There is need & space, for recalibrating ‘no first use’

There is need & space, for recalibrating ‘no first use’

The Big Lens

Seshadri Chari focuses on big national and International developments and reads between the lines.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s recent comment that India might have to rethink its nuclear ‘No First Use’ policy in the future raised a howl of protests. Those protesting assumed that the government is preparing to do away with NFU and open up the possibility of a nuclear first strike against Pakistan, which in turn could lead to both countries assuming hair-trigger alert postures. It would then take only one miscalculation or misreading on the part of either for a long nuclear winter to descend on the subcontinent. But, is that necessarily how things will turn out if India relooked at its nuclear doctrine?

Our nuclear programme is riveted on the principles of using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, nuclear weapons only as a deterrent, and thus the commitment to NFU. India’s nuclear doctrine, laid out in 2003, specifies all these aspects. Going further, India declared a self-imposed moratorium on further nuclear tests.

Yet, the changing geopolitical dynamics of the region and the world as well as technological changes leave us no option but to review the doctrine periodically to improve deterrence. The doctrine itself recognises the need to do so in the Preamble, “This document outlines the broad principles for the development, deployment and employment of India’s nuclear forces. Details of policy and strategy…will flow from this framework and will be laid down separately and kept under constant review.” 

Indeed, the doctrine lays down that it “shall be revisited every five years,” and specifies the areas that need review. We are expected to continue research on developing both delivery systems and warheads in the light of global technological advancements. In light of international nuclear regimes, it says, we shall cooperate with other nations to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and work towards democratising these regimes. We are also committed to maintaining strict controls on the export of nuclear and missile-related equipment, materials and technologies, and these lists are to be revised from time to time.

Within this framework, there is a general consensus among the strategic and scientific communities that there is now a need to review the doctrine, lest we imperil our national security options. Nevertheless, it should be clear that reviewing the doctrine does not necessarily mandate or result in major alterations or going back on our NFU commitment.

Nuclear first use or first strike option has neither insulated nuclear powers against military setbacks nor given them any special advantage, if we go by the conflicts over the last few decades. On the other hand, a ‘hair-trigger’ alert doctrine virtually brought the US and USSR to the brink of a nuclear war during the infamous ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’.  

Advocates of a nuclear India were, and continue to be, aware of the fall-out of the Cold War and the arms race that ran counter to the UN mandate of total disarmament and a nuclear weapons-free world.

Contrary to the Cold War era and the European experience, India and China have been able to develop their nuclear programmes in a much relaxed atmosphere, despite having had conflicts and not-so-tranquil borders between them. Even during the 2017 Doklam crisis, the N-word was not used by either side, providing a window of opportunity for the leadership of both countries to de-escalate the situation.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Pakistan, which continues to slip into greater political, social and economic muddle. Whatever may be Pakistan’s stated nuclear policy its strategy appears to be something different. In a totally asymmetric scenario and with limited options available to it, Islamabad has always used its “fastest growing nuclear stockpile” to create a scare rather than a deterrent against India. Be it the Kargil conflict, the post-Pulwama developments or reactions to the abrogation of Article 370 by India, Pakistan has always raised the bogey of an impending nuclear conflict in the region.

Pakistan is developing low-yield warheads, which could be used by any one of the many ‘non-state’ actors on its eastern and western borders, with everything from Tel Aviv to Dhaka in their purview. There are also credible reports of Pakistan’s security establishment clandestinely procuring and developing tactical nukes and short-range missiles that could ‘accidentally’ fall into the hands of jihadi forces.

In such a scenario, Delhi’s response mechanism will have to be recalibrated to the extent that it lies somewhere between the Cold Start doctrine and Massive Retaliation. Any extension of the Cold Start response will have to be necessarily strengthened with a robust nuclear doctrine, with ease of operation in a limited timeframe and maximum operational manoeuvrability. Incidentally, the first Integrated Battle Group is being currently structured.   

The security and strategic architecture of any country always has to be dynamic and flexible, all the more so, in a rough neighbourhood such as ours. Dithering on periodic recalibration of military strategy will seriously affect national security preparedness.


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