WASHINGTON: India may be reinterpreting its nuclear weapons doctrine, circumstantial evidence suggests, with potentially significant ramifications for the already tenuous nuclear balance in South Asia, The New York Times reported on Friday.
New assessments suggest that India is considering allowing for pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Pakistan’s arsenal in the event of a war. This would not formally change India’s nuclear doctrine, which bars it from launching a first strike, but would loosen its interpretation to deem pre-emptive strikes as defensive, Indian experts claimed.
It would also change India’s likely targets, in the event of a war, to make a nuclear exchange more winnable and, therefore, more thinkable.
This comes against a backdrop of long-simmering tensions between India and Pakistan including over terrorism and the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir which have already led to several wars, the most recent in 1999.
The new interpretation would be a significant shift in India’s posture that could have far-reaching implications in the region, even if the war never comes. Pakistan could feel compelled to expand its arsenal to better survive a pre-emptive strike, in turn setting off an Indian buildup.
This would be more than an arms race, said Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies nuclear powers.
“It’s very scary because all the ‘first-strike instability’ stuff is real,” Narang said, referring to a dynamic in which two nuclear adversaries both perceive a strong incentive to use their warheads first in a war. This is thought to make nuclear conflict more likely.
Hints of a high-level Indian debate over the nuclear doctrine mounted with a recent memoir by Shivshankar Menon, India’s national security adviser from 2011 to 2014.
“There is a potential grey area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first” against a nuclear-armed adversary, Menon wrote.
India, he added, “might find it useful to strike first” against an adversary that appeared poised to launch or that “had declared it would certainly use its weapons” — most likely a veiled reference to Pakistan.
Narang presented the quotations, along with his interpretation, in Washington last week, during a major nuclear policy conference hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“There is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first,” he told a gathering of international government officials and policy experts.
Menon’s book, he said, “clearly carves out an exception for pre-emptive Indian first use in the very scenario that is most likely to occur in South Asia.”
The passage alone does not prove a policy shift. But in context alongside other developments, it suggests either that India has quietly widened its strategic options or that officials are hoping to stir up just enough ambiguity to deter its adversaries.
After Narang’s presentation generated attention in the South Asian news media, Menon told an Indian columnist, “India’s nuclear doctrine has far greater flexibility than it gets credit for.”
Nuclear scholars infer India may be jettisoning no-first-use of nukes; India will not allow Pakistan to use nuclear weapons first
Should India sustain a nuclear attack, its doctrine calls for a major retaliation, most likely by targeting its adversary’s cities. When this policy was announced in 2003, it fit the threat posed by Pakistan’s arsenal of long-range, city-destroying weapons.
Since then, Pakistan has developed smaller warheads designed for battlefield use. These were meant to address Pakistan’s India problem: The Indian military is much larger, virtually ensuring its victory in an all-out war.
Such weapons could be used against invading Indian troops, halting a war before it could be lost. This would exploit a gap in India’s doctrine: It is hard to imagine that India would escalate to total nuclear war, as its doctrine commands, over a small battlefield strike on Pakistani soil.
This created a Pakistan problem for India: Its chief adversary had made low-level nuclear war thinkable, even potentially winnable. Since then, there have been growing hints of debate over modifying the Indian doctrine.
S. Nagal, a lieutenant general who led India’s nuclear command from 2008 to 2011, argued in a 2014 article for a policy of “ambiguity” as to whether India would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
Last November, Manohar Parrikar, then the defence minister, said India’s prohibition against nuclear first use was too restrictive, though he added that this was only his opinion.
Another reason analysts suspect change: India’s doctrine initially served to persuade the United States to drop economic sanctions it had imposed over nuclear tests. Given President Trump’s softer stance on proliferation, that impetus may no longer apply.
Menon, in his book, seemed to settle on an answer to India’s quandary: “Pakistani tactical nuclear weapon use would effectively free India to undertake a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan,” he wrote.
The word “comprehensive” refers to a nuclear attack against an adversary’s arsenal, rather than its cities. It is meant to instigate and quickly win a nuclear exchange, leaving the other side disarmed.
Taken with a policy of pre-emption, these two shifts would seem to address India’s Pakistan problem, in theory persuading Pakistani leaders that a limited nuclear war would be too dangerous to pursue.
For India, Narang said, “you can really see the seductive logic” to such an approach. This would be “really the only pathway you have if you’re going to have a credible nuclear deterrence.”
It is impossible to know whether statements like Menon’s are intended to quietly reveal a policy shift, while avoiding the crisis that would be set off by a formal change, or merely stir doubt.
Either way, the intent appears the same: to create just enough uncertainty in the minds of Pakistani leaders that they become restrained by the potential threat of pre-emptive Indian strikes.