Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said that India’s position on the first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons could change in the future, even though it remains committed to the doctrine now, causing controversy with global consequences. It is probably not wise to read too much in the statement, one that simply reflects a long-standing and unfinished debate inside and outside the government. But the debate is not about to disappear.
Why does India have NFU?
NFU was a tough military decision. Despite what the official spokesmen can say, it is not about India being a Gandhian nation.
India’s NFU declaration, made in 2003, has its roots in the type of wars that the country believes it might have to fight. For more than a generation, Indian war-fighting plans have involved exploiting the asymmetry of conventional forces between the two countries and pushing armored formations deep into Pakistan. Faced with such an offensive, the nation led by Imran Khan has made public that it would use nuclear weapons, probably small sub-kiloton devices known as Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW).
For obvious reasons, India wants to make it as difficult as possible for Pakistan to unleash its nuclear arsenal. Of course, India could retaliate for the use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, but then Pakistan would retaliate for India’s second attack and both sides will end up without most of their cities. Therefore, India says it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, which, at least in theory, increases the pressure on the other side so that it does not go first.
What is the case against NFU?
Many Indian experts, including Lieutenant General Balraj Nagal, former head of the Strategic Forces Command, argue that NFU unnecessarily ties India’s hands. Nagal has asked for a new doctrine that is ambiguous or declares a policy of first use. NFU risks India having to absorb unacceptable costs and encourages Pakistan to attack first, knowing that it will receive a free hit, he says. In addition, Nagal argued that India would not need to invest in expensive ballistic missile defense systems to protect itself from a first attack if it abandoned its commitment to the NFU.
In 2016, the then Defense Minister, Manohar Parrikar, supported these arguments and said he did not see the need for India to commit to an NFU commitment. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had said it would “review and update” India’s nuclear doctrine, although there was no explicit commitment to the NFU.
What’s the case for sticking with NFU?
Those who support the position of the NFU of India argue that even extremely sophisticated surveillance systems cannot be sure that an adversary is about to launch a first attack with nuclear weapons. In addition, it is almost impossible to destroy the strategic arsenal of an adversary, hidden inside hardened facilities, with a first attack. Therefore, the first attacks achieve nothing but precipitate the certainty of a retaliatory attack. In addition, experts such as Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal have argued that some of the arguments in favor of abandoning NFU make no sense. The first use will only expose people and troops to attack, instead of protecting them, he says.
Then, there are the collateral gains of NFU. In 1998, after the Pokhran II tests, the country was placed in the equivalent of the international dog house for criminals. NFU was part of a series of measures that allowed India to gain unprecedented access to technology and participate in the international nuclear regulation system. Losing this would cost much more, say NFU advocates, than the uncertain gains from eliminating the compromise.
How does NFU play on the world stage?
Each state of nuclear weapons has a policy appropriate to its particular circumstances, which means that none, except China and India, have committed to a NFU commitment. France and the United States of America are clear that they are willing to make a first attack, while the United Kingdom has an ambiguous position. In 1964, Beijing joined NFU. In 1993, Russia abandoned the 1982 promise of its predecessor, the Soviet Union, not to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict over the issue. North Korea has not ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons. Israel does not officially admit that it has nuclear weapons, so the question of a doctrine does not arise.
It is worth mentioning that an NFU is something like a check with a later date. Pakistan does not believe that the NFU Indian commitment has real value, just as India would not believe in a Pakistani NFU. Neither China nor India make military plans based on each other’s NFU either.