Since 1998, a key pillar of India’s nuclear policy has been a pledge not to use nuclear weapons first. After considering the utility of individually negotiated bilateral or multilateral agreements committing to no-first-use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, by August 1998, the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, opted to unilaterally announce that India would “not be the first to use nuclear weapons”. In 1999, the draft nuclear doctrine proposed by the National Security Advisory Board reiterated that “India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike” and went so far as to assert that “the very existence of offensive doctrine pertaining to the first use of nuclear weapons constitute[s] a threat to peace, stability and sovereignty of states”. In 2003, the cabinet committee on security reaffirmed that the official doctrine included a “posture of no first use”. Since then, NFU has been the official policy of the government.
India has gravitated to NFU because of its relative conventional strength. India’s non-nuclear military forces are superior to Pakistan’s, and there is very low risk of a major ground war with China given Indian conventional deterrence buttressed by the defensive stopping power of the Himalayas. There are no plausible scenarios for which the first use of nuclear weapons might be useful. India’s nuclear forces are strictly to deter a WMD attack, and can, therefore, be oriented entirely for retaliation.
India’s public commitment to NFU has two advantages. First, doing so makes crises more stable because adversaries do not have to fear that India will initiate nuclear use and threaten the survivability of their own nuclear forces, which might tempt them to use nuclear weapons early and massively against India (the classic use-it-or-lose-it dilemma). NFU, therefore, injects a critical buffer in the decision-making cycle so that a state like Pakistan does not have an even more dangerous itchy finger on the trigger, and has the time and space to consider the catastrophic consequences of using nuclear weapons and facing the full brunt of India’s nuclear retaliation. Second, a posture of no-first-use substantially eases India’s peacetime management of nuclear weapons because they can be maintained in a relatively recessed state oriented strictly for strategic retaliation.
There have been multiple internal reviews of NFU by both BJP-led and Congress-led governments. Each of these reviews has concluded that retaining the NFU pledge is in India’s security interest. Some of these private deliberations have been provoked by more public incidents where current or former officials — such as former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, or former head of the Strategic Forces Command Lt General B.S. Nagal — have unintentionally or intentionally implied changes to the carefully crafted language that articulates the NFU policy. Most recently, prior to the 2014 election, the BJP manifesto pledged to “revise and update” the nuclear doctrine, which many observers took to mean re-evaluating, among other things, NFU. This was put to rest when candidate Narendra Modi publicly settled the issue, stating that “No first use was a great initiative of Vajpayee — there is no compromise on that.
We are very clear”.
Enter the minister of defence, Manohar Parrikar. At a public function last week, he stated that his “personal opinion” was that India should not bind itself into refraining from using nuclear weapons first and that it should only pledge to be a “responsible nuclear state,” leaving the issue of first use ambiguous. Make no mistake, this was the sitting defence minister unequivocally stating that in his opinion, India should abandon the NFU policy. If this is, in fact, India’s new nuclear policy, it should be reflected in a revised official nuclear doctrine that is publicly
released. If it is not official nuclear policy, then Parrikar has a duty to the nation to keep any personal opinions that differ from official policy to himself. After all, China and Pakistan, who already doubted the veracity of India’s NFU will now rightly be able to point to a sitting defence minister as having disavowed it.
But why does this matter? Ambiguity in nuclear doctrine is not necessarily a bad thing — it can enhance deterrence. Plenty of nuclear states, including the United States, introduce ambiguity into their nuclear doctrines as to when and under what conditions they may employ nuclear weapons in order to improve deterrence. In fact, India introduced such ambiguity in its 2003 doctrine by stating that it reserved the right to respond to chemical or biological weapons use with nuclear retaliation, but did not bind itself to doing so. Technically, using nuclear weapons in retaliation for chemical or biological attacks constitutes the first use of nuclear weapons. But in this case, the calculated ambiguity went through a systematic process, and the doctrine deployed carefully calibrated language to reflect the revision. Injecting any further ambiguity about the conditions under which India might use nuclear weapons should go through a similar process, speaking with a single, transparent and carefully deliberate voice. Indian nuclear posture could then be aligned with the doctrine, and adversaries would adjust accordingly.
Parrikar’s off-the-cuff remarks, however, did not introduce ambiguity into Indian nuclear doctrine. Instead, they injected confusion. The two are distinct, and the difference matters. The confusion arises when statements by various government officials, in this case, no less than the defence minister, contradict stated government policy, leading to confusion about India’s nuclear policy — both at home and abroad. Cacophony and contradiction lead to confusion, and confusion has rarely served a nation’s security interests.
What are the risks of confusion? Crisis stability between nuclear states depends critically on a mutual understanding of where each state’s nuclear red lines lie, and confusion or discrepancies about this can result in catastrophic consequences. A clear NFU policy has the advantages noted above, while officially abandoning NFU would at least allow Indian posture to adjust accordingly and all states in a future crisis to anticipate potential Indian first use. But confusion on this issue is neither here nor there. A confused NFU policy would force Pakistan (and China) to have no choice but to believe the worst case: That India’s NFU is a myth regardless of official doctrine and, therefore, any imminent conflict may force them to use their nuclear weapons early and massively, or risk losing them.
Is the government now officially abandoning NFU? There are reasonable national security arguments for why India may wish to abandon NFU, though we believe that the stabilising benefits of NFU outweigh them and that it is a critical pillar of India’s claim to being a responsible nuclear power. If such ambiguity about NFU were to be injected into the official doctrine through a deliberate and systematic process and stated with a single disciplined voice in the doctrine, so be it. Though make no mistake, repealing NFU at this point — as opposed to never having one in the first place — would be a highly aggressive shift, suggesting that India prefers to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict: It would be tantamount to declaring a first use doctrine.
If not, however, PM Modi must publicly reaffirm India’s NFU pledge, and prevent members of his government from contradicting official policy whenever they feel like it. The clarification cannot be issued by a foreign secretary or foreign minister since that will only muddy the issue. Enough of reading tea leaves with something as serious as nuclear doctrine. India finds itself in the worst possible situation now — confusion about what India’s official policy and posture on NFU is. It is imperative that the issue is unambiguously settled by the prime minister himself.