No-First-Use Is a Useful Commitment to Make to Avoid Wasting Time and Effort on an Arms Race

By Shivshankar Menon | 22 November 2016

On 10 November 2016, during a book launch in Delhi, the defence minister Manohar Parrikar remarked that he did not see why India had bound itself to a “no first use” policy on nuclear policy. “Why should I bind myself? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly,” the defence minister said, before adding, “This is my thinking.” Later, a spokesperson from the defence ministry clarified to the press that the comments were Parrikar’s personal opinion.

India adopted “no first use,” or NFU—pledging that it would not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike—in 1998, after the country’s first nuclear weapons were publicly tested in Pokhran. The nuclear policy was adopted by the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. India’s nuclear doctrine, which includes NFU, further states that the country’s nuclear arsenal is meant to deter the use and threat of nuclear force against it, and that it would not employ its weapons against a non-nuclear state. On 19 November, in an interview to the channel India Today TV, Shivshankar Menon, who served as India’s national security advisor from 2011 to 2014, criticised Parrikar’s comments. He said that the defence minister did not have the right to voice his personal opinion, and added that giving up the NFU policy would not serve the nation’s interests. In his forthcoming book, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Menon writes about how the India’s decision to adopt NFU came about. In the following extract from the book, he discusses how India’s policies compare to those of China, the United States of America and Pakistan. He argues that a first-strike policy would be destabilising, and would not serve the purpose of deterring nations from using blackmail or threat of nuclear weapons against India.

Interestingly, India’s doctrine is closest to the declared Chinese doctrine. Like India, China had declared a (somewhat more hedged) no-first-use policy after testing an atom bomb in 1964. After toying in the late 1980s with a shift to tactical nuclear weapons, China reversed that decision in the mid-1990s. Since 1964, China has accepted a huge asymmetry in the numbers of its nuclear weapons compared to those of its main potential adversaries, the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. China has concentrated instead on the survivability of its arsenal to assure retaliation. Even today, China accepts that asymmetry in numbers while working on the quality, reach, and certainty of its nuclear deterrent force. In recent years, China has concentrated on making technical improvements to its nuclear arsenal, such as by putting multiple independently targetable warheads on one missile or making them maneuverable during re-entry. China also produces nuclear-class missiles in vast numbers, equipping them with precision guided munitions as well, to confuse the adversary and maximise strategic deception. China has so far not made a direct nuclear threat against India, as one would expect from a country that does not regard its nuclear arsenal as a war-fighting weapon and enjoys superiority in conventional military terms.

There is, however, a clear difference between India’s nuclear doctrine and Pakistan’s. In the red lines that Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai, the head of the Pakistan Army’s Strategic Plans Division, made known, for instance, Pakistan clearly wants India to believe that it will use its nuclear weapons for tactical military uses if certain thresholds are crossed, and tries to convince India that the threshold is so low as to deter meaningful conventional operations against Pakistan by the Indian Army. During the annual Azm-e-Nau exercises in recent years, Pakistan has signalled to India that it is prepared to use nuclear weapons against Indian forces if they are on Pakistani territory (as a counter to India’s alleged “Cold Start” strategy).

There has been debate in India over whether the country’s no-first-use commitment adds to or detracts from deterrence. Successive Indian governments that have reviewed the question repeatedly since 1998 have been of the view that a no-first-use policy enhances India’s deterrence efforts. India’s situation and approach are very different from those of the United States. The United States saw its problem as not just deterring the Soviet Union but figuring out how to deter conventional and nuclear aggression against exposed allies confronting local conventional inferiority. In other words, the United States was to provide extended deterrence to its allies. The United States therefore distinguishes between first strike and first use of nuclear weapons and argues for preemption in self-defence. Most US scholars would argue that a no-first-use or a first-use policy is neither inherently destabilising nor stabilising, and that the effect of either would depend on the country’s capabilities and adversaries. For India, on the other hand, the country’s geographic and strategic situation meant that nuclear weapons were not seen as the answer to problems of conventional defence. India’s problem has been how to deter Pakistan’s or others’ first use of nuclear weapons against India and further attempts at nuclear blackmail to change India’s policies.

What are the alternatives to no-first-use? Announcing that India would strike first if it considered it necessary, as Pakistan and the United States do? Some say that our declaration is already meaningless as it is only a pious hope and does not cover other NWS [nuclear weapon states]. If it is meaningless, why the fuss? But that aside, a first-strike doctrine is surely destabilising, and does not further the primary purpose of our weapons of deterring blackmail, threat, or use of nuclear weapons by an adversary against India. It is hard to see how it would. As for other contingencies, there are ways for India to handle them other than by using nuclear weapons. India’s nuclear weapons are to deter other countries’ use of nuclear weapons; hence the no-first-use commitment is to nuclear weapon states (NWS). There is a potential gray area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another NWS. Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent. But India’s present public nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario.

Another idea that is often mentioned as an alternative to no-first-use is proportionate responses to a nuclear attack. There is nothing in the present doctrine that prevents India from responding proportionately to a nuclear attack, from choosing a mix of military and civilian targets for its nuclear weapons. The doctrine speaks of punitive retaliation. The scope and scale of retaliation are in the hands of the Indian leadership. Besides, what is a proportionate response to weapons of mass destruction except other weapons of mass destruction? So it is not clear what the advocates of proportionate response are really asking for. These are weapons of mass destruction whether one chooses to call them tactical or strategic, and with its no-first-use doctrine, India has reserved the right to choose how much, where, and when to retaliate. This is an awesome responsibility for any political leader, but it is the price of leadership and cannot be abdicated to a mechanical or mathematical formula or a set of strategic precepts.

No-first-use is a useful commitment to make if we are to avoid wasting time and effort on a nuclear arms race, such as that between the United States and Soviet Union, which produced thousands of nuclear weapons and missiles and economically contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In our geography, the use of nuclear weapons as weapons of war is hardly useful militarily. For nine months of the year prevailing winds on the India-Pakistan border are westerly, and population densities on both sides of the border guarantee that there is little distinction in effect and practice between the use of tactical or strategic nuclear weapons in the India-Pakistan context. I recall that the Pakistan Army started talking of developing and using tactical nuclear weapons in response to India’s alleged Cold Start doctrine for conventional forces only when there was a real risk of the Pakistan Army losing its internal and external relevance and when General Musharraf seemed close to settling the Kashmir situation and taking some steps against jihadi terrorists. If there was a real fear of a Cold Start strategy among Pakistan Army strategists, it is hard to understand the steady move of Pakistani forces away from the Indian border and toward performing internal security and other functions in western Pakistan since 2004. As Pakistan’s is the only nuclear weapons program in the world controlled exclusively by the military, it is also likely that sheer institutional momentum and interests led to decisions by Pakistan to increase the number of its warheads and to develop and deploy “tactical” nuclear weapons, despite the problems of command and control of these weapons, which must be devolved down the military chain of command, and the limited military utility of nuclear weapons against India in the specific India-Pakistan context. Other recent Pakistani decisions, such as setting up separate strategic forces commands for the country’s air force and navy, also seem to be similarly driven by service and institutional interests rather than by rational calculations of national interest.

Since India’s doctrine is based on no-first-use, our posture and nuclear arsenal have to survive a first strike by any enemy or potential combination of adversaries. Hence, India’s decision to go in for a triad of delivery systems, by land, sea, and air. Once the SSBN Arihant, the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, is fully commissioned, the triad will be in place. Today, India has effective deterrence against both China and Pakistan. This has been a huge and largely secret effort, and has been achieved by India faster than by any other NWS. We are sometimes accused of excessive secrecy in relation to our own people and scholars. That is because the purpose of the nuclear weapons program is to deter our adversaries, not our own people or scholars. And our adversaries will in any case believe what they think they have discovered and ferreted out, not what we say in public. Of course, we will be most convincing if what we say matches what they find out for themselves.

At the broadest level, the decision to go overtly nuclear in 1998 has been vindicated by our experience since then. These weapons were meant to prevent nuclear coercion and blackmail. They have actually done so. Not having been deterred by nuclear threats in 1971, 1987, or 1990 from following its course when it was in a much weaker position, India’s overt nuclear weapons status makes the nation less vulnerable to such threats today.

This is an extract from Shivshankar Menon’s Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, published by Penguin Random House India.

Shivhsankar Menon is a former national security advisor of India.


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