the “massive” nuclear retaliation tenet in favor of proportional response. Thus it would appear that the NFU withstands scrutiny both in peace time and in conflict scenarios.

However, for the defense minister to worry over Pakistani nuclear first use and wish to preempt it is understandable. He is responsible for the defense services and the refrain within the military is that its conventional operations would be subject to asymmetric escalation from Pakistan. This may wrest the initiative away from the invading Indian forces and force them to fight under nuclear conditions, seen as favoring the defender. Given this, even as Pakistan readies to undertake TNW attack in a hypothetical contingency, Parrikar can be expected to be pressuring the Political Council to undertake a preemptive nuclear attack.

In case India distances itself from NFU prior to a contingency, it would have its nuclear forces duly configured to be responsive to such a nuclear decision by its Political Council. In case it has not already abandoned NFU, then the NFU would require being abandoned in conflict. This would tax the flexibility of India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC), unless it has already war-gamed the contingency and created the capability for the shift. It can reasonably be expected that the SFC has an operational doctrine envisaging such a contingency, even though it places the operational nuclear doctrine at odds with the declaratory nuclear doctrine.

From the discussion here, it appears that Parrikar might be engaging in nuclear signaling. He may be tacitly conveying to Islamabad that Pakistan’s proactive posturing of its first use intent and capability has serious implications for India’s nuclear doctrine. Though a trifle untimely amidst the current day-to-day instability in South Asia, brought about by the Uri terror attack and India’s reprisal via “surgical strike,” the positive aspect of Parrikar’s comments are that they serve to refocus attention on potential nuclear dangers in South Asia.

Ali Ahmed (@aliahd66) is author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014), On War in South Asia and On Peace in South Asia. He blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in.