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20 Years Of India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Does Delhi Need To Reset Its Nuke Policy With Growing Economic & Military Might

India officially declared itself a nuclear weapons state in May 1998 following the ‘Sakthi’ nuclear tests in the Rajasthan desert, popularly called Pokhran-II.

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But it spelled out its official nuclear doctrine for the first time publicly in January 2003 through a media statement issued by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) after a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security headed by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which deliberated on the doctrine’s finer aspects.

The PIB statement of January 4, 2003, spelled out eight pillars of India’s nuclear doctrine. One of the pillars was a posturing of ‘No First Use’ (NFU) of nuclear weapons and that the weapon of mass destruction would be used only in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or Indian forces anywhere.

That meant the cornerstone of the nuclear doctrine was for India to possess a credible nuclear deterrent.

The final doctrine, revised from the draft presented openly for discussion in 1999, also brought all nuclear weapons-related decisions to the civilian political command and control through the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). The Nuclear Command Authority comprises a Political Council and an Executive Council.

The Prime Minister chairs the Political Council. It is the sole body that can authorize the use of nuclear weapons. The Executive Council is chaired by the National Security Adviser (NSA). It provides inputs for decision-making by the Nuclear Command Authority and executes the directives of the Political Council.

One more key aspect of the doctrine was the non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states. The nuclear doctrine was a nuanced approach to India’s new status as a nuclear weapons state in light of the vocal nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament position New Delhi had taken on the global stage in the past.

On a global scale, the near-universally accepted Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in March 1970, seeks to inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons.

Its 190 state parties are classified into two categories: nuclear-weapon states (NWS), consisting of the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom, and non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS), according to the Arms Control Association’s website.

Under the NPT, all state parties commit to pursuing general and complete disarmament, and the NNWS agrees to forgo developing or acquiring nuclear weapons.

These are the first two ‘pillars’ of the NPT. The website states that the third pillar ensures that state parties can access and develop nuclear technology for peaceful applications.

India has refused all these years to sign the NPT that was opened up for signing by United Nations’ member-states in 1968, calling it discriminatory against nations like India, which had till then not carried out a nuclear test and was not a publicly declared nuclear weapons state. That position of India on NPT has not changed to date, even after it has declared itself a nuclear weapons state.

The 1998 Pokhran-II tests, codenamed ‘Operation Shakti,’ were only the second occasion that India was testing its nuclear capability. The first time, called Pokhran-I, was done in 1974. Following the tests, India attracted international sanctions.

The defense, nuclear, telecommunications, and space sectors were the strategically important sectors that were affected by the sanctions. After the 1998 tests, India also self-imposed a moratorium on conducting nuclear tests.

Following the 1974 nuclear tests, Canada imposed sanctions on India for receiving its help with nuclear expertise and equipment support. The 1998 tests led to nations like the United States (US) imposing sanctions on India. But the US later provided several exceptions to India and weakened the sanctions, only to lift them entirely after a year in 1999.

In its 75 years of existence as an independent nation, India has conducted only six nuclear tests. Yet, India must retain the option to carry out further nuclear tests. For this reason, India signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) too is out of the question.

With India adopting the benign-sounding Nuclear Doctrine in January 2003, the international outlook towards New Delhi and its peaceful use of nuclear technology gained acceptance, leading to a civil nuclear deal with the United States in 2008 and a full-throated, almost-unanimous support for its membership in the export control regime under the Nuclear Suppliers Group from all the nuclear technology and material exporting nations, except Communist China.

It is but natural that with the kind of idealism exhibited by India towards nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament since its independence from British rule in 1947, questions arise as to why India carried out the nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998.

The reasons were not difficult to understand. First, India’s security environment in its neighborhood was essentially the reason, but it also displayed India’s technological advancement and capabilities to the world.

Before India’s 1974 tests, the NPT came into force, and India was left out of the privileged club of nuclear weapons states. Moreover, after China’s nuclear tests in 1964, India shared a land border with a nuclear-armed enemy up in its North.

India needed a credible nuclear attack response strategy, and for a second-strike capability, India needed to carry out nuclear tests to gather data and for nukes stocking. India, however, claimed that the 1974 nuclear tests were peaceful in their intent and were for nuclear energy purposes.

While the world targeted India for making NPT irrelevant with its Pokhran-I nuclear tests, Pakistan responded with its subcritical tests within the next decade. It also copycatted India in testing nuclear weapons in 1998.

That meant India also had its other traditional enemy, possessing nuclear weapons capability. The Pakistan tests truly triggered a debate on the nuclear arms race in the Asian region, particularly the South Asian region.

If India’s nuclear deterrence is to be credible, the Indian armed forces should be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon from platforms on the land, in the air, and under the sea.

While the Agni-series of ballistic missiles take care of long-range nuclear attacks up to 5,000 km from the land, the Mirage-2000, Sukhoi Su-30MKI, and the Rafale combat jets are capable of doing the same from the air without having to enter enemy airspace.

Agni nuclear missile
File Image: Agni Nuclear Missile

However, the only leg of the nuclear triad that was to be taken care of was the submarine-launched nuclear weapon. In 2022, India successfully tested a shorter-range Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) from its newly acquired INS Arihant, a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed submarine. This test effectively completed the nuclear triad for India.

A longer-range SLBM is also being developed by the Indian defense design and innovation agency, the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which tested the 3,500-km ‘K4’ SLBM from a submerged pontoon in 2020. The K4 is yet to be tested from an operational submarine. The nuclear triad becomes extremely credible for India when that test is completed.

With India, China, and Pakistan – nations that share borders in Asia – being armed with nuclear weapons, the threat of a nuclear war in the region is relatively high. However, India and China behave more responsibly than the unpredictable and unstable Pakistan, which is already facing a political and economic crisis and is on the verge of collapse.

The threat of nuclear weapons in Pakistan falling into the hands of non-state actors or rogue military personnel, too, is high, despite declared safeguards. Moreover, Pakistan has developed tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons, much against India’s and China’s strategic nuclear weapons.

While India and China have a declared ‘No First Use’ nuclear doctrines, no such moral compass is visible in the case of Pakistan, which keeps openly threatening India of crossing the nuclear threshold if the latter takes any military action against it for the state-sponsored terrorism that it unleashes on its neighbor now and then.

But recent military skirmishes between India and Pakistan have effectively called the latter’s nuclear threat bluff. The 2015 surgical strikes by Indian Army inside Pakistan-occupied territories after the Uri terror attack and the 2019 air strikes on Balakot after the Pulwama terror strike did not result in Pakistan retaliating with a nuclear attack, as often threatened.

Since the present Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over in May 2014, India’s Ministers of Defense Manohar Parrikar and Rajnath Singh, who is at present holding office since 2019, have both commented on reviewing the nuclear doctrine, which is now 20 years old.

The 2003 doctrine itself provides for a review. Many military leaders and strategic affairs experts have argued it. It is also imperative that the nuclear doctrine is updated to reflect the existing realities and the emerging scenarios of the future.

The existing literature on India’s nuclear doctrine majorly focuses on the historical aspects of India’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its stated objectives on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. These accounts focus mainly on the security environment surrounding India and the context in which the Indian government adopted the nuclear doctrine.

Too much emphasis has been made on the Pakistan question in the South Asian nuclear matrix, though India, in the last decade, has de-hyphenated itself from its separated-at-birth sister nation. However, no serious effort has been made in the last decade to analyze if the nuclear doctrine is relevant to present-day India and its ambitions of emerging as one of the poles in the multipolar world order.

India should adopt pragmatism for its nuclear ambitions, shed idealism for the sake of posturing, and tweak its nuclear doctrine to reflect the global realities and regional security environment compulsions.

With the proliferation of nuclear weapons and new nations accessing the technology through legal and clandestine means, the nuclear war threat has only grown in recent years. The emergence of sophisticated non-state actors, too, has heightened the threat perception of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands.

As India’s status in the comity of nations grows, it will play a major role in shaping nuclear geopolitics. For India to emerge as a major and saner voice on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, India’s own nuclear doctrine should reflect the regional security environment and geopolitical realities.

  • NC Bipindra is a 30-year veteran in journalism specializing in strategic affairs, geopolitics, aerospace, defense, and diplomacy. He has written extensively for the Times of India, New Indian Express, Press Trust of India, and Bloomberg News. He can be reached at ncbipindra (at) gmail.com
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