No-First-Use Is a Useful Commitment to Make to Avoid Wasting Time and Effort on an Arms Race

22 November 2016

On 10 November 2016, during a book launch in Delhi, the defence minister Manohar Parrikar remarked that he did not see why India had bound itself to a “no first use” policy on nuclear policy. “Why should I bind myself? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly,” the defence minister said, before adding, “This is my thinking.” Later, a spokesperson from the defence ministry clarified to the press that the comments were Parrikar’s personal opinion.

India adopted “no first use,” or NFU—pledging that it would not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike—in 1998, after the country’s first nuclear weapons were publicly tested in Pokhran. The nuclear policy was adopted by the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. India’s nuclear doctrine, which includes NFU, further states that the country’s nuclear arsenal is meant to deter the use and threat of nuclear force against it, and that it would not employ its weapons against a non-nuclear state. On 19 November, in an interview to the channel India Today TV, Shivshankar Menon, who served as India’s national security advisor from 2011 to 2014, criticised Parrikar’s comments. He said that the defence minister did not have the right to voice his personal opinion, and added that giving up the NFU policy would not serve the nation’s interests. In his forthcoming book, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, Menon writes about how the India’s decision to adopt NFU came about. In the following extract from the book, he discusses how India’s policies compare to those of China, the United States of America and Pakistan. He argues that a first-strike policy would be destabilising, and would not serve the purpose of deterring nations from using blackmail or threat of nuclear weapons against India.

Interestingly, India’s doctrine is closest to the declared Chinese doctrine. Like India, China had declared a (somewhat more hedged) no-first-use policy after testing an atom bomb in 1964. After toying in the late 1980s with a shift to tactical nuclear weapons, China reversed that decision in the mid-1990s. Since 1964, China has accepted a huge asymmetry in the numbers of its nuclear weapons compared to those of its main potential adversaries, the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. China has concentrated instead on the survivability of its arsenal to assure retaliation. Even today, China accepts that asymmetry in numbers while working on the quality, reach, and certainty of its nuclear deterrent force. In recent years, China has concentrated on making technical improvements to its nuclear arsenal, such as by putting multiple independently targetable warheads on one missile or making them maneuverable during re-entry. China also produces nuclear-class missiles in vast numbers, equipping them with precision guided munitions as well, to confuse the adversary and maximise strategic deception. China has so far not made a direct nuclear threat against India, as one would expect from a country that does not regard its nuclear arsenal as a war-fighting weapon and enjoys superiority in conventional military terms.

There is, however, a clear difference between India’s nuclear doctrine and Pakistan’s. In the red lines that Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai, the head of the Pakistan Army’s Strategic Plans Division, made known, for instance, Pakistan clearly wants India to believe that it will use its nuclear weapons for tactical military uses if certain thresholds are crossed, and tries to convince India that the threshold is so low as to deter meaningful conventional operations against Pakistan by the Indian Army. During the annual Azm-e-Nau exercises in recent years, Pakistan has signalled to India that it is prepared to use nuclear weapons against Indian forces if they are on Pakistani territory (as a counter to India’s alleged “Cold Start” strategy).

There has been debate in India over whether the country’s no-first-use commitment adds to or detracts from deterrence. Successive Indian governments that have reviewed the question repeatedly since 1998 have been of the view that a no-first-use policy enhances India’s deterrence efforts. India’s situation and approach are very different from those of the United States. The United States saw its problem as not just deterring the Soviet Union but figuring out how to deter conventional and nuclear aggression against exposed allies confronting local conventional inferiority. In other words, the United States was to provide extended deterrence to its allies. The United States therefore distinguishes between first strike and first use of nuclear weapons and argues for preemption in self-defence. Most US scholars would argue that a no-first-use or a first-use policy is neither inherently destabilising nor stabilising, and that the effect of either would depend on the country’s capabilities and adversaries. For India, on the other hand, the country’s geographic and strategic situation meant that nuclear weapons were not seen as the answer to problems of conventional defence. India’s problem has been how to deter Pakistan’s or others’ first use of nuclear weapons against India and further attempts at nuclear blackmail to change India’s policies.

Shivshankar Menon is a former national security advisor of India.

Keywords: India Pakistan Nuclear Policy No-First-USe National security