Hullabaloo over decoupling of India’s nuclear doctrine

By Maimuna Ashraf

The purported claim of Indian Former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon in his book, ‘Choices- Inside the Making of India’s Foreign policy’, followed by the assessment of Vipin Narang at recently held Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, have rekindled the debate about stirrings of change in Indian declaratory nuclear doctrine. The deliberations under discussion raised question if India is shifting from its No-First Use (NFU) doctrine of 2003 backed by massive retaliation in response to a pre-emptive strike. However, these voices indicating to the amount of review in Indian nuclear posture are not seen as surprise by the Pakistani strategic community since this rethinking has been hinted by the BJP’s election manifesto and personal views of former Indian officials (Lt. Gen. B.S. Nagal and Manohar Parrikar) in recent years. Moreover, India’s stated stance in its official doctrine to threaten nuclear use against chemical and biological weapons had already questioned the sanctity of its NFU posture.

The ‘grey areas’ being discussed indicate ‘flexibilities in use of nuclear weapons by India’. Narang based his assessment on the viewpoints of Menon, which asserts India would keep an option to go-first in its no-first use policy, “if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.” In wake of presumed conventional and nuclear escalation scenarios in South Asia, it is opined that Pakistan would use low-yield tactical nukes against Indian conventional incursion. Pakistan’s nuclear establishment argues that Cold-Start Doctrine (CSD) would provide India the space for conventional or limited conflict in a nuclearised region. For an appropriate reactionary response to CSD, which excludes massive nuclear retaliation, Pakistan developed the low-yield, short range, tactical battlefield ‘Nasr nuclear missiles’ which provides a qualitative response to the conventional threats and asymmetry perceived by India. Moreover, it offers a range of options since Pakistan will not be forced to retaliate with strategic nuclear weapons as a first response to conventional force. Conversely, it has been lately expressed by Indian former head “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 weapon use would effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan.” This implies that India will not open a conventional response to tactical nukes rather it would launch a comprehensive retaliation response with the aim to completely disarm Pakistan’s nuclear forces. It is plausible that Indian massive response would inflict to diffuse Pakistan’s capability to retaliate or launch a third-strike in response to Indian massive retaliation. The strategy probably aims to avoid interactive exchanges and put its cities under nuclear destruction. Nevertheless, the option of first-use or preemptive nuclear strike would end the India’s NFU posture. Interestingly the stir of change revamped after Pakistan lately declared to achieve seaborne nuclear deterrent and MIRV technology that neutralized Indian nuclear powered submarine and BMD developments.

Here arises the question about Indian nuclear posture for its two nuclear neighbors, would India be adopting two different nuclear doctrines or postures for China and Pakistan? NFU for China and First-Use for Pakistan? Critics argue that these opinions do not speak volume about an official shift in India’s NFU doctrine however specify a serious mainstream thinking of Indian elite to shift its counter-value strategy, which refers to target opponent’s civilians and cities, to the counterforce strategy that aims at targeting enemy’s nuclear weapons and military infrastructure.

Pragmatically, is it possible for India to locate all Pakistani nuclear weapons and completely destroy Pakistan’s nuclear forces? Can India wage a full scale nuclear war on the basis of hypothetical scenarios or mere enemy’s intentions? India currently does not possess the capabilities to maintain high level of accuracy and increase response in real-time crisis. Theoretically or practically, a ‘splendid first strike’ will not ensure the complete destruction of Pakistani nuclear forces.

Consequently, all these confusions and startling personal claims about a country’s nuclear posture can be highly destabilizing as it would mount the ambiguities in the already murky landscape of South Asia. If this ‘call for change’ will be heard and India moves in the direction to abandon NFU, the country would speed up its all undergoing nuclear programs to increase its number of nuclear weapons, build-up new technologies and ensure readiness. Opinion already prevails that India is moving from its minimum deterrent posture to higher state of readiness and war-fighting capabilities. It is also working to expand its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities while the remote sensing and satellite capabilities will further boost India’s confidence. When India will advance the technologies to track Pakistani missiles and nuclear assets, Pakistan will also work on its operational nuclear strategy, the state of art technologies, assured second-strike capability and techniques to reduce the vulnerability of its nuclear assets. Resultantly, all these developments would increase the alertness level and lower the nuclear threshold in South Asia.

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Maimuna Ashraf

Maimuna Ashraf works as a Senior Research Associate for an Islamabad-based think tank Strategic Vision Institute. She works on issues related to nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and South Asian nuclear equation. She writes for South Asian Voices, international blogs and national dailies.

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