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Why India Pledges No First Use of Nuclear Weapons

19/11/2016 9:56 AM IST | Updated 19/11/2016 10:33 AM IST
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Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (L) with Defence Minister George Fernandes (2nd-L) and Indian scientists A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (2nd-R) head of the India's Defence Research and Development Organisation, and R. Chidambaram, Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission (L) wave to soldiers on 20 May 1998 at the Buddha Site, where Indian nuclear tests were carried out in the western desert state of Rajasthan. SM/JDP/AA

I am often asked why India committed itself to not using its nuclear weapons first. The center-right National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government adopted the no-first-use doctrine when India first publicly tested nuclear weapons at Pokhran in 1998, and all subsequent governments of India have reiterated this pledge. The doctrine states that

The fundamental purpose of Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any State or entity against India and its forces. India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.

India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against States which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapon powers.

There is still some residual anxiety in India about the wisdom of this commitment, particularly in military minds. Why have a weapon and forswear its use? India could have followed the United States and Pakistan in retaining the option of using its most powerful weapon first should the nation's defense require it.

The answer to that question lies in India's nuclear doctrine, which is itself a product of the unique circumstances in which India finds itself. Those circumstances also explain why India chose to test nuclear weapons and become a declared nuclear weapon state (NWS) in 1998.

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By the late 1990s, India was in a situation where two of its neighbors with whom India had fought wars after independence, Pakistan and China, were already armed with nuclear weapons and were working together to build their capabilities and proliferate them in Asia. The international nonproliferation regime was not in any position to address this problem. India therefore chose to become a declared NWS in 1998. The Indian government made that decision in the face of opposition by all the major powers, despite misgivings within Indian society, and after twenty-four years of international nuclear sanctions resulting from India's first nuclear test, Pokhran-I, in 1974. (India described the 1974 test as a "peaceful nuclear explosion," adopting a term from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, whereas the 1988 test was described by the government of India as a nuclear weapon test.) Those sanctions had been designed to "cap, cease and roll back" India's civil nuclear program and potential to make atomic weapons. They had failed to do so. Since 1974, India had also been threatened with nuclear weapons at least three times: twice by Pakistan and once, implicitly, by the entry of the nuclear-armed U.S. aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 war with Pakistan. (The Enterprise had also entered the Indian Ocean in 1962 when India and China fought their brief border war, but that move was intended to support, not threaten, India.)

When India decided to test nuclear weapons publicly, in 1998, it was evident that nuclear weapons, because of the scale and duration of the destruction they cause, are primarily political weapons, the currency of power in the nuclear age, rather than effective warfighting weapons.

When India decided to test nuclear weapons publicly, in 1998, it was evident that nuclear weapons, because of the scale and duration of the destruction they cause, are primarily political weapons, the currency of power in the nuclear age, rather than effective warfighting weapons. The government of India therefore declared after the 1998 tests that these weapons were to prevent nuclear threat and blackmail, and that India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons against other states. If, however, anyone dared use nuclear weapons against us, we would assuredly retaliate and inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary. This is India's doctrine of credible minimum deterrence. Assured retaliation combined with a no-first-use policy also means that it is not the number of nuclear weapons that India or its adversaries possess that matters. What matters is India's ability to inflict unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike or strikes. That is what determines India's nuclear weapons posture.

In other words, India has nuclear weapons for the contribution they make to its national security in an uncertain and anarchic world by preventing others from attempting nuclear blackmail and coercion against India. Unlike in certain other NWS, India's nuclear weapons are not meant to redress a military balance, or to compensate for some perceived inferiority in conventional military terms, or to serve some tactical or operational military need on the battlefield.

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Shivshankar Menon (R) address the media during a press conference as Indian Ambassador to Nepal Rakesh Sood (L) looks on in Kathmandu on June 21, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Prakash MATHEMA (Photo credit should read PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images)

These weapons have served their expected purpose. The occasions before 1998 when other powers used the explicit or implicit threat of nuclear weapons to try to change India's behavior have not been repeated since. That they did not succeed before 1998 was because of the hardheaded leadership India was fortunate to have. Since India became a declared NWS in 1998 it has not faced credible threats of that kind. So the possession of nuclear weapons has, empirically speaking, deterred others from attempting nuclear coercion or blackmail against India.

When India carried out nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, twentyfour years after first displaying the capability to do so, in May 1974, it also became the first NWS to publicly announce and debate a nuclear doctrine rapidly thereafter. That it was able to do so owed much to the preparatory thinking and work of a remarkable handful of people such as Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam and Brajesh Chandra Mishra, most of them self-taught innovators who thought through nuclear security issues in the Indian context while in government.

Assured retaliation combined with a no-first-use policy also means that it is not the number of nuclear weapons that India or its adversaries possess that matters. What matters is India's ability to inflict unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike or strikes. That is what determines India's nuclear weapons posture.

A no-first-use policy was not always the natural or easy choice. I remember then Atomic Energy Commission chairman Raja Ramanna and Chief of Army Staff Krishnaswami Sundarji often talking over a drink in the mid-1980s about a future India with nuclear weapons. For Sundarji, the attraction of an Indian atom bomb was its possible military use to neutralize Chinese conventional superiority. As a physicist, Ramana was keenly aware of the limitations on use and of the practical effects of the bomb. He therefore saw it as an enabler and equalizer, not necessarily as a military weapon to be used but as a weapon the threat of whose use would enable the achievement of political and military goals. Over time, as India's conventional military position improved, Sundarji's considerations became less compelling. By the late 1990s, it was the advocates of no first use, including defense analyst K. Subrahmanyam, who prevailed and whose views were found politically most acceptable by the political leadership, particularly Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a longtime advocate of nuclear weapons for India with a larger vision of peace on the Indian subcontinent and in the extended neighborhood.

Excerpted from Choices: Inside the Making of India's Foreign Policy with permission from Penguin Random House.

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