It’s time for India to rethink its nuclear policy

Author: Pushan Das, Observer Research Foundation

India’s Pakistan dilemma continues, as Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif warned that they reserve the option of using nuclear weapons. The statement was made a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in July 2015 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization summit at Ufa, Russia. But the meeting did little to abate either ceasefire violations along the borders or terrorism.

An Indian army soldier guards near fencing on the line of control near Balakot sector in Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir, India, 17 August 2015.  Talks between India and Pakistan have done little to prevent ceasefire violations.  (Photo: AAP)

Pakistani nuclear weapons have over the years provided it with a shield that constrains India from using military means in response to acts of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan’s introduction of battlefield nuclear weapons or Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) has lowered the threshold for nuclear conflict and has negated India’s conventional weapons superiority.

Does New Delhi, then, need to review its nuclear doctrine to avoid misunderstanding or miscalculation in an ever-changing global and regional security environment?

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto for the 2014 general election declared that they would review and, if required, update India’s nuclear policy. Then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi clarified that as far as he was concerned, he would go with the ‘no first use’ policy as articulated by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

India’s own past record in responding to cross-border terrorism is mixed, whether in relation to the Mumbai attacks of 2008 or 1993. This raises questions about whether the political class will have sufficient gumption to ensure retaliation for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons policy.

The Indian public view their political leadership as weak-kneed and lacking the capability to respond. Any policy, conventional or nuclear, depends on effective political leadership. Given the country’s democratic political system, the idea of revising India’s doctrine — to give the military a role of primacy in making such decisions because of a belief that the political leadership does not have the will to retaliate, could well be dangerous.

India’s military build-up in the face of threats from both sides has been significant over the last decade or so, with a quantum leap in military technology putting it way ahead of its neighbour Pakistan. Despite this, India has had little success so far in developing a comprehensive yet credible defence posture against the wide spectrum of threats that it faces, both nuclear and conventional.

Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal and lower threshold for the use of nuclear weapons is a cause for worry. India’s nuclear weapons are designed to deter nuclear threats and attacks. But it is not meant to act as a deterrent against conventional weapons or asymmetrical attacks.

Looking beyond Pakistan, India is also faced with increasing Chinese military modernisation. China’s acquisition of certain weapons systems seems to indicate that their nuclear doctrine has gone beyond one of retaliation.

For example, China has made advancements in the development of missiles: the recent DF-41 has a range of 12,000 kilometres, capable of delivering missiles through Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles. While it can be used defensively, it is primarily classified as an offensive weapon system.

It must be noted that the fiscal allocation for non-proliferation in China’s defence budget has gone down and the allocation for modernisation of nuclear weapons has gone up. While China’s ‘no first use’ policy includes a pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, India does not figure in this policy.

India’s conventional capabilities have significantly advanced over the years with the introduction of technologically superior military hardware. But the political leadership’s disengagement from security issues may have serious ramifications if they were to turn to a limited war strategy in a crisis without having evaluated the risks. There is a pressing need for India to develop and field a comprehensive spectrum of options that fulfil India’s deterrence and strategic needs. India must also review the command and control structures of its strategic forces.

The lack of information on the progress made in modernising and operationalising India’s strategic assets has resulted in an information vacuum that has led to speculation. The government needs to release more data on its nuclear policy into the public domain to keep its citizens informed and to reduce any misunderstanding with neighbouring nuclear states about India’s intent.

Pushan Das is a researcher with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

An extended version of this article was originally published here at the Observer Research Foundation Online.

 

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