Recent debates on the strategic landscape of South Asia revolve around India’s escalating nuclear designs and posturing. The Pulwama crisis of 2019 and the Ladakh crisis 2020 point towards India’s weakening no-first-use (NFU) and the growing impulse to a pre-emptive strike. India’s operationalised nuclear doctrine and its officials’ statements highlight the shifts from its ‘NFU’ declaration.
The Indian military has made multiple attempts to deliver deterrent messages during the recent crises with its neighbors: Pakistan and China. It resorted to sending warning signals in part by deploying the nuclear-armed submarine (SSBN) during its border confrontation with China. Additionally, the threats of the missile strike and INS Arihant deployment throughout the crisis with Pakistan validates that nuclear weapons are now considered a significant component of India’s defence strategy. Threatening the use of force by atomic armaments and force posturing during crisis underline the risks of escalation or miscalculation that may spark a more serious conflict or produce a cycle of escalation. The rapid modernisation of India’s strategic missile program also points towards the development of counterforce capabilities.
Considering India’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons and missile forces in its defence strategy, the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) is organising a webinar to examine the changing trend in India’s nuclear thinking, critically and deliberate on its various implications.
Dr. Adil Sultan is Acting Dean and Head of Department, Faculty of Aerospace and Security Studies (FASSS), Air University Islamabad. He has served at Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD) for over 14 years, where he worked on Arms Control and Disarmament related issues. Dr. Sultan is the co-founder of a web portal, ‘Strategic Foresight for Asia’ (www.strafasia.com), a London-based platform publishing policy-relevant analysis on security. Dr. Sultan was a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London. He published a book titled: “Universalizing Nuclear Nonproliferation Norms: A Regional Framework for the South Asian Nuclear Weapon States”.
Frank O’ Donnell
Dr. Frank O’Donnell is a Nonresident Fellow in the Stimson Center South Asia Program and a Postdoctoral Scholar within the Rising Power Alliances project in the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. His research focuses on political and security developments in Southern Asia. He has published on these themes in several journals, including Asian Security, Asian Survey, Comparative Strategy, Contemporary Security Policy, Nonproliferation Review, Orbis, and Survival. He is the co-author of India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrines, and Dangers
Dr. Tanvi Kulkarni teaches Defence and Strategic Studies at the Savitribai Phule Pune University in India and is also a visiting fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. She has a Ph.D. in Diplomacy and Disarmament Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her thesis examined why states in a nuclear dyad negotiate nuclear confidence-building measures (NCBMs). Tanvi completed her M.Phil in Diplomacy and Disarmament in August 2014. For her dissertation, she traced the evolution of the ideas of Credible Minimum Deterrence and No First Use in India’s nuclear doctrine and policy. She researches and writes on nuclear politics, national security, and strategic issues.
Dr. Rabia Akhtar is Director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research and heads the School of Integrated Social Sciences at the University of Lahore, Pakistan. She is a member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs. Dr. Akhtar is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. She has written extensively on South Asian nuclear security and deterrence dynamics. She is the author of the book “The Blind Eye: U.S. Non-proliferation Policy Towards Pakistan from Ford to Clinton”.
Considering India’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons and missile forces in its defence strategy, the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) organised a webinar on 27 May 2021 to critically examine the changing trend in India’s nuclear thinking and its implications. The event was convened on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclear tests.
The controversy surrounding India’s No First Use (NFU) posture is not new. First declared in 1999 in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine, the pledge has significantly diluted over the last two decades. Anas Abdullah, Executive Director of CSCR, in his welcome remarks, stated that the repeated references of deploying atomic armaments by Indian leaders highlight that India seriously considers increasing the involvement of nuclear assets in its defence strategy.
Reviewing India’s nuclear engagements in South Asia, Dr Adil Sultan, Dean at Air University, Islamabad, explained that “India’s nuclear development has several shades of grey.” He pointed out that “publically Indian leadership continues to oppose the development of nuclear weapons” and “promotes global nuclear disarmament. But, simultaneously, India continues to gain nuclear capability. Highlighting the “inconsistency in India’s threat perception,” he elaborated that India’s military; nuclear and conventional, is mostly poised towards Pakistan. At the same time, India has promoted the narrative that “China is the adversary, not Pakistan”.
Discussing the Indian notion of Credible Minimum Deterrence, Dr Adil stressed that “anything that will be credible against China cannot be minimum against Pakistan, and anything minimum against Pakistan cannot be credible against China.” Regarding the NFU controversy, the esteemed panellist stated that “India may have given up on its No First Use commitment and could contemplate a comprehensive first strike against Pakistan while maintaining a public posture of NFU against China.” For him, the Indian “NFU statements are more intended to create a space for India’s limited war-fighting doctrine by threatening of the first strike.”
Dr Frank O’ Donnell, Nonresident Fellow at the Stimson Centre South Asia Program, discussed India’s nuclear posturing during the Pulwama and Ladakh crisis. Dr Frank maintained that “there is a growing ambiguity around how India sees nuclear weapons in its national defence.” He explained how during the Pulwama-Balakot crisis, preparation for potential nuclear escalation could be factually observed. India adopted the opposite of what it did with China in the Ladakh crisis. The distinguished panellist argued that Pakistan could have easily interpreted the Indian planes incoming for the Balakot attack as a nuclear attack. The situation could have escalated from there. On the other hand, Pakistan’s National Command Authority (NCA) meeting generated much “misinterpretation”. He reiterated that the situation was “a level of brinksmanship we have not seen in years”. India threatened Pakistan about using nuclear-capable missiles unless their pilot was released. Though the brinksmanship ended without significant civilian casualties, India made sure that the US could witness the developments.
“Nuclear weapons have not become more significant in India’s overall defence thinking and strategy,” maintained Dr Tanvi Kulkarni, Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Though, recently, none of the major elements of the Indian nuclear doctrine have been “obviously altered”, yet “the doctrine is not of a permanent, unchanging nature.” She elaborated that the drastic changes in India’s security environment in the last two decades have called for “revisiting some of the elements of the nuclear policy,” mainly due to the rapidly changing composition of capabilities and overall regional balance. Indian leadership does acknowledge that nuclear weapons are different and hence to be treated differently, “essentially as political tools of deterrence”. Thus, post-2003, much effort was put in “highlighting the nuances” in the doctrine and adding “layers of firebreaks” into India’s nuclear posture. For example, massive retaliation posture has been tied to “second-strike capability”.
The option for first use does not count as a “guarantee of first use,” highlighted Dr Tanvi. She added that “the idea of proportionality is not completely missing.” In 2021, India has grown more confident than the India of 2001 to leverage its nuclear capability for signalling deterrence. India’s nuclear capabilities are growing while simultaneously the doctrinal firebreaks remain intact. “India is still vying for a credible and survivable second-strike capability,” she concluded.
Dr Rabia Akhtar, Director at Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore, assessed the danger of nuclear rethinking in South Asia. She recommended all to read Dr Rajesh’s Carnegie essay in which several Indian officers have made statements regarding India abandoning the NFU. Pakistan cannot help but take this constant dilution seriously. A purported shift from NFU to “FU” from India needs to be put into perspective. She stated that for Pakistan, “a rethink is a must.” India might be bringing its nuclear threshold down to deter more in nuclear warfare. Referring to Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang’s article, Dr Rabia suggested that India’s drive to obliterate Pakistan’s strategic forces is rife with great risks. India’s counterforce doctrine could bring in first-strike instability.
It is just illogical to think that India “would be willing to absorb Pakistan’s first strike,” Dr Rabia Akhtar stressed, “Pakistan can ill-afford to absorb a nuclear strike from India.” The first objective of Pakistan’s forces is to counter any preemptive nuclear strike by India. Besides, she emphasised that Pakistan needs to take the incentive away from India to conduct the first strike. It has to create a balance with its own first use capabilities. Moreover, it was stressed that Pakistan must have survivable nuclear forces to ensure the credibility of its deterrence and proposed that both states must maintain a mix of offence and defence systems.
The panel discussion was followed by a stimulating question and answer session. In response to a query regarding whether India has decoupled nuclear strategies for Pakistan and China, Dr Tanvi Kulkarni claimed that there are no separate policies for China and Pakistan. Answering CSCR Research Assistant Maryam Raashed’s question about India’s posturing towards China and Pakistan, Dr Rabia Akhtar stated that the deterrence equation between India and China is different from the one between India and Pakistan.
In response to a question, Dr Adil Sultan explicated that Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) are not an end in themselves but a means to achieve a certain objective. Still, more CBMs will always be useful. But, India’s approach now is such that if there is a need for CBM, China would probably be required to be taken on board, which is again complicating the situation.
An intriguing query was raised by Hamraz Ahmed from CSCR regarding whether the nuclear reality of South Asia needs a totally nuanced and new nuclear epistemology? And how can India and Pakistan collectively contribute to that? Dr Frank pointed out that China is obviously a part of India’s nuclear planning. It is simply very difficult to extricate China from the South Asian nuclear dynamics.
In addition, Dr Tanvi Kulkarni emphasised that the world is very different from how it was 20 to 30 years ago. While we take lessons from the Cold War, nuclear countries cannot replicate the behaviours of the Cold War. Scholarly intervention is absolutely needed. Director Academics of CSCR, Talha Ibrahim, concluded the webinar by extending gratitude to the speakers and highlighting the serious need to engage with each other in good faith.