Three Questions for Indian Nuclear Policy


India’s nuclear forces are growing in diversity and technical capability. Unprecedented new nuclear posture options are being placed in the hands of Indian defence planners. India today stands ready to field the first of an indigenous fleet of nuclear-armed submarines; ICBM-range ballistic missiles; and a new generation of short-range ballistic missiles. The triad of nuclear forces deliverable from land, air and sea that was first envisioned in India’s 1999 draft nuclear doctrine is therefore finally coming into operational view. With a growing range of technical choices for how it wishes to structure its nuclear force, India must soon select from among these its preferred posture.

This notable technical progress coincides with a strategic environment that is growingly complex. China’s defence outlook is increasingly assertive, and it is fielding a new generation of SSBNs and restructuring its nuclear force governance in order to strengthen deterrence. Pakistan is estimated to have one of the fastest-growing nuclear arsenals in the world and is developing 60km-range tactical nuclear missiles in order to immediately threaten nuclear consequences at any level of future conventional conflict with India.

Combined with the new technical force options available to India, these shifts in the strategic environment create conditions that merit a review of India’s nuclear doctrine and posture. Some factors that should be integrated into this review can be summarised into three questions.

  1. What role should India’s nuclear force play in deterring new threats in the land domain?

Since 2003, India has articulated a no-first-use nuclear doctrine, but one promises massive retaliation to any adversary nuclear attack. Indian strategists have been frustrated by the ability of Pakistan conventional forces and by militant groups operating from Pakistan, undeterred by Indian nuclear weapons, to launch subconventional and limited conventional attacks. Slow Indian military mobilisation in reaction to these attacks have weakened the potential Indian response. Propelled by these frustrations, the Indian Army developed a “Cold Start” concept in 2004. This concept intends to quickly mobilise and launch integrated battle groups to seize and hold limited tracts of Pakistan territory within 72 to 96 hours. While the Army and Indian government have denied that the concept represents actual military doctrine, recent Army exercises involve manoeuvres similar to Cold Start thinking.

Pakistan announced the development of a 60km-range “Nasr” nuclear missile in 2011, and claims that this new nuclear capability is intended to deter any Indian Cold Start-like operation. Combined with a new nuclear concept of “full spectrum deterrence”, Pakistan now intends to threaten immediate nuclear escalation of almost every level of potential conventional conflict with India.

India simultaneously faces new land-based threats from China. China’s nuclear and conventional military technology is at least one generation ahead of that of India. Beijing has long held the ability to hold the entirety of the Indian mainland at nuclear risk. However, recent developments include the restructuring of Chinese nuclear forces under a new Rocket Force, strengthening their governance; heavy investment in ballistic missiles, presenting difficulty for Indian defence planners to distinguish between their potential nuclear or conventional missions; and logistics advancements close to the disputed border with India. While India struggles to raise enough forces along the border to generate an effective conventional deterrent, concerns about perceived Chinese dark intentions and conventional superiority has led to calls to end India’s no-first-use policy.

  1. How should India manage regional seaborne nuclear deterrence?

India, China and Pakistan are all currently working on fielding nuclear-armed naval forces. India’s first indigenous SSBN, the Arihant, was reported as ready for service on February 23. China is developing a Jin-class SSBN fleet, while Pakistan agreed in October to purchase 8 diesel-electric submarines from China. The latter boats are widely viewed as intended to be assigned nuclear missions in future. These three states have little operational experience of managing seaborne nuclear forces, and will naturally gain this experience partly through incidents that are learned from.

These nuclear-armed vessels join already fierce conventional naval competition. Pakistan is focusing particularly on anti-access/area denial capabilities, including submarines, fast missile boats, and anti-ship ballistic missiles, in order to challenge India’s carrier-based naval forces. Chinese submarines were suspected to be exploring waters close to a major Indian military command last month, and have previously docked in Colombo, Gwadar and Karachi. With virtually no maritime dialogue among these states and little shared understanding of naval and nuclear intentions, the risk grows of misperceiving an adversary nuclear-armed vessel as a conventional boat, with inadvertent escalatory implications.

  1. How should a nuclear doctrinal review be conducted?

Calls for a review of Indian nuclear doctrine are growing, and have recently been made by a retired External Affairs minister, a former Strategic Forces Command chief, a retired Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, and a former National Security Advisor among others. The election manifesto of the BJP government, elected in 2014, appeared to accede to this pressure, promising to “revise and update” the doctrine “to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. However, this prompted robust international concerns that any doctrinal revision could end the no-first-use policy and generally assign nuclear weapons a greater role in Indian defence than at present. This furore erupted as India continues to seek acceptance as a “responsible nuclear power” as a full member of global nuclear order institutions, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.

Facing these pressures, newly elected Prime Minister Modi declared in August 2014 that “we are not taking any initiative for a review of our nuclear doctrine.” However, this still leaves unaddressed the issue that the doctrine has not been publicly reviewed since 2003 in light of the evolving challenges detailed above. With Indian nuclear force advancements one of the few bright spots of general Indian military modernisation, there is a worrying tendency for Indian analysts to occasionally suggest that new nuclear platforms have a relevance to conventional challenges. This occurs due to the absence of a recent iteration of nuclear doctrine that addresses the new strategic environment and clearly structures the roles of Indian conventional and nuclear forces within this environment.

Given the pressures against India revising its stand-alone nuclear doctrine, India should instead conduct a broader public official defence review. This review would incorporate assessments of the above strategic challenges and assign conventional and nuclear forces to each challenge as necessary. Crucially, it would reiterate that nuclear forces only obtain credibility as a last-resort tool to safeguard national survival and that other challenges should be met by building and deploying strong conventional defences.

Whether or not this official defence review is conducted, the future of Indian nuclear policy and regional stability will depend to a great extent on how New Delhi answers these three questions. Those interested in Asian security should watch closely.

Dr Frank O’Donnell is Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Plymouth University at the Britannia Royal Naval College, specialising in Indian and Asian security issues. He obtained his PhD from the Defence Studies Department in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @frank11285.

Image: Construction site of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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