I am often asked why India committed itself to not using its nuclear weapons first. The centre-right National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government adopted the no-first-use doctrine when India first publicly tested nuclear weapons at Pokhran in 1998, and all subsequent governments of India have reiterated this pledge. The doctrine states that:

“The fundamental purpose of Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any State or entity against India and its forces. India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.

India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against States which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapon powers.”

There is still some residual anxiety in India about the wisdom of this commitment, particularly in military minds. Why have a weapon and forswear its use? India could have followed the United States and Pakistan in retaining the option of using its most powerful weapon first should the nation’s defence require it.

The answer to that question lies in India’s nuclear doctrine, which is itself a product of the unique circumstances in which India finds itself.

Those circumstances also explain why India chose to test nuclear weapons and become a declared nuclear weapon state (NWS) in 1998. By the late 1990s, India was in a situation where two of its neighbours with whom India had fought wars after independence, Pakistan and China, were already armed with nuclear weapons and were working together to build their capabilities and proliferate them in Asia. The international nonproliferation regime was not in any position to address this problem. India therefore chose to become a declared NWS in 1998.

The Indian government made that decision in the face of opposition by all the major powers, despite misgivings within Indian society, and after twenty-four years of international nuclear sanctions resulting from India’s first nuclear test, Pokhran-I, in 1974. (India described the 1974 test as a “peaceful nuclear explosion,” adopting a term from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, whereas the 1988 test was described by the government of India as a nuclear weapon test.) Those sanctions had been designed to “cap, cease and roll back” India’s civil nuclear programme and potential to make atomic weapons. They had failed to do so.

Since 1974, India had also been threatened with nuclear weapons at least three times: twice by Pakistan and once, implicitly, by the entry of the nuclear-armed US aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 war with Pakistan. (The Enterprise had also entered the Indian Ocean in 1962 when India and China fought their brief border war, but that move was intended to support, not threaten, India.)

When India decided to test nuclear weapons publicly, in 1998, it was evident that nuclear weapons, because of the scale and duration of the destruction they cause, are primarily political weapons, the currency of power in the nuclear age, rather than effective war-fighting weapons. The government of India therefore declared after the 1998 tests that these weapons were to prevent nuclear threat and blackmail, and that India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons against other states. If, however, anyone dared use nuclear weapons against us, we would assuredly retaliate and inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary.

This is India’s doctrine of credible minimum deterrence.

Assured retaliation combined with a no-first-use policy also means that it is not the number of nuclear weapons that India or its adversaries possess that matters. What matters is India’s ability to inflict unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike or strikes. That is what determines India’s nuclear weapons posture.

In other words, India has nuclear weapons for the contribution they make to its national security in an uncertain and anarchic world by preventing others from attempting nuclear blackmail and coercion against India. Unlike in certain other NWS, India’s nuclear weapons are not meant to redress a military balance, or to compensate for some perceived inferiority in conventional military terms, or to serve some tactical or operational military need on the battlefield.

These weapons have served their expected purpose. The occasions before 1998 when other powers used the explicit or implicit threat of nuclear weapons to try to change India’s behaviour have not been repeated since. That they did not succeed before 1998 was because of the hardheaded leadership India was fortunate to have.

Since India became a declared NWS in 1998 it has not faced credible threats of that kind. So the possession of nuclear weapons has, empirically speaking, deterred others from attempting nuclear coercion or blackmail against India.

When India carried out nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, twenty-four years after first displaying the capability to do so, in May 1974, it also became the first NWS to publicly announce and debate a nuclear doctrine rapidly thereafter. That it was able to do so owed much to the preparatory thinking and work of a remarkable handful of people such as Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam and Brajesh Chandra Mishra, most of them self-taught innovators who thought through nuclear security issues in the Indian context while in government.

A no-first-use policy was not always the natural or easy choice.

I remember then Atomic Energy Commission chairman Raja Ramanna and Chief of Army Staff Krishnaswami Sundarji often talking over a drink in the mid-1980s about a future India with nuclear weapons.

For Sundarji, the attraction of an Indian atom bomb was its possible military use to neutralise Chinese conventional superiority. As a physicist, Ramana was keenly aware of the limitations on use and of the practical effects of the bomb. He therefore saw it as an enabler and equaliser, not necessarily as a military weapon to be used but as a weapon the threat of whose use would enable the achievement of political and military goals.

Over time, as India’s conventional military position improved, Sundarji’s considerations became less compelling. By the late 1990s, it was the advocates of no first use, including defence analyst K Subrahmanyam, who prevailed and whose views were found politically most acceptable by the political leadership, particularly Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a longtime advocate of nuclear weapons for India with a larger vision of peace on the Indian subcontinent and in the extended neighbourhood.

Shivshankar Menon

What are the alternatives to no first use?

Announcing that India would strike first if it considered it necessary, as Pakistan and the United States do? Some say that our declaration is already meaningless as it is only a pious hope and does not cover other NWS. If it is meaningless, why the fuss?

But that aside, a first-strike doctrine is surely destabilising, and does not further the primary purpose of our weapons of deterring blackmail, threat, or use of nuclear weapons by an adversary against India. It is hard to see how it would.

As for other contingencies, there are ways for India to handle them other than by using nuclear weapons. India’s nuclear weapons are to deter other countries’ use of nuclear weapons; hence the no-first-use commitment is to nuclear weapon states (NWS).

There is a potential grey area as to when India would use nuclear weapons first against another NWS. 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. But India’s present public nuclear doctrine is silent on this scenario.

Another idea that is often mentioned as an alternative to no first use is proportionate responses to a nuclear attack. There is nothing in the present doctrine that prevents India from responding proportionately to a nuclear attack, from choosing a mix of military and civilian targets for its nuclear weapons. The doctrine speaks of punitive retaliation.

The scope and scale of retaliation are in the hands of the Indian leadership. Besides, what is a proportionate response to weapons of mass destruction except other weapons of mass destruction? So it is not clear what the advocates of proportionate response are really asking for.

These are weapons of mass destruction whether one chooses to call them tactical or strategic, and with its no-first-use doctrine, India has reserved the right to choose how much, where, and when to retaliate. This is an awesome responsibility for any political leader, but it is the price of leadership and cannot be abdicated to a mechanical or mathematical formula or a set of strategic precepts.

No first use is a useful commitment to make if we are to avoid wasting time and effort on a nuclear arms race, such as that between the United States and Soviet Union, which produced thousands of nuclear weapons and missiles and economically contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In our geography, the use of nuclear weapons as weapons of war is hardly useful militarily.

For nine months of the year prevailing winds on the India-Pakistan border are westerly, and population densities on both sides of the border guarantee that there is little distinction in effect and practice between the use of tactical or strategic nuclear weapons in the India-Pakistan context.

I recall that the Pakistan Army started talking of developing and using tactical nuclear weapons in response to India’s alleged Cold Start doctrine for conventional forces only when there was a real risk of the Pakistan Army losing its internal and external relevance and when Gen. Musharraf seemed close to settling the Kashmir situation and taking some steps against jihadi terrorists.

If there was a real fear of a Cold Start strategy among Pakistan Army strategists, it is hard to understand the steady move of Pakistani forces away from the Indian border and toward performing internal security and other functions in western Pakistan since 2004. As Pakistan’s is the only nuclear weapons programme in the world controlled exclusively by the military, it is also likely that sheer institutional momentum and interests led to decisions by Pakistan to increase the number of its warheads and to develop and deploy “tactical” nuclear weapons, despite the problems of command and control of these weapons, which must be devolved down the military chain of command, and the limited military utility of nuclear weapons against India in the specific India-Pakistan context.

Other recent Pakistani decisions, such as setting up separate strategic forces commands for the country’s air force and navy, also seem to be similarly driven by service and institutional interests rather than by rational calculations of national interest.

Since India’s doctrine is based on no first use, our posture and nuclear arsenal have to survive a first strike by any enemy or potential combination of adversaries. Hence India’s decision to go in for a triad of delivery systems, by land, sea, and air. Once the SSBN Arihant, the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, is fully commissioned, the triad will be in place.

Today, India has effective deterrence against both China and Pakistan. This has been a huge and largely secret effort, and has been achieved by India faster than by any other NWS. We are sometimes accused of excessive secrecy in relation to our own people and scholars. That is because the purpose of the nuclear weapons programme is to deter our adversaries, not our own people or scholars. And our adversaries will in any case believe what they think they have discovered and ferreted out, not what we say in public. Of course, we will be most convincing if what we say matches what they find out for themselves.

Excerpted with permission from Choices: Inside The Making Of India’s Foreign Policy, Shivshankar Menon, Allen Lane.