Why India must stay the nuclear hand

In a crisis, absent a formal NFU assurance, Pakistan would have reasons to calculate that it is in a ‘use them or lose them’ situation. In a crisis, absent a formal NFU assurance, Pakistan would have reasons to calculate that it is in a ‘use them or lose them’ situation.

Revising India’s no-first-use posture, as the BJP is purportedly considering, would be unnecessary and dangerous.

The BJP’s election manifesto pledged to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine. Initial reports suggested that rather than just a routine update, a future BJP government might revisit and abandon India’s pledge not to be the first party to use nuclear weapons in a crisis or conflict, otherwise known as a No First Use (NFU) pledge.

The NFU pledge is a cornerstone of India’s nuclear doctrine, formally adopted by the BJP-led NDA government in January 2003. While pledging NFU, and to not threaten the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states (a so-called negative security assurance), the doctrine promises massive retaliation if weapons of mass destruction are used against India or its armed forces. India’s massive retaliation doctrine is strictly designed to deter a nuclear attack. The goal, if crafted properly and if deterrence is successful, is to never to have to fire a nuclear weapon.

In potentially revisiting India’s NFU pledge, the 2014 BJP would be questioning a fundamental tenet of the 2003 BJP’s nuclear doctrine, formulated in large part by the then-national security advisor, Brajesh Mishra. The doctrine has been accepted by successor UPA governments, and the NFU pledge publicly reaffirmed by NSA Shivshankar Menon. It is unclear whether reversing NFU is seriously being considered by the BJP, or whether these are just rumours. Abandoning the NFU pillar of the nuclear doctrine would be a terrible idea for India’s national security. It would potentially transform India’s deterrence-only nuclear doctrine to one of nuclear warfighting, with serious ramifications for Indian security.

First, abandoning NFU is strategically unnecessary for India. Threatening the first use of nuclear weapons is useful for one primary purpose: to deter a conventionally superior adversary, where the threat of using nuclear weapons against conventional forces is necessary to offset the adversary’s conventional advantage over passable terrains.

This is really the only scenario that requires a state to contemplate using nuclear weapons first. But India has conventional superiority against Pakistan, and this gap will only grow in the future as India incorporates more — and more advanced — platforms into its armed forces. India does not need the threat of nuclear weapons — or nuclear warfighting — to deter Pakistani conventional forces from attacking India. India need only deter nuclear use by Pakistan, for which its present assured retaliation doctrine is a powerful and sufficient deterrent.

Some advocates of abandoning NFU point to the fact that Pakistan threatens to use nuclear weapons first against India (precisely because of India’s conventional superiority) and is developing tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons such as the Nasr system to deter Indian army …continued »