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Indian nuclear doctrine: clash or no clash


December 17, 2016

Indian nuclear doctrine has been under critical discourse since 1999 and subsequently 2003. While there was criticism over elements of Indian nuclear doctrine like massive retaliation and No First Use (NFU) from academics, politicians and former military personnel from within India, this debate only gained traction after Shyam Saran, former Indian National Security Advisor, had to reiterate that Indian nuclear doctrine was still credible and relevant. Later, the BJP announced possible revision of Indian nuclear doctrine in its 2014 election manifesto. Ever since, Indian nuclear doctrine is much debated without clear directions for the future.

Recently, Manhohar Parrikar, the Indian Defence Minister, remarked about the (f) utility of Indian NFU policy. Although, he clarified that he was speaking in his personal capacity; yet, Parrikar received wider criticism for proposing a change in the claimed NFU policy.

While discussing any State’s nuclear doctrine, it is important that it’s rationale for acquisition of nuclear capability is kept in mind. Indian NFU related narrative has been that it is a manifestation of its confidence in its conventional capability to defeat any military threats. Therefore, changing NFU to a first use policy might not serve the purpose of deterring nuclear use by an adversary.

The other element of Indian nuclear doctrine under discussion is that of massive retaliation even to a limited nuclear use. Once contextualized with the similar terminology in American doctrinal evolution, one would assume that Indian doctrine of massive retaliation is also aimed at avoiding expansion of nuclear arsenal and spending minimum on maintaining conventional forces. However, according to the latest estimates, India has the sixth largest defence budget. Similarly, India runs the largest unsafeguarded nuclear enterprise amongst the non-NPT nuclear weapon States.

One finds no minimalism in conventional or strategic domain on the Indian military enterprise. Indian development of about a dozen nuclear delivery systems from ranges as diverse as 70 to 5,000 km and beyond also contradicts the notion of non-expansion.

The Indian strategy of massive retaliation also faces issues of credibility in the wake of Pakistani development of nuclear capable Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs) as was indicated in Saran’s speech. While the Indian nuclear doctrine hints at reliance on minimum options to deter a first use of nuclear weapons by its adversary, its development of wide range of nuclear delivery systems and huge stockpiles of weapon usable fissile material points otherwise. Indian reluctance to convert its unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing (as declared in its doctrine) into any legally binding agreements is also indicative of the fact that such declared doctrines are not binding on the States themselves. 

While it is argued that any alternate to massive retaliation – such as flexible response options – might not be economically viable; a look at Indian nuclear options depicts that the country has already developed the technological prerequisites for alternative response options.

It is clear that merely reading into Indian nuclear doctrinal document to understand the country’s nuclear options is insufficient. It needs to be contextualized with force posture developments. A change in the document or statements is unlikely to take any burden off the Indian economy.

Another argument to support massive retaliation asserts that this doctrine is consistent with Indian belief in maintaining a centralized nuclear command and control system under the sole authority of its civilian political leadership i.e. the Prime Minister. This is, however, in contrast to Indian pursuit of cannisterised missile systems, where the nuclear warheads are likely to be mated with the missile system, reaching a degree of pre-delegation. Similarly, centralized nuclear command and control in the classical form is going to face challenges as India operationalises its’ sea based nuclear capability.

Lastly, the biggest motivation behind massive retaliation for any nuclear weapon State is to limit damage through destroying the adversary’s nuclear capability. Pakistan’s nuclear capability has evolved and matured over the period since India announced its nuclear doctrine in 2003. If India operationalises its massive retaliation against Pakistan, it cannot be sure that Pakistan will not be able to retaliate after absorbing Indian nuclear attack.

Developments in India, already suggest that it has divorced itself from certain elements of its declared nuclear doctrine. Indian nuclear forces are non-reflective of Indian claims of minimalism. That said, it is unrealistic to expect that any nuclear weapon State would execute its declared nuclear doctrine in the exact same manner during the war time.

Nuclear deterrence and doctrines are – and should be – aimed at avoiding clashes; not seeking to win or survive one.

Tanzeela Khalil - M.Phil in Strategic & Nuclear Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad & a former visiting fellow of the Research Society of International Law, Lahore.

Sameer Ali Khan -- co-author of the book ‘Indian Unsafeguarded Nuclear Programme: An Assessment’ & a former visiting fellow of James Martin Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, Monterrey, US.

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