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.

The Elephant and the Dilemma of Nuclear Force Planning


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in April 2013.

Keywords: South Asia Nuclearization, Sino-Pak relations, India’s Nuclear Doctrine, Deterrence Stability, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program

One of the open secrets of the Indian security establishment is the evolution of its nuclear weapons capability. The process did not follow any established norms that guide the discernment of theory into a security strategy or the rendition of technology into a nuclear stockpile. Rather, its development was driven by a single-point politico-scientific coterie stirred by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) combine. The leadership neither saw strategic significance in a more eclectic approach nor clarity that a theory did not endanger political ideology or scientific savvy, but was an instrument to fertilise both.

From Indian folklore, a story is told of six blind men and an elephant. The allegory underscores the limits of individual perceptions when left in stove pipes without an integrating hypothesis. Viewed in perspective of the enormous destructive power of the nuclear weapon, now in the hands of the new “destroyer of worlds”, it presented a terrifying and unspeakable nature of the truth, much as the elephant to the blind. To marry political issues and technological capabilities with military operational practices was the unheeded scream of the previous quarter of a century.

It was only after Pokhran II in 1998 and the Kargil episode that the real nature of nuclear weapons was emphasized and the imperative of military involvement dawned on the establishment. This realisation took the form of a declared nuclear doctrine with a classified section that drew a roadmap for enabling and operationalizing a ‘No First Use’ doctrine. Born of the desire not to repeat the Cold War experience, and a belief in Brodie’s maxim that nuclear weapons had changed the nature of warfare; nuclear war avoidance became primary to the political objective. While this critical discernment was slow in the offing and the product of a tangled approach, there can be no denying its rational strength and its progression.

A deterrent relationship is a balance founded on rationality. On the part of the ‘deterree’, there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks of hostile action; and on the part of the ‘deterrer’, there is rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of the risks involved in a manner that strategic miscalculations are avoided. The exceptional feature of this transaction is that the roles are reversible, provided it is in the common interest to maintain stability, and this is where the sub-continental rub lies when the search for equilibrium is one-sided.

Pakistan’s quest for nuclear weapons is visceral in urge, India-specific in intent and ‘at-any-cost’ in motivation. It serves to explicate (and vindicate) the bizarre extent of the AQ Khan network’s exertions, and its clandestine nuclear links with China and North Korea. Therefore, unique and intriguing to the nuclear cauldron is the tri-polar nature of the playing field, with China and Pakistan in a collusive arrangement. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program was conceived, designed, and tested by Beijing from the mid-1970s onwards. In conjunction with all this is the rapid pace at which the Khushab reactors (II and III in particular) have come on-line and weapon grade plutonium is being extracted with active and persistent Chinese aid. Collaboration, technological updates, the breakneck build-up of fissile material and production and extraction facilities may even suggest a doctrinal co-relation, which any deterrent relationship overlooks at the peril of its constancy.

No meaningful scrutiny of the sub-continental nuclear situation can avoid looking at the internal workings of Pakistan. What has caused this situation is the fixation with achieving military parity with India, and the precarious cocktail that the establishment has brewed in nurturing fundamentalist and terrorist organisations as instruments of their policies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. This policy has blown back to the extent that it is more than plausible that elements of the nuclear arsenal could well fall into extremist hands, aided by sympathetic rogue elements in the military. The recent happenings at Abbottabad, the Plutonium rush, the assault on PNS Mehran, the conventionalising of the Hatf-9 missile, the descent to tactical nuclear weapons, and the continued opacity of strategic underpinnings of their nuclear programme defies rationality and does not in any way engender confidence in the prospects for stability. Added to all this is US Secretary of State Kerry’s recent insinuation in Beijing of Pakistan’s nuclear links with North Korea (while oddly down playing China’s role) that attached nuclear perfidy to an already vexed situation. Such ‘hare’ like nimbleness in nuclear matters, as Michael Krepon has termed it, could also suggest an incredulous belief on the part of Pakistani leadership in being able to control the escalatory nuclear ladder. This they must know is a fallacy, given the yawning power asymmetry that exists.

We stand today on the cusp of a ‘Strangelovesque’ situation caused in part by the reluctance to control the manner in which technology and political events are driving the direction in which arsenals are headed, and in part due to lack of transparency. This is the predicament that is faced by nuclear force planners. There does not appear to be any other answer than to readjust nuclear postures, turn back the clock on tactical nuclear weapons, and retune doctrines with the aim of bringing about balance in posture. Policy must accommodate the reality of the tri-polar situation and the need for ‘convincing reassurances’ on the matter of rogue players.

(Written as part of a collection of commentaries by various scholars on Nuclearization in South Asia, hosted by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. To follow the rest of the debate, visit: