India’s Nuclear Doctrine: A De novo Look

 By Maj Gen Yashpal Singh Mor SM (Retd)

Finally, no matter what the outcome of any arms control scheme now being proposed, nuclear weapons are here to stay. That Pandora’s Box has been irrevocably opened… ignore nuclear strategy would be folly.

–        Ken Booth


The background study to the nuclear weapon’s journey of India, China and Pakistan, can give us an insight into the compulsions which lead all the three neighbours to take part in the nuclear arms race, in order to gain unconventional ascendency over their adversaries and as an insurance of net security provider. For India the likely manifestations of threat from both China and Pakistan was always uncertain. But the question remains —‘Is there a need to review the Indian nuclear doctrine in the wake of the present day alliance between China and Pakistan?

India’s nuclear doctrine was formally announced by the Government on 4 Jan 2003.The two nuclear tests conducted by India in 1974 and 1998 was not directed against any country but was conducted to reassure the people of India about their security.[1]   It was done to ensure that, India was never subjected to nuclear coercion. India, however, remains committed to peace and stability and believes in solving problems through bilateral dialogues with other countries.

The aim of the paper is to touch upon some of the important features of India’s Nuclear Doctrine and try to fill the gaps that are evident in these features.

Important Features of India’s Nuclear DoctrineNo First Use Policy (NFU)

India’s Nuclear programme was initiated back in late 1940s under the guidance of Homi J Bhabha with an aim to establish deterrence vis-à-vis adversary. A policy of NFU of nuclear weapons has long characterised India’s doctrine and diplomacy India adopted the policy of ‘No First Use’ can be traced back to around 1994, when the GoI delivered a non-paper to Pakistan.[2]  However, the policy of NFU implies that, India would massively retaliate in case attacked by any of its nuclear-powered neighbours.

Advantages of NFU Policy

  • Assured second-strike capability, which survives the first strike and retains sufficient warheads to launch massive retaliation upon the adversary.
  • Minimises the probability of nuclear use by avoiding the deployment of weapons on hair- trigger alert and keeping an arms-race in check.
  • It presents an opportunity to cooperate with China to work jointly towards a Global No First Use (GNFU) order.
  • India’s image as a responsible nuclear power is central to its nuclear diplomacy which has allowed India to get accepted in the global mainstream.
  • NFU doctrine is cheaper to implement for India.
  • Facilitates restrained nuclear weapons programme without tactical weapons and a complicated command and control system.
  • Strict adherence to the doctrine can strengthen India’s efforts to gain membership in NSG and United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Arguments against NFU

  • To compensate for conventional weakness.
  • Nuclear weapons are often seen as an antidote to conventional weakness (whether real or perceived).
  • Introduces an element of nuclear risk to any war contemplated by the stronger state, possibility of nuclear escalation.
  • The idea of NFU of nuclear weapons has been rejected by some nuclear weapon states and accepted only at the declaratory level by most, if not by all of the others.

Implications of abandoning NFU for India

  • Affect India’s status as a responsible nuclear power.
  • Abrogate India’s commitment to the universal goal of nuclear disarmament and upset the regional b alance in the sub-continent.
  • Could harm India’s chances for Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG): India is now a member of most of the technology denial regimes, the Missile Technology Control Regime Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement.
  • Would require a massive increase in India’s nuclear delivery capabilities. India is yet to induct the Multiple Re-Entry Vehicle Multiple Re-entry Vehicle (MRV) technology in its missiles, which is a fundamental need.
  • Signal a first use posture by India, thus reducing the space for conventional warfare below the nuclear threshold.
  • Nuclear pre-emption is a costly policy as it requires massive investment not only in weapons and delivery systems but also Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) infrastructure.
  • Require devolving control of nuclear weapons from the scientific enclave to the military for their eventual use.
  • The aftereffects of the nuclear fallout, depending on the magnitude of nuclear explosions, could pose existential threats to humanity itself.

Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD)

A second important aspect of India’s nuclear doctrine is CMD, which refers to the quantity of nuclear forces that India needs, in order to deter potential nuclear adversaries.

India’s official nuclear doctrine have pointed out that credibility is a function of how well Command and control (C2) functions; the essence of deterrence, according to K Subrahmanyam, is to have a command- and-control chain ‘from the political level to the implementing level’ that demonstrates its ‘survivability under the worst conditions of decapitation attack’. What matters is not so much the ‘exchange ratio’ of damage suffered by both sides, but how much punishment an adversary calculates that it can accept. This level of punishment is achievable ‘so long as India has a survivable retaliatory force’.[3]

Minimum Nuclear Deterrence. The Indian nuclear doctrine leaves Indian decision makers with the option of using nuclear weapons to retaliate against any form of Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) — something which was not considered in the DND. This expansion is something to which moderates have objected, but it is also an issue on which not much debate has been generated. Some moderates disagree with this expansion, arguing that this did not work in the case of the United States, and it ‘hardly makes the Indian nuclear deterrent more credible.

Recommendations for changes in the Nuclear Policy. Clearly the choice to go nuclear, like all the other security options available to India, comes with its connected concerns of benefits, costs and risks involved. It is therefore important to analyse the various possible nuclear capabilities available to India. In a nutshell, there are four variants of nuclear capability options, which ranges from the development  of nuclear warheads and delivery systems without mating them, to the building up of  an ICBM force capable of striking the Western Hemisphere. The four nuclear postures may be termed non-weaponised, minimal, triad, and all horizons.

  • Non-weaponised. In essence, this posture is built around keeping nuclear warheads separate from delivery systems. Non-mating of warheads with delivery vehicles significantly lengthens the strategic warning time available to the nuclear adversaries because the process of transportation, assembly, and deployment of weapons kept at a non-weaponised capability level is necessarily time-consuming. The increased reaction/warning time associated with this approach might give India’s adversaries, ample opportunity to implement conflict-resolution measures.

Minimal. Maintaining a small nuclear force does not basically require an elaborate doctrinal structure to depict its deterrence. As long as a nuclear capability is aimed only at deterrence i.e. threatening unacceptable damage on the attacker and not actually fighting a nuclear war. All this requires a very simple deployment pattern, an uncomplicated targeting method and a simple C4I2, Recce and Surveillance (R&S) system.  As it is not basically aimed at nuclear warfare, a minimal nuclear capability would focus on counter value target rather than counter force.

  • Triad: The establishment of a triad nuclear capability involves the reproduction (even if on a small scale) of the organisational structure as well as the nuclear philosophy of US and Russian massive strategic nuclear forces built during the Cold War. In our context, today it would involve the building of a nuclear force similar in many ways to the British and French nuclear forces.

In essence, it implies a ‘strategic nuclear force’ that has delivery capabilities that are simultaneously reactive in all the three dimensions i.e. land, air and sea,  with each of these legs of the triad having its own independent operationalised utility. The biggest disadvantage of the air is that, unlike the delivery systems that comprise the other two legs of the triad, it can be detected

and destroyed. This is also its biggest advantage, since it is the only leg of the triad that can be recalled after a launch with minimal reaction time. Land-based delivery systems i.e. SRBMs, IRBMs, and ICBMs are comparatively less expensive legs of the triad, but if not properly located they are vulnerable to a ‘first strike’. The third leg of the triad, which is based at sea, consists of nuclear-propelled fleet SSBMs armed with SLBMs. This being the most expensive but most secure leg of the nuclear triad. Since nuclear-powered submarines are mobile, and can remain, submerged for months, they are virtually invulnerable and potent. Therefore, they are the most dependable delivery system for an assured second-strike capability.

All Horizons. All horizons nuclear capability, as the name suggests, is one that could strike anytime and anywhere on the planet. This is financially and resource ‘heavy’ and an unrealistic option for India.

Multidimensional Feasibility

Assessing the costs and feasibility of going nuclear is a complex and deliberate exercise. The issue that the development of an overt Indian nuclear capability, is worth any cost, is very debatable in the present economic situation in the country. With few supporters, it is also not a valid basis to make concrete policy choices. This analysis will examine the advantages and disadvantages of going nuclear and the various capability levels within that broad option. The calculus will be based on five basic factors under mentioned.

  • International. If India were to opt to develop an overt nuclear capability, the ramifications of this decision would be felt the world over. It would present the most significant challenge to the current NPT regime, and would likely create a backlash that would not be in our interest as a developing nation. There is a remote possibility that India could be incorporated within the treaty as a Nuclear Weapon State (NWS), but this is most unlikely. It is more likely that serious pressure would

be applied against India, not only by the NWS but by all the major powers. Furthermore, while our non-aggression is well-established, international configuration offences would be impossible against India, as consequences could be very severe and lasting. International sanctions against India at a time when the country is in the grip of an economic recession could prove disastrous for India’s economic growth and perhaps also affect its political stability.

  • Political. Domestic political impact of an Indian decision to go nuclear would depend on the circumstances, external and internal, in which the decision is made. Let us consider external circumstances first. If in case, India faces a threat from the nuclear weapon states, then, most of us would favour India developing nuclear weapons. Other circumstances, such as a serious deterioration in relations with China or a threat of trade sanctions may not be strong justifications for going nuclear.

Apart from external circumstances, the domestic political impact of going nuclear would depend upon whether the decision was taken in consultation with the opposition parties or not. Inclusive and unilateral decision-making would be far less divisive than a blatantly partisan approach on this critical national issue.

  • Economic: Before examining the economic consequences of going nuclear, it must be understood that the saying ‘more bang for the buck’ is not fully true and authentic. There is no denying the fact that nuclear weapons are less expensive than conventional weapons. There are few moving parts, and once the warheads are mated to the delivery vehicle, only routine checks of the casing and firing mechanisms are required. However, there are three hidden facts in this theory. Firstly, \nuclear weapons require highly skilled personnel, whose training and services costs more than regular service personnel; secondly, the costs of extra security and radioactivity checks are considerable and must also be added to the nuclear weapons bill. Thirdly and presently, most of India’s security threats requires only conventional forces, and in this crucial sense, nuclear weapons can in no way replace conventional weapons. The fact is that nuclear weapons could only deter nuclear weapons, and conventional forces are needed to deal with conventional threats. Thus, our nuclear forces would be in addition to our conventional forces. Based on the various data available the figure of nearly 250 billion rupees ($6 billion) at present prices, will be required for maintaining minimal deterrent capability level.
  • Environmental: The environmental costs involved in the production of nuclear weapons is more than the environmental costs of civilian nuclear programmes. There are additional environmental costs involved in acquiring an overt nuclear weapon capability. They relate to nuclear tests, the possibility of accidents, the decommissioning due to completion of lifetime of nuclear warheads, the cleanup of nuclear production facilities, clearing of nuclear waste, fallout and the impact of nuclear weapons, etc. The degree of environmental impact would be colossal, unmanageable, will have permanent signatures and enormous cost.

The triad and all horizons options would be the most disastrous to the environment. In both cases, regular nuclear testing, presumably underground, would be required. This would create hazards of radioactive contamination and generate considerable quantities of unmanageable and costly nuclear waste during normal operations.

  • Moral: Moral legitimacy and credibility are important ingredients of political authority and must be given top priority. New Delhi has repeatedly maintained a strong voice of condemnation against the nuclear arms race. To reverse the course and abandon this long-held tenet of Indian foreign policy would not be cost-free.

Analysis and Assessment

Of the four levels of nuclear capability, some are clearly more politically plausible, militarily credible, and cost-effective than others. The easiest option to dismiss on economic and political grounds is all horizons capability level. This policy choice would send India on a collision course not just with the other nuclear powers but also with the economic powerhouses of the world. The international community will initiate and undoubtedly back sanctions and other strong punitive measures as well.

The minimal nuclear capability would avoid many of the costs of these more unrealistic options. A Pokhran-ll type warhead would not need further testing. The minimal option would not involve the development of expensive new delivery systems. It would not pose a threat to countries beyond the region. The financial cost would be less prohibitive. The problem with the minimal capability is that it makes too many uncertain assumptions about Pakistan’s reactions. Just because India chooses it will follow soon. On the contrary, Pakistan would have very good reasons to integrate its nuclear arsenal into its military structure and develop a convincing nuclear warfare doctrine. This in turn would spark an upwardly spiraling nuclear arms race akin to the US/Soviet competition that would lead to an unwarranted and unutterable arms race.

The non-weaponised capability would appear to be the most practical and legitimate option as it is free from the flaws inherent in the other options. However, the basic problem with the non-weaponised option is that it requires high levels of trust, openness, and cooperation that are sorely lacking from the current reality of India-Pakistan relations. The technology certainly exists for non-weaponised capabilities. Whether the political will exists to make it work is however quite another matter.

Ultimately, external factors may be the major determinants of India’s decisions whether to go nuclear or not. India’s policy options will be determined by the progress (or lack thereof) towards comprehensive nuclear disarmament at the global levels. The reason why the current policy should preferably forgo the nuclear option, is the requirement of a time-bound plan for global nuclear disarmament

India is still a developing country with a population of more than 1.3 billion, where the majority of the population still resides in the villages and the state of basic amenities like water, electricity, food, primary education, primary health, infrastructure is still evolving and has not matured. With such a challenge of provisioning basic facilities and infrastructure, the government has to walk a tight rope as far as the defence budget is concerned. The nuclear weapons capability, despite, the severity of its usage, still falls under the unconventional war waging means, however, majority of the defence budget allocation has to be for upgrading the conventional armed force, who will fight the battle.


In this paper we have discussed the issues which warrants review of our nuclear doctrine with specific references to the policy of NFU, how relevant is it in the present-day geo- politics. The facet of punitive retaliation, minimum nuclear deterrence and credible minimum deterrence has also been dissected in detail to get a better understanding of the various school of thoughts broadly categorised into the moderates and the expansionists, who have their own rationale for India either maintaining minimum nuclear warhead or maximum or should we go for megaton devices. The quantum of nuclear warheads required in order to survive a pre-emptive strike and then retaliate, if not immediately, then, at least assured retaliation which can be punitive. We have also proposed certain recommendations in order to make our nuclear doctrine and strategy more robust and stronger to withstand the test of precarious nuclear showdown incidents in future.


[1] “Paper Laid  on the table of the House on Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy” , National Technical Institute (12 January  2010). Available on _=1316627913. Accessed on 13 October 2020.

[2] Sundaram Kumar & MV Ramana, “India and the Policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons”, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament (22 Feb 2018). Available at Accessed on 13 October 2020.

[3] K Subhramanyam, “Essence of Deterrence”, The Times of India (07 Jan 2003). Available at Accessed on 13 October 2020.