Michael KreponIndia Fuzzes Up No First Use

Quote of the week:

“Foreign policy is the face a nation wears to the world.” — Arthur Schlesinger

The Press Trust of India ran this story on August 16th:
NEW DELHI — Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Friday said India remained “firmly committed” to the doctrine of ‘no first use’ for nuclear weapons but what happens in future depends on the circumstances.

The defence minister said this on Twitter after visiting Pokhran where India carried out nuclear tests in 1998 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. He was in Pokhran to offer tributes on Vajpayee’s first death anniversary.

Rajnath Singh has now joined other significant Indian voices, including former Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and former National Security Adviser (and Ambassador to China and Pakistan) Shivshankar Menon, in purposefully fuzzing up India’s “no first use” pledge. Don’t be confused — you are supposed to be confused whether or not New Delhi still subscribes to its no first use pledge. The Indian slant on its no first use pledge is “don’t take us completely at our word.”

China seems unlikely to be the primary intended recipient of New Delhi’s message, although some strategic analysts in China seek to backtrack from Beijing’s no first use pledge. If China can haze, India can, too, but at a higher official-but-not-quite-authoritative level.

Pakistan seems to be the primary intended recipient of Indian messaging. Pakistan has told the world, and India most particularly, that it has adopted the option of first nuclear use in response to the crossing of certain, semi-authoritative, fuzzy red lines. Rajnath Singh’s message comes at a time of heightened tension with Pakistan over the lock-down and change of status in Kashmir. Their last dust-up in February involved aerial combat, the first since 1971. One of Pakistan’s fuzzy semi-official red lines is the disabling of its air force. So the most obvious way to interpret New Delhi’s message to Rawalpindi is “Don’t think your nuclear deterrent can protect you if you up the ante in Kashmir.”

No nation has used nuclear weapons in warfare since the United States ended World War II with atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki over seven decades ago. The norm of non-battlefield use is the most important protection against nuclear danger that our fractious and deeply imperfect world depends on. Break the norm and you break the dam. Break the dam and you have no idea how big the flood will be. If deterrence fails and the nuclear threshold is crossed, protecting public health and safety depends upon escalation control. Escalation control is the hope that most deterrence strategists carry with them, like an illicit drug that makes unpardonable sins forgivable.

Escalation control is a totally unproven assumption. It’s a hope predicated on the ability of warring states to stop what they have started, declaring victory instead of a tie. An alternative belief system, popular in rarified circles, is to chuck escalation control out the window and seek to fight and win a nuclear war.

India and China have adopted a different stance on nuclear weapons than those who came before. Their economies can support far larger nuclear arsenals and faster build-ups, but they have, so far, demonstrated uncommon restraint. Their leaders have repeatedly said that nuclear weapons aren’t militarily useful. And to prove it, they embraced no first use pledges.

Fuzzing up these pledges adds cracks to the dam holding back the flood. These cracks are spreading. The biggest cracks have resulted from Russian and U.S. actions. Both countries seem disinterested in patching them up. Cracks are growing on the Korean Peninsula and in South Asia. There are only minuscule cracks in the nuclear contest between India and China.

Fortunately, cracks doesn’t make the decision to use nuclear weapons first any easier. As for the India-Pakistan imbroglio, there are good reasons why New Delhi is unlikely to use nuclear weapons first in warfare, regardless of seeding doubt about this pledge. Let us count some of the ways.

First, democracies, even illiberal democracies, don’t do preventive war. When President Harry S Truman was urged to launch one against the Soviet Union, he wouldn’t hear of it: that’s what Japan did at Pearl Harbor. But, you may well ask, what about George W, Bush, Dick Cheney and the Vulcans in Iraq? This aberration and tragedy became possible only after 9/11. Because this project went so poorly, it’s unlikely to become a habit. If democracies have great difficulty doing preventive conventional war, they are even more unlikely to do nuclear warning shots across the bow.

Second, the country with the stronger conventional military capabilities would be bonkers to cross the nuclear threshold first. India has everything to gain by keeping a war with Pakistan below the nuclear threshold, and nothing to gain by crossing this threshold first.

Third, India’s democracy has been characterized by actions and non-actions that militate against nuclear first use. With the advent of nuclear weapons as well as before their arrival, civilian control over the military in India has been reflected in cautionary behavior in crises and in combat — with one significant pre-nuclear exception:  the 1971 war that vivisected Pakistan and created Bangladesh.

Fourth, with the nuclear standoff marked by three-digit-sized arsenals, no Indian leader can be the least bit confident in the prevention of retaliatory strikes after going first, particularly since Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division is unlikely to be caught napping.

Fifth, India acts more like the tortoise than the hare. The tortoise has painfully slow and dysfunctional military procurement and deployment practices. The tortoise is more likely to be caught napping than striking first. (And if India’s civilian leaders took nuclear weapons more seriously, they would spend more time clarifying to Rawalpindi that a decapitation strike would fail.)

Sixth, Indian leaders have a track record of being disinclined to project power, even in response to great provocations, like after the Parliament attack in 2001 and the Mumbai crisis in 2008 when jihadists torched luxury hotels and shot up the main train station. The great exception, as noted above, was almost fifty years ago. Even Narendra Modi, the tough leader who can break rules, has been markedly cautious (so far) in response to provocations. He goes second, not first.

There are additional reasons besides strategic culture — tactical, operational and geopolitical among them — for Indian leaders not to cross the nuclear threshold first. It’s hard to change deeply embedded strategic culture, but there are signs that the Modi government seeks to do so. Even so, Indian authorities have a long way to go before they can credibly threaten first use.

No first use pledges are the Good Housekeeping Seal of responsible nuclear stewardship. What does New Delhi gain by sullying something that previous Indian leaders were so proud of?  It’s hard to see any increment of deterrence added by these public musings — especially since Pakistani military leaders don’t believe India’s no first use pledge in the first place.

Current circumstances on the subcontinent are not reassuring. Modi is feeling his oats, Pakistan is on edge, and Rawalpindi is hard-wired to prompt and to react to Kashmiri grievances. Against this backdrop, talk about using nuclear weapons first doesn’t help, whether by Pakistani or Indian officials. In crises to come, everyone will be anxiously looking for indicators of increased readiness to do so.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    With respect to Pakistan, India should be shoring up the credibility of its first-use pledge, not fuzzing it up or creating uncertainty surrounding it. The purpose of a no-first-use pledge is to put the onus completely on the other side, either to start or not to start a nuclear war. This is not simply a matter of norms or moral virtue: It is a policy intended to deter nuclear attack upon India.

    As a practical matter, a credible no-first-use pledge assures the other side (Pakistan) that it can avoid a nuclear war simply by not starting one. Not having a no-first-use pledge (or failing to make it credible) creates fear that may prompt the other side to use nuclear weapons first, if that fear becomes especially strong in the middle of a war or severe crisis. If Pakistan (mistakenly) assumes India plans to strike first, then nuclear war appears unavoidable, leading to the (illogically) restricted choice, either Pakistan strikes first or allows India to strike first. It is not in India’s national interest to create this type of fear.

    • E. Rhym (History)

      You both (Jonah and MIchael) are conflating deterrence and dissuasion. A “no first use” policy will not “deter” an adversary, i.e., it will neither discourage nor prevent an adversary from taking or forsaking action based upon fear that such action or inaction may induce a nuclear strike. At best such a policy may reduce the incentive for the adversary to strike first using nuclear weapons — at worst it may actually entice an adversary to engage in nuclear coercion or even execute a nuclear attack.
      An issue “no first use” policy shares with deterrence is credibility (but in a different way). Credibility is not static, nor is it controlled by the party pledging “no first use.” The intended recipient(s) of such a pledge, i.e., the adversary(ies) of concern, get to decide whether to believe it – or whether it is even relevant. Such assessments are context dependent, affected by a myriad of factors. And they can be misread, too. Not only could an adversary refuse to believe it, but they could read more into such a pledge than is intended – i.e., an operational complacency borne of reluctance to even contemplate the “unthinkable,” (mis)leading the adversary to take hostile actions they would not otherwise have risked, actions which may lead to nuclear weapons use.

      Finally, whether a “no first use” policy may serve in certain circumstances to mitigate the risk of nuclear confrontation and escalation in a specific context, e.g., a bilateral crisis between India and Pakistan resulting from escalating tensions as a consequence of the current crisis in Kashmir, does not necessarily mean it would serve current Indian security interests vis-a-vis China, let alone serve future security issues involving Pakistan or some other adversary. Nor does “no first use” necessarily serve Indian interests in deterring non-nuclear attacks using weapons of mass effect, e.g., chemical weapons. No, a strong case can be made that it is clearer for a sovereign state possessing nuclear weapons to assert unequivocally that it reserves the right to defend its interests by all means within its power. In that respect, ironically, I would agree with you both that India’s “fuzzing up” of its “no first use” pledge is counterproductive (although I would suggest they are it bending back in the right direction).

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Rhym, I see nothing in the above which describes a realistic scenario whereby it actually makes sense for India to undertake or threaten a nuclear first use or first strike against either Pakistan or China. In particular, I fail to see why a no-first-use policy “may actually entice an adversary to engage in nuclear coercion or even execute a nuclear attack.” To the contrary, a no-first-use policy provides the maximum incentive for an adversary to refrain from nuclear coercion or nuclear attack.

  2. E. Rhym (History)

    At risk of quibbling over semantics, Jonah, your rebuttal recasts refraining from issuing a “no first use” policy as an overt action to the contrary (or in your words, “undertake or threaten a nuclear first use”), implying a sense that India might actively issue nuclear threats (as Russia does on a regular basis). Whether that was your intent or not, I submit that calculated ambiguity need not be amplified by overt threats to deter an adversary. As for your failure to see how a no first use policy might entice coercion or attack, may I first point out (before responding directly to your comment) that you’ve just demonstrated my point that a no first use policy can be misread. Note, for example, such a policy would likely influence you not to engage in nuclear brinksmanship (you’ve said as much in your comments). However, another might perceive such a policy as either a lie not to be trusted, or weakness to be exploited. The former perception yields such a no first use policy no real benefit, while the latter could actually increase risks of armed conflict–be it conventional or nuclear–as a result of a no first use policy. If the intended adversary audience believes you, then they may feel free to take actions, which they might otherwise deem imprudent, that risk or lead directly to conventional conflict (that might have been avoided). And at the extreme, the intended adversary audience may (as I pointed out above) read into your no first use policy a reluctance (i.e., lack of will) to employ nuclear weapons on your part, which might even cause an adversary to perceive operational complacency on your part. And that might lead them to think you are not able to engage effectively in nuclear warfighting–especially if the adversary sees an opportunity to take the first shot(s) at a time and place of their choosing. Everyone must remember that war is a political act, whether nuclear or conventional. While nuclear deterrence is intended to deter nuclear weapons use, nuclear deterrence can also be used to deter other kinetic attack be it conventional or otherwise, to avoid the risk of escalation to nuclear combat. A deterrence policy should not incentivize any kind of attack, especially between nuclear-armed adversaries.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Gentlemen: Shall we call this a draw?

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