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(A shorter version of this article appeared in the Bangladesh newspaper Daily Star on 02 Jul 2013)


It has been fifteen years since India conducted five nuclear tests. This period has been spent in operationalising the country’s nuclear doctrine in order to establish credible deterrence. This has meant building certain capabilities to address the country’s threat perceptions. The most evident of these have been the testing in 2012 of Agni V, a ballistic missile of the range of 5000 kms, and the launch in 2009 of INS Arihant, the nuclear submarine. Both these capabilities are still some distance from being inducted into operational service. Comments, however, have appeared mostly in the press of India’s neighbours expressing apprehensions over what the capability would mean for “small nations like Bangladesh in the Asia Pacific”, or that through these India is looking for “great power status” which it might then be tempted to abuse.


These questions arise from an inadequate understanding of India’s nuclear doctrine and the role that the country envisages for its nuclear weapons. India entrusts its nuclear weapons with the narrow task of deterring the threat of use or use of nuclear weapons. Deterrence is based on communicating the message that any nuclear use against India would invoke massive retaliation since India eschews first use of the weapon. It is also clearly stated that India would not use or threaten to use its nuclear weapons against states that don’t possess these weapons and are not aligned with other nuclear weapon powers.


Not all nuclear armed states so clearly define the purpose of their nuclear weapons or the circumstances of their use. But, India has been transparent by placing a written doctrine in the public domain. Encapsulating the philosophy behind the nation’s nuclear strategy, it provides pointers on the nature and size of the nuclear arsenal, including delivery vehicles, the kind of command and control systems, and the type of retaliation and targeting options. Another unique aspect of India’s nuclear doctrine is that while operationalising nuclear deterrence, it nevertheless identifies “global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament” as a “national security objective”. This is not rhetorical. India believes that its national interest best lies in a world without nuclear weapons. Until such a world emerges, however, nuclear deterrence becomes necessary to safeguard the nation against nuclear coercion or blackmail.


Rejection of the concept of nuclear war fighting and the need of the weapon purely for defence allows India to accept credible minimum deterrence (CMD) and no first use (NFU) as the defining principles of its doctrine. Both these need to be examined in some detail to understand why India is building the capability it is.


CMD mandates a capability that remains at the minimum level and yet credibly signals that nuclear use against India would invoke retaliation that would be punishing enough for the aggressor to negate any gains he makes through first use.  It is a strategy that deters by the promise of punishment, and punishing modern urban conglomerates does not require a huge arsenal. Therefore, India’s focus has not been, and should not be in the future too, on increasing nuclear warheads. The emphasis, rather, needs to be on developing delivery systems of requisite ranges, accuracy and reliability that can reach targets whose loss would be unacceptable to the aggressor. The continued testing of missiles, including Agni V, is with this objective in view.


The second pillar of India’s nuclear strategy is NFU or a retaliation only posture. Since India does not intend using the nuclear weapon for coercion or territorial ambitions, it refuses to carry the burden of first use. And, indeed, the decision to use the nuclear weapon first is a huge burden to carry. It necessitates making the decision as to when to use the weapon – how early in conflict, and thus defining some redlines for oneself, even if these are not indicated to the adversary. In situations where the adversary is known to have a second strike capability, the decision to use first becomes further complicated by the need to decide as to how much of one’s own capability to use in the first instance. Would a demonstration strike suffice or should one use all it has knowing fully well that it may still not be possible to completely disarm the adversary of its retaliatory capability nor decapitate its leadership from executing a retaliation? These are not easy questions to answer for any rational national leadership.


By eschewing first use India has wisely steered clear of these landmines. Rather, it maintains deterrence by conveying that while India will not use the weapon first, in case the adversary does so, India would respond to inflict punishment. This approach reinforces CMD since it does not require India to build a large force capable of fighting with nuclear weapons. Nor is it necessary to keep forces on hair trigger alert with an elaborate and edgy delegated command and control system – capabilities that are prone to accidental or unauthorized use. The NFU, therefore, contributes to stability by steering clear of nuclear brinkmanship.   


NFU, premised as it is on the promise of assured punitive retaliation requires a capability that can survive a first attack sufficiently to retaliate. Dispersal of the nuclear arsenal over a triad becomes essential in this context. And hence the need for nuclear powered submarines equipped with nuclear tipped missiles with sufficient ranges.


Evidently, the capabilities that India is currently developing are in keeping with its nuclear doctrine, which has not only been in the public domain since 1999, but which also clearly defines a very constricted role for its nuclear weapons – the narrowest, in fact, amongst all nuclear armed states. These capabilities are being built to establish credible deterrence within the self imposed constraint of CMD and to fulfill the requirements of NFU, and not because others are developing the same or other capabilities. Perhaps the best evidence of the fact that India is in no arms race is evident in its response to Pakistan’s acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons – a development that has evoked no change in India’s nuclear force structure because its doctrine rejects the idea of nuclear war fighting.


Obviously, there is nothing sanguine about nuclear weapons. Yet, compelled to build a nuclear arsenal, India has nevertheless opted for least destabilizing options. An understanding of its doctrine and the narrow role it envisages for the weapon should set at rest many of the questions and fears of non-nuclear states in the region.


 Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.