Towards global no-first use

While Modi government’s claims that India’s nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) carried out a deterrence patrol are exaggerated, it is a fact that we are getting closer to that milestone.

The capability to launch nuclear-armed missiles from nuclear-powered submarines is widely regarded as the greatest form of deterrence a country can possess. To be able to manufacture such submarines indigenously, equip them with missiles of the desired range, and fire them safely requires a very high degree of technological sophistication. To be able to operate one or more SSBNs requires the highest possible degree of professionalism all the way from the prime minister, the national security advisor, the commander of the strategic forces, the commanding officer of the submarine and every single member of the crew. Unlike land and air based nuclear weapons, which are stored separately from their delivery vehicles, the SSBN carries them together.

The grim paradox of the nuclear submarine is that it provides the fullest deterrence only when the captain and his senior officers have the ability press the metaphorical red button on their own. Despite the government’s claims, there are reasons to believe we are not yet there. But we are getting closer.

The completion of the triad calls for a profound review of India’s policy on nuclear weapons. Now that we are close to achieving credible second strike capability, we must shift focus from negotiating our way through international nuclear weapons control regimes, to shaping a world where these weapons of mass destructions are not used.

Illustration by Binay Sinha
We must go from the defensive to the assertive: India must champion a global no-first use (GNFU) treaty.

The 20th century method of trying to prevent more countries from possessing a nuclear weapon has failed, not least because of the policies of its great powers. They first selectively proliferated nuclear weapons technology to their allies, while trying to keep it away from their adversaries. They then foisted an unequal treaty on the rest of the world, promising to disarm in return for the rest committing not to build their own arsenals. They then reneged on this too and decided that they’ll keep their bombs in perpetuity, thank you very much, while insisting that the rest forever keep to their no-bomb commitments.

And when countries began to see a nuclear arsenal as an ultimate guarantee against foreign military intervention, the great powers confirmed this belief by rewarding those who built the bomb, and punishing those who hadn’t built one yet. The relative fates of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, who didn’t have the bomb, and Pervez Musharraf and Kim Jong-Il who did have them constitutes the best brochure for the bomb.

It is inevitable that Iran will build its own and the Saudis will procure theirs. If Japan and Turkey want their own arsenal, they can build one pretty quickly.

Non-proliferation might not be dead, but it’s a 20th-century idea that has run its course. The only realistic idea for the 21st century is the prevention of first-use of nuclear weapons. While I don’t think disarmament is the wonderful thing that it’s cranked out to be — you can’t uninvent technology — global no-first use can co-exist with, even reinforce, the movement towards disarmament. The idea is to move the doomsday clock back away from midnight, second by second, or even millisecond by millisecond.

What it will take to achieve GNFU is a subject for future columns. Suffice it here to say that getting the world’s powers to commit — verbally and textually — to no-first use, followed by taking their arsenal off hair-triggers and onto progressive de-alerts are the initial steps. The strategies on how to verify, how to have assurance, how to deter potential defectors from GNFU and so on will have to be worked out.

Right now, the intellectual horsepower of the world’s nuclear experts is mostly being devoted to the doomed cause of strengthening the non-proliferation regime. If India can change the international narrative to GNFU, a good part of that horsepower can be more fruitfully engaged in working out strategies and mechanisms to make it work.

Only India can do it. The nuclear establishments of the West, including Russia, are wedded to their longstanding doctrines and processes. It is much easier for them to pretend that non-proliferation works by imposing sanctions on countries trying to make their own bombs, and making deals with those who succeed in this endeavour. Meanwhile, because the nuclear powers are simultaneously improving their own arsenals and maintaining thousands of them on high-alert, the risk of an accidental nuclear war are mounting.

There’s another nuclear power that might prefer GNFU. That’s China. Beijing has had a no-first use doctrine for quite a while, and is likely to want to maintain that line. To the extent that the United States upgrades its arsenal and unencumbers itself of arms-control agreements, China will feel the need to review its doctrine. That is not in India’s interests. But GNFU can cause Beijing to make new calculations. There is scope here for India and China to collaborate at the level of international security.

Persuading the world to refrain from first use of nuclear weapons is not going to be easy and will take decades to accomplish. But compare that to getting the world’s powers to give up their nuclear weapons. And to the mounting risk that one of them will hit the button.

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