A debate has been raging on in India about the usefulness of the no first use (NFU) doctrine for almost a decade. India’s Military experts complain that India’s nuclear doctrine has become almost ineffective. Some American academics like Vipin Narang and Ankit Panda, on the other hand, criticize India’s NFU doctrine claiming that is not a “real no first use” policy. India has been traditionally a reluctant and responsible nuclear weapon state. India unilaterally gave a pledge for “no first use doctrine” in 1999 after the second set of India’s nuclear tests in 1998 in Pokhran. The government of India led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee issued a revised version (250 words) in 2003 that extended the initial triggers to use of nuclear weapons to include nuclear, biological and chemical attacks on India, her territory or armed forces. The doctrine called for massive and overwhelming retaliatory second strike against the aggressor.
Even prior to that India under the leadership of Prime Minister India Gandhi conducted her first nuclear test in 1974 (Smiling Buddha) which was dubbed as peaceful nuclear explosion. It was just a technology demonstrator and India chose not to weaponize for next 14 years. Even prior to the signing of the NPT in 1967, India had tried to obtain extended nuclear deterrence from both the US and Soviet Union, as India had not tested by that time. Both denied India’s request for providing nuclear umbrella to India while pressurizing her to sign the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. In 1971, India was threatened by the nuclear powered and nuclear weapons equipped aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (7th fleet) that was deployed in the Bay of Bengal by the Nixon administration owing to its notorious “Tilt towards Pakistan” during the liberation war of Bangladesh.
In 1988, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the famous New Delhi Declaration of 1988 that called for universal nuclear disarmament. Later during the same year, India presented the Rajiv Gandhi plan in the UN General Assembly asking for a universal, stepwise, verifiable and total nuclear disarmament over a period of 25 years. The NPT-five nuclear weapon states at that time chose to ignore the Indian nuclear disarmament proposal. The current ruling party BJP in its election manifesto of 2014 had mentioned about the need for revising India’s no-first use nuclear doctrine. After victory in the elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi closed the issue in August 2014. Bottom line is that India is traditionally a pacifist country with bipartisan support for universal nuclear disarmament.
In contrast to this, India’s next door neighbor Pakistan has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons against India. During the 1965 war with India, Pakistan’s the Foreign Minister Z. A. Bhutto threatened to wage a thousand years’ war against India in the UN General Assembly. After the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, ZA Bhutto as Prime Minister of Pakistan vowed to eat grass and get an Islamic nuclear bomb. Pakistan threatened use of nuclear bomb against India while Indian army was doing a military exercise in Rajasthan in 1986-87. In an interview of AQ Khan given to Indian journalist Kuldeep Nayar on January 28th, 1987, AQ Khan claimed that Pakistan had enriched uranium to weapons grade and that it had succeeded in making nuclear weapons. He further added that “America knows it. What the CIA has been saying about our possessing the bomb is correct.” Pakistan reportedly tested its first nuclear weapon of Chinese design 1990 in the Lop Nor Nuclear Testing Base in North West China.
Pakistan overtly conducted six nuclear tests in Chagai Hills in Balochistan in 1998, just two weeks after India’s nuclear tests. Pakistan declared itself as Nuclear weapons state with nuclear posture of “credible minimal deterrence” but with a “First Use” policy directed towards India. Pakistan’s nuclear posture gradually changed from “Credible Minimal Deterrence” to “Full Scale Nuclear Deterrence” in 2014 when it started to produce tactical nuclear weapons and delivery systems of Nassr, Hatf and Shaheen missiles covering all of India including the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. General Khalid Kidwai, Pakistan’s Strategic Planning Division Chief for 15 years, gave open threat of First Use against India in Washington DC in 2015 in a Carnegie Endowment conference on non-proliferation. Pakistan continued with its proliferation activities till the AQ Khan network was brought to international notice and had to be shut down. Pakistan is the only nuclear armed state where the control of nuclear weapons is with the military and not with the political authority. Pakistan has encouraged the emergence of so-called non-state actors like Al Qaeda (state supported proxy actors) trying to procure nuclear weapon capability including “dirty radiological bomb” involving retired PAEC scientists.
India’s northern neighbor, Communist China decided to go nuclear in 1955 and tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964. Simultaneously, China enunciated an NFU doctrine analogous to the Soviet NFU doctrine in 1964. However, in the 2013 Annual defense report China deliberately omitted any reference to the NFU doctrine. China has been modernizing and expanding its nuclear weapons and missile systems feverishly, trying to catch up with the two super-powers. There is a discernable change in China’s posture from “Credible Minimal Deterrence” to “Limited Deterrence” or perhaps “Moderate Deterrence”.
These changes in China’s behavior are not in consonance with its stated “NFU” doctrine. There is a serious and significant mistrust of China’s NFU doctrine pledge as it lacks sincerity, is coupled with total and intentional opacity and lacks verifiability. China has been involved in both vertical and horizontal nuclear proliferation despite being a signatory to the NPT. It has not ratified the CTBT so far. It is generally understood that China is the mother of Pakistan’s and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Meanwhile, China has continued development of BMD, MIRVs and MARVs, hypersonic weapons and ASAT weapons. China has slowly diluted its NFU doctrine and claims that it does not apply to “China claimed territories” that include Taiwan and India’s Arunachal Pradesh. China has displayed hegemonic behavior in Indo-Pacific and militarized the newly created islands in South China Sea. China’s refusal to accept the International Tribunal’s verdict in favor of the Philippines on Scarborough Shoal is reflective of China’s respect for rule-based order and how it treats international treaties. China now has naval bases in Gwadar, Hambantota, Chittagong, Coco islands, Djibouti and Myanmar. China is also developing air-force base in Gwadar besides its naval base there. China’s disruption of India’s oil drilling in Vietnam’s EEZ should not be forgotten. China has changed its nuclear posture from defensive to offensive and is involved in a large-scale nuclear and ballistic missile build-up. This massive nuclear build-up has already degraded India’s second-strike capability. Chinese analysts have carved out four exceptions to the no-first use doctrine. No one trusts the Chinese rhetoric on the genuineness of the NFU doctrine of that country.
Soviet Union’s original “NFU” pledge became redundant with massive proliferation and dropping the NFU pledge eventually. The successor state Russia has First use policy. NATO countries have shown consistent opposition to a “multi-lateral NFU” treaty. Even pacifist and anti-proliferation activist Japan has strong opposition to the US dropping first use policy and opting for “NFU” doctrine. There are ongoing nuclear proliferation concerns by Iran and Turkey. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had originally financed Pakistan’s “Islamic bomb” with a conditional right to buy the nuclear weapons from Pakistan in case of Iran turning nuclear.
A country like UK which has no nuclear threats whatsoever is reluctant to denuclearize. Only five states have denuclearized owing to historical compulsions so far: South Africa, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Kazakhstan and Libya. Israel for long was an undeclared nuclear power. It conducted under the ocean nuclear testing with tacit inattention by the non-proliferation hawks. Israel's policy was and remains consistent - to prevent their enemies from arming themselves with nuclear weapons." Israeli had a plan to attack Pakistan’s nuclear facilities between 1977-1979, and reportedly requested refueling facilities in the Jamnagar air-force base in Gujarat, India. Prime Minister Morarji Desai declined to give permission saying that it was absolutely “mad”. Prime Minister Morarji Desai was later awarded the highest civilian honor, “Nishan-e-Pakistan” for saving that country’s nuclear facilities. In 1981, in a surprise attack, Israeli jets destroyed a nuclear reactor being constructed south-east of Baghdad by the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. Israel has Attacked Syrian Nuclear facility in 2007.
US has been hawkish about its own First use Policy and is the only country that used nuclear weapons twice in a span of one week. US under Obama administration toyed with the idea of adopting an NFU doctrine but did not even settle for “Sole Purpose” declaration in the end. Sole purpose declaration is not equivalent to a no first use doctrine but comes close to it. It implies why a nation possesses the nuclear weapons but does not specify how it will use the assets. Current US President Biden in his election platform had considered to replace the “First Use Policy” with a for “Sole Purpose” declaration. Let us wait and watch as to what are the US nuclear postures over the next four years.
India would eventually like to see a nuclear weapons free world. However, that is not foreseeable in near future because of intransigence of the NPT five nuclear weapon states. India is seriously concerned about the discriminatory non-proliferation regimes including the NPT, the CTBT, and the TPNW that entered into force on January 21st, 2021. None of the nine nuclear weapon states are party to the TPNW as of now. India endorses the need for a multi-lateral NFU Treaty among the NPT-5 and Non-NPT-4 nuclear states. Failure of FMCT Negotiations because of Pakistan’s persistent blocking of negotiations has harmed the cause of universal nuclear disarmament.
It is also true that India’s priorities are poverty alleviation, improvement in standard of living, elimination of hunger and malnutrition and overall development of the country. Any fiscally costly nuclear arms race will be detrimental to these priorities. Having said that, each country needs to defend itself including India. Our defense budget is still low as compared to some other countries in terms of percentage of the GDP. Changing the nuclear doctrine should not raise the cost more than what it is if we make smart choices in replacing the NFU doctrine.
Dropping the unilateral, unconditional NFU doctrine does not automatically mean immediate “First Use”. Despite nine countries having nuclear weapons now and with seven of them having first use policy, only twice in the history nuclear weapons have been used and only by one super-power. Despite having “First Use” policy, these seven countries have not used nuclear weapons even once after the 1945 fiasco.
Those who claim that having an NFU doctrine helps India diplomatically are totally wrong. Having the NFU has not helped India in getting membership of the NSG which China has persistently blocked and will continue to block. Having an NFU doctrine has not helped India’s case in getting on the UNSC as a permanent member so far. EU and NATO countries that sermonize India on nuclear proliferation, are very resistant to giving up the US nuclear umbrella protection. NATO and Japan have vehemently opposed the US discussions to adopt an NFU doctrine during the Obama presidency.
This analyst has repeated exhorted the Indian security establishment to revise the current NFU doctrine as the security scenario has changed. Indian armed force feel that it hobbles their military options in case of conflict. If there is an attack on India by tactical nuclear weapons, the West will immediately put pressure on India not to retaliate using strategic weapons. We have suggested that the nuclear doctrine needs to be revised every ten or fifteen years as the strategic threat perception and assessment changes. There is consensus that a periodic review is necessary.
There is no need to be emotional about peace-loving civilizational ethos when the very survival of the country is at stake. We certainly do not wish to be in a situation that deterrence does not work, adversary is foolhardy, we do not use the options available and wait for us to be hit by a nuclear weapon first before taking any action.
In a war situation, all options should be on the table. What are our future policy options for deterrence vis-à-vis possible nuclear attack on the nation? We can continue to adhere to the 2003 unilateral version of the NFU just as it is and take the risks involved. Or else, we can discard the NFU doctrine and adopt a “First Use Policy” akin to Russia, US, UK, France, Israel, DPRK and Pakistan. India can try to negotiate conditional, mutual, bilateral NFU treaties separately with each of the eight nuclear armed states. An argument can be made for negotiating a bilateral NFU treaty with Israel and France, two friendly nations. Once you start the process, others will be obliged to follow suit. It should be negotiated on the model akin to signing an extradition treaty or for that matter, bilateral free-trade pact. India can also strive for regional or sub-regional NFU treaty but those are defective as nuclear weapons have global reach. India should continue to strive for a multi-lateral NFU treaty as was advocated by former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. This in combination with aggressive promotion of the FMCT and a non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament treaty would go in reducing the nuclear risk to the world in the long run. However, most of the NPT nuclear weapon states are not ready for such an outcome. They wish to maintain the nuclear hegemony of the NPT-five.
Just because we are advocating junking the NFU doctrine, does not necessarily mean nuclear war mongering and preparation for a jingoistic and costly nuclear arms race. The most optimal option for India would be to consider a “SOLE PURPOSE DECLARATION” while giving up the NFU doctrine. Sole purpose declaration does not obligate you to the “First Use Policy” but gives enough flexibility to deter any putative attack by a foolhardy adversary in a pre-emptive manner.