The Strategist

The Value of a Declared No First Use Nuclear Policy

01 May, 2017    ·   5278

Vice Adm (Retd) Vijay Shankar provides a global overview of nuclear doctrinal committments

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

"Can it be a nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain; or as Milton put it “Our Cure, To Be No More; Sad Cure!”

The sensibility of negotiated agreements to assuage friction between nations during ‘The Time of Troubles’ (as Toynbee so sagely suggested) is well recognised. This dynamic in turn sets into motion a search for a deeper concord that establishes and maintains order however stormy the process may be (the fact of continued endurance of the Westphalian state being the basis of international relations is a case in point). Lessons of history have persistently refuted the idea of non-violence and altruism as guiding instrumentalities of relations between nations for at best, non-violence and altruism are a state of mind and higher principles of behaviour; the concord however, is in favour of realpolitik and seeks mutuality. The latter affects its beneficiaries in varying degrees as it brings about a levelling between the dominant and lesser powers. The relative incapacity to generate conditions that favour the dominant power has at times been at the cost of longevity of the concord while at others the dominant power has paid of its political legacy. But in cases when the concord determines inhibition or non-use of a weapon of war that can potentially destroy political intent, it becomes an instrument of balance.

India’s declared policy of no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons makes for such an instrument of balance. The credibility of its deterrent at a minimal level is sought through periodic technological intrusions. The form of India’s doctrine has remained unchanged since 2003. It is ironic that among the remaining eight states in possession of nuclear weapons (barring China), their doctrines have not been declared with any clarity while their nuclear weapon postures and policies remain, at best, ambiguous.

The UK since 1958 has deep nuclear links with the US, so much so that its arsenal of Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (it has since 1998 retired other vectors) along with its doctrine and nuclear policy is pooled with that of the US. Yet it subscribes to the idea of “Sub Strategic Tasks” (no explanation) and an independent nuclear deterrent with neither transparent command and control organisation nor coded control devices.

France also maintains an independent nuclear deterrent; its doctrine is a little less ‘enigmatic’ and is characterised by "nonemployment" within the framework of a conflict which does not threaten “vital interests” (what these interests are is never made clear). The general understanding is that nuclear weapons are not intended for the battlefield. The French doctrine refutes nuclear warfighting “up an escalatory ladder.”

In the meantime, Russia, without declaring so, has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons since 1993, when it formally dropped the Soviet NFU policy and discarded its defensive nuclear posture of the Cold War era. Today, its doctrine is more Orwellian: “To escalate in order to de-escalate” (V. Levshin, A. Nedelin, M. Sosnovskiy, "O primenenii yadernogo oruzhiya dlya deeskalatsii voennykh deystviy," (Use of Nuclear Weapons for Deescalating Conflicts; author’s transalation) Voennaya Mysl Vol. 3, May-June 1999). The stated rationales for the emergence of their new nuclear doctrine are: sensitivity to external threat, particularly so after the invasion of Crimea, eastern Ukraine and involvement in Syria; and perceived weakness of Russia's conventional forces. The idea to be the first to go nuclear in order to deescalate a conventional conflict is an unprecedented awareness, for it suggests two contrarieties: that not only can a nuclear tit-for-tat be controlled, but also that a nuclear war is winnable.

China’s nuclear doctrine embraces two concepts of contemporary nuclear thought: the doctrine of NFU and maintenance of a credible minimum nuclear deterrent. In form, the doctrine has been consistent since 1964. These two tenets have in turn sculpted the nature and size of their arsenal. China’s efforts to modernise its nuclear forces have, in some quarters, been seen as a transformation of the basis of their doctrine. This however, would appear a misperception since technological updates primarily improve the survivability, lethality and precision of their arsenal, with a view to enhance the credibility of the deterrent. So far it would appear that China’s nuclear policy has been undeviating over the years. It is also here the benign nature of China’s nuclear policy ends. A significant feature of the nuclear correlation in the region is China’s proliferatory activities that have given an antagonistic tripolar character to matters. This applies equally to both North Korea and Pakistan.

As is well known today, it is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship that created and sustains the latter’s nuclear weapons programme. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there also exists doctrinal links between the two which permits duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared NFU policy masks Pakistan’s first use intent that the former has so assiduously nurtured, from the development of the weapons programme to the supply of tactical nuclear weapons. China’s proliferation policy may have been driven by a balance-of-power logic but it would appear to have forgotten the actuality in the Pakistan case - of an enfeebled civilian leadership incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger, involvement of non-state actors in military strategy and an alarming posture of intent-to-use. Indeed, the Pakistan proxy gives to China doctrinal flexibility vis-à-vis India, but involvement of jihadis and world repugnance to nuclear proliferation, even China must know, can boomerang on its aspirations. The same would apply to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and doctrine of which very little is known particularly after the failure of the 1994 Agreed Framework. While academics have ruminated over possible North Korean nuclear strategies ranging from political, catalytic (threat of use to provoke intervention), retaliatory to war fighting, what is apparent is that China has taken centre stage and has been elevated to the unlikely role of an ‘honest’ broker in the matter. Somewhere, China’s unwavering support of Pyongyang since the Korean War has been consigned to a ‘memory warp’.

Pakistan has no declared doctrine; its collaborative nuclear programme with China drives nuclear policy. It espouses an opaque deterrent under military control steered by precepts obscure in form, seeped in ambiguity and guided by a military strategy that not only finds unity with non-state actors, but also perceives conventional and nuclear weapons as one continuum. The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons exacerbates matters. It has periodically professed four thresholds which if transgressed triggers a nuclear response; these are geographic, economic, military and political. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertion to declare whose case lowering of the nuclear threshold promotes.

Israel does not officially confirm or deny having nuclear weapons. Its ambiguous stance puts it in a difficult position since to issue a statement pledging NFU would confirm possession. Israel has however declared that it "would not be the first in region to introduce nuclear weapons.”

The US has refused to adopt a NFU policy, saying that it "reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first.” And yet, the doctrine reduces the role of US nuclear weapons to deter nuclear attack on the US, allies, and partners. The Nuclear Posture Review of 2010 notes a less abstruse long term vision: "it is in the US interest and that of all other nations that the nearly 65-year record of nuclear non-use be extended forever."

It has been argued that nuclear weapons are instruments of state that can potentially destroy political intent; indeed, when a nuclear exchange occurs it is the survival of the protagonists that is threatened. And if survival is an enduring feature of every nation’s interest then it is logical that incipient combatants desist from escalating to a nuclear exchange. This logic provides the determinate sensibility for a NFU policy. A compact appraisal of doctrines of nations in possession of nuclear weapons was done primarily to highlight the intrinsic hypocrisy – or realpolitik - that drives them. But if realpolitik is taken to mean politics that strives to secure practical national interests rather than higher ideals, then even in this frame of reference, NFU advances an irrefutable case. There is another awkward irony: these nations recognise two central attributes of policy; first, the inability to control escalation of a nuclear exchange, and second, the value of nuclear disarmament. After 72 years since the last use of nuclear weapons, neither has proliferation occurred en masse nor have nuclear weapons found tactical favour. The world’s ‘nuclear realpolitik ontogeny’ now suggests that the first step towards the negation of nuclear weapons is to find value in a universal declaration of no first use.