Hypocrisy of Nuclear No First Use

In the realist paradigm of International Relations, one should not solely trust the words of another state when it is a matter of a threat to national security. Keeping this in mind, how one can believe that a state with nuclear weapons will keep its word not to use them in a time of crisis? India’s pledge of No First Use (NFU) must be seen in the same light.

Since the inception of nuclear thinking in South Asia, Pakistan has always questioned the credibility of the Indian nuclear doctrine of NFU. Pressure built on the Indian government since 2002 to reject the assurance of the NFU. The National Security Advisory Board, headed by C V Ranganathan, recommended in 2002 that “India must consider withdrawing from this commitment as the other nuclear weapon states have not accepted this policy.”  In recent years, the debate has grown.

The BJP let the cat out of the bag by questioning the NFU in its 2014 election manifesto. Then, after two years of silence on the subjected, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar challenged the pledge of NFU.

More recently, Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategist, said that India would preempt Pakistan’s first use doctrine and the preemptive first strike will be aimed at counterforce targets. He strengthens his argument by referring to a book by Shivshankar Menon, who was the National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The revelations by Menon and Narang do not come as a surprise to Pakistani academic circles. Dr Mansoor Ahmed, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Belfer Center of the Harvard Kennedy School, had already in June 2016 pointed out the transformation in New Delhi’s nuclear doctrinal thinking. He linked a specific pattern of India’s force modernization with India’s willingness to preempt Pakistan’s tactical first use by a counterforce strategy.

The major difference in the nuclear strategy of India and Pakistan can be quantified by answering one question: how do these rivals talk about nuclear weapons whenever a crisis emerges? Pakistan responds with the policy of using nuclear weapons first. Whereas India responds to this question with an NFU pledge.

The idea to exploit nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a conventional attack is a more honest one than the hypocrisy of the NFU pledge. The NFU is merely a pretext to portray an image of a responsible nuclear state since no state actually wants to start a nuclear war. No matter how one elaborates this concept, under a “no-first-use” commitment, the deterrence will be effective when a state will admit that the use of nuclear weapons is indispensable if it comes to a second strike.

Hypothetically, the first use of nuclear weapons will probably prompt an uncontrolled escalation of events to the extent that rivals could decimate each other. Notwithstanding the will to employ nuclear weapons ‘first’ can be used as a deterrent against conventional and nuclear aggressions from a hostile state. It is very difficult to develop a proportional conventional symmetry to compete with a rival, who has larger resources to feed its conventional forces; in this sense, the will of early utilization of nuclear weapons is a compensation to inferior conventional forces.

Utilizing a nuclear arsenal to compensate with conventional asymmetry is not something new and it has been obvious with the policies of many nuclear weapons states. Using nuclear weapons first to balance conventional asymmetry was a long-standing nuclear policy of NATO during the Cold War. When the USSR disintegrated and with inferior conventional forces, Russia emerged on the world map; Moscow expressly renounced the NFU promise guaranteed by the USSR. Whereas, France holds a strategy of calculated ambiguity with respect to the first use of nuclear weapons. The more accurate instance of using nuclear weapons to offset the imbalance in conventional strength is Pakistan and it took a path similar to NATO, Russia and France.

The threat of using nuclear weapons cannot be simply eradicated by a declared policy of NFU. However, the uncertainty and trust deficit related to NFU would perhaps have some deleterious impact on deterrence. NFU is a flawed idea. First, nuclear deterrence can only be established when there is a considerable threat of nuclear escalation during any crisis. Second, NFU is a dangerous deception and there is no assurance that even if a country has given such a pledge it will not use nuclear weapons in a crisis. Thérèse Delpech revealed that the Soviet Union in June 1982 had taken a unilateral pledge to not rely on the first use of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the Warsaw Pact records related to military accords that fell into German hands clearly demonstrate that Russians were at the onset of their operation plans in using nuclear and chemical weapons against Germany. Similarly, Barkha Dutt in her book revealed that despite NFU, India had been threatening Pakistan with the use of nuclear weapons during the Kargil conflict.

There is a constant debate within India to depart from the strict nuclear NFU policy and to adopt a doctrine that comprises the obvious threat of first use, especially to address the asymmetry with China and for countering Pakistani TNWs. If India reconsiders its nuclear posture then this will not be the first time that a state altered its nuclear doctrine. For instance, two nuclear states Russia (in the 1990s) and India (in 2003), have already changed their NFU doctrinal proposal as compared to their initial policy position regarding nuclear weapons.

In the near future, it is highly possible that India vacates its pledge of NFU against Pakistan and China. In spite of India’s pledge of NFU, Indian domestic politics and changing strategic dynamics are contemplating an alarming change in the strategic thinking of India to shift its approach towards NFU. Whereas, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons policy will remain intricately associated with India’s strategic thinking. Therefore, any alteration in India military or nuclear posture will directly affect Pakistan’s security doctrine.

The writer is a M. Phil Scholar at Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan. @hasanehtishamb1


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