Changes in Nuclear Doctrine: Both Pakistan And India Acted Irresponsibly
On August 16, Rajnath Singh became the second defence minister to cast doubts over India’s stated policy of “No First Use” of nuclear weapons.
On the occasion of former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first death anniversary, Singh visited India’s nuclear test site at Pokhran and said in a tweet: “Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal ji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of NFU [No First Use]. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.”
The Indian media is describing this as a possible indicator of a major change in India’s nuclear doctrine. However, this is not for the first time that a senior Indian official has expressed doubts about the stated nuclear policy of his country.
Earlier in July 2016, former Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar had categorically stated that personally, he did not believe that India should adhere to NFU.
From Pakistan’s side, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi lamented the Indian defence minister’s statement and said that this irresponsible declaration is very inopportune.
The latest statement of the Indian defence minister has come at a time when tensions are running high between Pakistan and India because of the situation in Kashmir. Only a few months back, the air forces of the two countries had clashed in Kashmir. With the world taking little notice the dogfight, it contained a nuclear dimension.
In the words of a senior Pakistani military officials, “As Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan alluded that India was contemplating a missile attack on the night of February 27, the upper notches of escalations ladders may precede the lower ones in Indo-Pak hostilities.”
Therefore, this military crisis was unlike any previous one between the two countries. In the 2002 standoff, India’s military took at least 27 days to fully mobilise its strike corps close to Pakistani border. The counter mobilisation by Pakistan took even longer.
News reports in Pakistani media suggest that 14 Indian air force fighter jets crossed the Line of Control (LoC) on the night of February 26, 2019 and dropped payload into an area in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This group of India fighter jets included both MiG-21 and state-of-the art Russian SU-30 aircraft.
The PAF responded within hours and struck targets on Indian side of the LoC. One Indian MiG-21 was shot down.
It didn’t specify but news reports in Pakistani media suggest that indigenously produced JF-17 were used in this air strike.
Both SU-30 and JF-17 are nuclear-capable aircrafts. There is no way that the air forces of either country could have detected the kind of payload the incoming aircraft was carrying, when their radars detected the intruding jets. Presumably, either air force could have taken the intruding aircraft to be carrying nuclear payloads.
All this was taking place in the backdrop of major, but little noticed, changes taking place in the nuclear doctrines of the two nuclear rivals.
Ironically, nobody in the Indian media has pointed out that India had already abandoned the policy of “No First Use” much before the statements of their successive defence ministers.
Similarly, the Pakistan military planners wasted no time in converting the nukes from a weapon of deterrence to a weapon which is part of country’s war fighting capability. Nuclear experts have also noted this change in Pakistani nuclear policy as early as 2013.
No less a person than the renowned nuclear expert, Scott Sagan, has identified signs of this change in the Indian nuclear doctrine. In one of his published works, “Evolution of Pakistan and Indian nuclear doctrine”, Sagan has said that in January 2003, the New Delhi government issued its first official statement which outlined in unprecedented detail the principles and goals that would guide Indian operational nuclear doctrine and posture.
In the words of Sagan, this contained the follow paragraph, “However in the event of major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.”
Internal debate about the uselessness of “No First Use” policy was under way in Indian strategic circles for a long time. According to Sagan, “Although the 2003 doctrine claimed to maintain India’s no first use doctrine, this new clause clearly demonstrated that those advocating a strict interpretation of no first use had lost the internal debate.”
Sagan says, “How can one explain the adoption of this important change in India’s official nuclear doctrine.”
Ironically, the fear of use of chemical and biological weapons against its armed forces compelled India to abandon the no first use policy at a time when its main regional rival, Pakistan, has signed international conventions banning both biological and chemical weapons.
Hypothetically speaking this has removed another barrier to the use of nuclear weapons in any possible (God Forbid) conflict between two nuclear rivals.
Pakistan, however, acted no more responsible in the situation, when it took steps to integrate tactical nuclear weapons into its war fighting plans after the 2002 military standoff between the two countries.
On September 5, 2013, Pakistan’s top decision-makers gathered together under one roof inside the Rawalpindi offices of the Strategic Plans Division which commands the country’s nuclear arsenal. Besides the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the participants of the meeting included Sartaj Aziz (Advisor to Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs), Tariq Fatemi (Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs) and the military high command. The agenda in front of them was to approve what an official press release issued after the meeting called “Full Spectrum Deterrence”. Translated in simpler words, it means the introduction of small nuclear weapons in Pakistan Army’s war plans.
Such an approval was deemed necessary in the view of some major developments in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal over the last few years. In April 2011, Pakistan flight-tested short range, surface-to-surface multi-tube ballistic missile Nasr which has a range of 60 kilometres. Soon afterwards, another missile called Abdali — best suited for carrying small nuclear warheads swiftly to a short range target and hitting that target accurately — was test launched.
Officials at the time of the launch said Abdali was part of a quick response system to strengthen the deterrence value of Pakistan’s bigger nuclear weapons. Experts, however, saw the developments of these missiles as indicating a complete departure from the country’s nuclear policy, which originally saw nuclear weapons as weapons of last resort. “So (now) nuclear weapons are being seen by Pakistan as means for fighting a war with India,” is how Pervez Hoodbhoy, an Islamabad-based physicist and an internationally renowned activist against nuclear arms, interprets the introduction of Full Spectrum Deterrence.
The fact that the military establishment had been pursuing the development of tactical (read, small) nuclear weapons since long without any debate in the parliament or within the civilian segments of the state and the government clearly indicates that the civilian officials and the elected representatives of the people do not have much of a say on the issue. Also, the fact that civilian participants of September 5 meeting approved the Full Spectrum Deterrence without any debate and hesitation points to the same reality.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.