Originally Published 2014-05-12 05:17:05 Published on May 12, 2014
India's diluted version of the 'No First Use' nuclear doctrine makes an already dangerous security situation in South Asia more dangerous still. Everyone would be better off if the government did away with it.The problem is that no political group currently has the wherewithal to try to fix these ambiguities.
India's nuclear imposture
"When the Bharatiya Janata Party announced it would "revise and update" India's nuclear doctrine if elected this month, the proposal was widely interpreted to mean that the party would renege on India's 1998 pledge never to use nuclear weapons in a first strike. The party has since backtracked, ostensibly because of the media backlash. That's unfortunate. Although the "no first use" doctrine, known as N.F.U., may seem prudent in theory, India has diluted the concept to the point of absurdity, with dangerous consequences: a buildup of its conventional forces, which has caused Pakistan to harden its nuclear stance.

In August 1999 a panel of independent experts convened by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee issued a draft nuclear doctrine containing a commitment to N.F.U. That inclusion seemed designed to assuage the international community, which India had rattled the previous year by conducting nuclear tests. Yet the government started backpedaling almost immediately, presumably because it realized that the N.F.U. pledge undermined the rationale for conducting the tests in the first place: to deter an attack from China, with which India had fought a crushing war in 1962.

On Nov. 29, 1999, Jaswant Singh, a member of Parliament, dismissed the draft doctrine, saying it was "not a policy document of the Government of India" because the panel that put it together had legally nebulous authority. (Within a week, Mr. Singh was made foreign minister.) By 2003, when India issued an official nuclear doctrine, its N.F.U. pledge had been watered down to authorize a nuclear retaliation after a chemical or biological strike. Then, on Oct. 21, 2010, Shivshankar Menon, the national security adviser, stated that India would apply N.F.U. only with respect to non-nuclear weapons states.

But even as India's civilian authorities have, in effect, authorized a nuclear first strike against nuclear states like China and Pakistan, they have not given the military control of operational nuclear weapons. (In established nuclear states, the weapons are in the hands of the military, subject to civilian oversight, and launch codes remain with the government.) Nor does India's military appear to have conducted war games simulating the first use of nuclear weapons.

Instead, the government has authorized a massive increase in its conventional forces. A 2012 article in Time magazine estimated that India would spend $80 billion on "military modernization" over the following three years. The navy plans to expand its current fleet of more than 130 vessels to about 200, including submarines and aircraft carriers, over the next decade. During the same period, the army expects to supplement its 1.1 million strong force with another 100,000 troops, and the air force will acquire some 350-odd fighter jets.

These efforts are intended to deter China. But China seems basically unfazed, and has responded simply by expanding roads, railways and airfields in Tibet. On the other hand, Pakistan, which does not have the resources to match India's buildup of conventional forces, is compensating - overcompensating - in the nuclear arena.

A 2011 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists projected that within a decade Pakistan would have enough fissile material to make between 160 and 240 nuclear bombs, more than double the expected capacity of India and possibly more even than that of Britain. Pakistan has started deploying tactical nuclear devices on short-range rockets along its border with India. Brigadier Feroz Khan, the former director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs in the Strategic Plans Division, the ultimate overseer of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and activities, has argued that this move makes sense only if launch authority is pre-delegated to field commanders - suggesting that it has been.

In short, India's diluted version of the N.F.U. doctrine makes an already dangerous security situation in South Asia more dangerous still. Everyone would be better off if the government did away with it.

The problem is that no political group currently has the wherewithal to try to fix these ambiguities, not even the B.J.P., despite its tough-on-security credentials.

The obstacles are structural and cultural. The post-independence government of Jawaharlal Nehru was wary of military overthrows, which were endemic across the developing world at the time. Consequently, India's security apparatus was structured so as to keep the military on the sidelines of major security decisions. Contact between the chiefs of staff and the Defence minister remains sporadic and mostly ceremonial. While civilian authorities are unfamiliar with operational realities, they rarely take advice from the generals. And thanks to a convoluted reporting system, the higher echelons of the executive branch see military reports only after they have been sanitized by lower-level, nonexpert civilian bureaucrats, rarely hearing directly from either ground commanders or their superiors.

The civilian authorities came up with the N.F.U. without consulting the military, and when they realized it was a blunder, they diluted it, again without consulting the military. Why? Because they distrusted the military. The only way to rationalize India's untenable interpretation of N.F.U. now would be to give the military more control over nuclear weapons - but the government can't do that because it still distrusts the military. And so however self-defeating India's current nuclear posture, it is likely to endure, regardless of who wins the election this month.

(Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a Programme Coordinator at Observer Research Foundation in Delhi and a visiting research scholar at Sandia National Laboratories)

Courtesy: New York Times, May 11, 2014

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.