What would be the response of India if it comes across credible intelligence that Pakistan is preparing to launch nuclear-armed missiles as a means to escalate military hostilities? Would India wait for Pakistan to undertake a nuclear first strike, possibly on a major population centre like the National Capital Region (NCR), killing a million or more, and then mobilise its second-strike forces to strike Pakistan and inflict “unacceptable damage,” as India’s Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) of 1999 proclaims?
Or, instead, would it undertake a pre-emptive strike – either through a conventional air strike or with nuclear-tipped short/interim-range missiles – on Pakistani bases gearing up for striking targets in India?
India’s ‘No First Use’ doctrine (NFU) on the use of nuclear weapons is open for change in the future, defence minister Rajnath Singh has indicated, reflecting thinking within the establishment that no policy is writ in stone and could be modified to deal with current realities.
Votaries of NFU believe that it aptly reflects India’s moralistic ethos of a peaceful nation that uses its nuclear weapons responsibly even if the posture is inconsistent with the threat environment, denoted by two nuclear-armed rivals with characteristically different postures.
The main advantage of NFU is that it minimises the probability of nuclear use. This is so because it enhances the possibility of containing the crisis before the point of no return when miscommunications, misjudgement, misperception or the fog of war may force either power to go first.
Instead, if both are NFU powers, there is greater probability of political leaders stepping back from the brink for they know that a nuclear war cannot be won.
NFU for India also presents an opportunity for cooperation with China to work jointly towards a Global No First Use (GNFU) order. Notably, there is considerable convergence regarding the belief of nuclear weapons being restricted to the political realm.
India, therefore, should take the lead on seeking a GNFU policy instead of creating doubts about its own adherence to it. The defence minister’s statement does not provide any benefits for national security. Instead, it taints India’s image as a responsible nuclear power. An official clarification could recover lost ground.
A foremost skepticism about India’s NFU posture is on its credibility and robustness when it equates with only one (China) of the nuclear rivals and creates a vacuum for the other (Pakistan) to exploit. Pakistan has been running a prolonged low-intensity conflict (LIC) against India, which predates the 1998 tests and had for long denied the space for an Indian response by threatening to escalate to nuclear use if India crossed any of its ‘perceived’ thresholds. This skewed equation, in fact, had its genesis in the covert nuclearisation phase when Gen. Zia-ul-Haq reportedly warned India during Operation Brasstacks (1987) that “if you cross the border by an inch, we will annihilate your cities.” The nuclear tests only emboldened this strategy further as was evident from the blackmail and brinkmanship that Pakistan indulged in during various crises in the post-1998 years.
Besides citing India’s conventional military superiority as the rationale to keep its nuclear use options open, many semi-official elucidations by Pakistan’s security establishment about the redlines added to the deliberate ambiguity. So much so that Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai’s (a long time head of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division) articulation in 2002 appeared to be the saner of the lot. That such belligerent posturing had effectively deterred India is illustrated by its refusal to cross the Line of Control (LoC) during various crises of the initial years.
The efforts since 2001 were to unshackle itself from this condition which led to the pursuit of new game-plans for military responses to the LIC without hitting the presumed redlines or initiating doctrinal revisions, resulting in concepts like the Cold Start, as well as technological options like the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD).
Pakistan, in turn, rapidly developed a tactical nuclear capability (Nasr) to counter the Cold Start strategy and declared that it could target Indian forces crossing into Pakistan territory, though New Delhi refused to get into a tactical equation despite having the capability for a technological riposte (Prahaar)
Pakistan entailed development of capabilities for all the threat environments: cruise missiles (Ra’ad and Babar) to tackle India’s BMD systems, and Nasr against the Cold Start and a fledgling offensive force, including Shaheen-III to hit India’s far-flung strategic zones, etc.
The moot point is that while the nuclear deterrence spectrum witnessed evolution and maturity, the NFU loophole continued to be exploited until the surgical strikes of September 2016 (following a terror attack at Uri army camp), which became not just a demonstration of the new political leadership’s resolve to ‘cross the border’ as a perceptive redline and call Pakistan’s ‘nuclear bluff,’ but also undertake military operations under a nuclear overhang without jettisoning the doctrinal underpinnings of the NFU.
Three years down the line, these political objectives were reinforced when the leadership repeated the feat with greater intensity, through air strikes on a terror camp in Balakot in February 2019.
More importantly, the aerial strikes were proof of India now taking over the escalation mantle and signalling its resolve to advance up the ladder (towards missile strikes) in the event of continuing terror attacks and if Pakistan were to seek military retribution to the Indian action, as seen after the Balakot event.
With the recent Indian action in Jammu and Kashmir ruffling the Pakistan security establishment, which is seemingly girding its loins for a fresh offensive, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement was not just a reiteration of the political intent for cross-border military missions, but also a signalling exercise that no elements of India’s nuclear doctrine, including NFU, will restrain it from moving up the escalation ladder if the situation so demands.
It was surprising for observers of the South Asian nuclear scene as to why such a meticulously planned and resource-intensive initiative like the ‘Cold Start’ was disowned by the political leadership. Army officials involved in this exercise insist that the supposed ‘Cold Start’ was only one among a handful of proactive tactical strike plans that were to be employed if the political leadership decides to undertake military action in response to a terror strike.13 In fact, when elements of the Cold Start were tested on the western frontier, Army officials were aware that their Pakistan counterparts were closely monitoring the exercises and dissecting its contours.
The irony about nuclear doctrines is that the NFU posture, which is supposed to be an exemplar of peaceful intentions, has been scrutinised more often than the more belligerent versions. Nuclear doctrines and postures are dynamic processes that evolve with the security environment, and, hence, can neither be treated as sacrosanct policies nor equated with characteristics like ‘responsibility’, especially since only two of the nine nuclear-armed states adopt defensive postures like NFU.
India’s doctrinal framework has also undergone notable changes from its original ideational framework, through both structural alterations as well as postural realignments. The revisions pertaining to biological and chemical attacks as well as the inclusion of attack on Indian forces among the conditionalities for ‘retaliation’ are examples of how the core tenets have been revisited.
Twenty years after the Indian nuclear doctrine was first drafted, the time is certainly ripe for a comprehensive review and suitable revisions. But if Indian policymakers do indeed feel the need to review the nation’s nuclear doctrine, they should be cognizant of the costs involved in so doing.
A sound policy debate can only ensue if the costs and benefits of a purported policy shift are discussed and debated widely.