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Why India should retain its No-First-Use policy?

Reshmi Kazi was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • April 11, 2011

    Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader and former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh has called on the government to re-examine its doctrine of no-first-use (NFU). The rationale behind his suggestion is the increasing multi-pronged security concerns facing India. The no-first-use policy was formulated by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government in 1998. According to Jaswant Singh, the NFU policy, as it stands today, is antiquated and, hence, the Government cannot ‘sit in yesterday’s policy’.

    In advocating the need to readdress the NFU doctrine, Singh has emphasised on the security concerns emanating from Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal. 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. Pakistan has good delivery systems, which were reportedly transferred to it by China and North Korea. And it is rapidly adding to its nuclear inventory, despite being a failing state run by a powerless government, largely controlled by its military establishment, and with very little control over the terrorist groups operating within its territory. There is no foolproof assurance of how safe and secure Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are, as questioned by Mr. Singh. Even the United States, which has provided million dollars for the safety of Pakistan’s crown jewels, is unaware of their location. The other security concern cited by the veteran politician is of an expansionist China. He has pointed to China’s rising influence in the internal affairs of Nepal to substantiate his claim that Beijing poses a long-term threat to India.

    Playing down these apprehensions, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna has asserted that there will be no revision of the NFU policy by the government. However, merely allaying the concerns expressed by Mr. Singh is not enough, and the issue deserves an analysis.

    Sceptics question the efficacy of the NFU policy, on the ground that it has little relevance as a strategic tool against Pakistan. It is considered to be a merely declaratory policy. Hence, it has no binding legitimacy. Pakistan’s military establishment views India’s NFU doctrine as a paper policy that cannot be depended upon in a situation where the stakes are high. Since India’s nuclear doctrine is a unilateral decision, it can be revoked anytime if the situation so demands. The Pakistanis believe that there is no way of making the NFU policy incapable of first use. This disparagement is difficult to ignore, but it can be argued that militarily India need not depend upon nuclear weapons against Pakistan and China. India’s strategic culture clearly demonstrates that it is a status quo power devoid of any aggressive intention. Besides, India’s conventional strength is adequate for defence against Pakistan. This conventional advantage is further reinforced by India’s offensive policy of ‘Cold Start’, which seeks to circumvent a nuclear response from Pakistan. The Cold Start doctrine is independent of the NFU pledge and, hence, India can use it to neutralise any conventional aggression by Pakistan.

    China’s expansionist policies cannot be deterred by revising the NFU. Besides, it would not be prudent to abandon the NFU and send a deliberate signal of provocation to China. This can offset India’s declared stand on a minimum credible nuclear policy and project it as an aggressive power. Further, abrogating the NFU policy would signal a first use posture by India, thus reducing the space for conventional warfare below the nuclear threshold. This could also severely corrode India’s ability to limit Pakistan’s offensive tactics and policies at the conventional level. Instead, India must gradually revise its posture of ‘active deterrence’ to ‘dissuasive deterrence’ by building up its infrastructure along the border and improving the surveillance and warning capabilities, the mobility of land-based missiles, survivability of the airborne retaliatory force, and increased force levels.

    Concerns over Pakistan’s increasing nuclear stockpile have been cited as a reason to revise and revisit India’s no-first-use policy. According to the estimates of Professor R. Rajaraman and his colleagues of the International Panel on Fissile Material, by 2010 Pakistan was presumably in possession of 1.5 to 3 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) – fissile material enough for 60 to 120 weapons, and approximately 100 kg of plutonium – enough for 20 bombs. The Penal has also estimated that by 2020 these figures are likely to rise to 450 kg of plutonium – enough for 90 bombs, and 2500 to 6000 kg of 90 per cent HEU – sufficient for approximately 100 to 420 simple fission weapons. It is also projected that a significant proportion of Pakistan’s annual production of natural uranium, approximately 40 tons, will be consumed by the three Khushab reactors, and not much will thereafter be left for the centrifuge plant at Kahuta. The recent estimates of 80 to 140 weapons in Pakistan’s stockpile come from the figures of 1.5 to 3 tons of HEU and 100 kg weapons grade plutonium. But there is a lot of ambiguity involved in these projections. Moreover, simultaneously, India’s own nuclear stockpile is likely to increase especially given the advances being made in breeder technology, which will yield reactor grade plutonium. Hence, it is not necessary to revise the NFU policy on the basis of figures which are hypothetical.

    Withdrawing the NFU policy and making a declaration to that effect makes little strategic sense, since it will damage India’s status as a responsible nuclear power. Such a step will abrogate India’s commitment to the universal goal of nuclear disarmament and upset the regional balance in the sub-continent. The NFU policy is a sound pillar of India’s nuclear doctrine. It facilitates a restrained nuclear weapons programme without tactical weapons and a complicated command and control system. It forswears brinkmanship by avoiding the deployment of weapons on hair-trigger alert and keeping an arms-race in check.

    In conclusion, the no-first-use policy is premised upon an assured second strike capability, that is survive a first strike and retain sufficient warheads to launch massive retaliation upon the adversary. As long as this second strike capability is not degraded there is no reason to abandon the NFU posture. At present, there is no evidence to suggest that the reported expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile has degraded India’s nuclear retaliatory capability. India should therefore retain its no-first-use doctrine.