Discussion on the India Rising Podcast on the possibility of change in NFU (No First Use) Policy

Discussion on the India Rising Podcast on the possibility of change in NFU (No First Use) Policy

On August 16th 2019, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was in Pokhran where the nuclear tests were held to offer tributes to Vajpayee on his first death anniversary. He said “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atalji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use’. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in the future depends on the circumstances”.

This statement set the proverbial cat among the pigeons as it opened up a new debate on No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons.

Before we look at the nuclear doctrine and India’s stated policies, let’s look at how the NDA government headed by PM Narendra Modi since 2014 has handled the Pakistani challenge. For the past two decades, India lacked effective options to deter cross-border terrorists protected by Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella. A conventional retaliation could be threatened only after high-profile attacks such as those on Parliament in 2001 and in Mumbai on 26/11. But because of the risk — well advertised by Pakistan — that an actual Indian retaliation could invite low-yield nuclear weapons’ use on Indian forces or cities, New Delhi stopped short of war.

This changed in February 2019, when Modi ordered a conventional retaliatory response inside Pakistani territory following an attack on a military convoy in Pulwama. This set a new benchmark — binding Modi and his successors to respond in a similar or stronger manner. Unlike this year, situations in future could escalate and the Indian armed forces might have to take the war into Pakistan, rubbing against Pakistan’s nuclear red lines.

This is where Rajnath Singh’s statement comes in: if Pakistan were to threaten a nuclear strike, or if New Delhi were to believe that a strike was in the offing, India would strike first. The Modi government appears to have calculated that the fear of an Indian nuclear strike will raise Pakistan’s costs of cross-border terrorism, thus deterring its use.

So, what is the Modi Government’s security doctrine?

There is no official “security doctrine” published by the government in New Delhi. The government only publishes a “nuclear doctrine” which we will talk about later. But the fact is that India continues to suffer from sub-conventional cross-border terror attacks by Pakistan. Pakistan also actively indulges in support to separatist elements in the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir. Obviously India’s patience against such activities of Pakistan has run out and is forced to act each time in a manner bigger than the previous response. A conventional retaliation could be threatened only after high-profile attacks such as those on Parliament in 2001 and in Mumbai on 26/11. But because of the risk — well advertised by Pakistan — that an actual Indian retaliation could invite low-yield nuclear weapons’ use on Indian forces or cities, New Delhi stopped short of war.

This changed in February 2019, when Modi ordered a conventional retaliatory response inside Pakistani territory following an attack on a military convoy in Pulwama. This set a new benchmark — binding Modi and his successors to respond in a similar or stronger manner. Unlike this year, situations in future could escalate and the Indian armed forces might have to take the war into Pakistan, rubbing against Pakistan’s nuclear red lines.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine vs Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine

India’s nuclear doctrine was initially drafted by India’s National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) 1999 after the nuclear tests in 1998. This was updated & published in Jan 2003 The doctrine broadly touches upon the following main concepts of CMD, NFU & MR.

CMD (Credible Minimum Deterrence): This refers to having a minimum stockpiles of nuclear weapons which is credible in the eyes of the adversary which takes the threat from India’s weapons seriously. Unlike the Cold War where both USA & USSR had thousands of weapons at their disposal to annihilate each other is not required with CMD.

NFU (No First Use): Out of the 9 so called countries with nuclear weapons only 2: China & India declared the policy of No First Use for nuclear weapons. i.e. conventional attacks won’t responded to with nuclear weapons. They are only to deter nuclear attacks & will be used only if the adversary uses nuclear weapons before them.

MR (Massive Retaliation): Massive retaliation refers to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. We will touch more upon this later.

Retd. Brigadier Gumeet Kanwal wrote recently that “with a pacifist strategic culture steeped in Gandhian non-violence, India is a reluctant nuclear power. Indians have tended to believe that nuclear weapons are political weapons, not weapons of war-fighting; and, their sole purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. India’s nuclear doctrine is built around ‘credible minimum deterrence’ and professes a ‘no first use’ posture.”

Pakistan earlier they use to espouse what they called as strategic deterrence.  i.e. Pakistan will use nuclear weapons to help protect itself against conventional superiority of Indian forces. However they have since shifted their policy to what is referred to full spectrum deterrence. To understand what that means we will have to take a step back in history. In 2002 during Operation Parakram India mobilized thousands of troops after the attack on Indian Parliament. However this exercise took many weeks which allowed the Pakistanis to counter mobilize to thwart any attacks by India across the border. One of the lessons learned from Op Parakram was that India needed to mobilize its troops & formations quicker to make shallow thrusts into Pakistan in case of hostilities breaking out. Pakistan which had as a result has shifted its own doctrine from strategic deterrence to what it calls full spectrum deterrence. Pakistan’s has indicated its willingness to deploy tactical nuclear weapons (i.e. low yield nuclear weapons) on short range Nasr missiles which they will launch on advancing Indian forces once they cross their “red lines” while on Pakistani soil. Pakistan’s FU (First Use) policy is more about projection where they espouse a very low threshold for using tactical nuclear weapons. This has been done deliberately to discourage any conventional attack by India while they continue to push sub conventional attacks against India via non state actors.

Is this the first time that there have been statements on revising NFU?

In November 2016, speaking at the launch of Retd. Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal’s book on national security “The New Arthashastra”, former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said that he didn’t understand why we had to be first hit before we hit back. He said that there should be an element of unpredictability in the country’s military strategy. He mentioned the advantages of unpredictability and said, “If a written strategy exists… you are giving away your strength. Why should India bind itself (to no first use)? India is a responsible nuclear power and… (it should suffice to say that) we will not use nuclear weapons irresponsibly.” As his statement made ripples back then, he later clarified that these statements were in his personal capacity & that there was no official change in India’s policy. The essence of the former Defence Minister’s introspection was that ambiguity enhances deterrence.

 Amb. Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Advisor, has written that India may have to resort to first use in case it has definitive information on Pakistan’s intent to launch first. Also in a speech at the National Defence College on 2010 he described India’s nuclear doctrine as emphasizing “minimal deterrence, no first use against non-nuclear weapon states” Since he mentioned the NFU to just “non-nuclear weapon states”, analysts concluded India was retaining a first-use option against nuclear adversaries, especially Pakistan and China.

In 2018, then Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in reply to a question in Parliament, said that the government was aware of the growing nuclear capability of Pakistan and is “committed to take all necessary steps to safeguard national security and respond to any threat suitably.”

While successive governments post Vajpayee led NDA-1 had stuck with NFU, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prior to the 2014 elections, in its manifesto promised to “revise and update [India’s nuclear doctrine] to make it relevant to the challenges of current times.” Many interpreted this as moving away from NFU or potentially diluting it. However it was reported that Modi quickly denied such an intention, stating in an interview in April 2014: “NFU was a great initiative of Atal Behari Vajpayee. There is no compromise on that. We are very clear. NFU is a reflection of our cultural inheritance.”

Just last November, while making announcement of the first deterrence patrol of India’s ballistic missile nuclear submarine (SSBN) INS Arihant, PM Modi again pledged commitment to NFU saying that “[India] remains committed to the doctrine of Credible Minimum Deterrence and No First Use, as enshrined in the decision taken… on January 4, 2003.”

Would a revision of Indian Nuclear Policy from NFU (No First Use) to FU (First Use) as Rajnath Singh hinted at be useful?

NFU doctrine says that India will not be the first ones to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. This means that India would have to take a blow before it can dish out damage to the enemy. This doctrine of taking punishment before India can launch nuclear weapons is not favoured by some who call the strategy as loss of initiative & weak. Lt. Gen. BS Nagal, a former strategic forces commander, has been consistently arguing for revocation of the NFU pledge on the grounds that it allows Pakistan to take the initiative while restricting India’s options. Militarily, ‘no first use’ puts India in a disadvantageous position.

Before we delve deeper on that question for the benefit of the listeners lets delve into the 2 aspects of nuclear targeting known as

  1. Counter Force (CF) & 
  2. Counter Value (CV).

Counter Force (CF) target is an element of the military infrastructure, usually either specific weapons or the bases that support them. While on the other hand Counter Value (CV) refers to the targeting of an opponent’s cities and civilian populations.

For country like India Dr Manpreet Sethi Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi & an expert on nuclear affairs has argued that NFU makes for a very good strategy/policy.

NFU firstly leaves the onus of escalation on the adversary. Here the adversary has to break the so called “taboo” / threshold of using nuclear weapons after which India can justify its response with a massive retaliation on the enemy’s assets. India’s doctrine doesn’t discriminate between strategic & tactical nuclear weapons i.e. in both cases any use of nuclear weapons will invite massive retaliation. This leaves the onus of escalation plus moral dilemma of using nuclear weapons on the enemy.

So let’s say India moves to First Use policy. In such a case any first strike would have to be a decapitation strike where you need to knock out all of the enemy’s nuclear assets which can store or launch nuclear attacks. Even if you miss out on destroying just a handful of their assets the adversary at that point having taken a massive amount of damage will have no qualms at launching his remaining assets back at you can. So unless you can destroy all of their assets you will be looking to suffer a second strike on yourself. Hence to do this you will need to have excellent ISR (Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities to ensure that you can account for all of their nuclear assets. This capability we are not sure that India possess fully at the moment & would require significant amount of money & resources.

Also trying to destroy all of the enemy’s nuclear assests would require a far bigger inventory of nuclear weapons than what India currently has which is for Credible Minimum deterrence/Counter Value (CV) targeting. Many targets including the ones which have been hardened to withstand nuclear attacks might requires multiple weapons to used against them to be effectively neutralized.

NFU which proposes Counter Value (CV) targeting where cities would be targeted once the foe uses nuclear weapons on India. Now with the size & density of cities in Asia one doesn’t require very high level of accuracy as a nuclear bomb dropped anywhere on a city will cause enormous damage. However for a Counter Force (CF) targeting with a FU policy a very high level of accuracy is required to target smaller military assets or locations.

The aforementioned 2 points on ISR & accuracy will play a key role in taking out mobile assets like missile launchers also known as transporter erector launcher (TEL), airplanes, submarines etc. which could be redeployed by the enemy once spotted by us making it harder to target with a CF strategy. Pakistan is also working on putting nuclear capable SLCM (Submarine Launched Cruise Missiles) Babur on it submarines in the future to have assured 2nd strike capability. Since submarines are harder to detect & destroy once they are underwater this would make elimination of all nuclear assets that much harder. Thus even in case of India destroying all of Pakistan’s land based assets in a theoretical first strike their submarines could launch a 2nd strike.

First Use/Counter Force targeting means that this would have to be a so called “bolt from the blue” attack as if the enemy is well aware of an incoming strike it wouldn’t be successful. This would require nuclear forces in India to be a quick trigger alert to launch at any time. This create an additional headache of having the nuclear warheads to be constantly be mated with their delivery systems. De-mating of war heads is done to prevent accidents or weapons being stolen or even possibly launched without authorization by a rogue armed forces officer. This granted is more likely possible in case of Pakistan with their tactical nukes versus India but a risk nonetheless.

For a growing country like India which has innumerable challenges NFU & CV targeting work well. A change to First Use & Counter Force targeting will mean that India will have to spend much more beefing up its ISR capabilities, number of nuclear warheads, accuracy of its delivery systems, command & control authority plus the moral dilemma of using nuclear weapons first.

What has been Pakistan’s response to the statement by Defence Minister?

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi termed the Indian defence minister’s statement on a possible change in its ‘no first use’ policy of nuclear weapons as “shocking and irresponsible” and read out from a prepared statement: “The substance and timing of the Indian defence minister’s statement is highly unfortunate and reflective of India’s irresponsible and belligerent behaviour. It further exposes the pretense of their no first use policy to which we have never accorded any credence,” he said. 

“‘No first use’ pledge is non verfiable and cannot be taken at face value. Especially when development of offensive capabilities and force postures belie such claims. 

“Pakistan has always proposed measures relating to nuclear restraint in South Asia and has eschewed measures that are offensive in nature. Pakistan will continue to maintain a credible minimum deterrence posture,” unquote.

What are some other concerns of moving away from NFU?

India since the nuclear tests in Pokhran 2 has stated a NFU policy. This has allowed itself to project itself a “responsible” nuclear power. This has allowed India to get accepted in the global nuclear order. The India US civilian nuclear deal owes some credit to this stance from India. Now India is a member of most of the technology denial regimes such as the Missile Technology Control regime and the Wassenaar Arrangement. It is also pursuing full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Moving away from the ‘no first use’ pledge could possibly harm India’s nuclear image & give more reason for countries like China to block its full membership to NSG.

Conclusion

Rajnath Singh didn’t say that India was actually changing its policy but that it could be revised in the future if need be. Now no doctrine is ever set in stone forever & they change as per the circumstance of that era. All he was suggesting was that we cannot guarantee that the doctrine will hold for all times. All doctrines need periodic reviews and India’s case is no exception. India’s strategic environment has massively changed in the 20 years or so since Pokhran-2 & is still constantly evolving. As mentioned earlier any change in the policy will require some costs to be borne by India which the government & strategic decision makers will have to take into consideration.

We know that Rajnath Singh unlike many other politicians is always measured in his comments & doesn’t do over the top statements. He isn’t signalling a shift from NFU today but that India is keeping open the possibility of moving away from it in future if circumstances force it to do so. This was probably to send a message to Pakistan that it must not take India’s NFU as sacrosanct in perpetuity while they continue to sponsor terrorist attacks against India via non-state actors while trying to hide behind their nuclear umbrella.

The Modi government appears to have calculated that the fear of an Indian nuclear strike will raise Pakistan’s costs of cross-border terrorism, thus deterring its use.

What is interesting amidst all this is that there has been no response coming in from India’s other nuclear neighbor China, which too has a stated NFU policy and with which India has already fought a war more than half a century ago. The very fact that China didn’t react and Pakistan reacted the way it did, helps the government believe that the statement from the Defense Minister has served its purpose of instilling some sort of confusion and lack of clarity in the mind of the adversary. And that, in the absence of a valid updated nuclear doctrine, serves the purpose for now for the government.

Note: This was originally discussed on Episode 20 of the India Rising podcast (@indiarisingmk) hosted by Mohal Joshi (@MohalJoshi) & Kishor Narayan (@veggiediplomat). (Below are links to the episode)

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDqYgf6aTsQ&feature=youtu.be

SoundCloud:https://soundcloud.com/indiarisingmk/india-rising-ep-20-is-india-planning-to-upend-its-no-first-use-nfu-policy

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