India’s NFU commitment was always an eyewash

Simply declaring No First Use intent is merely a political statement, writes Ejaz Haider

India’s NFU commitment was always an eyewash
At a ceremony at Pokhran, India nuclear test site, the current Indian defence minister, Rajnath Singh, was reported as saying that while India remains firmly committed to the No First Use doctrine, what happens in the future would depend on the circumstances.

Singh was at Pokhran to honour India’s former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, on the latter’s first death anniversary. India conducted five nuclear tests on Vajpayee’s watch in May 1998.

Singh’s comments come at a time of great tension between India and Pakistan following a unilateral and regressive decision by India’s current government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to unilaterally change the status of Indian-Occupied Kashmir, an internationally-recognised dispute. Modi cut his teeth as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist, a Hindu rightwing, militarist organisation wedded to a supremacist, essentialist and fascist ideology.

Predictably, Singh’s comments got a lot of attention in the international media with reference to India’s declared no-first-use policy. What has been ignored, however, are two facts: one, NFU is merely a political declaration; two, India, over the years, has already diluted any commitment to NFU. Consider.

NFU declarations have no real significance in operational terms. Two factors are important in this regard: one, NFU is insubstantial in military terms unless it can be verified; two, since Indian and Pakistani capabilities remain opaque to wit, it is impossible to verify that the forces on one or both sides are configured for a NFU policy.

In other words, simply declaring NFU intent is merely a political statement.

For the sake of discussion, however, let’s ask if such a declaration can in fact be verified in terms of any military-operational meaning? Are there any parameters through which this can be achieved?

Li Bin, a Chinese nuclear strategist, presented five important parameters through which a state can project its NFU intent (and the rival states can verify that intent): the size of the nuclear force; the composition of that force; the number of warheads on each missile; the accuracy of nuclear weapons (whether counter-value — destroying cities — or counter-force targeting — taking out specific military targets); and, the strength of the conventional forces.

Let’s consider them in that order.

Force size

Is the force configured for a first or a retaliatory strike? This, says Li Bin, can be worked out by comparing ‘the number of retaliating warheads with the minimum number of warheads required for producing intolerable damages.’ In other words, if the number of retaliating warheads is much bigger than the minimum number required for causing intolerable damage to the adversary, then the force is not configured for NFU. If, on the other hand, the number of retaliating warheads is much smaller than the minimum number required for a counter-strike, then it not only reflects an NFU commitment but a no-use commitment. Clearly, then, the NFU commitment lies between these two extremes. Even so the problem with this approach is how to determine the minimum number that lies between first- and no-use commitments. While Li Bin estimates the number at several warheads (itself rather vague), other experts have estimated it at several hundred warheads.

The other problems with this parameter relate to whether that minimum number should be deployed; if not, what should be the distance between the delivery vehicles and the warheads and so on. Overall, however, this is an approach that seems to eschew LOW [launch on warning] or even LUA [launch under attack]. It must verifiably be wedded to LAA [launch after attack].

Force composition

Does the force have TNWs [tactical nuclear weapons] designed for battlefield or theatre use? Are they deployed in operational mode, which might suggest the country intends to use them first? On the other hand, as Li Bin notices, a country may interpret its NFU commitment to mean ‘not to use its nuclear weapons first outside its territory.’ It could then use a TNW on its own soil against advancing enemy troops without breaking its NFU commitment. Again, determining this intent is extremely difficult.

Accuracy of weapons

If the CEP [circular error probable] of the missiles is much less than the lethal radius of the target, then the weapon is very accurate and would be configured for attacking point targets. And counterforce targeting would usually point to first use, indeed pre-emption with the intention of taking out the enemy’s arsenal and degrading its politico-military capabilities. This is not the case with counter-value targeting where accuracy does not count. Still, it would be very difficult to determine the accuracy of the adversary’s missiles unless one is sure of what technologies are being used for missile development.

Conventional force

A country can give an NFU commitment only when it is confident that its conventional capability renders the use of nuclear weapons unnecessary. If that is not the case, then it would escalate to the nuclear level quickly. This is why the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was (and remains) wedded to first-use. Interestingly, however, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, cold-war documents and operational plans from East Germany revealed that the Soviet (Warsaw Pact) commitment to NFU was an eyewash. In case of a conflict in central Europe, the Warsaw Pact forces were configured for first-use.

In simple English, NFU is for birds, thank you.

In a policy brief for International Security, India’s New Nuclear Thinking: Counterforce, Crises, and Consequences, Vipin Narang and Christopher Clary contend: “The events of early 2019 [the Feb 26/27 military rounds] underscore the intersection of two longer-range trends: India’s continued dissatisfaction with being unable to deter or halt [alleged] Pakistani state sponsorship of anti-India terrorist groups; and growing Indian military capabilities to find, fix, and kill Pakistani strategic assets. These trends have generated powerful temptations for Indian leaders to develop options that would permit counterforce targeting of Pakistan’s long-range nuclear systems in the event of a serious conflict.”

According to Narang and Clary, the Indian thinking is moving towards developing capabilities that “might neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities in a future conflict.” They assert that “the goal of such a shift would be to allow New Delhi to recapture the space it believed it had lost for conventional retaliation, without fear of nuclear use from Pakistan and without having to engage in tit-for-tat nuclear warfighting.”

Clearly, in this case we aren’t just talking first use but preemption. Narang and Clary reach the same conclusion: “[The] risk of first-strike instability may force India to consider circumstances under which it could use nuclear weapons preemptively, posing a challenge to its long-standing ‘no first use’ (NFU) declaration.” In other words, “Indian nuclear strategy may be changing even without any public revisions to its declaratory doctrine.”

This is consistent with India’s demonstration of its anti-satellite weapons capability. India intercepted one of its own satellites with a kinetic kill vehicle, which “demonstrated the growing capabilities that India has to intercept high-altitude and high-velocity targets, such as those that would be associated with longer-range Pakistani missiles.” Narang and Clary think that “The significance of the test for missile defence was not lost on Pakistan.”

This thinking has evolved over several years. For instance, former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon writes: “There is a potential gray area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another NWS [nuclear weapons state]. Circumstances are conceivable in which India might find it useful to strike first, for instance, against an NWS that had declared it would certainly use its weapons, and if India were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.” (Italics added)

There’s enough in India’s evolving thinking for the world to chew on, especially in relation to the unilateral approaches adopted by India’s rightwing government in Occupied Kashmir, as also against minorities in mainland India. The potential for conflict is very high and the threshold is steadily dropping owing to India’s actions.

The writer is a former News Editor of TFT. He tweets @ejazhaider reluctantly.

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.