India adopted a No First Use (NFU) nuclear doctrine in 2003, but the counter-intuitive logic of the doctrine was controversial from the very beginning. The assumption among critics has been that a policy that relied on retaliation only, in which India will wait until it is attacked before it uses its nuclear weapons, reflected its general strategic passivity and political idealism, and was dictated primarily by India’s desire to be a responsible international actor.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Far from being any of these, India’s NFU policy was a result of the lessons that India’s key strategic thinkers learned in the long decades they spent thinking about the global experience with nuclear strategy and the implications of this for India’s nuclear policy.

It was dictated not by passivity or idealism but a deep realism, an understanding of the limited purpose that nuclear weapons can play in the strategy of any nuclear weapon power, but particularly that of one such as India. With the passing of some of the strategic stalwarts who framed the original policy, all that appears to be holding up the policy is bureaucratic muscle-memory. This is insufficient to resist ideological challenges to the policy. It is, thus, time to revisit and reassert the original strategic logic behind NFU.

To be clear, it is not being suggested that India’s security managers, present or past, have rethought the strategic logic of NFU, which remains the bedrock of India’s nuclear doctrine. If there is a threat to India’s NFU policy, it comes more from the ideological opposition it faces, not from any careful reassessment of its strategic logic.

The central reason behind India’s NFU was the recognition that nuclear weapons served only a very limited purpose, that of ensuring national survival. The only real threat to such survival was a nuclear attack. Nuclear weapons are unique because unlike any other weapon, they could wreak so much destruction in such a short time that they could potentially end an entire society in an afternoon.

The only way to prevent such destruction is to threaten similar destruction on any potential adversary, thus deterring them from pursuing such a course of action.

Threatening retaliation is the only solution because there is no defence against these weapons. Though there were attempts by deterrence theorists in other parts of the world to consider the use of nuclear weapons for more limited tactical purposes than national survival, most Indian nuclear strategists were rightly sceptical of such possibilities. This drove some of the strongest proponents of India’s nuclear weapon programme to be also deeply critical of the kind of elaborate nuclear doctrines and arsenals being developed by other countries, especially the two Cold War superpowers. It was not a logic that they wanted India to follow because it made little sense for anyone, and definitely not for India.

Deterrence and retaliation

NFU was the outcome of this strategic logic. (The other corollary was a limited nuclear arsenal). If the primary purpose — indeed, the only purpose — of nuclear weapons was deterrence of other nuclear weapons, then threatening retaliation was the only manner in which these weapons could be used. The threat of retaliation is of course the essence of deterrence: preventing someone from taking an action by threatening to punish them if they did.

Retaliation, by definition, could only be for an action that was already taken, in this case, a nuclear attack that has already happened. Deterrence and retaliation automatically meant that there was no logic to using nuclear weapons first: hence, no first use. Additional benefits also accrue from NFU: tighter political command over nuclear weapons, a much more relaxed command and control regime and a much safer nuclear arsenal.

First use, which is what giving up NFU means, is incompatible with nuclear deterrence of nuclear weapons. First use can have a non-nuclear deterrence purpose but only if a non-nuclear threat to national survival exists or is perceived to exist. Pakistan and Israel are two countries that perceive such non-nuclear threats to national survival. Israel, given the history of the Jewish people, the hostility of its neighbours and its own small size, believes that it faces a non-nuclear but nevertheless existential threat.

Pakistan, similarly, has always worried that India never fully reconciled itself to the partition and that it may some day seek to undo it, especially because of the huge conventional military power differential between India and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s nuclear weapon programme began not as a response to India’s nuclear weapons programme, but as a response to the demonstration of India’s unambiguous conventional military supremacy in December 1971.

For both Israel and Pakistan, a first use nuclear doctrine makes sense because of the non-nuclear existential threats they perceive. It goes without saying, of course, that their perception may be unrealistic; it is, equally, irrelevant because states make security choices on the basis of their perceptions.

Of the other nuclear powers, only the US and Soviet Cold War first use doctrines makes some sense. Both worried about a surprise attack, and both kept their nuclear forces primed to launch at the first sign of a nuclear attack from the other side. In addition, the US also had extended deterrence commitments to defend its allies against Soviet and Chinese attacks, which required the flexibility to launch a nuclear attack first. There is no such strategic logic for an Indian nuclear first use doctrine. India perceives neither any existential threats nor fears surprise nuclear attack nor has extended deterrence commitments.

India's strategic needs

A former Indian defence minister argued that India need not say it has an NFU in order to not bind itself. This is a common misperception: that the NFU limits India’s options. India’s nuclear options are indeed extremely limited but they are limited not because of the NFU but because of the nature of nuclear weapons and the context of India’s strategic needs. This can be made clear if we consider what nuclear options India gains if it were not “bound” by the NFU. Giving up the NFU presumably frees India to use nuclear weapons first, but under what conditions would India possibly need to use nuclear weapons first?

Nuclear first use makes sense only for countries facing certain death in any case, either from conventional or nuclear threat

Any Indian first use of nuclear weapons against another nuclear power means the certainty of nuclear retaliation. Nothing can prevent such retaliation. And the nature of nuclear weapons means that the consequences of such a retaliation, even if the retaliation is a relatively minor one involving a few weapons, will be devastating. This is one reason why nuclear first use makes sense only for countries facing certain death in any case, either from conventional or nuclear threats.

This is also why counterforce, which some former Indian officials have mused about, is such a fantasy. The logic of counterforce — attacking the adversary’s nuclear forces instead of soft targets such as cities — is that destroying the adversary’s nuclear forces will prevent an adversary from being able to attack India with nuclear weapons.

But counterforce attacks require perfect intelligence about where the adversary’s nuclear forces are located so that they can be targeted. Not even the world’s most powerful states have such intelligence; and India will pay a heavy cost if even a few weapons of an adversary survives such an assault. Counterforce attacks may make some sense in retaliation to an initial nuclear attack, for if nuclear war has already started there might be some sense in trying to limit the damage that can be caused in subsequent waves of attacks. But, of course, in such a scenario, counterforce becomes an adjunct to the NFU, not an alternative.

Uncertain intelligence

The problems of uncertain intelligence, combined with the horrible consequences of a mistake, also limits any attempt to even shave the NFU to adopt options such as Launch-On-Warning or Launch-Under-Attack. In addition to the very short reaction times in the India-Pakistan theatre (or even a Sino-Indian one), no political leader will order a nuclear attack on the mere suspicion that an enemy nuclear attack is underway.

There is also some understandable frustration in India about Pakistan’s adoption of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) as well as its recourse to terrorism as a state strategy. While the frustration is understandable, abandoning the NFU will provide little relief. Terrorism and TNWs are both an acknowledgement of Pakistan’s conventional military weakness.

Threatening to use Indian nuclear weapons first in response is so disproportionate that it will lack any credibility. Far more credible will be the Indian resolve to employ its conventional military superiority to respond to such threats and demonstrate the emptiness of Pakistan’s escalation threats because that is what these are.

Considering both the strategic logic of India’s NFU policy, as well as the futility of abandoning it, leads to the suspicion that such proposals are ideologically driven short-cuts to demonstrate Indian “resolve” rather than a careful response to India’s strategic problems. That would be a shame because the NFU policy is uniquely suited to India’s circumstances — a preponderant power in its neighbourhood that faces no existential threats.

The strategic logic of the No First Use nuclear doctrine, Rajesh Rajagoplan, Observer Research Foundation