Updating India’s nuclear doctrine

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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” (Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat, BJP’s 2014 election manifesto).

Unsurprisingly, these words have perturbed international strategic experts. Everyone remembers how the party delivered on its 1998 manifesto promise to “re-evaluate the country’s nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons”.

Although the manifesto is not as explicit, it did not prevent outcry that India will abandon its no-first use policy. In a shrill editorial titled A Risk to India’s Nuclear DoctrineThe New York Times warned that in “signalling its willingness to take a more provocative stance toward Pakistan and China, the party does not advance India’s interests”. Predictably this reaction was prompted by the perception of Narendra Modi’s desire to break from the past, despite assurances by him and top party leaders that the no-first use doctrine was intact.

The controversy notwithstanding, there is a case to review and, perhaps, revise and update the Indian nuclear doctrine, which dates back to 2003. Indeed, every other responsible nuclear weapon state had regularly done so.

The US carries out an elaborate quadrennial nuclear posture review and the latest one in 2010, despite President Barack Obama’s Prague plea for a world without nuclear weapons, underlined the continuing role of Washington’s nuclear arsenal. Similarly, every French president reviews the role for its nuclear weapons and the UK is debating the future of its nuclear force. Even China regularly presents white papers to explain its nuclear posture, though the 2013 paper dropped the explicit reference to its long-standing no-first-use policy. Thus India will be in the good company of responsible states.

There are three factors—two external and one internal—that are likely to impact India’s present nuclear doctrine. On the external front, the need to “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities”, as the manifesto notes, will be determined by Pakistan and China.

Pakistan’s induction of an extremely short-range (60km) battlefield tactical nuclear weapon has undermined the tenuous strategic stability on the subcontinent. This, coupled with Islamabad’s inability to prosecute those involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks or to assure that such attacks will not recur, poses a challenge to New Delhi.

Little less known is China’s reported deployment of the highly accurate and mobile DF-25 missile, capable of delivering single or multiple nuclear or conventional warheads to a range of 3,200km, a significant threat to India. This, coupled with China’s growing anti-satellite capabilities (and vulnerability of India’s expanding space assets), also reveals the limits of India’s present doctrine. In the wake of the series of border skirmishes, which are likely to recur, India would be justified in revising its conventional and nuclear posture accordingly.

Finally, India’s imminent deployment of the submarine leg of its nuclear triad makes the current de-mated and de-alerted posture nearly obsolete. As the weapons and delivery systems will be on the same platform (even if they are de-mated) and on a higher degree of alert than on land, the 2003 posture will have to be revisited. Also, delegation of use authority will also have to be considered.

While a revision of India’s nuclear doctrine (though maintaining a no-first use policy) is certainly justified and, perhaps, overdue, the manifesto’s lack of elaboration on why and how this should occur raises concerns about the motives and objectives behind it. Any new government will do well to explain them.

This column first appeared in Mint, on April 27, 2014.