At the 2017 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, a biennial gathering of nuclear experts in Washington DC, Vipin Narang, a US-based South Asian nuclear expert, created quite a stir with his remarks on a potential change in India’s nuclear approach towards Pakistan.
He said that, contrary to conventional wisdom, India might launch a preemptive disarming strike in response to an “imminent” risk of a nuclear attack to curb Pakistan’s ability to launch a nuclear attack against India. Professor Narang made references to a series of recent opinions coming from Indian policy circles. These included a statement by former defence minister Manohar Parrikar questioning India’s No First Use (NFU) policy, an article by the former head of Strategic Forces Command, Lt Gen BS Nagal and a recently published book by former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon.
Professor Narang said that this does not necessarily indicate a doctrinal shift or a change in India’s NFU posture. These views, in his assessment, demonstrate a change in strategy that shifts India’s counter-value strategy to a massive counterforce first strike against Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
He highlighted what Menon calls a “grey area” in the Indian nuclear doctrine and quoted an excerpt from Menon’s book: “Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent”.
Professor Narang opined that the “force requirements India needs in order to credibly threaten assured retaliation against China may allow it to pursue more aggressive strategies, such as escalation dominance or a ‘splendid first strike’ against Pakistan”. He termed it the “decoupling” of the Indian strategy between Pakistan and China.
This is not the first time that India’s nuclear policy has come under a heated discussion. There is an enduring debate within India that addresses the various pros and cons of its nuclear policy since its latest announcement in 2003. Notwithstanding the pressing debates regarding the revision of the nuclear doctrine, there has been no official move to that effect by the Indian authorities. The BJP flagged the issue during 2014 election campaign and alluded to the revision of India’s nuclear doctrine – especially the NFU posture – in its election manifesto. This was done “to revise and update (the nuclear doctrine), to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. However, once the BJP came into power, the debate was put to rest by the Modi government.
Recent statements by senior officials – who have previously worked on the nuclear policy – have not been retracted by government officials as yet. While this does not indicate an imminent change in India’s nuclear policy, it certainly merits close scrutiny because, if adopted in future, it will have serious consequences for regional stability.
First of all, Menon’s assertion indicates that India will consider the threat of an “imminent” nuclear attack from Pakistan, sufficient to trigger a massive response. This assertion is problematic as it will not only lower the nuclear threshold significantly but may also increase the risk of an unintended nuclear crisis because of a “use it or lose it” dilemma.
Furthermore, it will not just be a mere change in strategy, as emphasised by Professor Narang. On the other hand, it will mark a clear departure from India’s NFU policy and will not be covered under, what Shiv Shankar Menon calls, the “grey areas” or the “flexibility” of the existing Indian doctrine. No matter what euphemisms are used to justify this suggested nuclear first strike, India will lose the diplomatic edge it had enjoyed over Pakistan with its declaratory NFU policy.
The NFU is a political declaration with no specific tools available to verify it. Pakistan has shown its scepticism over the credibility of India’s declaratory NFU pledge – particularly after the addition of certain caveats in the 2003 doctrine, such as the use of nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack on Indian forces. The new policy recommendations from authoritative sources, in a way, vindicate Pakistan’s concerns over the alleged Indian doublespeak – especially in the wake of Indian army chief’s recent statement that acknowledges the existence of the Cold Start doctrine after years of plain denial.
From an operational point of view, carrying out a decapitating attack will require a higher level of accuracy along with real-time intelligence and larger arsenal – which India lacks at present. India will also have to factor in the evolving nature of deterrence in South Asia where Pakistan has demonstrated its preparations towards an assured second-strike capability with the launch of Babur III, a sea-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile (SLCM). Such signalling, however, hints at some potential future trends. India is on its way to advance its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
With the further development of remote-sensing capabilities and satellite information-sharing arrangements with the US as a result of the space cooperation agreement, India may claim a certain degree of confidence. But it will surely not be enough to completely disarm Pakistan in a comprehensive first strike. India might rely on missile defence capabilities to intercept residual attacks. But this again is limited to only a couple of cities and does not offer a foolproof security against incoming missiles.
Notwithstanding the level of readiness, such pronouncements may affect the current recessed mode of deterrence and may lead to more aggressive postures and strategies. In this process, credible minimum deterrence is likely to be the first causality. India will require a large number of missiles with an increased readiness level to carry out such a threat. Pakistan might want to ensure the survivability of its arsenal to keep its deterrence intact. It might choose to develop a greater number of weapons than otherwise planned and further consolidate its second-strike capability.
By all means, it will adversely impact fragile strategic balance because it replaces existing ambiguity with confusion. Given the already challenging security environment and the absence of escalation control mechanisms, such developments will only increase the risk of an unintended crisis.
The writer is a research fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP) Vienna, Austria. Twitter: @noorsitara.