Revisiting India’s Nuclear Doctrine
In its manifesto for 2014 general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised to review India’s nuclear doctrine. But does India really have a proper nuclear doctrine in strict sense of the term? In my considered opinion, we do not have a proper nuclear doctrine. We in India, and I think that it is a part of our strategic culture, love to keep things and policies as ambiguous as possible, leaving them to many and different interpretations. Unlike the cases in many leading countries, our leaders hesitate to enunciate clear policies or doctrines.
What we have actually is a “draft nuclear doctrine”, released on August 17, 1999, by the then national security advisor Brajesh Mishra. Some clarifications on this draft were “shared with the public” on January 4, 2003, through a press release by the then Cabinet Committee on Security. I do not think any major power will ever deal with such a sensitive issue in such a cavalier manner.
Be that as it may, the BJP manifesto says: “The strategic gains acquired by India during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime on the nuclear programme have been frittered away by the Congress. Our emphasis was, and remains on, beginning of a new thrust on framing policies that would serve India’s national interest in the 21st century.” That, according to the manifesto, will mean “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times”, “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities, and “invest in India’s indigenous Thorium Technology”.
India’s draft doctrine at the moment has the following key features:
- I) While committed to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament, India, till the realisation of this goal, will possess nuclear weapons.
- II) India will build and maintain a credible minimum deterrent.
III) India will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.
- IV) India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. But if it is attacked through nuclear weapons in its territory or on Indian forces anywhere, then its nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage to the aggressor.
- V) In the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will also retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.
- VI) India will continue strict controls on export of nuclear and missile related materials and technologies, participation in the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty negotiations, and continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests.
VII) India’s nuclear Command Authority comprises a Political Council and an Executive Council. The Political Council is chaired by the Prime Minister. It is the sole body which can authorise the use of nuclear weapons. The Executive Council is chaired by the National Security Advisor. It provides inputs for decision making by the Nuclear Command Authority and executes the directives given to it by the Political Council.
It may be noted here that in the clarifications that were given in 2003, there were two important changes that were made to the draft doctrine of 1999. The draft doctrine had said: “Any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.” The 2003 clarifications said: “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage to the aggressor.” Emphasis here should be given to the addition of the word”massive”.
The second important change in the 2003 clarifications was that a new scenario was added under which India would retaliate with nuclear weapons, and that was the attack through biological or chemical weapons on India or on Indian forces anywhere.
What emerges from the above is that India’s nuclear weapons posture, after the country went officially nuclear in 1998, did undergo changes during the Vajpayee regime itself. Now after 11 years, if Vajpayee’s party is seeking a further review of it, then it is not surprising. In fact, as the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), a leading Indian think-tank with which I am associated, as a Distinguished Fellow, advocated in 2012, “A doctrine, any doctrine, incorporates a set of beliefs or principles held by a body of persons. A national nuclear doctrine represents, therefore, the collective set of beliefs or principles held by the nation in regard to the utility of its nuclear weapons. Beliefs and principles are not immutable. Nations and their leaderships change with the efflux of time. And circumstances require their national doctrines to be revisited, reviewed and recast if deemed necessary. Change for the sake of change is not wise. But, stagnation of thought hardly serves the national interests.” In fact, the IPCS has accordingly presented “INDIA’S NUCLEAR DOCTRINE: An Alternative Blueprint.” Because, there are some problematic areas in our present nuclear doctrine that the next government of India must ponder over. Let me explain few of them.
First, as Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has rightly argued, “It is impossible for India to achieve a ‘credible minimum deterrent’ toward both of its primary strategic adversaries, China and Pakistan. China’s own force structure and modernisation effort, combined with the location of its primary strategic centres in the far east of the country—furthest from Indian territory—mean that India’s deterrence requirements against China far exceed what it would ‘minimally’ require toward Pakistan in terms of numbers, deployment modes, and reach. Therefore, what is credible toward China will likely not be minimum toward Pakistan; and what is minimum toward Pakistan cannot be credible toward China. This theoretical paradox means that India’s security managers had to choose whom they envisioned their primary deterrent adversary to be, and against whom they wanted to build and maintain a credible minimum deterrent.”
It is against this backdrop that the IPCS blueprint talks of “minimal deterrent”, rather than “minimum deterrent”. It says, “India shall maintain a credible minimal deterrent, where credibility comprises three specific components—leadership credibility, force credibility, and technological credibility. ‘Minimal’ was seen as a word better suited than ‘minimum’ to qualify India’s deterrent, which is subject to numerical changes in response to its strategic environment. In conceptual terms, ‘minimal’ provides greater flexibility than ‘minimum’. On the other hand, ‘minimum’ deterrence seals the lower limit of the arsenal, indicating that any number below this limit could endanger deterrence. The term ‘minimal’ therefore better conveys the relationship between the credibility of the deterrent and its numerical flexibility. ‘Minimum’ is both an adjective and a noun. ‘Minimal’, on the other hand, can only be used as an adjective, which emphasises its dependent usage.”
Secondly, the concept of “no first use” (NFU) policy needs a thorough debate. The United States or for that matter other western nuclear powers such as Britain and France do not have the NFU policy. Russia, which initially had NFU pledge, has withdrawn it long ago. China, another country that professed NFU policy, is now silent on it. Its latest biannual defence white paper (2013) omitted for the first time a promise never to use its own nuclear weapons first. Even otherwise, China had asserted before that its NFU would not apply against countries that are in possession of the Chinese territory. That means that China’s NFU does not apply to India as it claims over our lands in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. That leaves Pakistan, our other major adversary. But Pakistan too does not believe in NFU.
The concept of NFU has other problems as well. For one, imagine that there is a conventional war between India and Pakistan (or for that matter China), and Indian forces target at military establishments within the enemy territory. They do not know which of these establishments are nuclear or nonnuclear and in the process of their operations, they hit at an enemy target that turns out to be a nuclear one and the consequent results are strategically horrible. Will it mean that India did not observe its NFU pledge? For another, imagine also a situation when the Indian forces engaged in conventional wars simultaneously against China and Pakistan find it difficult to carry on. And here, as the situation challenges the very integrity of the country, should one not exercise the nuclear option? After all, we have already modified our nuclear posture in the events of chemical and biological attacks. Why should then we tie our hands with the NFU when faced with multi-fronted attacks on our territories or forces?
Thirdly, review is also due on the concept of our “massive” nuclear retaliation when attacked by nuclear weapons, particularly when Pakistan is openly preparing to use what it says tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) against India’s superior conventional forces. Pakistan has developed “Nasr” ballistic missiles with a range of 60 km that is capable of carrying nuclear warheads. These have been specifically built with the intention of targeting not only Indian cities but also Indian military formations on the battlefield. Now, suppose, one of our Army’s tank columns is attacked by Pakistan’s TNW. Should then India go for a massive retaliation to destroy the whole of Karachi or Lahore? Will not that be highly disproportionate and unethical? If so, should India not go for a proportionate retaliation with its own TNW?
And if we really go with our TNWs, then there will be a new problem. By their very nature, the TNWs and their eventual uses are better determined on the spot, that is, in the battlefield itself, by the military commanders concerned. How then that will go with our strict provision that it is only the Prime Minister who will decide when and where to use our nuclear weapons?
All these are very tricky but vital questions. But answers to them cannot wait any more. The future Indian government cannot sit over them.
By Prakash Nanda