The non-debate over nuclear “no first use” - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 21 November 2016

The non-debate over nuclear “no first use”

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 22nd Nov 16

On November 11, two years to the day after becoming defence minister, Manohar Parrikar unleashed a controversy by suggesting that the “no-first-use” (NFU) clause in India’s nuclear doctrine was an anachronism. NFU limits the use of nuclear weapons (nukes) by India to situations in which we, or our forces anywhere, are attacked with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including chemical and biological warheads. “Why should I say I am not going to use it first?” demanded the bellicose defence minister, following up with a typical Parrikarism: “I am not saying you have to use it first just because you don't decide that you don't use it.”

Parrikar’s apparently unauthorised comment, which he and his ministry quickly clarified were “his personal views”, triggered a hailstorm of critical comment. Vipin Narang and Chris Clary, two of America’s brightest young strategists, argued in The Indian Express that, while ambiguity in strategy is no bad thing, Parrikar had introduced confusion. This could be dangerous in a crisis since an enemy might be encouraged to fire his nukes before an Indian “first strike” rendered them unusable (the “use-it-or-lose it” conundrum). They suggested Prime Minister Narendra Modi should publicly reassert India’s commitment to NFU. Opposing this view, Indian conservative commentator, Bharat Karnad, welcomed the uncertainty that Parrikar had introduced and accused western non-proliferation lobbyists of trying to limit India’s options. Meanwhile, former national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon told India Today TV that three separate reviews of NFU by New Delhi had found no conceivable contingency in which India might need to use nuclear weapons first. Apparently New Delhi is confident of blocking even a full-scale Chinese offensive with its conventional forces alone.

This arcane debate over nuclear doctrine is far removed from India’s broader and more immediate security problem --- which is that, despite conventional superiority over Pakistan and a credible minimum nuclear deterrent in place, Indian security continues being violated through cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, and support to the separatist insurgency in Kashmir. What shortcomings in India’s security apparatus --- both nuclear and conventional --- allow this to happen? In this context, NFU has little relevance.

The fundamental conviction undergirding New Delhi’s nuclear doctrine is that nukes are not weapons of war. They exist only to deter adversaries from nuking India. The doctrine of NFU follows axiomatically from this mind set, instituting stable deterrence, while simultaneously occupying the moral high ground. Also rooted in New Delhi’s moralistic view of nukes as “evil” is the call for universal nuclear disarmament that India has spearheaded since the days of Rajiv Gandhi. This approach to nuclear theology has provided a succession of Indian diplomats with high-minded positions in debates in Geneva, Vienna and New York. More damagingly, it has allowed successive governments in New Delhi to separate conventional military warfighting from the nuclear realm, and to insulate the nuclear arsenal from the generals who, despite having proved themselves admirably apolitical, are still considered potential Bonapartists. Consequently, India has a nuclear doctrine, which lays out broad principles; but not a nuclear strategy, which determines how nukes would be used. In the absence of strategy, India brandishes the outlandish and incredible threat of “massive retaliation”. This promises to punish any WMD attack on Indian targets with the full weight of India’s nuclear arsenal, which currently numbers some 100 warheads. Since both our potential adversaries, China and Pakistan, have credible “second strike” capabilities; that will bring down a counter-retaliatory rain of nuclear warheads onto Indian targets. Effectively then, New Delhi’s nuclear doctrine has no stops before a nuclear holocaust in which we will suffer as much as our enemies.

This implausible doctrine has not provided security to India. Pakistan-based jihadi terrorist groups continue to operate in our country; recruiting, propping up and arming Indian terrorist groups, supporting a full-blown separatist insurgency in Kashmir and, incredibly, even nurture Khalistani terrorists in ISI sanctuaries in Pakistan. In most countries, this failure would have led to a re-evaluation of security doctrines, both conventional and nuclear.

Contrast this with Pakistani doctrine that, despite its vicious immorality, at least has a strategic rationale. Unable to match a larger and wealthier India in conventional military power, Rawalpindi (not Islamabad, for strategy is made at the army’s General Headquarters) has long leveraged its conventional forces with a sub-conventional component, in the form of jihadi groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba; and shaped its nuclear strategy and arsenal to provide deterrent cover to the activities of its conventional and sub-conventional forces. Any military move by India that posed a vital threat to Pakistan would quickly invite a nuclear threat from Rawalpindi, as happened in 1990. When India began developing the “Cold Start” doctrine (also referred to as a “Proactive Offensive Doctrine”), designed to accelerate military operations to punish Pakistan before it could bring its nuclear deterrent into play, Rawalpindi began developing “tactical nuclear weapons” (TNWs), which would be positioned with military corps commanders ab initio as a viable and usable nuclear threat.

Bypassing Pakistan’s TNW threat is what Parrikar and his generals should think about, not populist, macho threats to dispense with NFU --- which is irrelevant to our problem. India’s security challenge is straightforward: to punish Pakistan-sponsored terror strikes in an accelerated time frame, before Rawalpindi can invoke a credible nuclear threat. That punishment must be far more impactful than the “surgical strikes” of September that made us feel better about the Uri debacle, but was a mere fleabite to the Pakistan Army.

Parrikar must create the conventional force instruments for striking chosen Pakistani targets --- space-age intelligence and surveillance assets to identify targets and continuously monitor them; electronic warfare assets to blind Pakistani surveillance systems, thus ensuring minimal casualties to our own troops during operations; strike assets like aircraft, drones, missiles, long-range artillery and Special Forces units to pummel the chosen targets; and, finally, defensive assets like watertight air defences and fool-proof drills and procedures to foil the inevitable retaliatory attempts.

Separately, India’s nuclear doctrine must be re-examined every four-five years or so, perhaps as a quadrennial review, to cater for changes in strategic outlook and technology. Our current nuclear doctrine --- issued as a “draft nuclear doctrine” in August 1999, and solidified (in slightly changed form) through a gazette notification on January 4, 2003 --- pledges that India “will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with massive retaliation should deterrence fail.” First on the chopping block must be the inexplicable focus on massive retaliation, which nobody takes seriously from a state as restrained as India. The NFU question can be examined later.


  1. We talk big because that is where we show superiority on paper. When I hear of large acquisitions, I think of how I did not have even basic secure communications at unit level while operating against insurgents in Doda. They heard everything we said on our network and also broadcast on our frequency to taunt us.

  2. Nuclear 'no first use' policy is something we should change.

  3. I think It was a calculated move by the Defence Minister to get the topic moving and work done on the Nuclear Doctrine. Im guessing CCS is sleeping over the proposal.

    "When the wife is not talking to you she is talking to the village about you." : )

    1. Why not keep massive Retaliation as a policy and also pursue a robust ballistic and theatre missile defence options ?

    2. TNW can be fired as artillery shells (30-40KM) as well. Wonder why Pakistan took the trouble of creating missiles with a strike range of 60 KM.

    3. While Nuclear talk is all OK, What India needs is the capability to eliminate High value Targets, by any means necessary. Its such a great option, It does not even tickle the escalation ladder, it cripples terror outfits and also the simple public at home is delivered a simple message which every body can clearly understand and appreciate. This will require great investment in Technical intelligence capabilities. It will put the fear of death on the planners and top tiers. Rather than our focus on the low level functionaries. The less visible they are the lesser they can recruit and the lesser will be the support of Pakistani Punjabis towards Terror networks like LeT, JeM etc.


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