The ambiguity in India’s no first use (NFU) policy

What is nuclear No First Use (NFU) policy?

‘No first use’ (NFU) refers to a pledge by a nuclear power not to use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary using nuclear weapons. Earlier, the concept had also been applied to chemical and biological warfare. The nuclear policy of No First Use is a commitment that, even in the deepest crisis or war, even if a country had reason to fear an adversary might use nuclear weapons imminently, even if a country might benefit from nuclear first use, the country will forgo the option of first strike. In short, it is a doctrine of good faith.

India first adopted nuclear “No first use” policy after its second nuclear tests, Pokhran-II, in 1998. In August 1999, the Indian government released a draft of the doctrine. This asserts that nuclear weapons are solely for deterrence and that India will pursue a policy of “retaliation only”.

The controversial legacy of the No first Use policy:

No first use policy has been the center of controversy from its introduction. Top level government office-bearers and political leaders have questioned the NFU policy from time to time.

Recently, amid India’s increasing tensions with Pakistan, speaking at an event in Pokhran, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said, “Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘No First Use’. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” His comment does not directly mean a formal change in the doctrine or in the policy, yet, it is an unmistakable and remarkable statement from the highest level of Indian government. 

In November 2016, just two years after PM Modi come into power, then defense minister Manohar Parrikar had courted controversy with his statement when he said, “Why should I bind myself? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly.” and clarified later that it was only in his “personal capacity”.

Lt. Gen. (retd.) B. S. Nagal, a former strategic forces commander, similarly argued in favor of a doctrine of “ambiguity”. Former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon argued in his 2016 memoir that India’s existing doctrine, even with its declaration of no first use, had a “grey area”, in the circumstance that Indian officials concluded another nuclear state was preparing for imminent nuclear attack, in such scenario Pre-emption might be permissible.

Even our late statesman A.B. Vajpayee’s commitment to no first use had its limits. In 2000, Vajpayee told a crowd in Jalandhar, “We are being threatened [by Pakistan] with a nuclear attack. Do they understand what it means? If they think we would wait for them to drop a bomb and face destruction, they are mistaken.” These are just some of the many instances when top level officials and political leaders have questioned the sanctity of the No First Use policy.

Why a rethink on NFU policy is necessary?

A first strike adversary nation will endeavor to launch counterforce strikes to eliminate India’s command and control systems, destroy nuclear retaliatory capability, reduce conventional offensive capability, and, strike important industrial and infrastructure centers, and vital population centers. Collateral damage is inevitable; the outcome of a NFU decision will be large-scale destruction in the country. So, practically, if a nuclear war takes place, Pakistan won’t let India get a second strike counterforce in, Pakistan won’t just use TNW(tactical nuclear weapons) but it will use everything, which means there is no space in practice for a second strike counterforce, India will have to go first. Moreover, Pakistan does not have a NFU policy and has built a nuclear weapons programme designed to deter India and neutralize its much larger conventional military. Thus, militarily, ‘no first use’ puts India in a disadvantageous position.

Pakistan’s political as well as military establishments have often used the larger nuclear arsenal and lack of restraint policy to blackmail India for dialogue. India also has concerns about China, which posses a bigger military force and more advanced strategic weapons. So, the case to revoke the NFU pledge has also been made keeping in mind about China. Given the increasing asymmetry of conventional military power between the two countries, some analysts believe that India should revoke its “no first use’ policy. Where India fails to deter China conventionally, it should leverage its nuclear capability.

Has NFU been changed? 

There was no official word from the defence ministry, though people familiar with such developments said that Rajnath Singh’s comments did not amount to a change in the state policy. They, however, noted that security doctrines were not set in stone and had to reflect changing circumstances. As national defence is a non negotiable priority, so India can tweak this policy for the defence of the country. That is why it should not be seen in a very black and white polarity.

The main objective of the NFU policy was to reassure the international community about the responsibility but states also have to deter their adversaries. So, clarity on NFU is required to reassure but ambiguity to NFU is to deter. And this government has decided to explicitly shift the balance towards the ambiguity. 

So, officially it has not given up the policy but in practice, it has been so eroded and crumbled that it lacks in any real meaning in terms of reassurance of peace to it adversaries. Thus, It has become a hollow declaration. So, the doctrine will be kept but it is always subjected to change and revision and when push comes to shove we shouldn’t assume that NFU policy is going to bind or restrain India from acting in its national interest. Thus, No First Use policy isn’t dead, but losing its sanctity.

What can be the alternative of NFU?

With the above mentioned developments, India is perhaps moving into the direction of Counterforce Pre-emption which can be the best alternative for the NFU policy. It implies the ability to eliminate adversary’s ability to retaliate if India uses nuclear weapons. 

Talking about such pre-emptive counterforce measures, in April 2017 defence Secretary of UK, Michael Fallon confirmed that the UK would use nuclear weapons in a “pre-emptive initial strike” in the most extreme circumstances. In India’s case pre-emptive initial strike implies, if there is a detection of adversary, whoever it is, China or Pakistan using nuclear weapons against India, then India reserves the right to respond and go first, in the sense that pre-emption is consistent with No First Use doctrine. It is best capsulated by “India won’t be the first one to use nuclear weapons but it won’t be the second either.”

Possible Adverse effects of abrogating NFU policy:

Yet, revoking the NFU would have its own costs. First, India’s image as a responsible nuclear power is central to its nuclear diplomacy. Nuclear restraint has allowed New Delhi to get accepted in the global mainstream. Within a decade of Pokhran-II, India has been accepted in the global nuclear order because of its nuclear commitments. It is now a member of most of the technology denial regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement. 

Second, parting away with NFU would also be costly, as a purely retaliatory nuclear use is easier to operationalise. Nuclear pre-emption is always a costly policy as it requires massive investment not only in weapons and delivery systems but also in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) infrastructure. 

Does a change in NFU policy make anyone actually safer?

If India rethinks Nuclear No First Use policy, it won’t surprise Pakistan and China as Islamabad and Beijing have long doubted India’s nuclear NFU policy. So, in many ways, Rajnath Singh was stating what Pakistan already believed. But in doing so, he became the highest serving Government of India official to explicitly state that India’s no first use policy is neither permanent nor absolute and that one day, at its own discretion and without warning, it may be tempted to strike first. NFU as official policy may not be dead, but it no longer has any meaning to India’s adversaries.

This only puts more pressure on Pakistan and China to respond in kind. As India, Pakistan, and China make these moves and countermoves, the question remains: is anyone actually safer? It is not sure whether India or anybody in the region is safer by further eroding India’s NFU policy, as the deterrent threat trying to be made explicitly to china and Pakistan will further evoke them to initiate retaliatory actions. Pakistan’s worst fear may have come true in some sense as they never trusted in India’s NFU policy. It gives Pakistan an extra evidence to do some more dangerous things that they have been doing.But at the end, it is a fact that all doctrines or policies need periodic reviews and India’s case is no exception. Given how rapidly India’s strategic environment is evolving, it is imperative to think clearly about all strategic matters. 

Article by: Krishan Talukdar, Kirori Mal College, Delhi University, New Delhi

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