Even in the absence of official confirmation from New Delhi, the speculation that India is considering a move from its no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons is most worrying. Such a potential move poses a serious threat to the entire region. The suggestion from some hawkish quarters in India that a change in posture will deter countries supporting violent non-state actors is also ill-advised. This is, after all, a veiled reference to Pakistan and it can never achieve the stated aims. In fact, it could only lead to the opposite — since the Pakistani nuclear programme is aimed at India, and serves as an “existential deterrent” toward perceived aggression by its neighbour.
Former Indian Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, had set the cat amongst the pigeons and doves some months ago when he mentioned a need to have a re-look at India’s nuclear posture. In addition, former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon also claimed that “there is a political grey area as to when India could use nuclear weapons first against a nuclear weapon state” and that “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for.” Other media reports also suggest that India is rethinking its nuclear posture. Although it is not the first time India’s No First Use (NFU) policy has become a topic of controversy, this state of affairs has raised a critical question: is India shifting from its No-First Use Doctrine?
In March 2017, an International Nuclear Policy Conference was held at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment. Speaking at the Conference, an Indian-American academic Vipin Narang spilled the beans about the true nature of Indian nuclear doctrine by questioning its fundamental aspect of NFU of nuclear weapons. He disclosed that in a confrontation with Pakistan, India would use nuclear weapons first to “completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons” and that “India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries in the theatre, but a full ‘comprehensive counter-force strike’ that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons so that India does not have to engage in iterative tit-for-tat exchanges and expose its own cities to nuclear destruction,” he said.
This conclusion has a direct link with the strategic situation in South Asia that has been dominated by the strained India-Pakistan relations since 1947. The current decade, however, has witnessed unprecedented escalation in tensions, increasing mistrust and inability to communicate between the two nations.
A recent statement by General Joseph L. Votel, Commander CENTCOM of the United States, must also be taken into account while understanding the nature of India-Pakistan hostilities. In a statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Joseph made an explicit reference to the tensions between the two countries by saying: “India’s public policy to ‘diplomatically isolate’ Pakistan hinders any prospects for improved relations. This is especially troubling as a significant conventional conflict between Pakistan and India could escalate into a nuclear exchange, given that both are nuclear powers.”
The tensions between the two countries – neither of which is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – have raised the specter of a nuclear confrontation between the two hostile neighbours.
Both India and Pakistan became overtly nuclear in 1998. The two states, however, differed in their objectives of going nuclear. For India, nuclear weapons were important in order to create its hegemony over the South Asian region. But, Pakistan, on the other hand, has progressed and built its nuclear arsenal as a credible deterrent to ensure a balance of power in the region and thwarting India’s hegemonic designs.
Indian governments have, apparently, espoused an NFU policy as part of its nuclear doctrine generating Western appreciation for India as a “responsible” nuclear weapon state. But, there is credible evidence that India’s no-first-use of nuclear weapons assertion is nothing but a hollow political gimmick. Ironically, Pakistan has been chided for its refusal to accept NFU despite the fact that Pakistan’s reliance on nuclear weapons is driven by the objective of cost – effectively deterring the much larger Indian conventional forces backed by a huge nuclear arsenal. This is based on the same logic that US/Nato have used against the larger Soviet conventional forces and continue to do so against Russia. Moreover, instead of an NFU policy on nuclear weapons, Pakistan has offered a policy of No First Use of Force to ensure regional security and stability — an offer that India has consistently rejected.
Instead of negotiating with Pakistan on contentious issues, India has come up with its Cold Start doctrine that enunciates fighting a limited conventional war with Pakistan despite the existence of nuclear deterrence between them. In response, Pakistan has been forced to pursue its Full Spectrum deterrence policy to deter any conventional or nuclear aggression by India. Accordingly, the operationalisation of India’s Cold Start capability has been countered by Pakistan’s low-yield nuclear weapons and delivery systems which are essentially designed to ensure the strategic objective of preventing conflict, whether conventional or nuclear. It is against this backdrop that Narang’s disclosures must be viewed — as essentially to re-establish the salience of Cold Start.
For Pakistan, of course, these disclosures do not come as a surprise since Indian NFU is really a sham and political rhetoric. Besides, no responsible defence planners anywhere would accept political assertions from the opponent, especially since these are non-verifiable. For instance, the Indians themselves have not accepted the Chinese NFU policy which is much more credible since it is backed up by the necessary deterrent posture. By spilling the beans, Narang has only validated Pakistan’s deterrence policy.
Having debunked India’s NFU policy, Narang has also projected the manner in which India would ‘go first’ with nuclear weapons against Pakistan. Terming it a “Preemptive Nuclear Counter Force”, he claims that any “imminent” Pakistani use of its TNWs in response to an Indian conventional attack (under Cold Start) would lead India to initiate a “preemptive” nuclear first strike against Pakistan’s nuclear assets so that Pakistan is unable to strike back at India with nuclear weapons.
However, in an unintended and implicit acknowledgement of Pakistan’s deterrence capabilities, Narang admits that India cannot yet implement such a strategy. This is because India does not have “a good fix on all the locations of Pakistan’s strategic forces”, since these are deliberately dispersed and not kept in static locations. To overcome this, Narang advocates increase in numbers of Indian nuclear warheads, building Ballistic Missile Defences and acquiring Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles (MIRV) capability which he says, and as Pakistan knows, are already under development in addition to India’s triad of land- air- and sea-based nuclear delivery systems.
These developments underscore the importance and foresight of Pakistan’s policy of credible Full Spectrum deterrence to neutralise Indian threats at the conventional, tactical and strategic levels. To ensure continuing credibility and effectiveness of this policy, Pakistan will have to take into account the dynamic nature of deterrence depending upon doctrinal and technological developments by India. Of primary importance is the need to ensure a credible second-strike capability to deter any type of Indian aggression.
Accordingly, the obvious conclusion is that India’s attempts to achieve strategic superiority against Pakistan are futile. For every move, there is a counter-move. Deterrence stability can only be enhanced through credible mutual assured destruction. This was possible after the 1998 nuclear tests when Pakistan offered India a Strategic Restraint Regime to prevent a strategic arms race. Rejecting this offer, India proceeded to develop de-stabilising weapon systems like the nuclear triad and missile defence apart from operationalising its dangerous Cold Start doctrine only to be neutralised by Pakistan’s Full Spectrum deterrence. This spiral can go on, leading to another round of a deadly and destabilising strategic arms race. Or India can take up Pakistan’s concurrent offer of dialogue to stabilise mutual deterrence and resolve outstanding disputes like Kashmir for the sake of strategic stability in South Asia.
The international community must also engage with India and other regional nuclear-armed countries to settle their issues amicably, and unite them to fight the common enemy in terrorism, poverty and bigotry. The leaders, especially those of nuclear-armed states, should be conscious of the dangers associated with nuclear confrontation. As for Pakistan, it must continue engaging India and seeking dialogue on issues of contention between the two countries. The only alternative is nuclear sabre-rattling with regards to India: an approach that could well end in a nuclear exchange and the end of human civilisation in — at the very least — South Asia.