India’s Nuclear Doctrine Does Not Need Revision Yet
India’s nuclear doctrine, which was articulated some twelve years back, has withstood the test of time, in terms of successfully deterring nuclear adventurism by our Western neighbour and also effectively backing up our conventional deterrence and war fighting strategies. Nonetheless, there are many in the strategic community in India and abroad who feel that it is time for some changes to be instituted, in keeping with the need to make it more realistic and less provocative.
On the other hand, there are many who feel that, fundamentally, the doctrine symbolizes restraint due to its basic tenet of ‘no first use’, and thus there is no real need for change, considering that the doctrine has served us well so far and likely to continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Thus, it is time to examine whether a 15 year review of the existing doctrine is warranted, so that, if required, the process for the review can start at the earliest.
India’s nuclear doctrine is unique in that it caters specifically to India’s threat perspective in both the conventional and nuclear realm. To understand this, one has to go into some history. It needs to be understood that India’s plan for developing nuclear weapons was an outcome of the military reverses at the hands of China in the Himalayan War of December 1962. The inherent weaknesses in our military capabilities, that became embarrassingly evident during that war, made our political leadership of the day decide to develop nuclear weapon capability as a means to deter China, which was not only stronger in the conventional military realm, but had also developed nuclear capability. However, a dangerous fallout of India’s quest was that, predictably, it led to Pakistan wanting to do the same. It also incentivized China to provide guidance and assistance to its South Asian proxy, Pakistan, to develop a nuclear capability for itself, a practice that continues even to this day. Thus, by the time India developed its nuclear weapons, Pakistan had already developed nuclear weapon capability, some ten years earlier, in full view of the international community.
Conduct of nuclear tests by India in May 1998 not only signalled India’s strategic deterrence against its Himalayan neighbour but also helped bring the Pakistani nuclear weapons out of the closet. But, as was brought out clearly by India’s Defence Minister Shri George Fernandes at that time, India’s nuclear weapons were for defensive purpose, primarily meant for deterrence against the Northern adversary, who enjoyed the conventional military edge, who had developed a formidable nuclear arsenal by then. On the other hand, Pakistan’s primary motivations and intent for development of nuclear weapons were never in any doubt – the weapons were clearly meant for targeting against India. Of course, it is another matter that, somewhere down the line, Pakistan also started promoting its nuclear capability as an ‘Islamic bomb’ in an effort to gain brownie points among the Muslim nations, and possibly, make them contribute financially towards the rising costs of Pakistan’s growing arsenal. In this context, there are no prizes for guessing as to which country Pakistan’s Shaheen III MRBM is likely to be targeted against!
What followed the Pokharan tests of May 1998 was a very deliberate process by India, as a responsible nuclear power, to develop a nuclear doctrine. Draft doctrines prepared by various sources were evaluated before the government enunciated a doctrine in January 2003, nearly five years after the Pokharan tests. The essential features of India’s nuclear doctrine are: credible minimum deterrence by means of a triad, civilian control, no attack against a non-nuclear state, no first use, and massive retaliation in case of a nuclear, chemical or biological attack.
Whereas the conservative tenet of ‘no first use’ has enabled India to claim the moral high ground and project its nuclear capability as a purely defensive measure against its nuclear capable adversaries, there are some who do not agree with this policy. They contend that it weakens India’s defence and makes it highly vulnerable, especially in the context of the increasing quantity and quality of nuclear weapons and delivery systems among both its potential adversaries. Further, the tenet of massive retaliation is seen by many as “highly impracticable”, who contend that this leads to lack of credibility, and thus needs to be changed.
So, does India’s nuclear doctrine need to be changed. First, on the issue of NFU, its supporters essentially emphasise the diplomatic advantages, especially in light of the fact that India is neither a signatory to the CTBT nor the NPT. Also, that a counter strike is easier to execute, politically, morally and technically, as compared to a first strike, which always has to contend with complex issues like whether to ‘launch on warning’, ‘launch on launch’ or ‘launch on attack. On the other hand, detractors of this policy contend that it makes India’s nuclear force highly vulnerable to the adversary’s first strike, and further, our second strike would only target counter value targets, thus leaving his nuclear force unharmed.
Secondly, on the issue of ‘massive retaliation’, though its proponents accept that it appears disproportionate when seen in some contexts related to our Western adversary, they contend that any move to replace it with a concept of ‘flexible’ or ‘proportionate’ response, will only end up diluting the doctrine, in both letter and spirit. Most Indian commentators are supporters of this tenet as they believe that a ‘tit for tat’ approach in terms of proportionate yields and selection of targets, when combined with the policy of NFU, would certainly be disadvantageous to India’s overall strategy and security.
Hence, considering that the security environment and the ensuing threats have not changed significantly since enunciation of the doctrine, there may be no real reason to change the doctrine at this stage. This is not to say that the doctrine is perfect or that no change may be envisaged in the future. For now, it may be better to leave it well alone and await further changes in the threat perspective before considering changes to the doctrine.