The Value of a Declared No First Use Nuclear Policy

This article was first published on the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies site.

Can it be a nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity sets out to attain; or as Milton put it “Our Cure, To Be No More; Sad Cure!”


Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar (Ret.)


The sensibility of negotiated agreements to assuage friction between nations during the ‘Time of Troubles’ (as Toynbee so sagely suggested) is well recognised. This dynamic in turn sets into motion a search for a deeper concord that establishes and maintains order, however stormy the process may be (the fact of continued endurance of the ‘Westphalian’ state being the basis of international relations is a case in point). Lessons of history have persistently refuted the idea of non-violence and altruism as guiding instrumentalities of relations between nations for at best, non-violence and altruism are a state of mind and higher principles of behaviour. The concord, however, is in favour of ‘real politik’ and seeks mutuality. The latter affects its beneficiaries in varying degrees as it brings about a levelling between the dominant power and the lesser. The relative incapacity to generate conditions that favour the dominant power has at times been at the cost of longevity of the concord while at others the dominant power has paid of its political legacy. But in cases when the concord determines inhibition or non-use of a weapon of war that can potentially destroy political intent, then it becomes an instrument of balance.

India’s declared policy of No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons makes for such an instrument of balance. Credibility of its deterrent at a minimal level is sought through periodic technological intrusions. The form of India’s doctrine has remained unchanged since 2003. It is ironic that among the remaining eight nuclear weapon states (barring China), their doctrine has not been declared with any clarity while their nuclear weapons postures and policies remain, at best, ambiguous.

The United Kingdom, since 1958, has had deep nuclear links with the USA, so much so that its arsenal of Trident II D5 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (it has since 1998 retired other vectors) along with its doctrine and nuclear policy is pooled with that of the US. Yet it subscribes to the idea of “sub-strategic tasks” (no explanation) and an independent nuclear deterrent with neither transparent command and control organisation nor coded control devices.

France also maintains an independent nuclear deterrent; its doctrine is a little less enigmatic and is characterised by “nonemployment” within the framework of a conflict which does not threaten “vital interests” (what these interests are, is never made clear). General understanding is that nuclear weapons are not intended for the battlefield. Contrary to the American doctrine which once envisaged graduated response, the French doctrine refutes nuclear warfighting “up an escalatory ladder.”

In the meantime Russia, without declaring so, has increased reliance on nuclear weapons since 1993, when it formally dropped the Soviet NFU policy and discarded its defensive nuclear posture of the cold war era. Today its doctrine is more Orwellian: “To escalate in order to de-escalate.”[i] The stated rationales for emergence of their new nuclear doctrine are: sensitivity to external threat, particularly so after the invasion of Crimea, eastern Ukraine and involvement in Syria; and perceived weakness of Russia’s conventional forces. The idea to be first to go nuclear in order to deescalate a conventional conflict is an unprecedented awareness, for it suggests two contrarieties that not only can a nuclear tit-for-tat be controlled, but also that a nuclear war was winnable.

China’s nuclear doctrine embraces two concepts of contemporary nuclear thought: the doctrine of NFU and the maintenance of a credible minimum nuclear deterrent. In form, the doctrine has been consistent since 1964. These two tenets have, in turn, sculpted the nature and size of their arsenal. China’s efforts to modernize nuclear forces have, in some quarters, been seen as a transformation of the basis of their doctrine. This however, would appear a misperception since technological updates primarily improve survivability, lethality and precision of their arsenal, with a view to enhance credibility of the deterrent. So far it would appear that China’s nuclear policy has been predictable and undeviating over the years. It is also where the benign nature of China’s nuclear policy ends. A significant feature of the nuclear correlations in the region is China’s proliferatory activities which has given an antagonistic tri-polar character to matters. This applies equally to both North Korea and Pakistan. As is well known today, it is the collusive nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship which created and sustains the latter’s nuclear weapons programme. Therefore it is logical to conclude that there also exists doctrinal links between the two which permits duality in China’s nuclear policy; a declared NFU policy masks the First Use intent of Pakistan that the former has so assiduously nurtured from development of the weapons programme to the supply of tactical nuclear weapons. China’s proliferation policy may have been driven by a balance-of-power logic but it would appear to have forgotten the actuality in the Pakistan case; of a much weakened civilian leadership incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger, the active involvement of non-state actors in military strategy and an alarming posture of intention-to-use. Indeed, the Pak proxy gives to China doctrinal flexibility vis-à-vis India, but involvement of Jihadis and world repugnance to nuclear proliferation, even China must know, can boomerang on its aspirations. The same would apply to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and doctrine of which very little is known particularly after the failure of the “1994 Agreed Framework”.. While academics have ruminated over several possible North Korean nuclear strategies ranging from political, catalytic (meaning threat of use to provoke international intervention), retaliatory to war fighting, what is apparent is that China has taken centre stage and has been elevated to the unlikely role of an ‘honest’ broker in the matter. Somewhere over the years since the Korean War of 1950, China’s unwavering support of Pyong Yang has been consigned to a “memory warp.” China and North Korea signed a mutual aid and arms treaty in 1961. The treaty obliges the allies to provide immediate assistance should either come under armed attack. What we are currently witness to is on-going history when China continues to provide economic and high-tech support to North Korea’s arms programme. There is also no movement towards abrogating or even watering down the 1961 Treaty . The next episode of history is a nuclear-armed North Korea as China’s only formal ally in the region. The strategic complications for the East and South China Sea and the region at large have just begun.

Pakistan has no declared doctrine. Its collaborative nuclear programme with China drives its nuclear policy. It espouses an opaque deterrent under military control steered by precepts obscure in form, seeped in ambiguity and guided by a military strategy that not only finds unity with non-state actors, but also perceives conventional and nuclear weapons as one continuum. The introduction of tactical nuclear weapons exacerbates credibility of control. It has periodically professed four thresholds each of which, if transgressed, may trigger a nuclear response; these are geographic, economic, military and political. It does not take a great deal of intellectual exertion to declare whose case lowering of the nuclear threshold promotes.

Israel does not officially confirm or deny having nuclear weapons. Its ambiguous stance puts it in a difficult position since to issue a statement pledging NFU would confirm possession. Israel has however declared that it “would not be the first in region to introduce nuclear weapons.”

The United States has refused to adopt a NFU policy, saying that it “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first.” Yet the doctrine reduces the role of U.S. nuclear weapons to deter nuclear attack on the United States, allies, and partners. The Nuclear Posture Review of 2010 notes, a less abstruse long term vision: “it is in the U.S. interest and that of all other nations that the nearly 65-year record of nuclear non-use be extended forever.”

We have argued earlier that nuclear weapons are instruments of state that can potentially destroy political intent, indeed when a nuclear exchange occurs then it is survival of the protagonists that is threatened. And if survival is an enduring feature of every nation’s interest then it is logical that incipient combatants desist from escalating to a nuclear exchange. This logic provides the determinate sensibility for a NFU policy. A compact appraisal of doctrines of nations in possession of nuclear weapons was done here primarily to highlight the intrinsic hypocrisy or should we say realpolitik that drives them. But if realpolitik is taken to mean politics that strives to secure practical national interests rather than higher ideals, then even in this frame of reference NFU advances an irrefutable case. There is another awkward irony, these nations recognise two central attributes of policy; first, the inability to control escalation of a nuclear exchange and second, the value of nuclear disarmament. 72 years since the last use of nuclear weapons, neither has proliferation occurred en masse nor have nuclear weapons found tactical favour. The world’s ontogeny in nuclear realpolitik now suggests that the first step towards the negation of nuclear weapons is to find value in a universal declaration of No First Use.

[i]V. Levshin, A. Nedelin, M. Sosnovskiy, “O primenenii yadernogo oruzhiya dlya deeskalatsii voennykh deystviy,” (Use of Nuclear Weapons for Deescalating Conflicts- authors transalation) Voennaya Mysl Vol. 3, May-June 1999, pp. 34-37.

To Take the Road Less Travelled By*: Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures

Transcript of a presentation made to the Chaophraya Dialogue in February 2012.


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: Nuclear Risk Assessment, South Asia Nuclearization, Tactical Nuclear Weapons, Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense System, NFU doctrine

The Problem

The real problem with nuclear weapons risk reduction is the ability to convince decision makers that no conceivable advantage can be achieved from a nuclear exchange; for, as long as one side believes that there is some value to be had through the deployment and use of nuclear weapons, uncertainties and imponderables creep in that sets into motion a chain reaction that continuously aggravates and raises the degree of risk.

Military planners are more than familiar with the fact that risk assessment is an imperative in the development of a strategic plan. The process of its generation is marked by the persistent motivation to not only eliminate uncertainties and bring about balance in the Objectives-Resource-Means equation but also to ensure that the probability of success and the benefits that accrue far outweigh the hazards of failure. However, the abiding conundrum is that the very nature of warfare is in opposition to such precision.

Nuclear Risk Assessment

When we enter the nuclear arena we must note that strategic imbalance is intrinsic to the Objectives-Resources-Means relationship. From the very start, the equation is irrevocably in a state of unstable equilibrium caused by the fact that whatever means are used the impact will invariably be to obliterate the very objectives or interests that were sought to be achieved. This is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in its non usage; its aim is, nuclear war avoidance; its futility is, in attempting to use it to attain political goals. 

Strategic Collaboration

Strategic collaboration with a potential enemy is not a concept that comes naturally to the military planner. Tradition is against it and the very idea of sovereignty militates at the thought of it. Nonetheless it can be no nation’s case to destroy the very purpose that polity set out to achieve. Nuclear weapons have put us on a razors edge in part because of our inability to control the manner in which political events and technology are driving the direction nuclear weapon policies and arsenals are headed. While technology invites covertness; the lethality, precision, stealth and time compression that it has wrought demands transparency. Demarcation between custodian and controller and central control are imperatives if at all the risks of an unintended exchange are to be averted and stability of a deterrent relationship assured. The belief that escalation control of a nuclear conflict is possible lacks conviction and therefore any attempt to conventionalise nuclear weapons has to be abhorred.

The Descent to Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW)

The absence of transparency manifests itself in ‘speculative bulges’ in the arsenal. The direction in which arsenals are headed with the induction of the ‘Nasr’, ‘Babur’ and the ‘Raad’ is a grim reminder of the upshot of ambiguity and opacity both in policy and control and the risks of a descent to nuclear war fighting becomes a near certainty.

Strategic planners in Pakistan suggest that nuclear weapons have an inalienable place in their military strategy and therefore a flexible response of both the conventional and the nuclear is the order of things. Also, ambiguities and the threat of first use are central to the ‘absence’ of a declared doctrine. Add to this is the actuality of an enfeebled civilian leadership incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger, the active involvement of non-state actors in military strategy and an alarming posture of an intention-to-use all have the makings of a nuclear nightmare in the offing.

Cardinal Principles Governing Risk Reduction

We are now in a position to enunciate some of the cardinal principles that govern risk reduction in the nuclear situation that obtains in the subcontinent:

  • Abiding belief in nuclear war avoidance.
  • Clarity in strategic underpinnings, establishment of coordination centres and a rejection of ambiguities.
  • Stability of the deterrent relationship.
  • Transparency in policy, technology intrusions, intent and alerts.
  • Abhorrence of a descent to tactical nuclear weapons, conventionalising and nuclear war fighting.
  • Centralised command and control with a clear demarcation between Custodian and Controller.

Against the backdrop of what ought to be, an examination of whether nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRM) currently address the rigorous demands of donning the mantle of nuclear weapon states that too in an adversarial predisposition and geographically co-located within a few minutes flight time from each other; the answer must come in the negative. What is striking is that despite several incidents over the last decade and a half that could have escalated to the nuclear level the security establishments on both sides have not set themselves to the task of preparing concrete perspectives on the issue of nuclear risk reduction barring endorsing the principle. Currently the only meaningful risk reduction measure in place is mutual notification of ballistic missile flight tests.

NRRM Measures

There are several NRRMs that can be put in place without in anyway radically altering the material situation. These may be identified as follows:

  • Making transparent strategic and doctrinal underpinnings of nuclear forces and the purpose of technological intrusions.
  • De-alerting of nuclear weapon systems; while this may not be easily verifiable, the process may begin by notifying at all times the alert state of nuclear forces.
  • Making transparent a minimalistic approach by declaring ‘how much is enough’.
  • Developing a common lexicon and understanding of nuclear concepts.
  • Rejecting short range nuclear missiles and the descent to tactical nuclear weapons.
  • Setting up of surveillance and risk reduction centres that provide communication and coordination for implementing these measures

The Value of Ambiguity

The policy of nuclear ambiguity was brought to prominence when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1966 stated that ‘Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region’. Four red lines were linked to its use. These included successful Arab military penetration; destruction of Israeli Air Force; cities attacked by WMD and use of N-Weapons.  It served as Israel’s ultimate guarantor of security.

The value of ambiguity lies in opacity of policy and an unwillingness to disclose status of the weapon program. When disclosure has occurred and a nation has declared its nuclear weapon status in an ambience of multilateralism, ambiguity loses value and increases the hazards of the unintended. For inherent to an ambiguous policy is its tendency to take advantage of risk aversion, a bedrock of a deterrent relationship (this underscores the Pakistan position).

Indistinctness in policy, when TNWs are in the arsenal immediately suggests that conventional principles apply. Resulting in actions that are contradictory to stated policies which in turn provide an incentive for speculative bulges in arsenal and for opting for a first strike capability/counter force capability on the part of the adversary.

Ambiguity has been used as an offset for conventional inferiority with the belief that control over escalation is possible. This is so obviously a fallacy due to the nature of the weapon. Also its effect in disrupting stability is apparent and the ability to bargain or negotiate is greatly diminished since the potential adversary begins with the assumption of a worst case and accordingly builds his arsenal. Ambiguity must thus be seen as an agent in direct opposition to achieving a stable deterrent relationship.

Technology intrusions coupled with ambiguity of intent increases the hazard quotient geometrically and will make the demand for transparency more urgent if a stable deterrent relationship is the aim.

In theory the Anti Ballistic Missile is a defensive system, yet its introduction can not only provoke destabilisation in a deterrent relationship but also can provide the incentive for unpredictability. Where doctrinal underpinnings are similar and the basis of stability is mutually assured destruction, then ABMs would be a destabilising factor for a variety of reasons; chief amongst them is that it undermines the strategic underpinnings of the arsenal and it provides the incentive to launch a first strike.

However, in a situation where a No First Use policy is faced with ambiguity or a First Use situation or there is wide variance in approach to establishing a deterrent relationship, the acquisition of an ABM capability makes strategic sense because of the ‘failure conundrum’ and imponderables that play on the planners mind.


The only way to reduce the risks involved of a nuclear exchange is to convince decision makers that no conceivable advantage can accrue from its use. Its only purpose is to deter its own use. Any attempt to conventionalise the weapon runs the risk of not only decentralising control increasing the risk of unintended application, but also of losing escalatory control and destroying the purpose of polity.

The genii cannot be put back in the lamp, what can be done is to take the road less travelled by and put in place measures that promote transparency, understanding and  de-alerting of nuclear forces.


*Frost, Robert. “Two roads diverge in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”.