India’s No-First-Use Policy: A policy of restraint and responsibility

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto of 2014 has pledged to revise India’s nuclear doctrine. The BJP manifesto intends to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” While the manifesto does not indicate any revision of the no-first-use (NFU) policy per se yet several reports attributing to “sources involved in drafting the [BJP manifesto]” claims that the NFU policy is likely to be reconsidered. Interestingly, in March 2011, senior BJP leader and former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had called on the United Progressive Alliance government to re-examine the antiquated NFU policy since the Government cannot ‘sit in yesterday’s policy’. What factors conditions BJP’s thinking that the NFU policy, which has served India’s strategic interests well over a decade under provocations of the Kargil War and continuous cross-border terrorism, needs a revision now?

Following the May 1998 nuclear tests, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government formulated the no-first-use policy. After serving India for more than a decade, the NFU policy was questioned for a revival in 2011. The primary rationale as proposed by Jaswant Singh was the security concerns originating from Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is reportedly in possession of 100 to 110 nuclear warheads, and possesses good delivery systems, reportedly derived from Chinese and North Korean systems. Singh also cited concerns for the lack of foolproof assurance over the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons under a fragile government primarily controlled by the military establishment with abysmal control over the terrorist groups operating on its soil. The veteran politician also cited an expansionist China with rising ambitions pose long-term threats to India. These alarms were quelled by the then External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna who categorically stated that there would be no revision of the NFU policy by the Indian government.

The efficacy of the NFU policy has been doubted upon by cynics on the ground that it holds little germaneness as an effective strategic contrivance against Pakistan. The NFU policy is primarily believed to be a merely declaratory policy and hence is devoid of essential mandatory legitimacy. The doctrine is viewed with equal skepticism within Pakistan particularly by its military establishment. For the Pakistan Army, India’s NFU posture is a “paper policy” that is incapable of surviving in crisis situations involving high risks. Pakistan outrightly dismisses the NFU doctrine as a “unilateral decision”, which can be rescinded anytime. Pakistan believes that depending on situations of crisis escalations, India’s NFU doctrine will be unable to sustain itself and would invariably transform into a first-use posture.

Much of the above criticisms cannot be overlooked. Further, the development of Pakistan’s Nasr tactical nuclear missile with rapid deployment and effective use of shoot-and-scoot tactics have raised alarms amongst Indian experts over the Pakistan’s strategic calculations. The development of Nasr is viewed by many Indian strategists to counter India’s posture of massive retaliation in case of a limited nuclear attack on an Indian contingent in Pakistani soil.

However, in military terms, nuclear weapons are not the answers to the strategic problems with either Pakistan or China. India’s NFU policy upholds this belief. As a status quo power, India’s strategic culture is devoid of any belligerent objectives. Besides India’s conventional force-structure is believed to be capable of neutralizing any conventional aggression from Pakistan by means of its Cold Start doctrine that is independent of the NFU policy. Further, any revision of the NFU policy is incapable of deterring China. On the contrary, any such revision might convey wrong signals to China about India’s aggressive military designs.

India’s external security environment has not gone any radical change in recent times for the government to consider the revision of the NFU policy. Cross-border terrorism still exists as before and Pakistan is still increasing its nuclear stockpile. India’s own nuclear stockpile is likely to expand especially given the developments being made in its breeder technology, which will yield reactor-grade plutonium. Hence, any hypothetical calculations of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs should not be a determining factor for revising the NFU policy.

Despite the continuing problems, what should be taken note of is the existence of a civilian government in Pakistan that has announced its intentions to forge improved bilateral ties with India. The Pakistan Army is also on the same page with its political establishment on the India policy. On the India-China front, other than voluminous bilateral trade both nations are working on security issues. The two sides have conducted joint Army drills to practice counter-terrorism manoeuvres and are expected to pilot the fourth round of their ‘Hand in Hand’ exercises in India in 2014.

India is the only nuclear country that declares a no-first-use stance against both nuclear and non-nuclear states. Though China also professes a same policy but there is some dilution on its stand. The NFU policy is a sound pillar of India’s nuclear doctrine. It conveys a policy of restraint, is devoid of any tactical nuclear strategy and a complicated command and control system. It abnegates brinkmanship by eschewing the deployment of weapons on hair-trigger alert and keeping an arms-race in check. In strategic terms, the no-first-use policy is premised upon an assured second-strike capability. As long as India’s second-strike capability is not corroded there is no reason to reject the NFU posture. India has an assured second-strike capability and nothing at present suggests that its retaliatory capability has been compromised. Hence, India must uphold the NFU policy as a sign of a restrained and responsible nuclear nation.

Posted in , Deterrence, Doctrine, India, No First Use, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons

Reshmi Kazi

Dr. Reshmi Kazi is Associate Professor in the Jamia Milia Islamia (Central University). She specializes in nuclear security, nuclear non-proliferation, and nuclear disarmament. Her doctoral thesis is on “Evolution of India’s Nuclear Doctrine: A Study of Political, Economic and Technological Dimensions” from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has written extensively on nuclear security issues and made several presentations including a paper on "Nuclear Terrorism and UN Resolution 1540: A South Asian Perspective" at the UN Headquarters, New York. Her publications include monographs on "Post Nuclear Security Summit Process: Continuing Challenges and Emerging Prospects" (2017) and "Nuclear Terrorism: The New Terror of the 21st Century" (2013). She is an alumni of National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Study, Washington DC and a Visiting Fellow (Summer 2016) for the South Asia programme in the Stimson Center, Washington DC. Her aim is to research and publish on critical areas pertaining to nuclear issues that can contribute to future policy making.

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10 thoughts on “India’s No-First-Use Policy: A policy of restraint and responsibility

  1. Reshmi does India actually adhere to the NFU policy in the strictest terms? Does its no-first-use declaration against both nuclear and non-nuclear states still remain valid?There is dilution on the Indian stance too. How else would you describe Shivshankar Menon’s October 2010 speech to the National Defence College where he says, “The Indian nuclear doctrine also reflects this strategic culture, with its emphasis on minimal deterrence, no first use against non-nuclear weapon states and its direct linkage to nuclear disarmament.” Please refer to my article on the BJP and NFU. I would like to hear your thoughts on the changes to the original policy as envisaged by the NDA government.

  2. Amina, please refer to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speech on
    April 2, 2014 at

    Also see 11 January 2011, former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s speech clearly stating that “India has a no-first use policy,” without any modification, conveying that there has been no revision to India’s nuclear doctrine. Please see following link

    A need for revision of the NFU policy might arise only if there is any change in India’s retaliatory capacity. At present nothing suggests so. please refer to my article on Why India should retain its No-First-Use policy? at

  3. Thank you Reshmi! I’ll look at the recommended sources and get back to you if i still have any queries.

  4. Reshmi where in the two speeches, either Nirupama Rao’s or MMS’ or SMK have they 1) mentioned no first use as a universality? 2) used any kind of language that supersedes or contradicts shivshankar menon? I’m afraid I’m not seeing it in either..merely stating that India has an NFU in no way establishes that NSA’s opinion is an aberration. Far from it the refusal to explain what they mean by NFU and their refusal to contradict NSA means they think the ambiguity surrounding the NSAs remarks are a good thing.

    Second cold start is an offensive punitive doctrine based on high mobility. I am yet to see any source which suggests it is a defensive, reactive doctrine as you have suggested. Would appreciate sources.

    Also I find this statement of yours surprising ‘Further, any revision of the NFU policy is incapable of deterring China’…. could you elaborate please? You have made this assertion in your Idsa piece you have linked, but have not explained 1 how it is provocative 2 how it will NOT deter China. Moreover you confer several advantages accruing to Pakistan because of our NFU and their lack of one. Notably that it restricts the space for conventional war….. but fail to apply the same symmetry to the India-China equation.

  5. 1. Reshmi ,PM Manmohan Singh’s speech also suggests the possibility of India considering an NFU policy if other countries also consider it. In his words, “…consequently, our nuclear doctrine lays emphasis on a credible minimum deterrent and a no-first-use policy” and later that “more and more voices are speaking out today that the sole function of nuclear weapons, while they exist, should be to deter a nuclear attack. If all states possessing nuclear weapons recognise that this is so and are prepared to declare it, we can quickly move to the establishment of a global no-first-use norm.”

    2. The speech is reminiscent of a similar one that PM Vajpayee had made in May 1998 where he had proposed that India and Pakistan should jointly consider a NFU policy.

    3. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s speech may have clearly stated the NFU policy India adheres to, the fact remains that India reserves the right to use nuclear weapons against a chemical and/or biological attack thus making Pakistan suspicious of Indian motives.

    4. In your article you’ve highlighted that “in advocating the need to readdress the NFU doctrine, Singh has emphasised on the security concerns emanating from Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal.” According to the article Pakistan is reportedly in possession of 100 to 110 nuclear warheads, which makes it double India’s nuclear stockpile of approximately 50 to 60 warheads. However according to the 2011 SIPRI estimates India possessed between 80-100 warheads while Pakistan had 90-110. According to the latest figures these numbers have increased to 90-110 & 100-120 respectively.

    5. You go on to argue that India does not depend on nuclear weapons against both China and Pakistan. What then was the motive behind Singh’s statement suggesting a readdressal of the NFU?

  6. Abhijit, the two speeches mentioned by you were not made with the aim to qualify or explain the NSA’s speech. These speeches were made to uphold the India’s declared standpoint that India abides by a no-first-use doctrine. There is no ambiguity on that standpoint.

    The Cold Start doctrine is a work in progress. It has been designed to to avoid crossing Pakistan’s nuclear red lines through surgical strikes deep into Pakistan territory. It avoids risking escalation of any future conflict to the nuclear level. See

    India and China have no equal symmetry. Besides, India is not militarily competing with China. What I have tried to convey is that a modification of the NFU into a first use and lowering the nuclear threshold would not deter China in any conflict situation. this will only complicate India’s national security interests.

  7. Amina, this is your interpretation. However, India’s NFU policy is not conditioned to the prior acceptance of this policy by other states. Had that been so successive governments in India since 1999 would not have adhered and upheld this policy for so long despite several provocations from both sides of India’s borders.

    India and Pakistan have tremendous potential and jointly they can work to improve the security situation in South Asia. An joint NFU policy would certainly serve to de-escalate nuclear tensions.

    India’s nuclear doctrine is a short and precise official document that states India’s nuclear posture which eschews nuclear war-fighting. It clearly scripts its nuclear red-lines. There is no ambiguity involved.

    Of course, I am aware of the bomb figures. The article is a 2011 publication.

    I would also like to ask Singh the same question.

  8. India has an extremely tricky and conditional No-First Use policy clause which actually makes it redundant. This is what I published in Dec 2012:

    The Indian policymakers finally, on 11 May 1998, lifted the veil from the true face of the Buddha which had apparently smiled “peacefully” on 18 may 1974 in Pokhran. Pakistan was quick to display its tit for tat reaction a few days later. Although the 1998 testing did give India the status of de facto nuclear weapon status, yet it also neutralized Indian conventional edge over Pakistan as prospects of any future conflict between these South Asian rivals could not be conceived without bringing the nuclear equation into the calculus. Subsequently, Indians hurriedly came up with a draft nuclear doctrine which provides fuzzy guidelines for the employment of nuclear weapons. Pakistan, to add further credibility to its nuclear deterrent, decided to keep its nuclear doctrine a classified matter.
    While Pakistan has never kept it hidden that its nuclear deterrent is premised on the core belief of “first use but last resort”, this term has usually been seen by the western academics as an offensive nuclear posture. Other than Pakistan, only Israel shares same kind of doctrinal principle labelling it as a “Samson Option”, but it has never been subjected to the same kind of scrutiny in the western media or academics, as has been seen in the case of Pakistan. Ironically, while Pakistan is singled out for adopting a posture of “first use but last resort” which actually means that it could consider the employment of nuclear weapons once all other options have been exhausted, India is given a salutary status to its actually meaningless clause of “no first use.” Interestingly, not only in the west but some of the Pakistani scholars amongst the strategic community have fallen victim to this deceptive phrase in the Indian nuclear doctrine.
    The Indian so-called “no first use” clause has three conditions attached to it which actually makes it redundant. The first condition says that, “any threat of use of nuclear weapons against India shall invoke measures to counter the threat” which doesn’t rule out a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Second, in the clause 2.5 saying, “India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against States which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapon powers,” the term alliance can be translated into various terms. Like should there be a formal defence pact or a treaty between a nuclear weapon states or mere maintaining diplomatic, economic and cultural ties could also be considered as an alliance. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Iran can be considered as allies of Pakistan with regards to certain issues. Likewise, Japan, Germany, Italy and South Korea also forms and alliance with the US and thus qualifies for a nuclear first strike. Finally, clause 2.3a, revised in 2003 states that, “however, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.” This implies that if some UN contingent including few Indian troops is attacked with either a chemical or a biological agent in some of the remotest part of the world, India could retaliate with nuclear weapons.
    Under such conditions, actually believing in the myth of Indian no first nuclear posture and doctrine is a self-alluded fallacy which practically makes no sense at all. Rather, it is primarily meant to maintain ambiguity with regards to first strike option if a situation is deemed necessary.

  9. You people are talking with such ease about First Use, No first use…Do you know the actual meaning of using nuclear weapons? Killing of Hundreds of thousands of innocent population of sub-continent and back to stone age. Our intellectual minds should be used in favor of a Joint nuclear defense strategy by the two neighboring countries i.e. Pakistan & India. I.e. 1. Pakistab & India should jointly sign an agreement that they will never use nuclear weapons against each other no matter what happens. 2. If a third country attacks any one of Pak or India, they should retaliate as if both are attacked. But a valid question is…if this happens, what rationale will military and politicians on both sides present to their nations for elections and grabbing lion’s share from budgets. Rozi Roti Ayaashi hi band hojani hay :D :D so mery Paki aur Indian bhaiyon, no matters whether its a first strike or second strike, you will be back to STONE AGE!!!

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