ASIAINTL CONFLICTSOPINION

India’s NFU card

By Haris Bilal Malik 

The nuclearization of South-Asia in 1998 marked considerable changes in the regional security dynamics. This also had a considerable impact on regional and extra-regional politics, the security environment of South Asia and the global nuclear order. Since then, India has gone through gradual shifts in its nuclear doctrinal posture. Set out in the 1999 ‘Draft Nuclear Doctrine’ (DND) the Indian stance initially was that India would maintain a policy of ‘No First Use’ (NFU). The first amendment to this draft which came out in January 2003 was based on the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security’s (CCS) review of the nuclear doctrine, which stated that if the Indian armed forces or its people were attacked with chemical and biological weapons, then India reserves the right to respond with nuclear weapons. As such, this review could be regarded as a denial of the NFU policy. Based on this notion it could be assumed that India had the aspiration to shift away from its NFU policy since 2003. Hence, playing with its NFU card as a diplomatic and strategic tool the Indian state has been in practice since then.  

Subsequently, in later years 2016-2017, the notion of a preemptive ‘splendid first strike‘ has emerged within the discourse surrounding the Indian and international strategic community. According to this, if in India’s assessment, Pakistan is found deploying nuclear weapons, as a contingency India would likely resort to such a splendid first strike. With such a doctrinal posture, India by asserting its quest of preemption against Pakistan, is attempting to undermine the deterrent value of Pakistan’s nuclear posture and ultimately destabilizing the South Asian region. In this regard, India has been constantly advancing its nuclear weapons capabilities based on enhanced missile programs and the development of its land, sea, and air-based nuclear triad thus negating its own NFU policy. India’s quest of limited war or a low-intensity conflict against Pakistan under its more recent doctrines such as the 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD) are also based upon proactive strategies and indirect threats of preemptive strikes which would likely abandon the NFU policy.

The NFU card was also one of the core points of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign during the Indian General Election 2014 but later, it seemed to be ruled out from the electoral debate. More recently, however the BJP did win the 2019 General Election with a landslide victory based largely on its negative nuclear signaling against Pakistan. In the aftermath of the 2019 elections which were held in an environment dominated by the Post- Pulwama situation and with Mr.Modi once again in office as Prime Minister, the political and diplomatic escalation between India and Pakistan for the last few months has become a global concern. For instance, the Kashmir issue which has also recently gained global significance has resulted in severe domestic and global condemnation directed at the BJP government. It arose from the BJP government’s decision to change the special status that had been awarded to the Kashmir region by revoking Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution.

The revocation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status by the Indian government along with the rising political and diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan, the security environment of the whole region has been once again put at stake because of the possession of nuclear weapons by both countries. This is also evident from the involvement of BJP’s top leadership in negative nuclear signaling against Pakistan in recent months. In an apparent shift from its NFU Policy, on August 16, 2019 India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh while on a visit to the Pokhran nuclear test site payed tribute to the late former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and asserted that India might review its ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy. He stated that a change in future circumstances would likely define the status of India’s NFU policy.

The shift in such a NFU policy is also evident from India’s enhanced missile developments which include; super-sonic missiles, hypersonic missiles, ballistic missile defence systems, enhanced space capabilities for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance and the induction of nuclear powered ballistic missile capable submarines. Similarly, the anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test which India conducted in March 2019 is also indicative of such shift. Such recent developments are clear indicators that India would likely maintain a notion of a preemptive strike against Pakistan and might officially abandon the NFU policy as asserted in the Defence Minister’s statement. 

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Pakistan has assured its security and preserved its sovereignty by deterring India either by minimum credible deterrence or full-spectrum deterrence. This posture asserts that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes only and are aimed at deterring India from any kind of aggression. India’s quest to move away from its own NFU policy would likely pose a serious threat to the security of Pakistan which already faces conventional asymmetry vis-à-vis India. Hence the possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan has served as decisive factor within such an environment. 

The change in India’s NFU policy might enhance an open-ended nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan in the coming years which would likely undermine the deterrence stability of the South Asian region even further. Pakistan would be left with no choice but to enhance its nuclear forces’ alert and readiness which would bring severe implications for South Asian region’s strategic stability. India’s recent quest to review its NFU policy which was asserted by the defense minister’s statement would thus likely have serious implications for the broader security architecture of the South Asian region. 

Haris Bilal Malik works as a Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) Islamabad, Pakistan.

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