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After some nuclear tests carried out in Pokhran on 11th May 1998, the Vajpayee Government publically declared India as a state with nuclear weapon capability. Immediately after this, India articulated its draft nuclear doctrine in August 1999. Out of the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons, currently, only China and India have explicitly stated "No First Use" (NFU) as the guiding principle of their strategic nuclear doctrine. Amidst this, China-India-Pakistan nuclear triangle remains complex, with latent instability. Moreover, South Asia presents a unique scenario of balance-of-power politics wherein there exist nuclear-armed states, all having border disputes.[i]

This South Asian region constitutes one player with a strict No First Use Policy (India) confronting an adversary with a conditional No First Use (China) in the presence of another rival who is proactive as regards nuclear sphere (Pakistan). Sticking to its age-old policy of No First Use makes little strategic sense when India is faced with two closely-allied foes that are moving to strengthen their alliance.

India's nuclear policy is based on the principle of "No First Use" of nuclear weapons against nuclear-armed states and the "non-use" of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear weapons states. However, India's nuclear doctrine clearly states that any strike on India or its forces at home or abroad shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons, aimed at inflicting damages which are unacceptable to the aggressor. The second principle of India's nuclear doctrine is Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD) which refers to the minimum amount of nuclear warheads and missiles that India must maintain to deter potential nuclear adversaries. India, over the ages, has been a nonviolent country. It's approach to defending itself only when attacked and not harboring any imperialistic ambitions has played a pivotal role in the drafting of such a defensive policy supporting the doctrine of peaceful co-existence. The goal of this essay is to criticize India's commitment to the old ‘No First Use' Policy which was adopted by the NDA in 2003. India still maintains an unconditional NFU irrespective of Pakistan's refusal to subscribe to the same and even China having a conditional NFU policy. Despite the growing bilateral ties between its pugnacious neighbors cum adversaries, how does India think it's safe to still have an unconditional No First Use Policy?


Efficacy of the No First Use Policy on Pakistan:

Pakistan is believed to have 100 to 110 nuclear warheads in its nuclear arsenal, a number which will only increase over the period. Reinforced with technologically advanced delivery systems these weapons of mass destruction cannot be trusted with Pakistan frequently oscillating between military dictatorship and incompetent democratic leadership[ii]

Pakistan's nuclear weapons are perennially under the control of the military, with a fragile political system primarily influenced by the army. Poor control over terrorists operating from its soil poses a grave threat to India. The commissioning and deployment of Pakistan's indigenously developed Nasr missile have raised some serious concern amongst Indian policy makers regarding Pakistan's intentions. Several Indian experts opine that Pakistan’s aim is to corrode India's posture of massive retaliation in case of a limited nuclear attack on Indian forces in Pakistan in case a war breaks out.[iii]

The Nasr has a range of 60kms and will be deployed on the front under the command of lower ranking officers to combat the advancing Indian troops effectively. Pakistan's philosophy behind such aggressive measures is survival and to defend itself from an Indian attack. This is because India can break through its defenses solely based on its conventional superiority. The deployment of these weapons in the field could severely short circuit the command and control of these missiles to a bunch of aggressive and unprofessional officers desperately wanting to contain the Indian advance, rather than letting its political leadership make the decisions away from the fog of war.

As Lt. Gen. (Retd) Sartaj FS Lodi has quoted in the Pakistan defense journal,

"In a deteriorating military situation when an Indian conventional attack is likely to break through our defenses or has already breached the main defense line causing a major setback to the defenses, which cannot be restored by conventional means at our disposal, the government would be left with no other option except to use Nuclear Weapons to stabilize the situation. India's superiority in conventional arms and manpower would have to be offset by nuclear weapons."[iv]

Pakistan's nuclear doctrine, therefore, revolves around the first-strike option and the policy of ‘active deterrence.' Simply put, Pakistan will not shy away from using nuclear weapons against India irrespective of the nature of the conflict, be it conventional or nuclear. American scholar Stephen Cohen feels that Pakistan could use an ‘option-enhancing policy'. This would necessitate a step-by-step approach in which the nuclear threat is increased at each step to deter India from attack.[v]

Based on the above discussion, it is not wise to have a strict No First Use Policy on Pakistan. However, taking an offensive stance against an aggressor could upset the balance of power in the South Asian region and compromise India's reputation as a responsible nuclear power. Instead, India should revise its current posture of ‘active deterrence' to ‘dissuasion' (Dissuasion is the active constraint of rationally beneficial options available to a current or potential geopolitical rival in order to preserve the national interests or goals of India)[vi] by enhancing its infrastructure along the border. By doing so India could constrain the options available to Pakistan by assuring political resolution while promising deterrence which could come to an amenable strategic dialogue with Pakistan and take all the necessary confidence building measures necessary.


Efficacy of the No First Use Policy on China:

The Sino-Indian relationship is said to be of uncertainties characterized by pre-nuclear historical tension, fierce competition for the long-disputed territorial claim, post-nuclear conquest for regional supremacy and a significant increase in the military budget and arms race. China has always been a subject of concern for Indian policy makers due to its natural tendency of exerting coercive leverage over India. China has repeatedly bolstered and maintained a state of the art nuclear force and a steady growth of its missiles and warhead arsenal. Rapid economic growth averaging just below 10 percent a year ever since the 1978 market reforms (the fastest continued expansion by a major economy in history) has been the cardinal reason for the advancements made by the PLA in acquiring state of the art weaponry in all the three spheres of warfare.[vii]

China's GDP shows little signs of falling which implies that the Chinese power is likely to grow about that of India in the years ahead. China's expansionist steps such as recurring trespasses made by the PLA soldiers in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere, refuting to submit cases of territorial disputes to international arbitration, developing the Gwadar port in Pakistan as a part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and repeated violation of the sovereignty of South Asian countries by aggressive expansion policies in the South and East China Seas. These instances clearly demonstrate that China's intentions are more coercive than deliberative, needless to say, that the steps taken by the Chinese administration are clearly aimed at sabotaging India's security and trying to gain tactical leverage over India by bolstering ties with Pakistan. As China has territorial claims over Taiwan, it may be logical to assume that China may resort to the use of nuclear weapons in case there is a war over Taiwan. Similarly, China also has territorial claims over Arunachal Pradesh which is almost 90,000 sq.kms of India's territory, so it is likely that China will turn to nuclear weapons if Arunachal Pradesh's sovereignty is threatened.[viii]

According to India's No First Use Policy, India will not initiate the use of nuclear weapons to fight an adversary who has nuclear weapons unless a nuclear/chemical/biological attack is carried out on its homeland or its forces elsewhere. A policy of No First Use is apt for a force that is conventionally strong that can deter and if the need be, defeated its adversary without resorting to nuclear weapons. Adopting the policy of No First Use could, however, be less prudent for a force that is conventionally less in number and may need nuclear weapons to shun the advancements made by an adversary outnumbering it. If India embraces the No First Use Policy, it could seriously undermine its ability to deter a conventional aggression by China.[ix]

Not revisiting its stance on the No First Use Policy, India could unintentionally convey that it would not give a fitting response in the case of an attack from China. Since India is in a weak conventional position on China; re-evaluating its take on No First Use Policy makes strategic sense. India should adopt a more conditional policy. While not wholly endorsing the first use of nuclear weapons, it should also not entirely rule out the option.



Sticking to a strict No First Use policy means India will have to retain enough warheads and launch a retaliatory strike after some of its launch sites being destroyed by the enemy. Because of this, India has to invest in second strike capabilities which will further deplete the necessary resources of a developing nation. India should focus on strengthening its ties with China by building a relationship beneficial for both parties. Also, India should gradually bolster its already strong strategic relations with the US, without raising much alarm among the Chinese. What remains necessary is to convey India's disproval toward Pakistan's first use policy to Pakistani State and the international community; the manner of doing so can be through strategic dialogues. Periodically, it should further review the execution of existing confidence building measures.[x]

As Pakistan has been building up second strike capabilities, these capabilities may bring a certain sense of security amongst the leadership, enabling it to participate in a strategic dialogue with India. Hence, the adoption of a conditional No First Use Policy is more prudent for India's current security environment.


[i] P Diwakar, India’s South Asian tight-rope walk: Stability in Indo-Sino relations in accordance to the No-First-use principle, (Apr 13, 2014)  https://www.academia.edu/32597214/Indias_South_Asian_tight-rope_walk_stability_in_Indo-Sino_relations_in_accordance_to_the_No-first-use_principle


[ii] Reshmi Kazi, ‘India’s Nuclear No First Use: A Policy of Stability’ http://www.pugwashindia.org/pdf/indianuclear.pdf


[iii] Reshmi Kazi, ‘India’s Nuclear No First Use: A Policy of Stability’ http://www.pugwashindia.org/pdf/indianuclear.pdf


[iv] Lt Gen (Retd) Sartaj FS Lodi, ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine’, (April 1999) http://www.defencejournal.com/apr99/pak-nuclear-doctrine.htm


[v] Lt Gen (Retd) Sartaj FS Lodi, ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Doctrine’, (April 1999) http://www.defencejournal.com/apr99/pak-nuclear-doctrine.htm


[vi] Jonathan D Hagwood, ‘Dissuasive Nuclear Strategies: The Strategic Concept of Dissuasion and  the U.S Nuclear Arsenal’, (Oct 14, 2004)


[vii][vii] The World Bank, “China Data”, available at  http://data.worldbank.org/country/china


[viii] Col Gurmeet Kanwal, ‘India’s nuclear doctrine and policy’,   https://www.idsa-india.org/an-feb-1.01.htm


[ix] S. Paul Kapur, ‘Possible Indian nuclear options in 2030’, (Feb 23, 2017), Defense Primer 2017, edited by Sushant Singh and Pushan Das, Observer Research Foundation. Available online at:  http://www.orfonline.org/expert-speaks/possible-indian-nuclear-options-in-2030/


[x] Col Ali Ahmed, ‘Furthering No First Use in India-Pakistan context’, Vol 3. No 3. (July 2009)

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Written By Sanket Kolhe


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