The ‘no first use’ (NFU) attribute of India’s nuclear doctrine is back in debate. Indeed, this is one feature of the doctrine that evokes high emotions. It has been the subject of much angst, especially in some quarters of the military. Bred on the dictum of retaining initiative with self, the apparent loss of initiative with NFU obviously does not appeal to the military mind. The strategy of not using nuclear weapons first is criticised for ‘leaving India open’ to a nuclear strike. And this, in turn, is interpreted as a projection of a weak and passive India – the fabled Gandhi land that can only be reactive, not proactive. In April 2014 even the Indian PM described the NFU as a “reflection of our cultural inheritance.”
This, however, is an incomplete understanding of the NFU strategy. India’s choice of eschewing first use of nuclear weapons arises not just from its distinct strategic culture (which certainly does not consider use of force as an instrument of preference), but also from the military and political logic of the futility of first use of nuclear weapons when the adversary has a secure second strike capability (hardened, concealed, dispersed, mobile nuclear assets). In such a situation (which is India’s reality), instead of coming out of conflict looking better after first use, the country would actually be far worse off, having brought nuclear retaliation upon itself. None in India should have the illusion that the country’s first strike could remove all retaliatory capability of the adversary. Would the Indian first use then have been a wise step? Would it actually have protected the country?
While the answer is clearly in the negative, yet there is a seemingly natural inclination towards first use. This appears to arise not from a deep analysis of situations but from a sense of pent up frustration at not being able to stem Pakistan’s continued provocations. Rawalpindi’s ability to persist with its policy of bleeding India by projecting nuclear first use has come to be inferred in India as a better deterrence strategy. But is that really true? India’s decision to respond to Pakistan through means other than military is a result of many considerations. Amongst these, Pakistan’s threat of using nuclear weapons first is certainly not a constraining factor. In fact, a bit of scraping under the surface reveals that Pakistan’s first use strategy is not credible for many reasons.
Firstly, it suffers from huge limitations – both logistically and politically – of executing a militarily useful nuclear offence. Even to have a modicum of a chance of escaping retaliation, Pakistan is required to build an arsenal large enough to fight a war of nuclear attrition and prevail. The arsenal must consist of first strike weapons (such as accurate missiles, preferably with multiple independently re-targetable vehicles), nuclear superiority to carry out multiple counter-force attacks, elaborate and delegated command and control structures to coordinate simultaneous nuclear attacks from and over dispersed forces, high order intelligence system so that the storage sites and movements of the nuclear assets is regularly monitored and clearly known, and effective active and passive defences to shield the country from leftover retaliatory strikes from the adversary. None of this is available with Pakistan. Nor is it easy or cheap to build or acquire. So, despite projection of first use, by actually doing so, Pakistan could only end up bringing nuclear ruin upon itself. India would suffer the same fate if it were to adopt a nuclear first use strategy without building the necessary arsenal requisites. Compared to the demanding requirements of a credible first use strategy, an NFU must only concentrate on building a survivable arsenal that can inflict damage that would be unacceptable to the adversary. These requirements are not easy or inexpensive either, but they do afford a more relaxed posture.
Secondly, the NFU frees the political leadership of the psychological strain of making the difficult choice of being the first to use a nuclear weapon. Given the long standing norm of nuclear non-use that is today in place, the decision to use the nuclear weapons first cannot be easy. Rather, it is made even more difficult by the knowledge that even after inflicting horrific damage on the adversary, one would not have protected ownself from similar horrors either. In face of such logic, the NFU appears far more sensible and credible. While a country would find it very difficult to use the weapon first, the decision of retaliation would be far easier, seemingly legitimate, and more guilt free to make. Therefore, by offering to concede the onus of escalation to the adversary, an NFU actually becomes more liberating.
A third advantage of the NFU which is often misunderstood is that it alleviates the adversary’s insecurity by giving him the assurance of not being subjected to first to use nuclear weapons. Supporters of ambiguity as a means of enhancing nuclear deterrence decry providing such an assurance. They miss out, however, that such a reassurance is beneficial to one’s own self. If the adversary is not under constant fear of a nuclear strike, his own temptation to use his nuclear force would be lesser too. NFU helps to mitigate the ‘use or lose’ pressure and thereby lessens crisis instability. By placing the onus of escalation on the adversary, while retaining the initiative of punitive nuclear retaliation, NFU steers away from nuclear brinkmanship. It actually encourages the possibility of ‘no use’ instead of ‘sure use’.
Those who still persist in believing that first use is a better deterrent strategy argue that this works well in two circumstances. One of these is identified as a situation where the country faces the prospect of large scale conventional attrition and defeat. It would then be left with no option but to use nuclear weapons. After all, what is the sense in keeping this weapon and letting the country face the prospect of defeat in form of loss of territory or occupation? While this question appears logical, the answer lies in considering that even in such a dire situation, how does a country gain by using its nuclear weapon? In fact, once it has done so, its fate shifts from being defeated-nowbut- living-to-fight-another-day to one of severe damage/annihilation depending on the state of its geographical, material and human capacities. Jonathan Schell explained this dilemma well when he questioned, “what logic is there in staving off a limited defeat by bringing on unlimited, eternal defeat? Nuclear deterrence is like a gun with two barrels, of which one points ahead and the other points back at the gun’s holder.” In dodging conventional defeat, a country would have brought untold nuclear ruin upon itself. Can this make sense?
A second situation which is believed to merit first use is when a country gets to know that the adversary is preparing for a nuclear strike. Should not nuclear preemption then be the right step? The answer to this lies in understanding that even knowledge of preparation is no guarantee of a nuclear strike. Rather, it may well be part of a strategy of ‘coercive diplomacy’. Therefore, despite the apparent show of readiness, there will, more likely than not, still be a chance that nuclear weapons would not actually come into use. A country even with a first use doctrine may or may not use its nuclear weapons despite the projected preparedness, but after having been struck and where the first strike has not been disarming or decapitating (which is well nigh impossible with the kinds of arsenals states with nuclear weapons today have), retaliation would be a certainty.
Given the lack of military utility of nuclear weapons and in order to handle the strategy of nuclear brinksmanship adopted by Pakistan, India has in fact helped the cause of its own security by having an NFU. A wrong impression has been allowed to gain ground that Pakistan’s first use strategy offers it better protection while leaving India open to damage. The fact of the matter is that India’s NFU accompanied by a strong message of retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage actually puts Pakistan in a quandary. The credibility of its first use, especially if it has to come out better after that use, is seriously in doubt. Under no circumstances can Pakistan’s first use not amount to unbearable losses as a nation and a society.
A first use strategy when faced with the prospect of assured retaliation amounts to tilting at windmills. Ours would too, if we were to have one. NFU, on the other hand, reflects a quiet, calming confidence. There is a deep wisdom in this strategy and the need of the hour is to do some quiet reflection of this instead of adding to the clamour for its change just because first use sounds more macho and we are angry with Pakistan. Nuclear weapons, by virtue of their nature to cause mass destruction so easily, are best suited for deterrence – to stop such weapons from being used against oneself. Threatening first use without having the ability to carry out a disarming or decapitating strike on the adversary can never be seen as a credible deterrent strategy. But retaliation with leftover assets (which can be easily increased with intelligent survivability measures) smacks of a tacit credibility. NFU brings many advantages for India. Let’s not be in a hurry to squander these.
Dr Manpreet Sethi is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi where she heads the project on Nuclear Security.With 8 books and over 80 published papers to her credit on all aspects of the nuclear issue, her work on strategic issues was rewarded through conferment of the K Subrahmanyam award in 2014.