What is meant by nuclear doctrine and what are the major aspects of India’s nuclear doctrine?
A nuclear doctrine of any nuclear weapon country encompasses the goals and missions that guide the
deployment and use of nuclear weapons by that country both during peace and war. The dominant goals of a nuclear doctrine most often include deterrence, target destruction, assurance of allies, and a hedge against an uncertain future.
• India’s nuclear doctrine is centred around deterrence
rather than war-fighting capability.
Major aspects of Indian Nuclear Doctrine can be summarized as follows:
o Building and maintaining a credible minimum
deterrent: Assuring adversary nation’s belief that
the costs of launching a nuclear strike against India
would be unbearable and unacceptable.
o A posture of No First Use (NFU): Nuclear weapons
will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear
attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces
o Massive Retaliation: Indian response to a nuclear
strike is massive retaliation to inflict incalculable and unacceptable damage to the aggressor.
o Political Control of Nuclear Weapons: Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the
civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). The NCA comprises a
Political Council and an Executive Council.
o Conditional use of nuclear weapons: Non-use of nuclear weapons against Non-nuclear Weapon
States (NNWS) (Negative Security Assurance) and option of retaliation with nuclear weapons in the
event of a major chemical or a biological weapons (CBW) strike against India.
o Non-proliferation: Continuance of strict controls on export of nuclear and missile related materials
and technologies and participation in the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) negotiations.
o Commitment to Disarmament: Moratorium on nuclear tests and continued commitment to a nuclear
free world through verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.
What is India’s present nuclear standing vis-à-vis the global nuclear discourse?
India’s participation is based on the progressive nuclear disarmament and adoption of a non-discriminatory
& verifiable process to effect this disarmament. Based on these principles, India’s stand on various
international treaties and regimes is as follows:
• India has not signed the CTBT but maintains a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing and supports negotiations for a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) that is “universal, non-discriminatory, and internationally verifiable.”
• India has remained firmly outside of the NPT, arguing that “nuclear weapons are an integral part of India’s national security and will remain so pending the global elimination of all nuclear weapons.
• India has also opposed the recent enforcement of Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which India believes is not a comprehensive instrument on disarmament as it excludes the verification of nuclear armaments.
o India maintains that the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the single multilateral
disarmament negotiation forum.
India has a facility-specific safeguards agreement in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) allowing it to participate in nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries.
• India has been actively pursuing membership into the NSG and has received explicit support for its membership from many current NSG members including the United States, Russia, Switzerland and Japan except China.
• India was recently accepted as a member of three of the four Multilateral Export Control Regimes;
Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2016, Wassenaar Arrangement in 2017 and Australia
Group in 2018.
• The Indian mission to the United Nations has also submitted several draft recommendations on
“reducing nuclear danger,” which include “steps to reduce the risks of unintentional and accidental use
of nuclear weapons, including through de-alerting and de-targeting nuclear weapons.
Is India’s nuclear doctrine still relevant in its present form or does it need a review?
India’s existing Nuclear Doctrine has served its aim of creating sufficient nuclear deterrence for its adversaries. But, at the same time, an examination of the existing doctrine has indicated that with the fast changing security dynamics in the region, there is a requirement for updating the existing doctrine. This debate has also gained momentum with recent remarks by the government.
The government in its 2014 election manifesto promised to study, revise and update India’s nuclear doctrine
to make it relevant in tune with changing geostrategic realities. In August 2019, Indian Defence Minister implied that India’s no first use policy would not be continued indefinitely.
Following are the reasons that advocate for the review of the doctrine:
• Periodic review in a constantly evolving and
shifting, geo-strategic world order: The American
and the Russian governments review their nuclear
policy periodically. The Indian doctrine, however,
does not have such a caveat which requires such
• Technological advancements in military: Though
India has tried to keep pace with the global technological advancements whether it is Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capabilities or the MIRV trajectory; but other technologies can challenge any country’s policy of credible deterrence.
• Efficacy of No First Use: NFU remains the most debated element of India’s nuclear doctrine.
o Those who are against this caveat believe that NFU may result in unacceptably high initial casualties and damage to Indian population, cities, and infrastructure.
o On the other hand, the theorists, who are in favour of NFU view, believe that India’s strategic restraint posture exemplified by NFU has resulted in major gains internationally, including the lifting of economic sanctions and the removal of technology denial regimes.
• Emerging nature of threats: The present doctrine is silent over dealing with threats in the form of ‘Cyber Crimes in the nuclear field’ and ‘Nuclear Terrorism’. Such threats can not only harm the individual interests of nations but also cause a global security risk as a whole.
• Countering Chemical and Biological attacks: Critics argue that the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons in case of CBW attack is an aggressive posture that dilutes the NFU pledge for NNWS that weakens credibility and ultimately nullifies deterrence. It is also believed that the source of biological
weapons is difficult to ascertain and also the threat from the NNWS can be countered by conventional weapons.
On what lines can the present doctrine be reviewed?
• Dedicated defense technology programs: With India continuously playing defence technological catch-up with other nuclear powers like China, the Nuclear Doctrine does not get the technological support needed for its effective enforcement.
• Increasing flexibility on ‘massive retaliation’ commitment: The rationale behind the commitment is to create credible deterrence. But the commitment of massive retaliation forces the political actors to escalate the nuclear war, thus limiting the retaliatory options. To overcome this, some ambiguities could
be introduced in the doctrine which enable the country to respond to threats like TNWs without it escalating to a full-fledged war.
• Synchronizing with Foreign Policy: The foreign policy continuously changes with the geo-political developments and changing national security needs. Some experts suggest reviewing the nuclear doctrine on the basis of changing foreign policy. This can serve the twin objectives of protecting the nuclear doctrine from becoming obsolete and regular review may serve as an indicator of our current military capabilities and what we need.
• Building upon its status of a responsible nuclear power – Given the current uncertain environment, India can emerge as a potential leader for promoting global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
Following efforts can be made by India in this regard –
o Reconsideration of India’s doctrinal positions: This include adopting a “global NFU” norm instead of a “conditional NFU” (which is India’s current principle).
o Engaging in multilateral discussions at the UN and other parallel platforms to voice the security and non-proliferation issues concerning states like itself. It can also work towards reviving forums such as Conference on Disarmament.