Home India’s NFU: The Political Advantages of Sticking with it

India’s NFU: The Political Advantages of Sticking with it

The defence minister has given voice to at least two constituencies that are not comfortable with India’s ‘No first use’ (NFU) pledge. The first is a segment of the strategic community, some of whom believe - to quote a stalwart - the pledge is ‘not worth the paper it is written on’. The second is a segment of military opinion which is averse to the threat of fighting under what is perceived as an adverse situation developing in case of Pakistani first use against conventional forces. This article deals with the latter concerns.

Analysts have been at pains to point out that the Pakistani brandishing of the Nasr tactical nuclear weapon system is chimerical. It cannot stop an Indian conventional attack in its tracks since far too many would require to be used. Neither does Pakistan have such numbers, nor can it spare the many required for a tactical level strike with uncertain results. Further, it has no doubt intimately watched Indian strike corps exercises with their accent on fighting through nuclear conditions and is advisedly unlikely to tie down its limited fissile material in overkill with TNW. It is also aware that India’s economic liberalization enabled platform acquisitions have the capability of conventional degradation of TNW platforms and sites.

Consequently, Pakistan will more likely milk TNW for their deterrence benefits, one of which in Pakistani nuclear thinking is to extend the nuclear cover to also cover the conventional level. It also has political use of TNW for in peace time projecting South Asia as a ‘nuclear flashpoint’ and in conflict to catalyse external conflict termination intervention. In conflict, in light of limited numbers of both warheads and short range missiles, it could employ TNW as a tripwire, to project that its threshold has been breached so as to affect the trajectory of India’s conventional operations. In other words, though employed at the operational level of war, TNW use would be with a strategic purpose of nuclear signaling, indicating imminence of escalation, and thereby the necessity of war termination.

An opening nuclear salvo by Pakistan of a strategic attack to include counter military, counter force and counter city targeting is unlikely in light of India’s credible second strike capability. Pakistan would not delude itself that it would be able to decapitate India in such a strike or that India lacks the gumption for sound retaliation. To hit Indian strategic targets would be akin – to borrow Thomas Schelling’s words – lobbing their bombs at their very own targets, for it would be only a matter of time before India’s retaliation would take these out.

Also, the case for lower order nuclear first use by Pakistan is enhanced by the discussion on the lack of credibility of India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine promising higher order (massive) nuclear retaliation. Pakistani nuclear numbers are sufficient for putative second strike capability. Even a broken-back response by the balance of its nuclear forces after an Indian ‘massive’ nuclear retaliatory strike as promised, will set India back inordinately. While the assumption that India will survive even as Pakistan will not is a fair one, the kind of India that would survive is a consequential political consideration in staying India’s retaliatory hand in the manner promised by its official nuclear doctrine. Therefore, if higher order Indian nuclear retaliation acquires a question mark over it in case of lower order Pakistani first use, Pakistan might just chance reaching for TNW.

The greater likelihood of TNW as the form of Pakistani first use places India’s conventional forces under added nuclear threat. As seen, the TNW would unlikely impede the conventional forces inordinately, even if they may help Pakistan stymie an adverse situation developing by deft employment in conjunction with counter maneuvers by Pakistani ground forces. They can at best help wrest the initiative in a combat zone or two from India’s forces pursuing operations under the Proactive Operations doctrine. The depth in quantum and quality to India’s strategic reserves – and its partially on-road Mountain Strike Corps – lends confidence that such reverses would not unduly deflect the army from its objectives and India from its war aims. In other words, the TNW threat must be met by leadership and planning capability, i.e. operational art. The equipment profile of offensive formations must continue to measure up to attendant demands. 

Enhancing the conventional forces’ capability to cope with nuclear conditions would ease the premium on nuclear level retaliation considerations. Since these are currently predicated on strategic nuclear attack, and - as seen above - this might be inadvisable from an escalatory point of view, reducing pressures for recourse to such retaliation is sensible. Doing so enables in-lieu resort to conventional degradation options against the TNW threat. These include conventional tipped short range ballistic missiles, high accuracy cruise missiles, long range artillery, area saturation rocket artillery, Special Forces’ operations, allied proxy forces and air power. The ability for continued conventional operations in a nuclearised environment has multifaceted benefit. A host of political and diplomatic tools can be employed to take advantage of Pakistani breach of the nuclear taboo for gaining the political and moral high ground. Consequently, there is no compulsion to bottom-up demand that India rescind its NFU.

Further – as an aside here - while India’s nuclear retaliation to TNW may be useful for reinforcing deterrence by announcing India’s resolve and willingness for nuclear retaliation, there is also a counter-intuitive case for nuclear non-retaliation in case of lower order nuclear first use by Pakistan. The political benefits would be worth it. Whereas initial de-escalatory pressure would be on India to refrain from or moderate its nuclear retaliation, Indian nuclear non-retaliation will shift the focus on to Pakistan. This might help restrict further nuclear resort by it, enabling Indian conventional forces to wrap up what they might have set out to do, including conventional retaliation to TNW strikes. Post-conflict advantages would be in continued international engagement to roll back Pakistani nuclear capability. Internal to Pakistan, such reticence could provoke an accounting on the advisability on its military leadership’s decision that placed Pakistan untenably in harm’s way. This could serve to bring down the military to levels the Hamoodur Rahman commission report was unable to four decades back.

Rescinding the NFU for creating options against Pakistani TNW use is not worth it. NFU can be abandoned in the unlikely case if India is forced to preempt Pakistani first strike levels of attack designed to set back India’s retaliatory capability. Since in international law no state can be held to its international obligations in case national survival is at stake, India cannot be held to a unilateral pledge. India has no reason to ‘go first’ with nuclear weapons. This was written into the Draft Nuclear Doctrine of 1999 thus: ‘Highly effective conventional military capabilities shall be maintained to raise the threshold of outbreak both of conventional military conflict as well as that of threat or use of nuclear weapons.’

Cumulatively, these arguments spell that if at all the nuclear doctrine needs to be tweaked, it is not NFU, but the term ‘massive’ used in relation to India’s retaliatory intent that needs excising.   

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Ali Ahmed
Research Fellow
Contact at: [email protected]
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