India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Reviewing NFU and Massive Retaliation

07 Jan, 2015    ·   4798

Brig (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal reflects on doctrinal credibility

The BJP’s election manifesto had promised to review India’s nuclear doctrine to “make it relevant to challenges of current times…” Regardless of election-time rhetoric, it is necessary that important government policies must be reviewed periodically with a view to re-validating their key features.

India had declared itself a state-armed with nuclear weapons after a series of nuclear tests at Pokhran, Rajasthan, on 11 and 13 May 1998. India’s deterrence is premised on the dictum that nuclear weapons are political weapons and not weapons of warfighting and that their sole purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by India’s adversaries. A draft nuclear doctrine was prepared by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) chaired by the late K Subrahmanyam and handed over to the government on 17 August 1999.

After a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the government issued a statement on 04 January 2003 spelling out India’s nuclear doctrine. The government statement said that India will build and maintain a credible minimum deterrent; follow a ‘No First Use’ posture; and, will use nuclear weapons only “in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.” It was also stated that nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage; nuclear weapons will not be used against non-nuclear weapon states; and, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons in the event of a major attack against it with biological or chemical weapons.

Criticism of the nuclear doctrine has mainly been centred on a few key issues: NFU will result in unacceptably high initial casualties and damage to Indian population, cities and infrastructure; ‘massive’ retaliation is not credible, especially against a tactical nuclear strike on Indian forces on the adversary’s own territory; and nuclear retaliation for chemical or biological attack would be illogical, especially as the attack may be by non-state actors.

Several Indian analysts have been critical of the NFU posture since its acceptance by the government. Recently, Lt Gen (Retd) BS Nagal, former C-in-C, Strategic Forces Command (SFC), has questioned the efficacy of the NFU doctrine. According to him, “It is time to review our policy of NFU… (the) choices are ambiguity or first use.” He gives six reasons for seeking a change: NFU implies acceptance of large-scale destruction in a first strike; the Indian public is not in sync with the government’s NFU policy and the nation is not psychologically prepared; it would be morally wrong - the leadership has no right to place the population ‘in peril’; NFU allows the adversary’s nuclear forces to escape punishment as retaliatory strikes will have to be counter value in nature; an elaborate and costly ballistic missiles defence (BMD) system would be required to defend against a first strike; and, escalation control is not possible once nuclear exchanges begin. (“Checks and Balances”, Force, June 2014.)

The most common scenarios normally considered appropriate for first use include first use by way of pre-emption based on intelligence warning, or during launch on warning (LoW) or launch through attack (LTA). In all of these, there are no easy answers to some obvious questions: What if intelligence regarding an imminent first strike is wrong? Can the destruction of the adversary’s cities be justified on suspicion of imminent launch? The adversary’s surviving nuclear weapons will be employed to successfully target major Indian cities. Is it worth risking Delhi, Mumbai and other cities for dubious gains?

Major military reverses during war are also offered as a justifiable reason for the first use of nuclear weapons. In none of the traditional worst-case scenarios, for example the cutting off of the Pathankot-Jammu national highway NH-1A somewhere near Samba by the Pakistan army, is the situation likely to become so critical as to justify escalation to nuclear levels by way of a first strike as sufficient reserves are available to restore an adverse situation.

The NFU posture is strategically logical and rational on several counts. It has led to major diplomatic gains, including the lifting of sanctions, civil nuclear cooperation agreements and accommodation in multilateral nuclear export control regimes. Most of these gains will be frittered away if India opts for first use. Complex command and control and sophisticated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems are necessary for a first use posture. A first use posture will deny India the opportunity to engage in conventional warfare below the nuclear threshold if it becomes necessary. First use will lower the nuclear threshold and make the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) more likely. And, South Asia will again be dubbed a ‘nuclear flashpoint’; this will encourage international meddling and will discourage investment.

Deterrence is ultimately a mind game. The essence of deterrence is that it must not be allowed to break down. India’s nuclear doctrine must enhance and not undermine nuclear deterrence. It emerges clearly that NFU is still an appropriate posture for India’s nuclear doctrine. However, the word ‘massive’ in the government statement should be substituted with ‘punitive’ as massive is not credible and limits retaliatory options. The threat of nuclear retaliation against chemical and biological attack should be dropped from the doctrine. The credibility of India’s nuclear doctrine needs to be substantially enhanced through appropriate signalling.