Guest Column | Nuclear No First Use Policy

A time for appraisal

Lt Gen. B.S. Nagal (retd)

The Indian nuclear doctrine has become a regular feature of discussion and debate at most strategic meets. A fair amount of literature on the doctrine has been published by think tanks in India and the West. The first reason for debate is that India had formally placed the draft doctrine in 1999 before the international community, and thereafter, India issued a summary of the doctrine in a press release in 2003, to inform the world of the formalisation of the doctrine, thus, there are specifics to delve on. The second reason for debate is doubts about the credibility of the doctrine, the main doubt being on massive retaliation and No First Use (NFU). This article will examine issues related to the NFU policy.

In deterrence doctrine, NFU is a defensive policy, by indicating a reactive response to threats or use of nuclear weapons, a state has declared that it does not plan to use its nuclear arsenal for offensive or coercive policies. The state believes that by rejecting a first use, it signals to its adversary that nuclear weapons do not constitute the primary means of deterrence for conventional and sub conventional warfare. The primary focus of the state is to possess a capability, to retaliate if forced to by the adversary, to defend its vital interests and core values. It is a last resort option to take care of anticipated strategic or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats.

NFU policy reassures global powers that India is not aggressive. Primary deterrence by nuclear weapons runs the risk of pre-emption strategy during a crisis situation, and therefore, is destabilising, whereas NFU does not imply similar actions. The policy also indicates that nuclear weapons do not figure in the nation’s calculus to address local or limited wars, indirectly it can be construed that the lower level of war spectrum is delinked from the higher level of the war spectrum.

A NFU policy is good for strategic stability (crisis and arms race stability), especially in a volatile geopolitical region. If both sides follow a policy of NFU, there should be no arms race, if that be true, any crisis should not spiral out of control; there will be no urgency to raise the ante.

Whilst morality is not recognised as a tenet of war, with NFU policy India will always take a moral high ground, in seeking nuclear disarmament or a nuclear weapons free world. The first use or initiation of nuclear weapons by a nation can be termed genocide or mass extermination of non combatants, as no reason or cause, which results in the destruction of a nation or race can justify use of weapons which cause harm, devastation and annihilation to the adversary. The ultimate aim should be to abolish nuclear weapons, but as long as that goal is not achieved, NFU offers an option to avoid nuclear war. Non proliferation and disarmament may get a boost if most nations declare their alignment with NFU, the thought that other means of violence can substitute for nuclear weapons must start with those who possess the largest arsenals, while India has done this with least weapons as far back as 1999.

NFU can be a wise policy when the weapon equation is very disproportionate e.g. China vs India in 1998 or US vs China in the 1960s, the weaker nation has no capability to cause any damage to the dominant power but can definitely prevent coercion. NFU is also a practical policy when two adversaries have very small quantity of deliverable weapons, the damage caused by initial strikes including counterforce strikes will be limited and within bounds of absorption by the adversary, this allows retaliation with an intact but limited force that is capable of achieving the desired effect.

The NFU policy prevents accidental launch of nuclear weapons as these are not deployed on hair trigger alert. Though not mandatory, NFU states do not deploy their weapons for launch on warning or launch on launch, since they retaliate, the emphasis is on survivability based on concealment and dispersion, a state which is not predicated on exposure and zero launch time. During a crisis, deployment of nuclear forces will be in consonance with the war plans; there is no guarantee that NFU nations are not susceptible to accidents or conventional attacks by the adversary on nuclear assets, which could result in radiological accidents.

NFU ensures better safety and security since it avoids deployment of nuclear weapons during peace. In a situation where weapons are not deployed and only brought to bear when required, safety and security considerations help ensure better control procedures.

Confidence Building Measures (CBM) can be worked better, to reduce the chance of a nuclear exchange, with a NFU policy. If both nations announce a policy of NFU, the CBMs start on a high threshold level, of course what militates against easy CBMs is the raison d’etre to confront each other with nuclear weapons.

An NFU declaration by India and China is an incentive to other nuclear powers to revise their nuclear policies. The idea is not new, but has not found favour with policy makers of countries with the largest arsenals, due to strategic thoughts, the just-in-case conditioned mind is not amenable to an idea which, relegates proactive/ pre-emptive security to secondary need.

Escalation control in nuclear operations is unknown and unheard of, no established mechanism or tenet has been accepted by any nuclear weapon state to limit or restrict or control nuclear war. Therefore, NFU offers a better solution than Armageddon, it raises the threshold of deterrence, ensures greater space in conventional war and eliminates escalation in nuclear war by providing scope to remove battlefield nuclear weapons.

By limiting the role of nuclear weapons to retaliation for nuclear threat or attacks, NFU requires that primary emphasis be on conventional forces. NFU would, thus, make it necessary and important on the armed forces to develop strategies and capabilities to fight conventional and sub conventional wars without escalating to nuclear threshold, but still meet the political and military goals in case of crisis escalating to the spectrum of war.

NFU aids in countering the criticism against ballistic missile defence (BMD), it helps indicate to adversary states that BMD efforts are for purely defensive purposes. The policy also negates the idea that BMD complements offensive operations. Any nation with NFU policy will of necessity be required to field BMD to protect its strategic assets and vital centres, an adversary, therefore, is not correct to term the concept as destabilising.

NFU policy provides advantages, however, an evaluation of the counter arguments associated with the policy are in order.

It is a reactive policy, which limits the choice strategic planners and political leadership have in the face of crisis escalation, conflict escalation and imminent threat of nuclear strikes. A constrained or limited policy option provides inadequate manoeuvre space, a fait accompli situation.

Deterrence credibility of a NFU state becomes suspect or doubtful, a state under first strike may lose control over its retaliatory capability due to destruction of its command, control and communication system, it will be the aim of a first strike nation to paralyse the decision making ability of the attacked state. Credibility is also lowered in case of successful counterforce strikes by the adversary.

Another issue which contributes to suspect deterrence credibility is the prospect, that the leadership of a devastated state may demonstrate decision paralysis, resulting in lack of decisions or collapse of leadership in the face of destruction, ruin and damage to population, society and infrastructure. There is no past precedent or empirical data on the thought, however, no one can say with certainty that this thought is outside the realm of possibility.

A first strike nation will endeavour to launch counterforce strikes to eliminate India’s command and control systems, destroy nuclear retaliatory capability, reduce conventional offensive capability, and, strike important industrial and infrastructure centres, and vital population centres. Collateral damage is inevitable; the outcome of a NFU decision will be large-scale destruction in the country. Whilst an argument can be made of graduated escalation by the adversary i.e. limited strikes by the adversary on Indian forces in the adversary’s territory, there is no guarantee that this is the only possible scenario. On the contrary, if an adversary is to initiate a nuclear war, then it must be such that it concludes on his terms i.e. victory, in such an eventuality the spectre of devastation must be foretold. This may sound alarming or pessimistic, but no adversary will initiate a nuclear war only to de-escalate a conventional war in a very limited battle area, fully in the knowledge of no escalation control mechanism in place (how many weapons are required to blunt a NBC protected corps size offensive when wargames bring out some large figures). Our adversaries have progressed rapidly in both ‘weapons’ and ‘delivery means’, a first strike will now devastate large parts of India. The older nuclear weapons state has improved and modernised its arsenal and delivery means in the last decade. Hence, it may be summarised that the outcome of any nuclear war will be total destruction of the nation following NFU, the consolation of retaliating to avenge the first strike being no solace to a shocked and traumatised nation.

The policy of NFU is synonymous with an assured survivable second strike capability, the size and type will be dictated by survivability considerations, the adversary capability to attrite, technical losses or failures and interception capabilities on both sides. In building an assured second strike capability, the possibility of an arms race cannot be ruled out, how much is adequate is determined by the strategic planners based on many factors, some stated earlier. In the absence of transparency associated with nuclear weapons, the adversary will always endeavour to build more than realistically required, Pakistan has embarked on a path which will see its nuclear arsenal grow rapidly in the coming decade. India to ensure survivability in the face of this increase, will cater accordingly, to complicate the calculus, Chinese modernisation based on the East Asia/Taiwan requirements will be factored. All this may result in an arms race in size, quality and technological superiority amongst the three nuclear states, counter to the aims of a NFU policy. The possibility of an arms race in an NFU environment runs counter to hopes of strategic stability, this is the outcome of only one state adopting NFU whilst the other counters with first use.

In arguing the positive aspects of NFU, the moral high ground that a NFU state may take in international forums was brought out as a strength, conversely in the Indian Constitution Article 21provides for the state to Protection Of Life And Personal Liberty: it states “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”. The Indian nuclear doctrine is not a law, thus is the policy counter to the provisions of the Constitution? I make this argument with inadequate knowledge with regards to the legal interpretation of Article 21, but would be happy if legal luminaries can set the position right. The obvious reason to bring in the constitutional argument is to state that a nation is failing in its duty, by allowing destruction of life and property without taking measures to proactively safeguard these, similar conditions of NFU are not in practice for conventional war, except where non-aggression pacts are signed. Whether China has any constitutional provisions of similar nature also needs a check. To fight a war with constraints which jeopardise the future of a country is also morally wrong; no leadership should place its population at peril without exhausting other options and implementing those rather than opting only for a nuclear NFU at the first instance.

India’s own Nirbhay cruise missile being launched
India’s own Nirbhay cruise missile being launched

In India there is hardly any debate on security policy issues, much less on the NFU policy. It is rare to find all the people of a country in agreement with any national policy, so it appears the case with India. Some are not in sync with the NFU policy, some call it a cause of concern, others even call it the Panipat syndrome of waiting for the adversary to destroy us on own soil. On the political plane, it was not put to public vote as India does not follow a system of referendum. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government officially released the NFU policy in January 2003; the loss of the election by NDA in 2004 did not politically validate the policy. Our legislatures at all levels debate at length poverty, farmer suicides, food security, price rise, deprivation of fundamental rights, corruption etc, it may be prudent to debate the strategic issues to derive a sense of the house and the nation.

The nation has not been educated on the effects of nuclear strikes and is psychologically not prepared for the consequences. A weak defence is made that it will alarm the public in a negative manner, any nation which takes a decision to build a nuclear force must also educate its public on the implications of nuclear war, and whether nuclear shelters or defensive systems are built is a separate matter. In any case, even if India was not a nuclear state and Pakistan was nuclear, educative measures would still need to be put in place, one may recollect large scale nuclear underground shelters in non nuclear China.

NFU policy prevents conduct of a first strike on the adversary’s counterforce targets, thus allowing the adversary full opportunity to first utilise full capability and simultaneously disperse and conceal the second strike force. In the current environment of mobile system on land and SSBNs at sea, the probability of destruction of the adversary strategic assets will be extremely difficult, this, therefore, limits own retaliatory nuclear strikes to counter value targets, once again a strategic operational dilemma.

Under the survivability factor, NFU policy requires a very extensive and elaborate missile defence system to protect the nation and vital retaliatory systems; however, a system of this magnitude will require resources and technology that may be counterproductive from the financial angle, thus, a realistic system will allow defence at select points, leaving the nation exposed to nuclear strikes. The situation is further complicated by China and Pakistan possessing a large arsenal of similar nuclear and conventional missiles which can be used to overwhelm any limited BMD, leaving the nation exposed.

China and India both follow NFU policy, theoretically there can be no nuclear exchange between the two countries, the consequence, therefore, is conventional war only. In case the two countries escalate to the spectrum of war, superior conventional capabilities will determine the outcome. The state suits China, due to its numerically larger conventional forces, superior missile capabilities, well developed infrastructure in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and distant location of the mainland. It is not to suggest that China can replicate 1962, but to highlight the advantage it enjoys by being able to target most of east, central, north and west India with conventional missiles and aircraft, whereas India is not in a similar position vis-à-vis mainland China. NFU may become a liability in an asymmetrical conventional situation with China if ever crisis escalates to war, where nuclear weapons deterrence decreases to zero, and the conventional force has to be structured to address the centre of gravity and defeat a conventional aggression.

As the spectrum of war shifts to the lower end, non-state actors are becoming useful tools in war prosecution and deception. The use of non-state actors by Pakistan is well documented, if these elements are used to detonate nuclear weapons during a conventional war, the dilemma of a NFU state is compounded, where and whom to retaliate. There may be signs and indicators of readiness by the adversary with conventional operations in progress, however, without proof a NFU state cannot be sure of the source and consequently lead to inaction.

Future war will see deception and non attributable actions by adversary(s), as delivery system improve in range and technology, it may happen that an adversary may launch nuclear weapons from sea or use cruise/hypersonic missiles that attack from unknown platforms and from directions opposite of the adversary at war. The battlefield tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) may be a ruse to fixate on the idea of their use but still not be employed, no manoeuvre force with NBC protection can be stopped by limited TNW capability, however, operations can be degraded by attacking logistic and support bases by nuclear weapons delivered from the sea or space without the attribution of source. There are numerous possibilities of deception in nuclear war which may create a dilemma for a NFU policy nation. To overcome these problems, investing in C4ISR is mandatory, the cost notwithstanding, even that may be no guarantee of confirmed source detection. One needs to find solutions to address deception attacks.

By declaring that biological and chemical attacks may invite retaliation with nuclear weapons, the scope of use has expanded beyond nuclear threats or attacks. This condition does create a dilemma as to on whom to use nuclear weapons in case non-state actors are involved in the attacks. India has borne the brunt of non-state actors’ violence with the connivance of sponsor state(s). So, a situation of ambiguity/ uncertainty may occur where the policy of NFU may become a first use policy, however remote it may seem. In case of vacillating in the face of biological or chemical attacks, the declaratory policy would fail and render the leadership liable.

Till date there are no escalation control agreements between nuclear powers, and therefore, fighting limited nuclear wars does not appear a feasible proposition. NFU policy is applicable only till the first weapon is detonated, Pakistan has developed TNWs to adopt a graduated response strategy or flexible response, the expectation being to limit nuclear exchanges to the battlefield, the consequence an upward spiral of nuclear exchange which NFU cannot control or prevent.

After dealing with NFU at length other choices must also be examined. These are; first use ie pre-emption, launch on warning (LOW) and launch on launch (LOL). Pre-emption gives the choice of time, targets and scale to the initiator and will pay the best dividends to safeguard the nation but it is also the most destabilising if announced to the adversary. The option of LOW has most first use advantages except there is a small window of opportunity for its execution, it depends on fine political judgment, but ensures protection of the country, and causes damage to the adversary’s leadership, arsenal and strategic targets. LOL is dependent on real time surveillance and intelligence, has an extremely small window of a few minutes for decision making, with a very large number of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert, and cannot prevent damage to the nation but does not allow degradation of the arsenal since a major part will be launched before adversary strikes. While NFU of necessity is a declaratory policy, the other three can be clubbed under deliberate or calculated ambiguity, where the choice is not announced or declared. Ambiguity may also encompass NFU if a state were to declare that it does not wish to declare any policy but keeps its option for all four policies. The first use, LOW or LOL will require better surveillance and monitoring systems, real time intelligence, high alert state of nuclear forces during crisis/war, better and faster readiness state in peace and crisis. These issues can be examined in another paper.

This article seeks to initiate a debate for greater examination, discussion, deliberation, comments and critique on the subject.

(The writer is director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, a former C-in-C, Strategic Forces Command, and first Chief, Strategic Programme Staff)