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India’s Nuclear Doctrine

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Recently, the Defence Minister of India said that the future of India’s ‘No First Use’ (NFU) policy on nuclear weapons depended on “circumstances”.

About:  India’s Nuclear Doctrine

This statement has raised apprehensions on the likely revision of India’s NFU policy and nuclear doctrine.

What is Nuclear Doctrine?

  • A nuclear doctrine states how a nuclear weapon state would employ its nuclear weapons both during peace and war.
  • It guides the state’s response during the war when deterrence fails.

Historical Background

  • India embarked on the path of nuclear weapons development after its face-off with China in the 1962 war, followed by China carrying out nuclear tests in 1964 and in the subsequent years.
  • In 1974, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, India conducted its first nuclear tests, Pokhran-I, dubbed as a “peaceful nuclear explosion”.
  • India has refused to sign international treaties like Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on grounds that it is discriminatory.


  • CTBT is the Treaty banning all nuclear explosions – everywhere, by everyone.
  • The Treaty was negotiated at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 September 1996, but has not entered into force, as eight specific states have not ratified the treaty.


  • NPT is a landmark international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology.
  • To promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy
  • To further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.
  • China exploded its first weapon in 1964, and India did so in 1974. Between those dates, in 1970 the NPT came into effect. Under its terms, China became recognised as one of the world’s five ‘weapon states’, and India was excluded from such status.
  • Despite more than two decades of international pressure that followed to make India abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, India again carried out a test in May 1998, Pokhran-II, involving a fission device, a low-yield device, and a thermonuclear device.
  • After the 1998 nuclear test when India declared itself a nuclear weapon state, it also enunciated a doctrine of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons.
  • The NFU promise thus went together with credible minimum deterrence (CMD).
  • India’s Nuclear Doctrine was formally adopted on January 4, 2003.
  • It is based on staggering and punitive retaliation, in case deterrence failed.

India’s nuclear doctrine

It has had three primary components:

  • No First Use
    • India will only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack on Indian territory, or Indian forces.
    • A caveat is made about their possible use in response to a chemical or biological attack.
  • Massive Retaliation
    • India’s response to a first strike will be massive, to cause ‘unacceptable damage’.
    • While the doctrine doesn’t explicitly espouse a counter-value strategy (civilian targets), the wording implies the same.
  • Credible Minimum Deterrence
    • The number and capabilities of India’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems should merely be sufficient to ensure intolerable retaliation, also keeping in mind first-strike survival of its relatively meagre arsenal.

Advantages of NFU Policy

  • The no-first-use policy is premised upon an assured second-strike capability, that survives the first strike and retains sufficient warheads to launch massive retaliation upon the adversary.
  • It minimises the probability of nuclear use and chances of reacting to a false alarm are nullified.
  • It presents an opportunity for cooperation with China to work jointly towards a Global No First Use (GNFU) order.
  • India’s image as a responsible nuclear power is central to its nuclear diplomacy. Nuclear restraint has allowed India to get accepted in the global mainstream.
  • NFU doctrine is cheaper to implement; for India, which has many economic targets to achieve, this is a very important factor.

Disadvantages of NFU Policy

  • To Compensate for Conventional Inferiority.
    • Nuclear weapons are often seen as an antidote to conventional inferiority (whether real or perceived).
    • The inferior party will seek to deter a conventional attack by threatening a nuclear response.
  • Introduces an element of nuclear risk to any war contemplated by the superior state.
  • It is hard for the potential attacker to confidently calculate that it can achieve victory at an acceptable cost when there is a possibility of nuclear escalation.

Implications of abandoning NFU for India

  • It will damage India’s status as a responsible nuclear power.
  • Upset regional balance: Abrogate India’s commitment to the universal goal of nuclear disarmament and upset the regional balance in the sub-continent.
  • Could harm India’s chances for NSG: India is now a member of most of the technology denial regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement. It is also actively pursuing full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Revoking the ‘no first use’ pledge would harm India’s nuclear image worldwide.
  • Nuclear pre-emption is a costly policy as it requires massive investment not only in weapons and delivery systems but also intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) infrastructure.
  • The first use of nuclear weapons would require a massive increase in India’s nuclear delivery capabilities. India is yet to induct the Multiple Re-entry Vehicle (MRV) technology in its missiles, which is fundamental to eliminating hardened nuclear targets.

Way Forward

  • All doctrines need periodic reviews and India’s case is no exception.
  • Given how rapidly India’s strategic environment is evolving, it is imperative to think clearly about all matters strategically.
  • But if Indian policymakers do indeed feel the need to review the nation’s nuclear doctrine, they should be cognizant of the costs involved in doing so.
  • A sound policy debate can only ensue if the costs and benefits of a purported policy shift are discussed and debated widely.


  • The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a group of nuclear supplier countries that seeks to contribute to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons through the implementation of two sets of Guidelines for nuclear exports and nuclear-related exports.
  • The NSG Guidelines also contain the so-called “Non-Proliferation Principle,” adopted in 1994, whereby a supplier, notwithstanding other provisions in the NSG Guidelines, authorises a transfer only when satisfied that the transfer would not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Non-Proliferation Principle seeks to cover the rare but important cases where adherence to the NPT or to a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty may not by itself be a guarantee that a State will consistently share the objectives of the Treaty or that it will remain in compliance with its Treaty obligations.


  • Established in April 1987, the voluntary Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) aims to limit the spread of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks.
  • The regime urges its 35 members, to restrict their exports of missiles and related technologies capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload at least 300 kilometers or delivering any type of weapon of mass destruction.

Wassenaar Arrangement:

  • The Wassenaar Arrangement has been established in order to contribute to regional and international security and stability, by promoting transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies, thus preventing destabilising accumulations.
  • The aim is also to prevent the acquisition of these items by terrorists.

Note: India is not a member of NSG but member of rest two. China is member of NSG but not the other 2.


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