Is India’s Nuclear Doctrine Credible?

IDSA, 1 January 2017

Recent debates by former officials and analysts on India’s nuclear doctrine highlight certain credibility problems. Two inter-related pillars of the doctrine—the pledge of ‘No-First Use’ (NFU) and the assurance of a ‘massive retaliation’ response to a nuclear strike—have been scrutinised. The backdrop shaping the debate is the pressing need to discover options to produce a de-escalation or deter an escalation in Pakistan’s sub-conventional war. This is the context for the ongoing contestations around India’s nuclear doctrine. Is the doctrine lagging the security challenges confronted by India today? Is there is a credibility problem with the doctrine?

A nuclear doctrine typically emerges from perceptions of the geopolitical environment and envisaged threats, and, the composition of the military balance of power confronted by a state. India’s strategic planners have made certain conscious choices—based on both Cold War lessons from the US-Soviet nuclear dynamic, and domestic and regional conditions—that have defined and contextualised the role of nuclear weaponry. Because of a combination of three factors—a dominant strategic culture that is uncomfortable with active defence, a civil-military culture that fears a potential militarisation of the state’s national security apparatus, and a geopolitical environment where non-nuclear capabilities have been deemed adequate for core defense requirements (that is, safeguarding territorial integrity, and, state and national survival)—an assured retaliatory posture, and, its expression in the nuclear doctrine as an unqualified NFU has been deemed as a stable and appropriate response to the nuclearisation of the region.