India’s Nuclear Doctrine Review: Don’t Leave It to the Hawks!

That the BJP government will carry out a nuclear doctrine review as it stated in its manifesto is certain. This is not least because credibility, taken as central to nuclear deterrence, can be bolstered by demonstration of the government’s resolve to follow through on promises. Since nuclear doctrine is about the promise of nuclear retribution, the ‘will’ to do so needs to be in evidence. Doctrinal revisions are opportunities to show this.

Therefore the nature of retribution assumes importance. Currently, the doctrine has it that India will go ‘massive’ in retaliation to Pakistani nuclear first use. Since Pakistan now has an arsenal numbering in the lower three digits, it will have enough left over for a counter strike of equal proportions. This means that the age of MAD, mutual assured destruction, is here. Any new doctrine must take this into account.

Whereas the doctrine in the nineties promised ‘unacceptable damage’, in 2003 this was upped to ‘massive’, implying perhaps intent to set back Pakistan’s retaliatory capability alongside. With Pakistan’s numbers going up, this can no longer be guaranteed. Some, believing that India can withstand such punishment while Pakistan cannot, may plug for retaining the promise.

They argue that India’s missile shield will prevent loss of Delhi and Mumbai and India can sustain nuclear punishment elsewhere. Firstly, as with Reagan’s Star Wars program, the missile shield may be more hype than reality. And secondly, even if India is not ‘wiped off the map’ as Pakistan, it would be set back enough to give up any dreams of catching up with China, other than in population numbers of course. In any case, India as we know it would disappear as it has several times through the millennia. This wishful assumption cannot be allowed to inform the new doctrine.

Since India cannot any longer punish Pakistan for the temerity for nuclear first use the way it might like to, it may have to settle for less. To be sure, this may not deter well enough, but then, Pakistan’s resort to the Nasr missile, that is suggestive of a lowering of the nuclear threshold, implies that our threat of going ‘massive’ does not either. Since even a bunch of jihadis can spark off the regional tinderbox, India has to move beyond the Cold War logic of deterrence, a position it has paid only lip service to so far.

Currently, the debate is only between defenders of ‘massive’ and challengers in favour of ‘flexible’. The latter want a step back from ‘massive’ but are willing to settle for ‘unacceptable damage’. The former believe that a limited nuclear war is an oxymoron; the latter while allowing for limited nuclear operations do not dwell on escalation control and exchange termination. Votaries of ‘massive’ therefore win out since the ‘flexible’ camp does not have an argument to counter the ‘inexorable’ inevitability of escalation in nuclear exchanges.

That nuclear outbreak is not impossible is clear. Mr. Modi has built an image of being strong on defence and of decisiveness. When and if challenged by terrorist provocation, he may give the military a go-ahead to teach Pakistan a lesson. This may not involve a release of India’s armoured might and air power in line with the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine of proactive offensive. It will likely be more nuanced than that since Pakistan has unveiled the Nasr, a battlefield nuclear missile system.

Pakistan, suitably deterred and reasonably mature, is also unlikely to go nuclear straight off. Nevertheless, nuclear dangers persist, particularly those stemming from misperception and autonomous action by commanders in the heat and fog of war.

The new nuclear doctrine must therefore also have answers for this albeit remote, but most likely circumstance of nuclear outbreak. There is one formulation, best articulated by General Sundarji, catering for this. He had wanted any nuclear exchange terminated at the lowest threshold by political and diplomatic engagement for conflict termination earliest.

This is counter-intuitive and therefore has not received the attention it deserves. His argument is that even though at war, both states will have enough reason to cooperate to ensure respective survival. Nuclear war will also focus minds in a manner no other circumstance can, enabling the mutual concessions for ending the war and on the original disagreement that  led up to it. The international community, alarmed by possible environmental consequences of a regional nuclear war, will surely help ease any such engagement.

Saner models need to figure in the discussion in the run up to doctrine review. Leaving it to the ‘experts’ will only give us ‘more of the same’. One such expert is arguing for numbers in the middle three digits! In combating the hawks, the hands-off posture of nuclear activists to the nuclear doctrine review is hardly helpful.

While they are right that the best way is to get rid of nuclear weapons, it is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely that the review will recommend that the government abandon nuclear weapons. Obama acknowledged the degree of difficulty best in accepting that he cannot envisage nuclear weapons free world in his lifetime. The fastest the world will get rid of nuclear weapons is when these have been used and found counter-productive, if not downright useless. That may be too late for India and the region.

Ideas on ensuring that such use will be least damaging for India, only possible in case it inflicts least damage on its nuclear adversary, need airing now. In circumstance in which the No First Use dictum is itself under threat, it will be uphill but a battle worth it.

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Ali Ahmed

Ali Ahmed is author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014) and On War in South Asia and On Peace in South Asia (CinnamonTeal 2015). He blogs at

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  • Zeenia

    Modi’s claim for revising and updating the nuclear doctrine seems like he actually is in a mood of swirling the volatile situation of the region. It is of no harm if a state wants to go updating and revising its nuclear policies according to the current prevailing situation but Modi must also consider the latest military developments on part of its government which is already giving the signal that India has diverted itself from its so called No first Use policy and is making itself ready for First Use. as long as the case of Pakistan is concerned that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are the strength of the country and is credible enough for deterring India. In the past there have been many incidents or timely crises where India and Pakistan were on the verge of War but Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and its stance of being the first of using them made India stop from lingering in to a war.

  • kirnandaa champkin

    Apparently, Indian nuclear doctrine is based on NFU policy but in reality it is of first use. As NFU policy has 3 conditions attached to it which are actually convincingly supporting nuclear first use policy. BJP’s election rhetoric aims bring certain doctrinal changes according to evolving threats and it has already raised many eyebrows in western states. It is evident that BJP’s hawkish moves may escalate new tension in the fragile region.

  • IAF101

    A ridiculously optimistic analysis of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent based on fanciful theories of “battlefield nuclear weapons” and “low triple digit warheads” by someone who is working on the premise of public anti-nuclear advocacy group estimates and 1970s ideas of anti-ballistic missile defenses.

    The idea that India too has “battlefield nuclear weapons” in the Prahar system and coupled with Cold Start could turn into a sudden “Hot Start” which would devastate most of Pakistan before there is a chance to recover seems to be lost on this observer. And so is the fact that any “nuclear war” would be fought under the umbrella of a full scale conventional war where India has both quantitative and qualitative superiority across the board, not to mention the same superiority in the missile arena as well.

    Further, even if Pakistan were to be able to launch ALL its nukes ( an utter impossibility in any real war ) the damage done to India would still be largely modest considering that not only would India be defended by the Anti-ballistic missile system in critical areas but also since most of India’s population is rural and away from urban population centers that would be targeted. Even with every single weapon Pakistan has in its arsenal it would not be able to allot even one weapon to each Indian town or city with a population above 1 million. That alone would leave any post-nuclear India still largely survivable compared to Pakistan which has nearly 80% of its population clustered in and around the Indus river from North to South.

    The fallacy that a nation that is less than 1/3rd the size, 1/5th the economy and 1/5th the population as its adversary could deter or inflict “equal” damage in any nuclear conflict is wishful thinking. All things being equal, even if Pakistan uses nuclear weapons, India would still prevail simply due to its larger resources and size. This same dynamic was amply demonstrated in the Cold War where the USA had no hope of any conventional victory against the USSR and even with nuclear weapons saw the destruction of most of Europe to Soviet retaliation as inevitable. And this was when Europe and the USA outspent the large USSR in defense spending!

    • Abid Mahmud Ansari.

      Abid Mahmud Ansari. Mr.IAF10, You are depending heavily on presumptions,about Indian “quality”. Quantity is a burden in the absence of quality. Indian quality was best displayed during Indian exercises,”Parakh”, where an Indian armored unit took “complete one month” against a targeted period of 3-4 days, to reach its launching site, as part of “Cold Start doctrine”. As for IAF’s “quality”, it is full with the Russian discarded SU series, which are, according to some IAF seniors, only good enough for “fly-past” and ceremonial flying!

  • IAF101

    Nuclear weapons by Pakistan have NEVER deterred India – not since 1975 when India first tested its first nuclear weapon while Pakistan looked on.

    Nuclear weapons or no nuclear weapons, Pakistan has ALWAYS been the aggressor in every war between the two states and has always come out poorer than India in terms of territory lost at the end of each conflict. The Bangladesh Liberation war and the Kargil war are case in point. Even with nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s deterrence is only credible in halting India’s conventional forces not in dealing with the might of both conventional and nuclear forces used in tandem.

    • Zeenia

      For your kind information when India tested its nuclear device in 1974, Pakistan was not a nuclear weapon state though having the capability but actually wanted to see the ruthless nature of India and then u know what happened,,,India tested its device and made region introduced with these nuclear weapons.

  • ali
  • Anu Vishal

    Credibility of Indian nuclear doctrine has declined due to the hype created by the BJP government to get votes in election campaigns. Confusion of Indian policy makers clearly shows that security dilemma is way above their head. Indian nuclear doctrine demonstrates a massive destruction policy that is a global threat of bringing the world to nuclear war. No first us policy if abandoned by BJP is not beneficial to the regional stability vis-à-vis China and Pakistan.

  • Abelard French

    India’s nuclear doctrine has not been revisited for over a decade. Cabinet Committee on Security to endorse India’s nuclear doctrine makes clear that India will use nuclear weapons only to retaliate against a nuclear attack on its territories or on Indian forces anywhere; that nuclear weapons will not be used against nonnuclear states; but that, in the event of a major attack by biological or chemical weapons, India retains the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons. This enumeration of India’s qualified no-first-use policy doctrine is flawed on several counts.

  • Chike Senan

    Since the day BJP election
    manifesto came up to make changes in the Indian nuclear doctrine, people forget
    the democratic change under gone and afraid from the consequences of change. There
    is a ray of apprehension and concern viewed in the whole world that what the
    change would be up to? Nobody is unaware from Tit for Tat strategy and security
    dilemma of region. Any little change in nuclear doctrine would certainly shake the
    strategic equilibrium and put region security into turmoil. BJP hawkish attitude
    is known to everyone and that is why world is contemplating that what would
    happen next as war is not in favor of any one?

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  • Javed Mir

    –to get rid of nuclear weapons–

    Going for nuclear exchange and destroying almost the whole of this sub-continent why not to sit on the table and resolve the basic dispute between the two countries ie the Kashmir dispute — policy should be to live and let others live.