Unclear doctrine: On ‘No First Use’ nuclear policy

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Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has been somewhat careful in speaking of envisioning a change in India’s nuclear deterrence posture. In place for 16 years, since January 4, 2003, when the doctrine was adopted formally, New Delhi has said consistently that India’s nuclear weapons were based on staggering and punitive retaliation, in case deterrence failed. The retaliation to a nuclear strike, any nuclear strike, whether by tactical or theatre weapons or something bigger, would be crushing enough to deter the possible use of nuclear weapons by an adversary. So the theory goes. On the first death anniversary of former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, and in the nuclear proving ground in Pokhran, the Minister said two things: that the no-first-use has served India well so far, and that what happens in future depends on circumstances. There ought to be no scope for confusion here. Security is, after all, a dynamic concept. It was the security environment in the neighbourhood coupled with the pressure brought by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that forced India out of the nuclear closet and, at the same time, to adopt the no-first-use posture. The structures associated with the doctrine, the command and control that can survive a nuclear strike, the redundancies that are in-built, the secure communications, have all been developed keeping in view the posture perspective.

But there is a danger that the minister’s remark could spark off a nuclear arms race, given the strategic paranoias that have been at work in this part of the world for over half a century. In the elections of 2014, the BJP’s manifesto had references to an intention to update and revise the nuclear doctrine, but that went nowhere. It is conceivable that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of non-state actors in Pakistan, but even in such scenarios that warrant pre-emptive action, a nuclear strike cannot be a viable option. It would have been much better if Mr. Singh had elaborated on his thoughts so that a debate could have taken place, and not kept his remarks enigmatic. In a nuclear circumstance it is much better to convey the overwhelming nature of the deterrence than to keep the potential adversary guessing. In this respect it is a good idea for the government to make public any periodic review in its strategic posture. The no-first-use policy comes with being a confident nuclear power. For him to state the future is open is to say nothing and at once imply everything. In matters of nuclear doctrine, it is important to be clear above all else. Nothing must be left to interpretation.

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