By Saima Aman Sial
At the 2017 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., an MIT scholar, talking on causes and consequences of nuclear first-use In South Asia stated that unlike the “conventional wisdom” about possible first use in South Asia, it may be India that uses its weapons first in a decapitating first strike against Pakistan. The revelation, however, doesn’t come as a surprise to Pakistan.
Should we in Pakistan be surprised?
It is widely known, and for reasons that Pakistan’s analysts have been mentioning recurrently, that it doesn’t subscribe to India’s no first use (NFU) policy. Naeem Salik, the former director of arms and disarmament affairs in Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, while writing about nuclear doctrines, argued that India’s NFU policy is fairly “watered down” because the doctrine provides for retaliation with nuclear weapons if chemical or biological weapons are used against India or its forces anywhere.
This is not the first time that India’s NFU has become a topic of controversy. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s 2014 election manifesto stated that it would “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine once in power, only to deny later. Only recently, then Indian Defense minister Manohar Parrikar questioned the rationality of binding India to a no first use doctrine, a statement later dismissed by the government as Parrikar’s personal opinion. Discernible in this pattern of statements from officials and subsequent denials are signals of an increasing interest in India to keep all options, including a decapitating first strike, open. Although the stated NFU doctrine means something, which India flaunts globally to demonstrate its responsible nuclear credentials, the shift to preemption would make it a potential aggressor.
A Noncommittal NFU: Why does it matter?
A declared NFU means that given the conventional capability of a state, it pledges not to initiate a nuclear conflict and retaliate massively to first use. The current nuclear developments in India; including missile systems that reportedly remain at a launch-on-warning mode; aided with the SLBMs and an ambitious BMD program; all reflect an aggressive nuclear posture. The ready arsenal emboldens India towards a pre-emptive/ decapitation strategy. This dangerous scenario has lead Pakistan to move to the sea, through the development of a sea-based second strike capability in Babur-3, to ensure the survivability of its nuclear arsenal from a potential “splendid first-strike” by India.
To implement a counterforce targeting strategy, India would have to increase its nuclear stockpile to ostensibly take out Pakistan’s land-based nuclear arsenal. This naturally translates into vertical proliferation and may explain the large stockpile of nuclear material in India deliberately kept outside safeguards. Moreover, the posture stands starkly in contrast with India’s stated policy of ‘credible minimum deterrence.’
Furthermore, the strategy puts pressure on Pakistan to pursue measures for concealment and mobility. The fear of decapitation can mean that Pakistan may increase its number of missile systems as well as keep its land based nuclear systems mobile to escape possible preemption. However, to evade the dangers of going down this route, Pakistan chose to develop a sea-based option that would ensure credibility of its deterrence vis-à-vis India.
Decapitation: How likely is the Scenario?
Many might argue that such a decapitating counterforce strike is not possible given the current Indian capabilities. However, India is not only advancing in its indigenous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities through its satellites (acquisition of drone/stealth technology) but is also collaborating closely with strategic partners. The United States-India cooperation in space, including in “vital security aspects,” would be a key element to monitor in this regard. They are already reportedly exploring sharing data from satellites for maritime domain awareness.
Looking back at history, Paul Bracken writes about how the United States shared targeting information about the former Soviet Union with China to “strengthen a perception in Moscow that the United States and China had strong nuclear ties that would get stronger if there was a Soviet nuclear provocation.” Although Bracken warns the United States against such sharing of strategic information in the second nuclear age, the possibility can’t be ruled out in the United States-India case.
There are serious challenges in implementing such a dangerous strategy. There is no guarantee that the so-called ‘splendid first-strike’ would be able to locate and disarm Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent completely. This challenge is further complicated now, by Pakistan’s efforts towards development of a sea-based deterrent. More so, the decision to preempt Pakistan’s nuclear forces, with the aim to disarm them, will ensure a positive retaliatory attack against India. Is it prudent for Indian decision-makers to go down the route of preemption and risk Indian cities to Pakistan’s nuclear retaliation?
What these developments portray is a dangerous mindset in India. The Indian overconfidence bestowed through growing nuclear capabilities, nuclear/conventional postures, and prestige globally can bedevil peace endeavors in the region. War in South Asia cannot be an option and there can be no justification for it at any level, from sub-conventional to strategic weapons use by any state.
 Paul Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics, (New York: Henry Holt/Times Books, 2012), pp.197-201.
The writer is a Senior Research Officer at CISS. A version of this piece originally appeared at South Asian Voices, an online platform hosted by the Stimson Center.