Uccasaim, Goa: India has long debated whether or not to abandon the no-first-use (NFU) doctrine for nuclear weapons. The first National Democratic Alliance government of Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee adopted it partly because India’s principal nuclear adversary, China, also had a NFU policy which has been diluted since though not wholly forsaken. Pakistan which sees India as a mortal enemy claimed a right to first use of deterrent weapons because of India’s conventional weapons’ superiority which has largely eroded over the years from neglect, lack of replenishments, and so on. After the 1999 Kargil War, the Indian military worked on a cold-start doctrine though it was never formally embraced. In retaliation, Pakistan armed its units with theatre nuclear weapons prompting India to threaten “massive retaliation” for any use of them. Since then, some military strategists have argued that India must abandon NFU and be prepared for first use. When the Narendra Modi government came to power, there was talk of revisiting the nuclear doctrine. Now, a section of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh apparently wants India to move away from a NFU commitment. Is it justified?

A nuclear doctrine must enshrine the imperative of continuity with change. The United States was the leading votary of “first use” on account of the perceived conventional weapons’ superiority of the old Soviet Union in Europe. It is often forgotten in nuclear discourse that the United States was the only country to attack civilian populations with nuclear weapons. This demolishes a long-standing myth that nuclear weapons will never be used by a legitimately constituted state. To bolster the concept of deterrence and its twin, mutually assured destruction, the United States and the former Soviet Union put limits on anti-ballistic-missile defences. The United States quest for a total nuclear umbrella renewed the arms race in the 1970s which led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union. China adopted a no-first-use doctrine because it constituted a distant third leg of the Cold War and was not perceived as a formidable threat by either the US or Soviet Russia. After the end of the Cold War and China’s rise, the Chinese perceived the threat to them to have increased, which has led to their distancing from NFU, though this is never explicitly stated in the typical fashion of Chinese opacity. Meanwhile, Pakistan has ramped up the production of nuclear weapons, and is reliably understood to have overtaken India’s inventory. So how must India approach the issue of no first use?

If India’s nuclear doctrine must follow the process of continuity with change, it must take incremental steps in the deterrence arena. The first important step is to strengthen the triad, especially the sea-based deterrent. The credibility of second-strike depends on it. The ballistic nuclear Arihant submarine is not expected to be in service before 2016. Naturally, India has to build further on its sea-based deterrent, and quickly. The second aspect is strengthening missile platforms that can travel inter-continental distances and reach targets with precision. Linked to it are miniaturized fusion warheads which remain a grey area in India’s deterrent schema. The older generation of Indian strategists were satisfied with India being a fission power. That view partly derived from the failure of fusion devices in the Pokharan II test. India has to cover this gap with renewed testing; it is inescapable. Finally, India must proceed with speed on building a nationwide anti-missile shield. To this writer, these would appear priority areas before precipitately reappraising no-first use.

A country must think long and hard before abandoning a long-practised doctrine. This is nothing to do with military conservatism. Deterrence rests, in part, on credibility and policy-making and actionable stability. The adversary must be clear about capacity and intent. If an adversary, for example, is convinced of annihilation if he starts a nuclear war, he will not start it in the first place. India, therefore, needs to credibly build its deterrent so that there are no ambiguities about its capacities. Anti-missile capabilities complement them. Once these are in place or at least the processes are set in motion, a lot of things become clear. If India is still determined to abandon NFU, it must do it with minimum fuss and absent bluster. One must learn from China to do things quietly. One must also leave the final decision about modifying the nuclear doctrine to the government which is completely seized of its significance. The less talk on this, the better.