Mains Article

India’s Nuclear Doctrine Debate and ‘No first use’ policy [Mains Article]

The idea of no-first-use (NFU) of nuclear weapons has been rejected by some nuclear weapons countries and accepted only at the declaratory level by most if not all of the others.
By IT's Mains Articles Team
September 07, 2019


  • Introduction
  • What is Nuclear Doctrine?
  • India’s nuclear policy
  • What is ‘No first use’ policy?
  • What is Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)?
  • What is Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)?
  • Arguments against ‘No first use’ policy
  • Arguments in favour of having ‘No first use’ (NFU) policy
  • What is Cuban Missile Crisis?
  • Conclusion

India’s Nuclear Doctrine Debate and ‘No first use’ policy

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  • During Defence Minister’s recent visit to Pokhran, he argued that India’s adherence to the principle of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons is not secure.
  • He said that India has strictly adhered to this doctrine., however, what happens in future depends on the circumstances.

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  • His comments, coming against the backdrop of recent Pakistani threats, have only intensified an already heated debate enveloping the future of India’s nuclear doctrine.

What is Nuclear Doctrine?

Nuclear Doctrine

  • A nuclear doctrine states how a nuclear weapon country would employ its nuclear weapons both during peace and war.
  • By communicating to the enemy its stated intentions and resolve, nuclear doctrines help countries to establish deterrence vis-à-vis its adversary during peace and once deterrence fails, guides the country’s response during war.
  • In August, 1999, India’s National Security Advisory Board released its draft report on Indian nuclear doctrine.

India’s nuclear policy

India’s nuclear policy

  • India undertook its first nuclear explosion, under the code name Smiling Buddha, in Pokhran, Rajasthan in 1974.
  • First Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, initiated the nuclear programme in the late 1940s under the guidance of Homi J. Bhabha.
  • Nehru was against nuclear weapons and wanted to generate atomic energy for peaceful purposes. So he pleaded with the superpowers for comprehensive nuclear disarmament.
  • When China conducted nuclear tests in 1964, the five nuclear weapon powers, the US, USSR, UK, France, and China (five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council) tried to impose the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 on the rest of the world. However, India always considered the NPT as discriminatory and had refused to sign it also refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
  • When India conducted its first nuclear test, India argued that it was committed to the policy of using nuclear power only for peaceful purposes.
  • Pakistan soon followed, thereby increasing the vulnerability of the region to a nuclear exchange.
  • The international community was extremely critical of the nuclear tests in the Asia and sanctions were imposed on both India and Pakistan, which were subsequently waived.
  • The period when the nuclear test was conducted was a difficult period in India. Following the Arab-Israel War of 1973, the entire world was affected by the Oil Shock due to the massive hike in the oil prices by the Arab nations. It led to economic turmoil in India resulting in high inflation.

What is ‘No first use’ policy?

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  • After the 1998 nuclear test when India declared itself a nuclear weapon state, it also enunciated a doctrine of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons.
  • ‘No first use’ policy suggests that Indian will not initiate the use of nuclear weapons in any conflict scenario. India would avail the nuclear option only in case it was attacked first.
  • However, Pakistan will not resist to attack nuclear missiles on India and its policy of using its nuclear weapons to instigate conflict in India is the principle reason behind the debate around India’s ‘no first use’ policy.

What is Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)?


  • The NPT is an international treaty to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and its technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament.
  • The Treaty entered into force in 1970.
  • Four UN member states have never accepted the NPT, three of which are thought to possess nuclear weapons: India, Israel, and Pakistan. In addition, South Sudan, founded in 2011, has not joined.
  • The treaty defines nuclear-weapon states as those that have built and tested a nuclear explosive device before 1 January 1967; these are the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China.
  • Although the concept of “pillars” is not expressed anywhere in the NPT, the treaty is nevertheless sometimes interpreted as a three-pillar system, with an implicit balance among Non-proliferation, Disarmament and the right to peacefully use nuclear technology.

Classification of the state-parties

  • States-parties of the NPT are classified in two categories: nuclear-weapon states (NWS)—consisting of the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom—and non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS).
  • Under the treaty, the five NWS commit to pursue general and complete disarmament, while the NNWS agree to forgo developing or acquiring nuclear weapons.

What is Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)?

  • The CTBT bans all nuclear explosions for both civilian and military purposes. It was adopted by the United Nations under resolution 50 (1996).
  • So far, 184 countries have signed the CTBT and 168 States have deposited their instruments of ratification.
  • The CTBT will formally enter into force after 44 designated “nuclear capable states” deposits their instruments of ratification with the UN secretary general. Yet of the 44 specified countries India, Pakistan and North Koreahave still not signed and only 36 have ratified the treaty.
  • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission (CTBTO), based in Vienna, promotes the ratification of the treaty.

The International Monitoring System

  • The CTBT establishes a global system of monitors designed to detect nuclear explosions.
  • It has a network monitoring facilities and uses four types of monitoring mechanisms to detect possible nuclear explosions globally : Seismic, Hydro acoustic, Infrasound and Radionuclide.

India’s stand on CTBT

  • India’s principled opposition on CTBT drew from its emphasis on universal and complete nuclear disarmament in a time-bound manner. However, India did not insist on a complete disarmament clause in 1994, acknowledging that it was a complex issue.
  • In 1995, in the NPT review conference, it was decided that NPT will continue in force indefinitely which asper India, did not result in a firm commitment to nuclear disarmament by the P5. After the NPT extension, India felt that apart from the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), the only way to hold the P5 to a time-bound elimination of nuclear weapons clause was through the CTBT. However, even CTBT does not specify time bound for disarmament.
  • Another major concern was Article XIV, the Entry-into-force (EIF)clause which India considered a violation of its right to voluntarily withhold participation in an international treaty. The EIF clause said that countries that ratifies of the CTBT will be also the part of the CTBT’s International Monitoring System (IMS). Because of this, India withdrew its participation from the IMS.

Arguments against ‘No first use’ policy

Threat from Pakistan and China

  • It allows Pakistan to attack on India while restricting India’s options. Hence, ‘no first use’ puts India in a disadvantageous position.
  • Given the increasing military power of China, some believe that India should revoke its no first use policy.

Superiority over enemy

  • The first use policy introduces an element of nuclear risk to any war. Hence, it is hard for the potential enemy to confidently calculate that it can achieve victory at an acceptable cost when there is a possibility of nuclear escalation.
  • This nuclear threat lowers the chances of conventional attacks (attack just at the starting of war) by enemy.

Helps in negating deployment of concerted force

  • The threat of nuclear first-use policy nullifies the possibility of deployment of large number of forces at a single place by enemy, as such troop’s concentrations are vulnerable targets if nuclear weapons are used on the battlefield.

More effective when having inadequate military forces

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  • The more inadequate are the military forces of a country (such as India), the more credible will be its threats of nuclear escalation.
  • In other words, if a country cannot defend itself via its current military troops, the nuclear threat given by such country to its enemy is more powerful as enemy knows that such country will only use nuclear weapon as it does not have efficient military.
  • For example, after the Cold War, when Russia found itself with much weakened and inferior forces in a Europe dominated by a powerful NATO, Russia repudiated the NFU policy that had been made by the Soviet Union.

Better to strike than be struck

  • If war appears to be imminent and inevitable, it is better to strike than be struck.
  • Hence, the logic of taking action before getting struck by nuclear weapon have a powerful hold than having ‘No first use’ Policy.

Arguments in favour of having ‘No first use’ (NFU) policy

Threat to India’s global nuclear image

  • Nuclear restraint has allowed India to get accepted in the global mainstream.
  • Removing NFU will abrogate India’s commitment to the universal goal of nuclear disarmament and upset the regional balance in the Asia.
  • India is now a member of most of the technology denial regimes such as the Missile Technology Control regime and the Wassenaar Arrangement. India is also actively pursuing full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Hence, Revoking the ‘no first use’ pledge would harm India’s nuclear image worldwide.

Increasing cost

  • Removing NFU would also be costly as a purely NFU (only retaliatory nuclear use) is easier to operationalize. Removing NFU will result in costly policy as it requires massive investment not only in weapons and delivery systems but also intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) infrastructure.

Not enough nuclear delivery capabilities

  • First use of nuclear weapons would require a massive increase in India’s nuclear delivery capabilities. Moreover, India’s missile production did not increase in recent times and India is yet to induct the Multiple Re-entry Vehicle (MRV) technology in its missiles, which is fundamental to eliminating nuclear targets.
  • In addition, India’s ISR capabilities would have to be increased to such a level where India is confident of taking out enemy’s nuclear missiles.

Long process

  • If India wants to launch nuclear a missile, as per current system, it has to pass through a four-stage process.

First stage: Government foresee possible military escalation. This would entail gathering of nuclear weapons and its trigger mechanisms.

Second stage: Dispersal of weapons and delivery systems to launch sites.

Third stage: Combining weapons with delivery platforms (such as Ballistic missile, Cruise missile etc.)

Fourth stage: Transferring of control of nuclear weapons to the military for their eventual use.

  • Though, second and third step have been now merged, this model does not support first use of nuclear weapons as it gives enough warnings and time to the enemy of India’s intentions.

Perfidious figures

  • In 2013, Pakistan was estimated to have had a stockpile of around 140 nuclear warheads. However, there is a lot of ambiguity involved in these projections.
  • Moreover, at the same time, India’s own nuclear stockpile is likely to increase especially given the advances being made in breeder technology, which will yield reactor grade plutonium.
  • Hence, it is not necessary to remove NFU policy on the basis of figures which are hypothetical.

What is Cuban Missile Crisis?


  • The Cuban Missile Crisis, also known as the October Crisis of 1962 was a 13-day confrontation during cold war between the US and the Soviet Union initiated by the American discovery of Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba.
  • It was initiate via Mutual assured destruction (MAD), which is a doctrine of military strategy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender.


  • Given how rapidly India’s strategic environment is evolving, it is imperative to think clearly about India’ NFU Policy.
  • The NFU policy is premised upon an assured second strike capability, that is survive a first strike and retain sufficient warheads to launch massive retaliation upon the adversary. As long as this second strike capability is not degraded there is no reason to abandon the NFU policy.
  • However, If Indian feel the need to revoke the NFU policy, they should be cognizant of the costs involved in so doing. A sound policy debate can only ensue if the costs and benefits of a purported policy shift are discussed and debated widely.


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