Nuclear South Asia and Coming to Terms With ‘No First-Use’ With Indian Characteristics

Let’s make one thing clear: India can explore a pre-emptive first strike without changing its 2003 nuclear doctrine.

Nuclear South Asia and Coming to Terms With ‘No First-Use’ With Indian Characteristics
Credit: Nikkul via Wikimedia Commons

Is India thinking about moving away from its declaratory nuclear doctrine since 2003, in which it states it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict? I poured cold water on the idea that India would change its doctrine before in these pages (specifically in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto spurred some interest in the topic). And it’s true that the answer to the above question hasn’t changed today, despite more recent cause for concern, such as former Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar’s comments — in his “personal view” — that perhaps India should consider first use. Simply put, there is no evidence that India is about to imminently or even over the next few years actually change its stated doctrine.

If you’ve been reading the news in India recently, however, you have may have observed some headlines addressing this issue once again. Specifically, a presentation by Vipin Narang, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying nuclear issues in South Asia, at a recent Carnegie Endowment conference on nuclear issues in Washington, D.C., explored the idea of how India may stretch the bounds of its declared no first-use posture to allow for a strategic shift toward a pre-emptive disarming counterforce strike against Pakistan. Narang’s central point is based on a close reading of a paragraph from former Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon’s 2016 book, Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy and buttressed by observations from Lt. Gen. B.S. Nagal, the former commander of India’s Strategic Forces Command. (Over at the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, Shashank Joshi expands on Narang’s analysis; Ajai Shukla at the Business Standard also examines the implications of Menon’s words.)

The central point in Narang’s reading of Menon’s words is that India, while keeping in place its declaratory no first-use doctrine, may look to “go first” in a crisis, instead of allowing Pakistan to do so. This inverts conventional understandings of how a nuclear crisis may play out in South Asia since Pakistan’s introduction of low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons (also called tactical nuclear weapons). Conventional scenarios of nuclear escalation in South Asia assume that the spark to the tinderbox would come with Pakistan’s first use of such tactical weapons against Indian conventional forces in Punjab or the desert plains of Rajasthan, leading India to inflict unacceptable countervalue damage against Pakistani cities in a second strike. Pakistan, then, would presumably seek to strike back with a “third strike,” using its strategic arsenal. Indeed, recent developments in 2017, such as Pakistan’s inaugural flight test of a submarine-capable cruise missile and a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capable ballistic missile suggest that Islamabad is seeking survivable “third strike” options against Delhi.

This conventional view, however, doesn’t permit for a more flexible understanding of Indian strategic options for a “first” strike while maintaining a plausible no first-use doctrine. Indeed, India’s 2003 nuclear doctrine had already stretched the bounds of first-use by carving aside an exception in the case of a biological or chemical attack; per its doctrine, India could use nuclear weapons first against an adversary should it suffer a biological or chemical attack first. Secondly, even India’s plans to carry out a speedy mechanized offensive into Pakistan-controlled territory through its “Cold Start” doctrine could presumably lead to an inadvertent nuclear yield event (if not a full-yield nuclear blast) on Pakistani territory. For instance, an Indian conventional strike against forward-deployed Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons could cause a nuclear blast, effectively resulting in a situation where Indian action would have brought about nuclear “first use,” though of a Pakistani device. (This assumes, of course, that use-or-lose pressures wouldn’t have already resulted in Pakistani commanders carrying out a first strike on the battlefield.)

The above underscores that India’s declared no first-use doctrine has always been followed by an asterisk — no first-use with Indian characteristics, if you will. Now, Narang has suggested that Delhi may be looking to expand its options under the doctrine to encompass pre-emptive counterforce options. “Flexibility,” as Shivshankar Menon put it in his book, is baked into India’s existing doctrine, negating a need for a formal doctrine review from the Indian perspective. Delhi additionally may benefit from having this ambiguity sow doubt in Pakistani strategic planners’ minds. For India, the intended outcome of a disarming counterforce strike would be to leave Pakistan incapable of a “third strike” capable of inflicting unacceptable damage. The latter point is central here. For instance, Delhi may be unable to find and suppress every deployed Nasr battery, but knowing the platform’s short 60 km range, India may opt to “absorb” some Pakistani retaliatory strikes. Meanwhile, nascent Indian ballistic missile defense systems could come to give Delhi confidence that even certain countervalue retaliation options available to Pakistan would be suitably limited following even a partially disarming counterforce strike. (BMD, for India, would effectively add a layer to its counterforce strategy.)

In any case, this discussion and the close-reading of Menon’s words may have served to vindicate a lot of what Pakistani planners have thought about India’s ultimate plans for wartime nuclear use anyway. With one look at Pakistan’s evolving nuclear force structure, it becomes apparent that Islamabad has operated under the assumption that Delhi’s declared doctrine would not prevent first-use. Pakistan is consequently taking steps to ensure that India’s force requirements for a disarming counterforce strikes remain prohibitively high, preserving its position as the presumptive “first mover” in a crisis. Doubts over the flexibility of India’s no first-use doctrine, in other terms, are responsible for partly exacerbating Pakistan’s nuclear insecurity.

Narang’s analysis evaluates that India, even if it wanted to go first with a counterforce strike, “almost certainly” cannot do so to the extent of fully disarming Pakistan. Between its mobile Nasr batteries and potentially soon an undersea option with the Babur-3 SLCM, India at best can hope to moderately limit damage through a counterforce strike once it is certain that Pakistan is readying its forces for first use.

So where does this leave things? First, it’s worth emphasizing once again that none of the above necessitates or portends any doctrinal changes on India’s part. Second, with Pakistani concerns about an Indian disarming strike somewhat vindicated by the above analysis, expect Islamabad’s nuclear stockpile — the world’s fastest-growing — to continue growing. Third, while India’s Defense Research and Development Organization has multiple projects underway that would bring Delhi’s counterforce pre-emption ambitions closer to reality, watch for any official sanction of certain platforms by India’s political leadership.