Editorial Brief : What is No First Use Policy? Will India ever change it?

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What is No First Use (NFU) Policy?

No first use (NFU) refers to a pledge or a policy by a nuclear power not to use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary using nuclear weapons. Earlier, the concept had also been applied to chemical and biological warfare.

What has been the story so far?

It is since 1988, after conducting the Pokhran-II, India’s second Nuclear test, that India has adhered to a self-imposed commitment to ‘No First Use’ (NFU) of nuclear weapons on another country. However, on August 16, a hint has been dropped by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh that in the future, India’s NFU promise depends on circumstances. This is not the first time a Minister or senior functionary has made such a statement. There have been periodic debates on a revision of India’s stand, especially on the NFU policy, in strategic circles. Revision of the NFU policy was also in the BJP’s manifesto in 2014, though it wasn’t there in its 2019 manifesto.

Background of the India’s Nuclear weapon journey

  • After its face-off with China in the 1962 war, India started on the path of nuclear weapons development. This was followed by China’s nuclear tests in 1964 and in the subsequent years.
  • India conducted its first nuclear tests, Pokhran-I, which was dubbed as a “peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
  • India again carried out a test in May 1998, Pokhran-II, involving a fission device, a low-yield device, and a thermonuclear device despite more than two decades of international pressure that followed to make India abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
  • Two weeks following the Pokhran-II tests, Pakistan also carried out similar tests, thus confirming its progress with its nuclear weapons programme and it is to be noted that after that time its nuclear arsenal has expanded rapidly.
  • It was in 1999, that India put forward an explicit nuclear doctrine that showed its commitment, among other things, to NFU i.e., it would never carry out a nuclear first-strike
  • According to former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, the doctrine emphasized,minimal deterrence, no first use and non-use against non-nuclear weapon states.”  Thus credible minimum deterrence (CMD) went together with the promise of  NFU.

What is Credible Minimum Deterrence? What does it mean for India?

Credible Minimum Deterrence is the principle on which India’s nuclear strategy is based. It underlines no first use (NFU) with an assured second strike capability, and falls under minimal deterrence as opposed to mutually assured destruction. 

This implies that if another nation carry out a first nuclear strike of any magnitude against India, then, Indian nuclear forces shall be so deployed as to ensure survivability of the attack and the to carry out a massive, punitive nuclear retaliation aimed at causing such a damage that would be “unacceptable” for the aggressor. 

Further, CMD requires a command and control system that is robust, have effective intelligence and have early warning capabilities and should be capable in comprehensive planning and training for operations in line with the strategy along with the will to employ nuclear forces and weapons. Currently, the responsibility for command, control and operational decisions on nuclear weapons and to carry out a nuclear attack lies to the Nuclear Command Authority; specifically the Cabinet Committee on Security and finally the office of the Prime Minister of India.

Why there might be a need to revisit the No First Use (NFU) Policy?

Soon after the 1998 nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, the CMD was established in the sense that in the following decade, including the aftermaths of the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, neither country felt inclined to instigate an all-out war. 

However, there may be some concerns associated with this idea that India will retaliate massively even if Pakistan uses tactical nuclear weapons — possibly on Indian forces operating on Pakistani soil — against it. These includes:

  • This strategy would take both countries back into the old-world deterrence example of mutually assured destruction, because any of the surviving forces in Pakistan after India’s retaliation, would definitely launch a huge devastating attack against targets across India.
  • India may have more to gain by pre-emptive action. This is the question that analysts have argued that one option under consideration could be for “a hard counter-force strike against Pakistan’s relatively small numberperhaps few dozen strategic nuclear assets on land (and eventually at sea) to eliminate its ability to destroy Indian strategic targets and cities.” 
    • Hence, such a strategy would be in line with India’s doctrine of massive retaliation which need not be counter-value while avoiding the issues related to credibility associated with a counter-value targeting strategy following the use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan on the battlefield.

Will there be any change in India’s doctrine? What could be the possible threats of this?

This is simply unlikely to happen

India’s opinion for adopting a  pre-emptive counterforce options  that is,  to eliminate Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons when it deems the risk of a Pakistani first-strike to have crossed a critical threshold, may require no significant shifts in its already declared nuclear doctrine. 

In fact, it would be of strategic advantage for India to remain silent on the matter, as the country would be assuming deliberate nuclear inexactness. 

The possible threat that may appear is that the New Delhi remaining silent on this, except for occasional hints — like the one what the Defence Minister tweeted recently — might act as a driving force for Pakistan to adjust its nuclear posture accordingly, based on an assumption that India might be willing to carry out a counterforce attack to eliminate the Pakistani nuclear threat entirely. 

Such a situation in turn risks the boosting up of an arms race or more unstable nuclear weapons deployment patterns in Pakistan.

source: The Hindu

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