India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Strategic Direction or Drift?

India’s official nuclear doctrine has remained unchanged since its adoption in 2003. Some may take this apparent continuity as evidence of India’s intentional strategic direction. However, a case can be made that this continuity in doctrine is actually an indication of India being unmindful of recent escalatory nuclear developments in the region, such as Pakistan’s introduction of tactical nuclear weapons. By sticking with the doctrine precept of deterrence by punishment, India exhibits an under-appreciation of the situation of mutually assured destruction that South Asia finds itself in today.

History of India’s Nuclear Doctrine

Twenty years ago, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government authorized nuclear weapons tests, marking the overt nuclearization of the subcontinent. Even as the government soon fell from power after losing a no-confidence vote in Parliament, the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) that had been appointed as part of revitalizing the National Security Council system continued to churn out a nuclear doctrine. The resulting document, a draft nuclear doctrine released in August 1999, marked a shift in India’s approach to nuclear weapons from the recessed deterrence of the 1990s to credible minimum deterrence. This credibility was reflected in its articulation of assured retaliation based on a triad capability.

This draft nuclear doctrine gradually came to serve as India’s official nuclear doctrine. Since the Indian government in the interim had weathered two crises—the Kargil War and the Twin Peaks crisis—it used the release of the official doctrine in 2003 to include a warning to Pakistan in the form of the phrase “massive” nuclear retaliation. The logic was that India would threaten to escalate by including countervalue targets in its retaliation, thus deterring a Pakistani “nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere.” 

The lack of doctrinal evolution despite the onset of the age of mutually assured destruction in South Asia indicates a state of strategic stasis in India.

The official doctrine, however, did not include an explicit reference to a nuclear triad. This reticence may have been because the “credible” in “credible minimum deterrence” subsumed that capability, or for the sake of keeping India’s pursuit of the Advanced Technology Vehicle program (to build ballistic missile nuclear-powered submarines) secret, even as it went about establishing a full triad. That India has acquired the triad in the twenty years since the draft doctrine of 1999 speaks to a certain degree of purposefulness in India’s doctrine and its implementation.

The development of India’s nuclear deterrent over the past twenty years has been stewarded by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, over its two iterations (1999 to 2004 and 2014 to the present), and the ten-year interregnum of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (from 2004 to 2014). This can be taken as evidence of political direction of India’s deterrent. However, as the remainder of this article demonstrates, the lack of doctrinal evolution despite the onset of the age of mutually assured destruction in South Asia indicates a state of strategic stasis in India.

India’s Evolving Deterrent

During the written articulation of India’s nuclear doctrine, a salient pillar—minimum—was superseded by credibility. This put to rest the originally held concept of “existential  deterrence” in favor of assured retaliation. The triad that found mention in the draft nuclear doctrine of 1999 was inserted to provide the assurance.

The no-first-use (NFU) pillar has had a better innings. It has been useful in projecting an image of India as a mature and responsible nuclear power, thereby obscuring India’s buffeting of the nuclear nonproliferation regime in 1998 and keeping nonproliferation lobbies off India’s quest for a credible deterrent. Even so, the term “rapid” in the draft doctrine, which calls for a shift from a peacetime mode to a deployed status in “the shortest possible time,” established tendencies that over time have resulted in a shadow over India’s NFU policy. The intent behind this language was perhaps to safeguard against multiple attrition nuclear attacks, debilitating India’s capability by quickly unleashing a retaliatory blow. Shivshankar Menon, a former national security adviser, has let on that questioning the NFU’s continued utility did cross his mind. Periodic eruptions in the nuclear debate inevitably witness assaults on this central tenet, with some former heads of India’s Strategic Forces Command, namely B.S. Nagal and Vijay Shankar, being critical of it.

The first generation of India’s nuclear strategists were largely minimalists, valuing deterrence by punishment. Though this deterrence approach made its way into the official doctrine intact, in an egregious intervention reportedly by generalist bureaucrats, the term “massive” was inserted into the official doctrine. While this is aligned with deterrence by punishment, it detracts from credibility in that it is not possible for India to follow through on it, for two reasons. One is that Pakistan’s vertical proliferation has over time ruled out success of first-strike levels of attack; the second is the regional environmental consequences, which militate against deterrence by punishment based on a countervalue strike. 

Therefore, space has been created for options of nuclear use other than punitive retaliation to impose unacceptable damage. India’s oft-denied capabilities make deterrence by denial a possibility. The capability inference is based on the fact that three of India’s five nuclear tests of 1998 were of low-yield devices that can lend themselves to fashioning into nuclear weapons for lower order nuclear use for tactical, operational, or counterforce effect.

India would be foolhardy to retaliate at a higher order level as the doctrine posits because it cannot persevere against both counterstrike(s) (its ballistic missile defense being limited) and the environmental consequences of such an exchange. India has not acknowledged the possibility of a doctrinal shift, but nuclear strategy in conflict will necessarily have proportional retaliation options on the table for decisionmaking at the political level.

India’s nuclear doctrine cannot credibly continue to project that it would retaliate with higher order strikes to any form of nuclear first use against it. Yet India has chosen to stick with its declaratory doctrine in the face of technological developments that furnish it with other options. This gives rise to the possibility that even if the declaratory nuclear doctrine is unchanged, there could have been a covert movement, in an operational nuclear doctrine kept secret.

Finally, to India, nuclear weapons are political weapons having no military utility. However, environmental effects rule out a war of annihilation, though many strategists persist with it—for the sake of deterrence, being apologists for the doctrine, or simply valuing their institutional positions —fantasizing that Pakistan would be finished at the end of such an exchange. The environmental interconnectedness of the subcontinent—illustrated by the annual uproar over the smog that besets Delhi due to the burning of shoots in harvested fields across the northern Indus basin—will ensure that Pakistan’s annihilation will precede that of India by just a short duration. It is perhaps with reason that environmental effects are an understudied area, lest the effects be revealed to upset India’s doctrine.

Strategic Wisdom or Folly?

Strategic direction requires a shift away from India’s official nuclear doctrine to a strategically sustainable one. India’s nuclear doctrine cannot credibly continue to project that it would retaliate with higher order strikes to any form of nuclear first use against it. Yet India has chosen to stick with its declaratory doctrine in the face of technological developments that furnish it with other options. This gives rise to the possibility that even if the declaratory nuclear doctrine is unchanged, there could have been a covert movement, in an operational nuclear doctrine kept secret. And if indeed there has been a doctrinal shift, that it remains unacknowledged testifies to India’s strategic drift rather than strategic direction. India must shift back to doctrinal transparency to clarify whether it is strategically wise or strategically bereft.

Editor’s Note: Ten years after the 26/11 attacks stunned Mumbai and nearly led to a military confrontation between India and Pakistan, the nuclear-armed rivals continue to update and transform their conventional and nuclear military doctrines, postures, and strategies. SAV contributors Joy Mitra, Ali Ahmed, Maimuna Ashraf, and Sannia Abdullah reevaluate whether India and Pakistan are exhibiting strategic direction or drift. Read the series  here


Image 1: Public.Resource.Org via Flickr 

Image 2: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Posted in , Deterrence, Doctrine, India, Nuclear, Strategic Direction or Drift

Ali Ahmed

Ali Ahmed is a freelance blogger. He has been variously an infantryman, an academic and an international civil servant. He has self-published 11 compilation of his writings (two forthcoming). He has over 850 published articles and commentaries comprising over a million words. His interests include peace studies, strategic studies and military sociology. He has been an avid advocate of the liberal perspective, which places him as a contrarian in a realist-dominated Indian strategic community. His writings also draw attention to the influence of cultural nationalism on national and regional security.

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5 thoughts on “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Strategic Direction or Drift?

  1. Doctrines are a function of threats, capabilities and war objectives. One major point in this article is that the threats have changed and therefore the response too must change; second is that the operational doctrine might be different from the declaratory doctrine. Does the doctrine necessarily need to change, if technical capabilities are augmented to address the escalatory nuclear dynamics in the region? Some scholars like Manpreet Sethi and even Shiv Shanker Menon would argue that the doctrine has the flexibility to address these threats. The declaratory value of the doctrine in retaining its current shape is to not fall for the trap of nuclear warfighting [this is the war objective]. Whether a “massive” higher order strike is feasible or not, the onus is on the adversary to have the conviction that the escalation will follow the path as expected.

  2. Ali:
    You make a persuasive case that “massive” retaliation lacks credibility when the injurious action is purposefully quite limited.
    My sense is that Pakistan’s military leadership in the nuclear space sees it this way, too. Otherwise, there would be massive first use followed by massive retaliation — that is, if India’s nuclear response capabilities aren’t caught sleeping.

  3. In order to see the very doctrinal shifts of India in practical terms it would be necessary to dissect the very military developments on part of Indian military establishment. In the recent times India is very much active in developing its military and nuclear program by introducing new and sophisticated weaponry in to the domain then missiles test, its urge for acquiring the very ballistic missile defense shield, partnering with other states in order to receive military aid in the form of S-400. These factors can better establish sound groud for proving that Indian establishment is shifting its doctrine.

  4. Indian nuclear doctrine since its inception have been damaging implications for stability in the region. A more assertive Indian doctrine and the growing nuclear and missile capabilities in New Delhi could prompt Beijing to consider changes in its practices, particularly if the United States is seen as strengthening India as a regional counterbalance to China.

  5. A critical analysis of 2003 CCS recommendations reveals numbers of important shifts in India’s nuclear policy. First, there was a major swing from strict minimum posture to a more flexible approach of credible nuclear deterrence. Including the word “credible” in deterrence posture means that India in future will review its nuclear arsenal size accordingly to the strategic environment and postures of India’s nuclear neighbours. Second, India claims of following a strict unconditional NFU policy fell apart when NSAB allowed First Use of nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon country who are not aligned with a country possessing nuclear weapons. Third, alteration in India’s nuclear policy was the clear stance to use nuclear weapons first in response to biological or chemical weapons attack.

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