Nuclear confusion

On the first death anniversary of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the government called into question one of the major doctrines associated with his time in power. After visiting the site in Pokhran, where in 1998 the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government had conducted nuclear tests, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted: “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal ji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use’. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” This is not the first time a Union minister has questioned no first use, or NFU. In 2016, Manohar Parrikar, then defence minister, had also expressed doubts about the policy, which has been official since 2003, when it was combined with the thread of “massive and intolerable” retaliation. 

While fundamental elements of defence policy such as NFU are, of course, always open to question and must constantly be re-evaluated, the question is whether the value of both Mr Singh’s statement at this point in time, and of the larger question of whether a shift in NFU is required, has been discussed enough in government. There are both theoretical and practical questions to be asked. Theoretically, the point of NFU is to set up a credible deterrent against other nuclear-weapons states, and to simply raise the nuclear threshold in order to bring stability to a volatile environment. It is part of an attempt to ensure that military action remains below the threshold that would cause a catastrophic nuclear exchange. War games have shown that it aids in preventing the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons by the enemy — battlefield nukes that, while tactically appealing, may very well lead to the sort of cataclysmic exchange of strategic nuclear payloads that both warring countries may wish to avoid.

It is worth looking at the history of NFU: It evolved in the context of the Cold War, during which the Warsaw Pact had an overwhelming advantage in conventional military terms within Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization thus kept open the option of the first use of nuclear weapons in the context of an existential threat to Western Europe from a Soviet invasion across the Iron Curtain. But the Soviets, who held the conventional advantage, embraced NFU in 1983; after the USSR fell and Moscow’s conventional advantage evaporated, the Russian Federation abandoned NFU. Given India’s conventional superiority over Pakistan, therefore, NFU makes sense; the question is whether it would also make sense in a larger conflict. 

These are, however, questions that should be discussed with care and take into account the state of India’s conventional forces as well as its nuclear arsenal. Obscure statements such as Mr Singh’s only create strategic confusion, which is not in the national interest. It is also worth noting that India’s conventional advantage is being eroded, thanks to low defence spending, and that its nuclear deterrent is certainly not so overwhelming that military planners could be sure any first strike would wipe out an enemy’s offensive potential. If the defence minister merely wanted to signal that a re-evaluation of nuclear doctrine — in keeping with the ruling party’s 2014 manifesto — was ongoing, there are better ways of doing so.

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