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Accommodating new stance to ‘No First Use’ policy

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On August 16, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh dropped a hint that in the future, India’s NFU promise “depends on circumstances.”


Since conducting its second nuclear tests, Pokhran-II, in 1998, India has adhered to a self-imposed commitment to ‘No First Use’ (NFU) of nuclear weapons on another country.

India’s march towards the development of Nuclear Weapons:

  • India followed the path of nuclear weapons development after its face-off with China in the 1962 war.
  • Followed by China carrying out nuclear tests in 1964 and in the subsequent years.
  • In 1974, India conducted its first nuclear tests, Pokhran-I, dubbed as a “peaceful nuclear explosion”.
  • India again carried out a test in May 1998, Pokhran-II, involving a fission device, a low-yield device, and a thermonuclear device.
  • Its successful execution meant that India had the ability to introduce nuclear warheads into its fast-developing missile programme.
  • In subsequent after the Pokhran-II tests, Pakistan also carried out similar tests, confirming progress with its nuclear weapons programme.

Indian Nuclear Doctrine:

  • In 1999, India came out with an explicit nuclear doctrine that committed, among other things, to NFU that is it would never carry out a nuclear first-strike.
  • This implies that in the event of another nation carrying out a first nuclear strike of any magnitude against India, India’s nuclear forces shall be so deployed.
  • So as to ensure survivability of the attack and the capability to carry out a massive, punitive nuclear retaliation aimed at inflicting damage that the aggressor will find “unacceptable”.
  • The NFU promise went together with credible minimum deterrence.

Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD):

  • It does not imply indefinite expansion of the nuclear arsenal rather it is built on an assured second-strike capability.
  • It requires a robust command and control system
  • Effective intelligence and early warning capabilities
  • Comprehensive planning and training for operations in line with the strategy and the will to employ nuclear forces and weapons.
  • The Nuclear Command Authority is responsible for command, control and operational decisions on nuclear weapons
  • Specifically, it is the Cabinet Committee on Security and ultimately the office of the Prime Minister of India, that is responsible for the decision to carry out a nuclear attack.

Need for review or revisit the No First Use (NFU) policy:

  • The deterrent effect of India’s arsenal seemed to have less effect in one significant aspect as Pakistani official started speaking out about their country’s development of tactical Nuclear weapons.
  • The tactical Nuclear weapons or “theatre nukes”, which had a lower yield but could still inflict enough damage to blunt a conventional attack.
  • It is surmised that Pakistan’s talk of tactical nuclear weapons might have emerged as a counter to speculation that India might have developed the “Cold Start” doctrine.
  • This is a purported classified plan for a conventional military attack by Indian forces on Pakistani soil, likely as a response to a prior sub-conventional attack from across the border
  • Massive retaliation strategies need not be countervalue while avoiding the credibility issues associated with a countervalue targeting strategy following Pakistan’s use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

Accommodating the changes into reality:

  • Regional geopolitical realities have a significant bearing upon India’s NFU commitment.
  • To the extent that the CMD is what the “enemy” believes deterrence to be, and their belief is manifested in their actions.
  • India’s adoption of potentially pre-emptive “counterforce options” i.e. to eliminate Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons when it deems the risk of a Pakistani first-strike to have crossed a critical threshold.
  • Remaining silent on this subject might be calculated as a strategic advantage for India as the country would be assuming deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
  • Based on a calculation that India might be willing to carry out a counterforce attack and thereby eliminate the Pakistani nuclear threat entirely.
  • This, in turn, risks fueling an arms race or more unstable nuclear weapons deployment patterns in Pakistan.
  • After the 1998 nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, the CMD was established in the sense that in the following decade, including the aftermaths of the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, neither country felt inclined to instigate all-out war.

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