Rajnath Singh's remarks on 'No First Use' of nukes indicate ambiguity in nuclear policy in India's interest

  • While the NFU declaration was necessary in that milieu, Rajnath's comments — the second by a Union defence minister after the late Manohar Parrikar — indicate that NFU has now outlived its purpose and a doctrinal revision has now become essential

  • Rajnath's carefully calibrated statement and its timing is aimed at Pakistan which is showing signs of extreme restiveness following New Delhi's decision to abrogate Article 370 and declare Jammu and Kashmir as a Union Territory

  • India's NFU policy has enough flexibility written into it than it immediately apparent, therefore a preemptive strike against Pakistan as a counterforce strategy to nullify an imminent threat makes unnecessary any formal doctrinal shifts in NFU policy

Defence minister Rajnath Singh's recent allusion to India's nuclear doctrine is more interesting and layered than it appears at first. Everything about his reference to India's 'no first use' (NFU) nuclear policy — first in comments to media in Pokhran and subsequently in a tweet — carries an unmistakable imprint of a change in India's nuclear doctrine without confirming to do so. It is, therefore, worth exploring questions whether India is moving towards changing its NFU policy and if so, may that be codified in a doctrine or remain structurally ambiguous and finally, the cost and benefits of such a tectonic change in policy.

On Friday, while on a visit to Pokhran — the site of India's nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 — to pay homage to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on his first death anniversary, the defence minister suggested that India's NFU policy on nuclear weapons is not a binding commitment for the future despite strict adherence in the past. In other words, he made a deliberate attempt to interject some ambiguity into the doctrine.

Singh followed it up with a tweet

The NFU doctrine on nuclear weapons is a formal declaration that India will exercise its nuclear option only if it suffers an atomic detonation by an adversary. It shall never be the first one to use nuclear warheads in a conflict and given the fact that nukes are not used during peacetime, it essentially signifies that India shall not exercise that option even in grave crisis, fog of war, despite being apprehensive of an imminent nuclear attack from an adversary and even if a pre-emptive attack might bring positive results for India.

Critics, strategic thinkers, national security advisers and even political leaders have questioned the viability of India's NFU policy that restricts the development of India's nuclear arsenal and constricts its strategic choices. Analysts have pointed out that though India had codified its NFU policy in a nuclear doctrine in 2003, its regional adversaries never really believed its commitment.

Ankit Panda, South Asia expert with The Diplomat, writes that the "latest watering-down of the credibility of Indian NFU will serve to validate long-standing suspicions in Islamabad and Beijing regarding Indian intentions. Neither of these nuclear adversaries have ever believed India's 'no first use' policy-just as analysts in New Delhi regularly cast doubt on China's 'no first use' pledge, which has been in place since 1964."

"Changed circumstances" altering India's NFU doctrine on nuclear weapons is not a comment that is lightly made, nor can the words be earmarked as a "personal opinion". Instead, we must take Rajnath's comments for what they are: an indication by the Union defence minister of India that the country might be jettisoning its NFU principle and deliberately interjecting some ambiguity to benefit from an opaque posture on nuclear weapons.

Before we delve into the reasons why India is feeling compelled to change its policy, we need to understand the rationale behind the NFU commitment made by the Vajpayee government under whose watch India declared itself a nuclear capable state.

Faced with global condemnation, immediate response from Pakistan which had long been developing its own arsenal, and crippling sanctions, India's NFU posture then had its usage in calming global apprehensions over a nuclear arms race, highlighting its objective of a "credible minimum deterrence", mainstreaming of India as a responsible power outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), earning entry into various nuclear export control regimes — NSG, MTCR, Wassenaar Agreement, etc — and finally signing the civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US that hinged on India's NFU status and 'no testing' arrangement.

 Rajnath Singhs remarks on No First Use of nukes indicate ambiguity in nuclear policy in Indias interest

File image of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Twitter/@rajnathsingh

While the NFU declaration was necessary in that milieu, Rajnath's comments — the second by a Union defence minister after the late Manohar Parrikar — indicate that NFU has now outlived its purpose and a doctrinal revision has now become essential. In the short term, Rajnath's carefully calibrated statement and its timing is aimed at Pakistan which is showing signs of extreme restiveness following New Delhi's decision to abrogate Article 370 and declare Jammu and Kashmir as a Union Territory.

Pakistan has been delivering some extremely provocative statements ever since led by Prime Minister Imran Khan who has threatened terrorist attacks against India and even war, going to the extent of claiming that India will pay a "heavy price" for its "strategic blunder" on Kashmir.

In this context, Rajnath's statement on a possible revision of India's NFU status is a warning to Pakistan that it should not take New Delhi's moratorium on first use of nuclear weapons for granted, and in no way does the status constrict India's hands in a conventional war or prevent it from exercising that option as a pre-emptive measure. That this flexibility is written into the NFU doctrine is not a secret.

In a Hindustan Times article, South Asian security scholars Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang have pointed out that Rajnath merely followed the footsteps of defence ministers, strategic thinkers and NSAs before him who had issued enough caveats for a hint that India's NFU doctrine is more flexible than it appears and the nation has been investing in new capabilities for a long time to underwrite seismic shifts in policy.

The piece in Hindustan Times documents how Rajnath became merely the "most recent senior Indian official to question the wisdom, and erode the sanctity, of no first use". They refer to Parrikar's statement in November 2016 that India should not bind itself to a NFU policy and also refer to Lt Gen (retd.) BS Nagal, a former strategic forces commander who batted for "ambiguity".

The writers quote former NSA Shivshankar Menon who "argued in his 2016 memoir that India's existing doctrine, even with its declaration of no first use, had a 'grey area' in the circumstance that Indian officials concluded another nuclear state was preparing for imminent nuclear attack. Preemption might be permissible, Menon argued, and even with a declared doctrine of no first use, India's doctrine was 'more flexible' than was widely believed."

When we consider this possibility, then it becomes apparent that Rajnath's remarks might indicate a larger shift or a doctrinal revision than just a shot in the air aimed at Pakistan. The question that should be asked is why has he necessitated such a shift given the fact that it may erode India's moral authority as a responsible nuclear power? The answer lies as much in realpolitik as an acceptance of reality that Gandhian moral posturing has no place in nuclear doctrines.

Analysts believe that India's NFU policy has served to hinder its strategic autonomy and restrict the testing and development of nuclear arsenal at a time when its regional adversaries Pakistan and China have been rapidly scaling up capabilities. They point out that this "policy freedom" can be regained if India shuns "restraint".

Strategic analyst Bharat Karnad recommends fast-forwarding the "second Dhruva military reactor and ICBM development, and test-fire the MIRV-ed Agni-5s." He also prescribes refurbishing of the laser inertial confinement fusion facility at the Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore, "on a war-footing", and construction of "dual-axis radiographic hydrodynamic test facility."

While capability scaling up is a viable strategy that must underwrite any doctrinal shift, some analysts are at variance with the theory that India has been sleeping at the wheels. The Hindustan Times article argues that successive BJP and Congress governments have carried out development of "precision-strike weapons, new cruise and ballistic missiles, ballistic missile defences, and a wide-array of terrestrial, airborne, and space-based intelligence assets" so that a shift away from NFU won't be a practical impossibility and targeting and destroying Pakistan's nuclear arsenal won't remain a fantasy.

If we take these factors into consideration, it seems evident that despite "strictly adhering to NFU" — as Rajnath stated — India has actually been working under the hood in developing an array of capabilities because it either wants to shift away from NFU, or believes that for all practical purposes the NFU doctrine has become irrelevant in its present context.

NFU might sound like a Gandhian principle — and some analysts are convinced of its benefits — in reality it serves only a moral purpose. Lets us, for instance, take a scenario where Pakistan has detonated one of its tactical nuclear weaponry against India.

The 2003 doctrine promises massive retaliation but analysts point out that India's thermonuclear capability is dependent on only a 20 kiloton (KT) weapon/warhead (refer to Karnad's article) and it is in any case debatable whether any Indian prime minister will order nuclear strikes against civilian population of an adversary forced by the "massive retaliation" theory.

Writing for The Print, Clary and Narang have pointed out that if India decides not to target civilian population and gun for Pakistan's strategic assets, then it remains vulnerable to a retaliation from Pakistan, possibly on a more devastating scale. To preempt this, therefore, India may opt for a third option "a hard counterforce strike against Pakistan's relatively small number of-perhaps several dozen-strategic nuclear assets to eliminate its ability to destroy Indian strategic targets and cities. Such a strategy would be consistent with India's doctrine of massive retaliation-which need not be countervalue-while avoiding the credibility issues associated with a countervalue targeting strategy following Pakistan's use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield."

The thing to understand here, as former NSA Menon had pointed out, that India's NFU policy has enough flexibility written into it than it immediately apparent, therefore a preemptive strike against Pakistan as a counterforce strategy to nullify an imminent threat makes unnecessary any formal doctrinal shifts in NFU policy.

So India may have its cake and eat it too — retain the moral authority of a NFU policy and yet reserve the right for counterforce targeting without first suffering a nuclear attack. In this context, Rajnath's comments are revelatory. It highlights the reality that India's NFU policy has never been more than a posture, and now the country feels confident enough to interject some ambiguity into the doctrine that may be interpreted in various ways.

Updated Date: Aug 21, 2019 14:54:56 IST