India is Not Changing its Policy on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons

March 29, 2017

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Everything you know about South Asian pink flamingos is false, a prominent nuclear-weapons expert has recently warned.

Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal has been a matter of considerable concern to the international community in the recent years. Its adoption of short-range, low-yield tactical nuclear weapons  in the face of India’s conventional military superiority have pointed to the possibility where Pakistan uses a nuclear weapon against Indian conventional armed forces to stave off imminent military defeat. “This is how nuclear first use would unfold in South Asia, right? Well, maybe not so fast,” wrote Vipin Narang, a professor  at MIT, in a set of remarks prepared for  the recent Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. Narang made a startling claim:

There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first. And that India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries in the theater, but a full “comprehensive counterforce 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.

The possibility that India might use nuclear weapons first directly contradicts the key pillar of Indian nuclear thinking since the publication of its official nuclear doctrine in 2003: a no first-use policy. Successive prime ministers — including Narendra Modi, not exactly a dove — have affirmed this. Indeed, a major revision of India’s public doctrine will fly in the face of it’s long history as a reluctant nuclear power. On the other hand, the evidence Narang marshals to support this astounding claim is scant and centers around a couple of paragraphs from a book by a former Indian national security advisor Shivshankar Menon who retired three years ago, before Modi came to power.

Despite Narang’s claims, we still do not have sufficient evidence that India has reversed its no first-use policy or — for that matter — any other major tenets in its public nuclear doctrine. Indeed, at a time when there are growing calls inside India to revisit its nuclear doctrine, it is worth keeping in mind that India’s doctrine already allows considerable space for innovation. As Menon put it to a journalist, “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for.” In other words, India’s extant doctrine can absorb the consequences of future Pakistan-related contingencies without any major changes.

Restraint and Resolve in India’s Nuclear Doctrine

India’s nuclear weapons strategy is simple. By relying on a minimal arsenal for deterrence, India offers a credible threat of a massive retaliation against an adversary that strikes first with nuclear weapons. India’s commitment to nuclear deterrence (as opposed to compellence, the other tool of strategic coercion) rules out threats of nuclear use to shift the course of a conventional conflict. Indeed, India’s a no first-use stance should be read as a pledge to not use nuclear compellence as an instrument of statecraft. India’s nuclear arsenal is as small as it can be to make the threat of a massive retaliation as credible as possible. As such, the size of the arsenal will vary with time depending on the requirements of credibility, a fact that was emphasized by a former Indian foreign minister.

What makes a deterrent strategy effective? It is, argues the Nobel-winning game theorist Roger Myerson, a combination of “restraint” and “resolve” in pursuing the same. Following Thomas Schelling, Myerson defines restraint as a “reputational commitment to act cooperatively” in pursuit of a deterrent strategy. Resolve, for Myerson àpres Schelling, is a similar commitment, but to act aggressively when deterrence demands it. India’s public doctrine — in what it says and what it does not — seeks to do both. It is a statement of restraint in two ways. First, it conveys the impression that India is a responsible nuclear power with a public pledge to not use nuclear weapons first. Second, by explicitly laying down India’s nuclear red-lines coupled to its no first-use pledge, India effectively promises any adversary that it will cooperate  in terms of not using nuclear weapons first — as long as the adversary too chooses to do the same by not crossing those redlines. But the doctrine is also a statement of resolve in that it deliberately does not spell out what follows deterrence failure beyond a promise of some kind of massive retaliation. Regarding the targets of such a retaliation, India’s public nuclear doctrine is ambiguous.

If India leaves out the exact details of its retaliatory response, potential adversaries will imagine the “worst” possible outcome. Taking Pakistan as an example of an adversary, what “worst” means in Islamabad’s mind alone and could change during the course of a conflict. Indeed, both India and Pakistan may have different conceptions of what the latter values the most, and hence wants to protect. For example, India might think Pakistan values its population centers the most, but Islamabad may in fact value its “crown jewels” more. Therefore, if India was to keep its retaliatory responses ambiguous beyond the fact that there will be a massive response, its commitment to act aggressively — India’s resolve — will be enhanced in Pakistan’s mind, irrespective of whether India has any intention of doing what Pakistan thinks it would. Indeed, as Lawrence Freedman put it, “To Schelling the value of nuclear weapons lay in the persuasive threat they posed to an adversary, even if little of value could accrue to oneself by implementing this threat.” What matters is that Pakistan now has to consider a range of retaliatory responses from India. On the other hand, if India was to promise Pakistan a fixed response, but Pakistani leaders did not believe it, Islamabad may be tempted to ignore India’s threats of what follows should deterrence break down.

“Massive” Retaliation or “Massive Retaliation”?

Narang’s claim that India’s no first-use posture may be eroding follows from his interpretation of a recent book by a highly-respected former Indian national security advisor Shivshankar Menon. It that capacity, Menon was a member of the executive council of the Nuclear Command Authority, the highest non-political body that supervises India’s nuclear weapons and their potential deployment. As such, he must have been privy to India’s choice of second-use targets should deterrence fail.

In Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Menon devotes a chapter to India’s nuclear weapons doctrine and posture. The general thrust of his argument becomes clear from the title of that chapter alone: “Why India pledges no first use of nuclear weapons.” He indeed goes to justify and defend the thinking behind a no first-use pledge, and the foreign policy circumstances that shaped it. The passage that caught Narang’s attention lies a few pages into the chapter:

What would be credible would be the message India conveyed by how it configures its forces. If Pakistan were to use tactical nuclear weapons against India, even against Indian forces in Pakistan, it would effectively be opening the door to a massive Indian first strike, having crossed India’s declared red lines. There would be little incentive, once Pakistan had taken hostilities to the nuclear level, for India to limit its response, since that would only invite further escalation by Pakistan. India would hardly risk giving Pakistan the chance to carry out a massive nuclear strike after the Indian response to Pakistan using tactical nuclear weapons. In other words, Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons use would effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan.

His use of the phrase “comprehensive first strike” is indeed striking (forgive the pun). A first strike in nuclear strategy means something very specific: a disarming nuclear weapons attack that severely degrades the adversary’s ability to retaliate with the same. In other words, a comprehensive first-strike is a “counter-force” strategy aimed at the adversary’s nuclear arsenal and not its population centers. But it is clear from the paragraph that Menon is talking about a second strike, the first being Pakistan using a tactical nuclear weapon against Indian forces. So why the use of the word “first”? One explanation is that this is a problem with how one counts attacks and counter-attacks. If you do not count the hypothetical tactical nuclear weapons use by Pakistan that marks deterrence breakdown as first-use, and instead focus on a possible Pakistani response to an Indian massive retaliation, then this a scenario with two steps: India’s retaliation and Pakistan’s (possible) counter-retaliation. If you do count the tactical nuclear attack as a first use, then your deterrence calculations should factor the possibility of a third use of nuclear weapons by the adversary, as Menon says it must.

In any case, since India has conventional superiority over Pakistan, the incentives for a true Indian first-use are weak — a basic argument behind India’s a no first-use posture. Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons do not change this posture. Even if India had the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities needed to detect every Pakistani tactical nuclear system, a tactical nuclear weapons-specific counter-force posture hardly makes sense. Destroying them without degrading Pakistan’s strategic nuclear assets would guarantee a Pakistani counter-value response, targeting Indian cities. Indeed, even an all-out conventional attack on Pakistan’s tactical nuclear systems may lock India in the same pattern. Therefore, either India launches an all-out preemptive counterforce attack against all Pakistani strategic and tactical nuclear assets — which would be inconsistent with its doctrine and almost impossible to implement — or simply absorbs a Pakistani tactical nuclear strike and launches a massive retaliatory campaign.

India’s public nuclear doctrine declares that “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” Is a counter-force second-strike posture consistent with this? Yes. The standard thinking on Indian nuclear doctrine makes an implicit equation of the phrase “retaliation […] will be massive” and “massive retaliation” in the Cold-War sense – city-busting nuclear attacks. “Massive retaliation” and counter-value targeting has been linked since the 1960s when McNamara quantified precisely how much of an adversary’s country (specifically its population and resources) needs to be destroyed for the adversary to consider it “unacceptable damage.” But such a reading of India’s doctrine presumes that Indian policymakers are interested in (or capable of) firmly anchoring the doctrine’s language in Western nuclear terminology.

Consider the following: American nuclear jargon makes a careful distinction between a “first strike” and “first use,” the former having a strictly counter-force interpretation and the latter denoting the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict in any way. And yet to suggest that when the Indian doctrine talks about an adversary’s “first strike,” it only refers to an adversary’s first counter-force strike would be ludicrous. One Indian strategic expert suggests the use of the phrase “first strike” in the nuclear doctrine “was probably the consequence of a lack of awareness of what “first strike” means.” As Balraj Nagal, a former chief of the Indian Strategic Forces Command put it in a 2015 paper, “[m]assive retaliation to cause unacceptable damage is a term that that is not easily defined, and is open to different interpretations” [emphasis added]. Nagal goes on to describe his conception of “unacceptable damage” – “destroy a large number of counter-value targets to include population centers, industrial complexes, and available counter-force targets” [emphasis added]. The most pessimistic reading of Menon (vis-à-vis India’s nuclear doctrine) suggests that counter-force targeting plays as big a role in Indian nuclear-weapons policy as counter-value ones.

But at the end of the day, it really does not matter what India’s retaliatory doctrine is — a tightly-guarded national secret in any case. Most debates among Indian analysts has centered on whether the threat of a city-busting nuclear counter-attack is indeed credible in deterring Pakistan’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. A common argument against the credibility of a massive counter-value retaliatory threat is that India would hardly start destroying several Pakistani cities if they were to fire a few short-range, low-yield nuclear weapons at Indian forces on Pakistani soil. The danger here is that the Pakistani strategic elite might also start believing this and cross India’s nuclear redlines despite them being clearly laid down.

Hair-Splitting Over a Red Herring

This brings me back to the role of ambiguity and uncertainty in signaling Indian retaliatory resolve. If India was to signal that it is no longer tied to a strictly counter-value retaliatory posture and that Islamabad would not know of the exact nature of India’s “massive” retaliation, it would enhance and not diminish deterrence. India’s current ISR capabilities are indeed far from being what it needs to embark on a comprehensive counter-force retaliation. But to publicly signal that India’s retaliatory posture is not tied down to a single option would create further uncertainty in Pakistan’s calculations, all the while staying faithful to the public doctrine. Menon’s book, by accident or design, and Narang’s analysis — ironically enough — have accentuated this uncertainty.

But retaliatory ambiguity can’t be furthered through declaratory statements alone. India will have to publicly demonstrate it is making progress in developing the requisite ISR systems needed for counter-value targeting, along with a controlled increase in the numbers of ‘classical’ counter-force weapons like MIRVs — missiles that have several warheads under  their nose-cones that could independently strike multiple targets at once. Menon himself makes this point when he writes: “What would be credible is the message India conveyed by how it configures its forces.”

To argue that a counter-value/counter-force mix is inherently more destabilizing than a pure counter-value posture is also incorrect. Once Pakistan uses a single tactical nuclear weapon against India there will be a use-it-or-lose-it pressure on Pakistan to safeguard its other strategic assets irrespective of what it perceives to be India’s retaliatory options. This pressure would, paradoxically, increase if Pakistan perceived that India will launch a massive counter-value retaliatory attack. In event of India “just” carrying out a massive counter-value strike that destroys all major Pakistani population centers, it would be of little use to the Pakistanis to think that a couple of their sea-launched cruise missiles  would retaliate against this near-total destruction of the Pakistani state. It is more likely that Pakistan would use a large fraction of its nuclear weapons at once in a massive first strike, near simultaneously with its tactical nuclear weapons use against India, thereby making its possession — and threat to use — of these weapons irrelevant.

Not First, but Not Second Either?

Much more serious than whether India’s doctrine allows a counter-force posture is the issue of whether India’s no first-use policy precludes launch before denotation. A literal reading of the doctrine says it does. But Menon, elsewhere in the chapter on India’s a no first-use pledge in his book, calls this into question:

There is a potential gray area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another NWS [nuclear weapons state]. Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.

It is unclear whether Menon is pointing this out as a problem with the current doctrine or as a loophole within its framework that India could exploit to carry out a first strike. Despite what Indian analyst Ruhee Neog have pointed out as Menon’s “highly circumspect language” (in contrast to his assertions about counter-force), Narang seems to be of the opinion that it is a loophole. Indeed, if he is not arguing that Menon is talking about an extant work-around to the public doctrine, his overarching claim — that India is “not content to cede the nuclear initiative to Pakistan” — falls apart. After all, there can’t be a first strike if you don’t strike first. But independent of this debate, it may be useful to imagine circumstances that may force India to adopt a launch before detonation posture without breaking it’s no first-use pledge completely.

One circumstance is when Pakistan has already launched a strategic nuclear weapon and India does not have the ability to intercept or otherwise prevent a nuclear attack on its soil. The public doctrine states: “Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorized by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority.” If the incoming strategic missile happens to be part of a decapitation strike aimed at the political leadership, then it is possible the prime minister will indeed authorize a retaliatory launch before detonation of the incoming. But the need to prepare for a retaliatory launch before impact is independent of whether Pakistan has – or seeks to use – battlefield nuclear weapons.

While India is quickly moving towards completing the sea leg of its triad, with the induction of the SSBN Arihant inducted into the navy last year, Indian nuclear doctrine currently prohibits submarine commanders to launch nuclear missiles without express political authority. The very short flight time for an incoming missile from Pakistan to India — “5 minutes,” exclaimed A.Q. Khan recently — exacerbates this problem. So, the Indian leadership will either have to pre-delegate launch authority to ensure not just physically-survivable but functional second-strike capability to the military in the event of a serious crisis or move towards what the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces call a “retaliatory offensive strike.” This is defined as a “form of responsive measures […] so that the transmitting of launch orders to a major portion of delivery systems and the launch of those systems are carried out before the first impact.” While such a stance would move India towards a more qualified no first-use pledge, it would be driven by the need to secure a second-strike ability rather than carry out a preemptive nuclear attack on Pakistan as Narang contends.


Abhijnan Rej is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. His research interests include India’s foreign and defense policies and South Asian political-military issues. Twitter: @AbhijnanRej.

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