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Time to review India’s ‘no first use’ doctrine

G PARTHASARATHY | Updated on January 16, 2018 Published on December 14, 2016

Be prepared: There's an unfriendly neighbour to contend with

This is on account of Pakistan’s beefed-up nuclear programme, thanks to China’s support, as well as its aggressive intent

Ever since India commenced building a nuclear arsenal after the Pokharan Tests of 1998, queries have been raised about what the size of its arsenal should be, accompanied by a discourse on how to fashion its nuclear doctrine.

Quite clearly, India’s nuclear weapons have to be primarily targeted on its two neighbours, Pakistan and China, which possess nuclear weapons and with whom India has serious territorial and other differences. This strategy has also to take into account the fact that while Pakistan has relatively limited indigenous research and development capabilities, its nuclear weapons and missile programmes are predominantly based on Chinese designs and technology transfers.

India’s nuclear doctrine, first officially enunciated on January 4, 2003 asserts that it intends to build and maintain a “credible minimum deterrent”. While adopting a policy of “no first use”, the Doctrine clarifies that India’s nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against an attack on Indian Territory, or on Indian forces anywhere, in which nuclear weapons are used. India also retains the right to use nuclear weapons in the event of attacks on Indian Territory, or on Indian forces anywhere, in which chemical or biological weapons are used.

Scenario in Pakistan

Pakistan has not officially enunciated its nuclear doctrine. It justifies its entire nuclear weapons programme as being an equaliser to balance Indian conventional military superiority. More importantly, it constantly uses nuclear blackmail by threatening to use nuclear weapons, if India responds to cross-border terrorist attacks by military action on its soil.

The sad reality is that substantial sections of our so-called ”intellectual” and ‘liberal” elite run scared and panic, at such Pakistani tantrums. Pakistan’s Generals live too comfortably to commit collective suicide. Moreover, one has to rationally analyse what needs to be done to deal with Pakistani nuclear bluff, bluster and blackmail. One hopes some reality has dawned on this “elite” after the recent surgical strikes across the Line of Control. Pakistan should not be allowed to get the impression that this was a one-time occurrence.

While Pakistan has not formally enunciated a nuclear doctrine, Lt. General Khalid Kidwai, the Head of Pakistan’s Strategic Planning Division of its National Command Authority, told a team of physicists from Italy’s Landon Network that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were “aimed solely at India”. According to the report of the Landon team, Kidwai added that Pakistan would use nuclear weapons if India conquers a large part of Pakistan’s territory, or destroys a large part of Pakistan’s land and air forces. Kidwai also held out the possibility of use of nuclear weapons if India tries to “economically strangle” Pakistan, or pushes it to political destabilisation.

Lt. General Kidwai, who is highly regarded internationally, enunciated these views over a decade ago, when he was Head of the Pakistan’s Strategic Forces Command. He has since retired. But anyone who understands the strategic thinking of the Pakistan army, realises that the “Red Lines”, enunciated by Kidwai, especially in regard to the fallout of an Indian attack, would remain the basic parameters of current strategic thinking.

Chinese influence

There is, however, one significant difference in Pakistan’s capabilities since then. Thanks to Chinese assistance, Pakistan has now built plutonium reactors and reprocessing facilities in the Fatehjang-Khushab Plutonium complex, enabling it to assemble an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons and miniaturised Plutonium warheads. But, in practical terms, Pakistan cannot use these tactical nuclear weapons in the Punjab area, which is densely populated. They can perhaps be used in the Sind/Rajasthan desert, with Pakistan presuming that such an attack will not prompt India to resort to a full-scale nuclear conflict as enunciated in India’s nuclear doctrine, as this would result in to mutual destruction.

Viewed in a global context, the entire theology of a nuclear “no first use”, which was enunciated by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and rejected by the US and its NATO allies, has few adherents today. The Russian Federation does not subscribe to a doctrine of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. The US and its NATO allies now aver that NATO members can use nuclear weapons against states armed with biological and chemical weapons, even if those States have signed the NPT.

China appears to have maintained a measure of ambiguity on whether its “no first use” pledge will be applicable to India. An unambiguous clarification on this issue has to be sought from China.

Internal debate needed

The BJP manifesto in 2014 had declared that it would “study in detail” India’s nuclear doctrine and revise and update it, to make it relevant to the challenges of current times. The Manifesto spoke of a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with “changing geostrategic realities”. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s response at a book launch function in Delhi on November 10, 2016, brought the issue into public focus.

Referring to India’s “no-first-use” doctrine, he said: “Why should I bind myself (to the nuclear no first use doctrine)? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it (a nuclear weapon) irresponsibly.”

Given the change in the strategic scenario since the transfer of plutonium facilities from China to Pakistan for developing tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons, it is imperative to have a serious internal debate on our nuclear posture and doctrine, to consider available and rational options.

Moreover, our nuclear deterrent will not be “credible” in Chinese perceptions till the Agni 5 Missile is operationalised and our sea-based nuclear missiles are positioned on the INS Arihant and future nuclear submarines, built by us.

India has played an active role in nuclear disarmament. This gave us a moral stature in the world. We should continue to initiate and promote measures for universal and complete nuclear disarmament. Moreover, there is growing concern about the endless production in Pakistan of dangerous fissile material, which could fall into wrong hands.

We should join others to push for a non-discriminatory treaty ending the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. We should also reiterate our commitment for de-alerting all nuclear weapons and separating nuclear warheads from their explosive packages. Interestingly, the US and its NATO allies are likely to be the main opponents of such a move.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on December 14, 2016
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