Debate: 'No-first use' nuclear doctrine

India’s ‘No first use’ nuclear doctrine was recently questioned by the Defence Minister when he said that India should state that “it is a responsible nuclear power and would not use it irresponsibly, instead of declaring an NFU doctrine”. Such statement from the Defence Minister on the eve of India-Japan Civil Nuclear Deal drew sharp criticisms from all political parties.
What is ‘no first use’ nuclear doctrine?
No first use (NFU) policy is more of a pledge by a nuclear power that it would not use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare until or unless attacked by the enemy power through nuclear weapons. Earlier, the concept had also been applied to chemical and biological warfare.
When did India adopt the ‘No First Use’ policy?
In August 1999 (post- Pokhran II tests), India released a draft of the NFU doctrine which proclaims that nuclear weapons are solely for deterrence and that India will pursue a policy of “retaliation only”. The document also assures that India “will not be the first to initiate a nuclear first strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail” and that decisions to authorise the use of nuclear weapons would be made by the Prime Minister or his ‘designated successor(s)’.
Arguments in favour of retaining the NFU doctrine-
• India has always promoted herself as a responsible nuclear weapon state. Hence, a first strike policy would severely damage India’s reputation as a responsible nuclear weapon state.
• It enables India to keep the nuclear threshold high with the antagonistic neighbours adopting an irresponsible nuclear stand.
• A withdrawal of NFU doctrine might also push Pakistan’s nuclear warheads into irresponsible hands which may turn the ‘rogue’ state into a nuclear terrorism exporter.
• China, the anticipated rival in the region also adopts a ‘no-first use’ policy. Hence, withdrawing NFU in India might give it a chance to revisit its stance too.
• If China aborts its NFU stance, then it would become a threat for the global powers such as the United States and the Russian Federation. Thus, a global nuclear arms race would restart again.
• A strategic rethink towards the NFU doctrine might jeopardise India’s ballistic missile defence programmes due to the global limelight India might attract because of an offensive stance.
• Nuclear weapons are merely deterrent in nature. The impact of a nuclear strike is unimaginable. Therefore, even a slight push towards hostility could push us to the brink of another nuclear war.
Alternatives available-
• Doctrine of ‘Cold Start’ is one such solution. It is a military doctrine developed by the Indian Armed Forces for use in a possible war with Pakistan. It involves the various branches of India’s military conducting offensive operations as part of unified battle groups. The Cold Start doctrine is intended to allow India’s conventional forces to perform holding attacks in order to prevent a nuclear retaliation from Pakistan in case of a conflict.
• Instead of focusing on adopting a first strike policy, India must work towards strengthening its counter strike and second strike capability.
India has always projected herself as the firm supporter of nuclear disarmament. It has been the only state to call for a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would ban and eliminate nuclear weapons. However, it is India’s no-first use stance that enables New Delhi to vouch for a nuclear weapons free world.
Mature nations always pursue a NFU policy. In the present strategic context, there is no necessity for India to change its existing nuclear doctrine. Therefore, instead of making offensive overtures towards the neighbours, India should pursue more confidence building measures through diplomatic channels to minimise the threats emanating from our immediate neighbourhood.

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