India and No First Use: Does ‘Calculated Ambiguity’ Help?

30 Apr, 2014    ·   4416

Ruhee Neog weighs in on the recent debate on India’s nuclear doctrine

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) released its election manifesto that promises to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times,” and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for a global no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, there has much speculation on the subject of India’s NFU policy.

The nuclear programme mandate that the BJP has delineated for itself, should it come to power in 2014, pins itself on the changing security scenario in South Asia. Pakistan, with its increasing nuclear stockpile and emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons, has tried to demoralise the retaliatory Indian nuclear deterrent. The most significant of the implied revisions is to its NFU policy, which is considered the bedrock of India’s declaratory policy as couched in its nuclear doctrine.

Flexibility of Response
India’s 2003 press statement says, “However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.” There are two concerns here: one, what defines ‘major’? Two, a literal interpretation of the statement means that India’s first response to a chemical and/or biological weapons attack will be via the use of nuclear weapons – technically, this is in fact ‘nuclear’ first use, which diminishes the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent. This may have been a deliberate attempt to dilute the 1999 stand on NFU but the reasons for it have not been publicly stated, giving credence to the argument that India’s own 2003 statement makes its NFU pledge ambiguous.

This could have dangerous implications for nuclear postures and arsenals. Damaging this credibility further is the justified scepticism about India actually using nuclear weapons against a chemical and/or biological attack. Quite apart from the kind of response, how will the source of the attack be determined?

The argument against this line of thought is that Pakistan could always use the ‘lack of credibility’ as an excuse to justify the further development of its nuclear arsenal, and therefore the Indian nuclear doctrine is perfectly adequate in its current form. Additionally, the sense in qualifying the NFU through the threat of use of nuclear weapons against a chemical and/or biological attack is to deter the eventuality of such attacks being sponsored by Pakistan.

Accidental Nuclear Escalation
While India’s nuclear policy has the country’s civilian leadership at the top of the command and control structure, in the event of a crisis, conventional forces may prompt inadvertent escalation. As Vipin Narang writes in "Five Myths about India's Nuclear Posture" (The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2013), this may be by targeting the adversary without knowing (or caring to know) whether these targets are conventional or nuclear, and without prior political authorisation. Such an action will of course have huge implications: through the use of its own conventional abilities against a nuclear-armed adversary, India could trigger nuclear first use – either by putting the adversary in a ‘use-it-or-lose it’ situation or by causing an unintended ‘nuclear detonation’.

Election Posturing?
The draft Indian nuclear doctrine was promulgated in 1999 and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) released a press statement in 2003. Significantly, the draft doctrine and the press release were both undertaken while the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was in power. The sudden mention of India’s weapons programme - which is rarely discussed in public - at this critical time, can be read most importantly as posturing for elections. The BJP has sought to re-claim ownership of the doctrine and rebuke the Congress for having ‘frittered away’ the ‘strategic gains’ made under Prime Minster Atal Behari Vajpayee’s leadership. Manmohan Singh’s statement therefore seems to be an attempt at responsible nuclear pledge-making in the run-up to the elections.

It must also be noted however that that the BJP had made similar promises in its election manifesto of 1998, which it delivered upon. Interestingly, although the election manifesto offers a blanket doctrinal review, with no mention of the NFU, analysts have been quick to specifically argue the merits and de-merits of the NFU. If the BJP wins the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it may keep its word and undertake a review of the nuclear doctrine. There have long been calls for a US Nuclear Posture Review style exercise in India by security analysts to review and update the doctrine in response to the dynamism of the regional security environment. This would therefore be a very welcome move, given the increasingly complex security scenario, which includes the presence of tactical nuclear weapons (Pakistan’s Hatf-9), concomitant command and control issues, non-state actors (not sponsored by the State establishment) and sub-state actors (allegedly sponsored by the State establishment).

Even if there is a review or revision of the Indian nuclear doctrine, the NFU itself is unlikely to change, seeing as its current form serves the purpose of ‘calculated ambiguity’ rather well - although it is unclear whether this ambiguity is calculated or accidental. It remains to be seen whether the associated dangers (of a flexible response) are given equal consideration in the event of a review.