In the last few weeks, the niche (but rapidly growing, and influential) community of strategic affairs experts have been agog and abuzz with a new postulate – a putative change in India’s NFU doctrine governing use of nuclear weapons. A few months back, then-Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar created some flutters by “thinking aloud”, in a public function, the merits of NFU. But the latest round of speculations have largely owed their origins to ex-NSA Shiv Shankar Menon’s book, Choices.
Three widely-read commentators – VipinNarang, Shashank Joshi and Ajai Shukla – wrote interpretive pieces on a couple of paragraphs in Menon’s book. The key message was essentially the following:
- India’s NFU has suspect credibility with the Pakistanis, especially w.r.t a response to a Pakistani tactical nuclear strike on Indian formations within Pak.
- Menon is alluding to carving out a “first strike” option outside of NFU for India, which would mean India could go for pre-emptive Counter Force posture (seeking to destroy Pakistani nukes), rather than Counter Value (destroying Pakistani cities/population centres) posture latent in NFU today.
- In simple words, what it means is that India would look to strike first, and look to seek and destroy Pakistani nuclear weapons. This is obviously a 180 degree turn in India’s current posture, which is NFU (No First Use), and strike second in response to an attack, and hit the enemy’s population centres.
Nuclear postulates by definition are dense, prone to heavy interpretation of sentences (even words!), and generally light on real data/information. It is one area where the number of people who are “in-the-know” is small, and “those who know don’t talk, those who talk don’t know”. Hence, drawing conclusions is more hazardous than in the field of economics (which for good reason, is always compared unfavourably with astrology)!
In this case though, it would seem that the authors have collectively ended up over-interpreting a few sentences (Group Think perhaps?).
Leaving aside Menon’s book for a moment, lets look at (relatively) confirmed information on hand.
One, India continues to consider nuclear weapons as weapons of deterrence, and not of warfighting. What it means is that India does NOT expect to use these weapons ever, and possesses them merely to deter other countries from using them against us. This is the reason why India hasn’t embarked upon a tactical nuclear bomb programme, despite having the means to do so (2 out of the 5 tests in Pokhran II were tactical warheads). Importantly, when ManoharParrikar “though aloud”, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) came out with a clarification within hours contradicting its own minister. This isn’t something that is usual in India, and the Establishment wouldn’t have reacted with such decisive alacrity if there was something more serious about Parrikar’s kite flying.
Two, a first strike, Counter Force doctrine involves crucial changes on the weapon profiles. To start with, it requires a vastly greater number of warheads (as the country using nukes first would necessarily have to be prepared for a third strike, in retaliation of the adversary’s invariable second strike). The glacial pace of India’s nuke accretion indicates nothing of this sort. Further, a CF posture would almost necessarily require MIRV warheads, to increase the possibility of success of the “first strike”. India’s MIRV programme has progressed at an extremely slow pace. On the contrary, the focus of the strategic programme has been overwhelmingly on survivability of missiles (hence road-mobile, caniserised Agni) and of the launch platforms (hence the Arihant fleet of nuke submarines). Both of these are a lot more expensive and time-consuming than either producing more warheads or MIRV, and actually fit nicely with the current stated NFU posture.
Three, Pakistani geography makes hoary distinctions between CF and CV rather moot. A decapitating first strike against (say), Kahuta, is likely to cause large-scale damage to Rawalpindi. Sans a 100% take-out of Paki weapons (an outcome that even US forces cannot guarantee), a proportionate retaliation by Pakistan will invariably be on major Indian cities. India’s primary objective (unlike Pakistan’s) is precisely to avoid such outcomes altogether. Hence, there is little incentive for India to carry out such an attack.
Finally, coming back to Menon and his book. While interpretation is the mother of discovery in nuclear affairs, in this very candid interview, the author himself seems to only reiterate the validity of India’s current stance.
So it’s important that we keep reviewing [NFU] but so far I think it’s actually served our purpose.
Retaliation for us – we’ve laid down quite clearly the conditions under which we would use them. And I think we’ve made that quite clear in the doctrine. We are, in fact, one of the first countries to be so clear and one of the quickest off the mark in terms of declaring a doctrine. And we have so far matched that in terms of our posture, in terms of what we do.
I think it’s quite clear that no matter what the scale, any nuclear attack will be met with retaliation, and the retaliation will be big.
In a nutshell, more of the same! Net net, it made for interesting reading, but it would seem that India’s nuke posture would keep giving everyone only a sense of déjà vu. Not great for analysts, but good for all of us hoi polloi!