At the 2017 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington D.C., Prof. Vipin Narang, an expert on South Asian nuclear strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created waves with his statement that India may abandon its no first use policy and launch a preemptive counterforce strike against Pakistan if it believed that Pakistan was going to use nuclear weapons (likely tactical nuclear weapons) against it. His assessment is based on the statements and writings of former Indian government and military officials. This assessment was recently picked up in Ajai Shukla’s well-regarded column on strategic affairs in India’s Business Standard.
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Over the past year and a half, the atmosphere in the subcontinent has been tense–terror attacks in India such as at Pathankot and Uri have been linked to groups in Pakistan. In an unrelated but significant development, India’s then defense minister Manohar Parrikar questioned the efficacy of India’s no first use policy (the government later clarified that his comments were not in an official capacity but his personal opinion).
In this context, what should be made of Prof. Vipin Narang’s assessment? Is there a visible change in India’s nuclear strategy? What implications could this have for South Asia? SAV contributors debate this below.
No Shift in India’s NFU Policy
By Ruhee Neog
Since Vipin Narang draws much of his conclusions from former National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon’s book, Choices – Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, an examination of Menon’s assertions seem germane. Menon deals with the subject of India’s no first use (NFU) pledge with great caution. He says, for example: “There is a potential gray area…Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first against an NWS that has declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent [emphasis added].” This is highly circumspect language. In the same chapter, he writes more emphatically that tactical nuclear use by Pakistan would “effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan.” Narang refers to both these passages.
I would agree that this coming from a former NSA, once charged with chairing the executive council of India’s Nuclear Command Authority, is significant. Coupled with former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Forces Command Lt Gen BS Nagal’s recommendation of an NFU review in a 2014 paper, this is a definite indication that there is thinking, and perhaps discussion, within the nuclear bureaucracy on Indian nuclear policy. But none of it suggests an actual shift in policy. And I am not sure this is “increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first,” although Narang does also note later that there is “…at least serious mainstream thinking about it.”
The Indian NFU has always been conditional, as also noted by Narang – the Indian nuclear doctrine (2003) explicitly states that India retains the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons to a biological or chemical attack on it or its forces anywhere. The ambiguity surrounding the NFU can be read in different ways. One, that it is in fact quite clear, and Pakistan only uses the lack of credibility argument to justify its nuclear build-up. Two, that it could be a deliberate Indian ploy to make Pakistan spend its limited resources on nuclear rather than conventional forces. In both cases, this ambiguity doesn’t seem to be paying off for India.
Arguing the merits of ambiguity is a debate worth having. But considering the possibility of India abandoning the NFU, caveats and all, would mean an overhaul of the very basis on which India proclaims its responsible nuclear credentials. It is important to note that Menon, in the same chapter referred above, illustrates why “no first use is a useful commitment [for India] to make.” On his point about a “comprehensive first strike,” Ajai Shukla, in his piece on the subject, observes, “Menon carefully differentiates between “first use” (which Indian nuclear doctrine forbids) and “first strike”, which — in widely-accepted nuclear vocabulary — refers to a disarming CF strike aimed at leaving an adversary without nuclear recourse.”
A revelation in Menon’s book is his use of the term “punitive retaliation” from the 1999 draft Indian nuclear doctrine, which had been disowned by the government. The 2003 version replaced it with “nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive.” This has long been held to mean “massive retaliation,” but whether that is an all-or-nothing strategy or retaliation that is “massive” in nature, i.e. to be determined on a case-by-case basis, is not clear. Menon’s comment to Business Standard in Ajai Shukla’s piece on the subject – “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for” – is thus noteworthy. A counter-force strike, rather than the difficult-to-believe massive countervalue strike in response to Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons use, falls squarely within this flexibility.
Indian Rethink on NFU? Not a Surprise to Pakistan
By Muhammad Faisal
Pakistani strategic planners and analysts have repeatedly questioned the efficacy of India’s no first use (NFU) pledge and the credibility of its doctrinal proposition of massive retaliation. India has not explicated what it means by massive retaliation and Pakistani planners have questioned the logic of retaliating massively in response to battlefield use of nuclear weapons. Vipin Narang’s recent comments indicate that the Indian policy community may now be engaged in an internal review to re-think its nuclear choices. Does it come as a surprise to Pakistan? Probably not.
Pakistani planners might have expected a counterforce strike in response to battlefield use of nuclear weapons. However, the choice to go for massively disarming strikes based on the intent of the other side is stretching the supposed flexibility of India’s nuclear doctrine to credulity. South Asia has no history of preventive wars and pre-emptive military actions. Still, can a government authorize use of a nuclear weapon based on the intent of the other side? It lowers the threshold of nuclear use to previously unimaginable levels, even for South Asia. At the same time, it might be an attempt to introduce an element of ambiguity in Indian nuclear policy to complicate Pakistan’s decision calculus. Even as Indian planners are contemplating leveraging ambiguity, can India be absolutely certain that it has taken out all of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, if and when it attempts a “comprehensive counterforce strike” to disarm Pakistan?
But as the debate continues, so will the introduction of new technologies, and building up of new capabilities for re-configuration of the nuclear forces. Multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), ballistic missile defense, a shift away from recessed and de-mated deterrent postures, and expansion of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. For new options to work, India would also need to expand its nuclear arsenal and keep and deploy its nuclear forces on a higher state of readiness. Is India on the cusp of expanding the number of warheads it possesses and increasing stocks of weapons-usable fissile materials?
Nevertheless, as India contemplates flexible options, Pakistan will, undoubtedly, focus on enhancing the survivability of its nuclear arsenal, and in the process, making it harder for India to locate and destroy Pakistani missiles and warheads in one go. However, without a doubt, both Indian and Pakistani strategies will increase strategic anxieties in the region. Both sides are posturing to fight and win a nuclear war, in an attempt to dissuade the other from launching a war. It is as high-stakes a gamble as it can get, but will it work? We will know during the next, inevitable, crisis.
India’s Nuclear Doctrine Needs to be Debated
By Tanvi Kulkarni
Increasingly, it appears that the ardent defenders of India’s nuclear no first use (NFU) policy are those in the non-official positions of the country’s strategic community. Statements by officials in-charge of overseeing the national nuclear weapons program are important indicators of where the country’s nuclear policy stands and where it might be headed. By that understanding, Professor Narang’s comments at the 2017 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference, based in part on former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon’s writings, are helpful in joining the dots that could have easily been overlooked otherwise. And yet, the statements analyzed do not give a clear indication that India has changed its nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.
On the face of it, for Pakistan, a change in India’s NFU stance now might appear to be of little consequence. The Pakistani thinking has been operating on the assumption that India’s NFU commitment is bogus. Make no mistake, however, that developments in India’s nuclear weapons program are watched very closely in Pakistan; in fact, more often than not, one finds officials, opinion-shapers, and commentators from Pakistan latching on to solitary statements made by Indian politicians to draw conclusions about India’s nuclear policy. Any serious hint of change in India’s nuclear policy will set off a reaction from Pakistan. The induction of battlefield nuclear weapons and the shift to full-spectrum deterrence as a response to India’s Cold Start is a case in point.
If there has indeed been a change in India’s nuclear policy, it should be reflected through a revised nuclear doctrine. However, if this is the beginning of a renewed debate on India’s nuclear weapons doctrine, it is only welcome. In any case, a public review of the nuclear doctrine has been long overdue. On more specific nuclear strategy, India’s targeting policy has largely been presumed to be purely countervalue without openly being spelled out. It is, therefore, hard to concur whether a counterforce targeting policy or a mix of counterforce and countervalue targeting constitutes a major ‘shift’ of policy. A debate about the consequences of such shifts, however, is unarguably consequential.
Narang makes a more pertinent observation when he says that the rationale for an aggressive nuclear strategy toward Pakistan would be a corollary to India’s pursuing a credible nuclear deterrent against China (or Pakistan-China combined). Whether China would be a mute spectator to the change in the South Asian nuclear dynamics should not escape serious analyses.
To Use or Not to Use: India’s Fractured NFU
By Saima Sial
At the 2017 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference this week, Vipin Narang, talking on causes and consequences of nuclear first-use stated that unlike the “conventional wisdom” about possible first use in South Asia, it may be India that use its weapons first in a decapitating first strike against Pakistan. The revelation, however, doesn’t come as a surprise to Pakistan.
Should we in Pakistan be surprised?
It is widely known, and for reasons that Pakistan’s analysts have been mentioning recurrently, that Pakistan doesn’t subscribe to India’s no first use (NFU) policy. Naeem Salik, the former director of arms and disarmament affairs in Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, while writing about nuclear doctrines, argued that India’s NFU policy is fairly “watered down” because the doctrine provides for retaliation with nuclear weapons if chemical or biological weapons are used against India or its forces anywhere.
This is not the first time that India’s NFU has become a topic of controversy. The Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)’s 2014 election manifesto stated that it would “revised and update” India’s nuclear doctrine once in power, only to deny later. Only recently, then Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar questioned the rationality of binding India to a no first use doctrine, a statement later dismissed by the government as Parrikar’s personal opinion. Discernible in this pattern of statements from officials and subsequent denials are signals of an increasing interest in India to keep all options, including a decapitating first strike, open. Although the stated NFU doctrine means something, which India flaunts globally to demonstrate its responsible nuclear credentials, the shift to preemption would make it a potential aggressor.
A Noncommittal NFU: Why does it matter?
A declared NFU means that given the conventional capability of a state, it pledges not to initiate a nuclear conflict and retaliate massively to first use. The current nuclear developments in India, including missile systems such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles and an ambitious ballistic missile defense program, reflect an aggressive nuclear posture and in turn embolden India towards a pre-emptive/ decapitation strategy. This dangerous scenario has lead Pakistan to move to the sea, through the development of a sea-based second strike capability in Babur-3, to ensure the survivability of its nuclear arsenal from a potential “splendid first-strike” by India.
To implement a counterforce targeting strategy, India would have to increase its nuclear stockpile to ostensibly take out Pakistan’s land-based nuclear arsenal. This naturally translates into vertical proliferation and may explain the large stockpile of nuclear material in India deliberately kept outside safeguards. Moreover, the posture stands starkly in contrast with India’s stated policy of ‘credible minimum deterrence.’
Decapitation: How likely is the Scenario?
Many might argue that such a decapitating counterforce strike is not possible given the current Indian capabilities. However, India is not only advancing in its indigenous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR ) capabilities through its satellites (acquisition of drone/stealth technology) but is also collaborating closely with strategic partners. The United States-India cooperation in space, including in “vital security aspects,” would be a key element to monitor in this regard. They are already reportedly exploring sharing data from satellites for maritime domain awareness.
Looking back at history, Paul Bracken writes about how the United States shared targeting information about the former Soviet Union with China to “strengthen a perception in Moscow that the United States and China had strong nuclear ties that would get stronger if there was a Soviet nuclear provocation.” Although Bracken warns the United States against such sharing of strategic information in the second nuclear age, the possibility can’t be ruled out in the United States-India case.
What these developments portray is a belligerent mindset in India. The Indian overconfidence bestowed through growing nuclear capabilities, nuclear/conventional postures, and prestige globally can bedevil peace endeavors in the region. War in South Asia cannot be an option and there can be no justification for it at any level, from sub-conventional to strategic weapons use by any state.
 Paul Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics, (New York: Henry Holt/Times Books, 2012), pp.197-201.
*Official transcript of prepared remarks obtained with permission from Prof. Vipin Narang and organizers of the conference.
Image courtesy @TheNSWG via Twitter