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Revisiting India’s Nuclear Doctrine

March 27, 2017

(This Comment was first published on June 20, 2014 and is being reposted with minor editorial corrections due to the recent revival of controversy in this regard. The earlier version is available here)

Ever since the release of India’s nuclear doctrine in 2003, there have been occasional appeals for its review. Such appeals in the past were limited and went largely unnoticed without generating any meaningful discussion. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) 2014 election manifesto promising to “update and review” the country’s decade-old nuclear weapons’ doctrine has triggered a serious debate.

In principle, there is nothing wrong in revisiting the doctrine. It is a product of the human mind and cannot, therefore, be held to be infallible and beyond review or revision. However, such revision or review must be based on sound and valid reasons, such as:

  1. A legally or administratively mandated periodic review, such as the congressionally mandated quadrennial defence review in the United States.
  2. Major changes in the external environment; for example, the major arms limitation/control treaties between the United States and Russia.
  3. A change in the adversary’s capabilities.
  4. Emergence of new threats such as nuclear and WMD terrorism.
  5. Failure of the doctrine under practical conditions.

Under which preceding category or categories would the proposed Indian doctrinal review fall?

In the current Indian context, the only pressing reason could be the change in the adversary’s capabilities, namely the reported Pakistani acquisition of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs). Pakistan’s acquisition of a TNW such as the Hatf IX missile, with a range of 60 kilometres and capable of carrying a nuclear warhead of an appropriate yield, has attracted widespread attention in various Indian debates on strategic stability. It has been argued that Pakistan’s acquisition of TNWs has lowered the deterrence threshold and thereby affected the overall strategic stability in the region.1 Emphasising this change in India’s strategic environment, the proponents of doctrinal review argue that India’s existing doctrine is ill-suited to deter Pakistan from using TNWs against India.2

A word of caution is needed here. Neither the Pakistan government nor any of its major military or civil officials have ever admitted to the possession of a TNW or enunciated the conditions under which such alleged TNWs will be used. However, the most commonly assumed usage of TNWs by Pakistan is against Indian troops on Pakistani soil. Even this supposition is based on reported discussions between Indian and Pakistani Track II participants at one or more of the numerous such dialogues at various venues across the globe, incidentally none of which has been held either in India or Pakistan. Nevertheless, accepting such a use of TNWs by Pakistan, what would be the appropriate Indian response? Another word of caution is necessary here: in none of these debates is there any explanation of the circumstances or the environment under which Indian troops came to be on Pakistani soil. Fortunately, this is of no relevance to the issues under discussion.

In the event of an alleged deterrence failure leading to use of TNWs by Pakistan against Indian troops, what would be the appropriate Indian response? The Indian debate over a possible response to Pakistan’s use of TNWs has been largely divided. As early as December 2012, Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary and the current (former) head of the National Security Advisory Board, categorically stated that, “For India, the label on the weapon, tactical or strategic, is irrelevant since the use of either would constitute a nuclear attack against India.” He further noted that “In terms of India’s stated nuclear doctrine, this would invite a massive retaliatory strike.” In addition, he had categorically rejected a possible change in India’s nuclear doctrine and suggested that “Massive Retaliation” would be India’s response to Pakistan’s use of TNWs.

On the other hand, others have questioned the credibility of “massive retaliation” as a doctrinal response. The sceptics of such a posture argue that since both of India’s regional adversaries, Pakistan and China, possess a robust second-strike capability, that is, a nuclear arsenal that would survive an all-out Indian attack, equal retaliation should be expected across India. Taking into consideration such all-out destruction, these experts have suggested that New Delhi should opt for a “flexible response” that would allow decision makers more credible options.3 This change is largely suggested along the lines of change in American doctrine from massive retaliation to flexible response in the 1950s and 1960s after realising the inherent credibility shortfall in a threat of massive retaliation.

In their innate enthusiasm in suggesting a ‘review and revision’, the aforementioned arguments appear to have largely misread or misinterpreted India’s existing nuclear doctrine. The essential purpose of any nuclear doctrine is to codify a country’s beliefs and principles to guide action and ensure uniformity of “thought and action” during peace and war. In other words, the nuclear doctrine conveys the underlying conditions about nuclear weapons use to the adversary in an unambiguous manner.

However, as McNamara stated in a landmark speech half a century ago in San Francisco in 1967, nuclear strategy is exceptionally complex in its technical aspects and, unless the terms are well defined and complexities well-understood, rational discussion and decision-making are simply not possible. Elaborating, he said, “Now let us consider another term: “first-strike capability”. This, in itself, is an ambiguous term, since it could mean simply the ability of one nation to attack another nation with nuclear forces first. But as it is normally used, it connotes much more: the substantial elimination of the attacked nation’s retaliatory second-strike forces. This is the sense in which “first-strike capability” should be understood.”4 Subsequently, the NPT recognized nuclear weapon states (NWS) met informally and codified some of the terms and definitions between themselves.

Again a word of caution – there is no universal law that every country must agree to the definitions already in use. Each country is free to define its own meaning of the terms. However, in that case, the party should set out and state very clearly the definition and meanings of the terminology employed. Unfortunately, neither India nor Pakistan have clearly defined anywhere the definitions of terms used and where their definitions differ from the commonly accepted meanings. Therefore, in the absence of such explicit definitions, it can be reasonably assumed that the meanings ascribed to these terms are the same as commonly accepted meanings. India’s nuclear doctrine too includes certain terminologies that have specific meanings. For example, two key features of India’s nuclear doctrine are:

  • A posture of "No First Use": nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian Territory or on Indian forces anywhere; and
  • Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.5

Now, in the commonly accepted definitions, a nuclear first strike means either: (i) The launching of an initial nuclear attack before one’s opponent is able to use any strategic weapon. First strike is a nuclear attack carried out at such a devastatingly high level of destruction as to nullify an enemy’s capability to launch a major counterstrike; or, (ii) An initial attack on an opponent's strategic nuclear forces. Such an attack may be undertaken in an attempt to destroy an enemy's retaliatory (second-strike) capability. In either case the damage inflicted will be great and substantial. The Indian nuclear doctrine, not surprisingly, requires the Indian response to a first strike to be massive and unacceptable.
However, the use of TNWs by Pakistan against Indian troops in Pakistani territory cannot under any circumstances be considered as a first strike. It will have no effect on India’s second strike capabilities. Therefore, India’s current nuclear doctrine does not call for an automatic massive retaliation for Pakistan’s use of TNWs against Indian troops on Pakistani soil. However, this does not mean that such an attack will go unanswered. The doctrine does state in unambiguous terms that “nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian Territory or on Indian forces anywhere.” It does not define the level of such retaliation; only that a nuclear attack, which is not a first-strike, will be met with nuclear retaliation. In short, the apprehension that the Indian nuclear doctrine calls for an automatic reflexive massive retaliation for use of TNWs by Pakistan on Pakistani soil is totally unjustified. Such a use of TNWs will be met with a nuclear response. But the size and intensity of the response will be a political decision depending on the circumstances surrounding such use. In the absence of any Pakistani doctrine on the use of TNWs, it will not be possible for India to define its response to such an attack.

Pakistan’s use of TNWs has long been presented as a compelling challenge before India’s nuclear doctrine. Such claims largely arise from an incorrect reading of the Indian nuclear doctrine. While Pakistan’s acquisition of TNWs is certainly a dangerous portent for stability in South Asia, it is not a reason enough to argue for revising the Indian doctrine. India’s existing nuclear doctrine includes suitable options to deal with various contingencies of small scale as well as massive nuclear attacks.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.