Strategic Non-Nuclear Weapons: An Essential Consort to a Doctrine of No First Use


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published by the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, in January 2014.  

Keywords: Strategic Non-Nuclear Weapons, Doctrine of NFU, Indo-Pak-China Nuclear stability, Non-State Actors, Counter-force strike

Politico-Military thought often harbours a puzzling phenomenon when it organises concepts and institutions in a mosaic of sometimes antithetical notions. Contrary ideas are indeed intrinsic to the art of political sagacity, but when form is defined by a belief, in apparent conflict with content, then there appear distortions more illusory than what logic would suggest. So it is with the emergence of strategic nuclear weapons. They are destructive to the extent that the purpose of warfare is itself obliterated, underscoring a compelling theory of war avoidance. By its side are strategic non-nuclear weapons whose intent is to target nuclear weapons that, ironically, seek a (precarious) stability.

Conventional savvy will first suggest that non-nuclear weapons can neither deliver the requisite high explosive payload to assume a counter-force role against silo-based or caverned nuclear systems; nor do they come with the probability of kill that is demanded with such a role. But just around the technological corner lurks high impact penetration and shaped charges that make a mockery of hitherto simple overpressure reckoning. Second, nuclear pundits will insinuate that a partially successful counter-force strike may in point of fact catalyse escalation to a full blown nuclear exchange; both contain candour of their own.

But strange is our circumstance when on the one hand Pakistan presents us with a nuclear nightmare which when articulated is a hair-trigger, opaque deterrent conventionalised under military control, steered by a doctrine obscure in form, seeped in ambiguity, and guided by a military strategy that carouses and finds unity with non-state actors. The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into the battle area further exacerbates credibility of their control. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertions to declare that this nightmare is upon us. However, the very nature of the power equation on the subcontinent and the extent to which it is tilted in India’s favour will imply that any attempt at bringing about conflict resolution through means other than peaceful is destined to fail. In this context it is amply clear that the threat of use of nuclear weapons promotes only one case and that is the Pakistani military establishment’s hold on the nation. On the other hand is a Janus-faced China which, in collusion with Pakistan’s nuclear weapon programme, has not just entrenched proliferatory links, but also doctrinal union that permits a duplicitous approach to the latter’s declared No First Use (NFU) posture and an option to keep the South Asian nuclear cauldron on the boil. Also significant is the alliance bucks the existing global non-proliferation structure.

What may be derived from the current state of affairs, with any conviction, is the political and military unpredictability that prevails. This denies hope for stability and the expectation of fitting conditions into a convenient model, let alone providing for security guarantees. Governments faced with such a conundrum more readily prepare for a worst case scenario than try and reconcile the true dimensions that uncertainty introduces. It is preparedness, therefore, that endows the only tool that can deter possible confrontation of a nature that has earlier been designated as nightmarish.

India today is in a position to impress upon its adversaries a deterrent relationship based on nuclear war avoidance, with the proviso that the rationale of nuclear weapons as a political tool and a means to preclude a nuclear exchange are recognised and adhered to. China’s galloping entwinement with the rest of the world makes this proposition a real probability; contingent upon our resolve and policies of seeking mutuality with like-minded nations to rally around the single point of preventing reactionary overturning of the status quo. This despite the unilateral tensions that China has precipitated in the East and South China Sea over sovereignty, air defence identification zones and the right to control fishing.

Pakistan is, however, a different cup of tea for it portrays a perilous uncertainty, as would any nation under military control that perceives in nuclear weapons the ultimate Brahmastra. As with that weapon of mass destruction, answers lay not just in the promise of disproportionate retaliation but also in the credible ability to prempt and counter its use. India has in place nuclear weapons driven by a doctrine of NFU and massive retaliation. What its strategic forces must now equip itself with is select conventional hardware that tracks and targets nuclear forces (all under political control). This would provide the pre-emptive teeth to a deterrent relationship that leans so heavily on NFU.

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