Written By: Ghazala Yasmin Jalil
The remarks of academics and retired Indian officials confirm the redundancy of the NFU. If indeed the signals coming from India are to be taken seriously then it is a major declared policy shift that has serious implications for Pakistan's nuclear strategy.
India has adopted an increasingly belligerent posture towards Pakistan in the last few years – suspension of composite dialogue, strained diplomatic relations and severed cultural ties, and calling Pakistan a terrorist state. At the same time, India has been heavily building up its conventional capabilities, tremendously expanding its naval capabilities and even operationalising its nuclear capable submarine fleet. The latest in India's race towards a more belligerent posture is its move away from a nuclear no-first use (NFU) posture. This is indeed a worrying development in an already volatile nuclear theatre like South Asia.
The NFU refers to a policy by a nuclear power not to use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary using nuclear weapons. India adopted the NFU policy in the wake of its 1998 nuclear tests. India's draft nuclear doctrine of August 1999 asserts that nuclear weapons are solely for deterrence and that India will pursue a policy of "retaliation only". It further states, "India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail."1 Later, in a speech at the National Defence College on October 21, 2010, India's then National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, said that Indian nuclear doctrine advocates no first use against non-nuclear-weapon states. This raises the question whether the use of nuclear weapons was an option against non-nuclear weapon states. Again, in November 2016, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said, "Why do lots of people say that India is for no fist use? Why should I bind myself?"2
Recent claims by an expert on South Asian nuclear strategy, Vipin Narang, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology are worthy of some attention. At a conference held by Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in 2017, he said, "There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first." He asserted that India may abandon NFU and launch a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan if it believed that Pakistan was going to use nuclear weapons or most likely the tactical nuclear weapons against it. He further claimed that India's pre-emptive strike may not be conventional and would also be aimed at Pakistan's missile launchers for tactical battlefield nuclear warheads. He went as far to say that India's strike may be a full 'comprehensive counterforce strike' that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of all its nuclear weapons eliminating the possibility of a retaliatory strike. However, of greater concern is his claim that this change in thinking does not come from fringe extreme voices but from no less than a former Commander of India's Strategic Forces, Lt Gen B.S. Nagal, and also from the influential former national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, who suggested in his 2016 book 'Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy', that "Serious voices, who cannot be ignored, seem to suggest that this (abandoning NFU policy) is where India may be heading, and certainly wants to head."
Pakistan has always been sceptical of India's claims of NFU. However, the remarks of academics and retired Indian officials confirm the redundancy of the NFU. If indeed the signals coming from India are to be taken seriously then it is a major declared policy shift that has serious implications for Pakistan's nuclear strategy. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen Ehsan ul Haq (R), who has remained closely associated with Pakistan’s nuclear thinking while speaking at the launch of a book said, "The development is a cause of concern against the backdrop of extremist Hindutva agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party government." He further said, "Our conventional understanding of South Asia's nuclear dynamics and who, in fact, might use nuclear weapons first and in what mode may need a hard rethink given these emerging authoritative voices in India who are not content to cede the nuclear initiative to Pakistan." This indeed would be a major shift in India's nuclear policy. It would surely have a response by Pakistan making adjustments to its nuclear doctrine. However, if Vipin Narayan's remarks are to be taken seriously then it might not only be abandoning of NFU by India but doing away with the escalation ladder leading to a strategic nuclear strike. Noteworthy in this context are his remarks that India may conduct a comprehensive counterforce designed to destroy Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. While this may not be possible in practice since Pakistan's nuclear assets are well dispersed with high survivability, it does reflect the extremist turn in India's nuclear thinking. This is a worrying development for Pakistan since India has adopted a more aggressive stance against Pakistan under the BJP-led government. It is also worrisome in the light of the ballistic missile defence (BMD) system that India is developing and is already claiming operational with the ability to protect two Indian cities. Although BMD systems are not foolproof and hundred percent effective, they would give Indian decision makers a false sense of security making them act with aggression in a crisis. If indeed Indian nuclear thinking is moving towards a pre-emptive nuclear strike, then the decision makers would feel more secure knowing the BMD system would provide protection against any missile that Pakistan launches in retaliation.
Noteworthy are Vipin Narayan’s remarks that India may conduct a comprehensive counterforce designed to destroy Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. While this may not be possible in practice since Pakistan's nuclear assets are well dispersed with high survivability, it does reflect the extremist turn in India's nuclear thinking.
Pakistan has already stated its displeasure on any notions of pre-emptive strike. On April 6, 2017, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson stated that, “It goes without saying that the talk about pre-emption in a nuclearized South Asia is highly irresponsible and dangerous and will not help the cause of promoting strategic restraint and stability in the region.” He further highlighted that, “In taking appropriate security measures, Pakistan has to consider capabilities and not intentions which can change anytime."3
A move towards pre-emptive strike would be a dangerous and destabilising one in South Asia. It will surely accelerate the arms race in South Asia including nuclear. It might necessitate changes in force planning, postures, and deployment protocols. It would likely move the two countries towards nuclear readiness which also increases the chances of accidental and unauthorised use.
Some analysts have described the Indian references to pre-emptive strike "a storm in a teacup," and not to be taken seriously. It may be so. However, if Indian strategic circles are discussing the possibility of a crippling first strike against Pakistan, Islamabad cannot afford to take it lightly. It does not mean that Pakistani decision makers need to go off in a flurry and make adjustments to its force posture immediately. But it would be a good idea to keep a close watch on India's nuclear policy. In the long run, Pakistan would have to adjust its nuclear policy to cater for a first nuclear use Indian policy. Pakistan can use tactics like dispersion, camouflage and mobility to ensure the survivability of its nuclear arsenal. Moreover, Pakistan can develop sea-based nuclear capability which would give it an assured second strike capability. It is already working on a sea based nuclear deterrence. In January 2017 Pakistan announced that it had successfully carried out the first-ever test of its nuclear-capable Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) from a submerged platform. The Babur-3 SLCM is ultimately designed for use with its Agosta 90B diesel-electric submarines. This would give Pakistan a second strike capability. It would also ensure that all of Pakistan's nuclear weapons are not destroyed in a pre-emptive strike. An important lesson to take home is what the foreign office spokesperson said: "Pakistan has to prepare against the adversary's capabilities and not intentions." At the same time one must not miss the point – Indian talk of abandoning NFU is an indication of the extremist turn in the country's security and foreign policy. It is the harbinger of yet more conflict and instability in the region. Perhaps, the most important step Pakistan needs to take is to build international pressure on India to abandon its aggressive posture and move towards dialogue and conflict resolution. For nuclear weapons are not meant to be used to wage war, their primary role is to prevent war.
The writer is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad and focuses on nuclear and arms control & disarmament issues.
1 Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine, Äugust 17, 1999, http://mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?18916/Draft+Report+of+National+Security+Advisory+Board+on+Indian+Nuclear+Doctrine
2 "Why bind ourselves to 'no first use' policy, says Manohar Parrikar on India's nuke policy", Economic Times, November 12, 2017
3 "India’s no-first-use of N-doctrine a ploy: FO," The Nation, April 7, 2017, http://nation.com.pk/editors-picks/07-Apr-2017/india-s-no-first-use-of-n-doctrine-a-ploy-fo