GS-2, Internal security, Uncategorized

Will India Change its ‘No First Use’ Policy?


Recently, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh stated that in the future, India’s ‘No First Use’ (NFU) promise depends on circumstances.


  • India initiated nuclear weapons development after its war with China in 1962.
  • China carried out nuclear tests in 1964 and subsequent years.
  • In 1974, India conducted its first nuclear tests at Pokhran, dubbed as a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’.
  • International pressure to make India abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons remained for more than two decades.
  • In 1998, India conducted its second nuclear tests at Pokhran, involving a fission device, a low-yield device, and a thermonuclear device.
  • Thus, India proved the ability to introduce nuclear warheads into its fast-developing missile programme.
  • After the Pokhran-II tests, Pakistan also carried out similar tests.

No First Use:

  • In 1999, India came out with an explicit nuclear doctrine that committed to NFU:
    • It would never carry out a nuclear first-strike.
    • The doctrine also emphasized on minimal deterrence and non-use against non-nuclear weapon states.
    • The NFU promise thus went together with credible minimum deterrence.

Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD):

  • Credible minimum deterrence does not imply indefinite expansion of the nuclear arsenal.
  • The CMD is what the “enemy” believes deterrence to be, and their belief is manifested in their actions.
  • It is built on an assured second-strike capability.
    • In the event of another nation carrying out a first nuclear strike against India, India’s nuclear forces shall be so deployed as to ensure survivability of the attack and the capability to carry out a massive, punitive nuclear retaliation aimed at inflicting damage that the aggressor will find ‘unacceptable’.
  • CMD also requires:
    • A robust command and control system.
    • Effective intelligence and early warning
    • Comprehensive planning.
    • Training for operations in line with the strategy.
    • The will to employ nuclear forces and weapons.

Nuclear Command Authority

  • Currently, the Nuclear Command Authority is responsible for command, control and operational decisions on nuclear weapons.
  • Specifically, the Cabinet Committee on Security and ultimately the office of the Prime Minister is responsible for the decision to carry out a nuclear attack.

Will India Change its ‘No First Use’ Policy?

  • Regional geopolitical realities influence India’s NFU commitment significantly.
  • The CMD was established in the sense that in the following decade neither India nor Pakistan felt inclined to instigate all-out war.
    • Including the tensed periods after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008.
  • However, since that time, the deterrent effect of India’s arsenal seemed to have less effect in one significant aspect:
    • Pakistan started development of tactical nuclear weapons, or “theatre nukes”, which had a lower yield but could still inflict enough damage to blunt a conventional attack.
    • It might have emerged as a counter to speculation that India might have developed the “Cold Start” doctrine.
    • This is a classified doctrine for a conventional military attack by Indian forces on Pakistani soil as a response to a state-sponsored terror attack, etc.
  • In 2013, Shyam Saran, convener of the National Security Advisory Board, said that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary.
  • He added that the label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective.


  • There may be some concerns based on Indian forces operating on Pakistani soil, against it.
  • This strategy would take both countries back into the old-world deterrence model of “mutually assured destruction”.
  • Any surviving forces in Pakistan after India’s retaliation would surely launch a devastating attack against targets across India.
  • India may have more to gain by pre-emptive action.

Alternate Models:

  • One option under consideration could be for “a hard counterforce strike against Pakistan’s relatively small number of strategic nuclear assets to eliminate its ability to destroy Indian strategic targets and cities.
  • Remaining silent on this subject might be calculated as a strategic advantage for India as the country would be assuming deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
  • However, it might compel Pakistan to adjust its nuclear posture accordingly, based on a calculation that India might be willing to carry out a counterforce attack and thereby eliminate the Pakistani nuclear threat entirely.
  • This in turn may fuel an arms race or more unstable nuclear weapons deployment patterns in Pakistan.

Future Prospects:

  • It is unlikely that India’s nuclear doctrine will change.
  • India’s adoption of potentially pre-emptive “counterforce options” (to eliminate Pakistan’s strategic nuclear weapons when it deems the risk of a Pakistani first-strike to have crossed a critical threshold) may require no explicit shifts in its declared nuclear doctrine.


The Balakot strikes that followed the Pulwama attack demonstrate that India is not shy of taking cross-border military action. If another terror attack occurs on Indian soil, these theories will likely be tested. To what extent the countries will escalate is yet to be seen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s