On India as a Responsible Nuclear Weapon State: Does the ‘No First Use’ Doctrine Need a Review?

AuthorBharat H. Desai,Jay B. Desai
Date01 July 2021
Published date01 July 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
58(3) 342 –362 2021
© 2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/00208817211024439
Research Article
On India as a Responsible
Nuclear Weapon State:
Does the ‘No First Use’
Doctrine Need a Review?
Jay B. Desai1 and Bharat H. Desai2
India conducted Operation Shakti (Pokhran II) nuclear tests during 11–13 May
1998 that ushered her into the cherished nuclear weapons club. It was well
calibrated decision to formally choose the nuclear path through the first peaceful
nuclear explosion, Smiling Buddha (Pokhran I) that was conducted on 18 May
1974. It was significant that without joining the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation
Treaty, India managed to gatecrash into the nuclear weapons capability. It led to
articulation of the No First Use (NFU) doctrine on 4 January 2003 (Ministry of
External Affairs [MEA], 2003). In the wake of 16 August 2019 pronouncement of
the Indian Defence Minister on possible review of the NFU, this article seeks to
probe the question: Does the NFU doctrine require any such review? It comprises
the rational, the promise of NFU, counterforce strategies, NFU with respect to
tactical nuclear weapons and associated problems with First Use and NFU.
No First Use, First Use, credible minimum deterrence, counterforce, peace time
declaration, nuclear weapon state
After going overtly nuclear in May 1998 with Pokhran II (MEA, 2003), India
adopted the doctrine of NFU. A NFU doctrine enables a country to the point where
it can absorb the first strike of nuclear weapons from an adversary and yet will be
left with enough nuclear weapons to massively retaliate so as to inflict an
unacceptable damage during the second strike. The crux of this nuclear posture
1 School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Energy University, Gandhinagar, India.
2 School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Corresponding author:
Bharat H. Desai, Jawaharlal Nehru Chair and Professor of International Law, School of International
Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110067, India.
E-mail: desai@jnu.ac.in
Desai and Desai 343
came to be articulated on 4 January 2003 in a decision of the Cabinet Committee
on Security by the Government of India. The NFU1 doctrine came into effect
almost five years after India declared itself as a nuclear weapon state (NWS). As
in any democratic system, several views sprung up to question the timing,
necessity and wisdom for India adhering to the NFU doctrine. In this context the
study modestly seeks to answer the question: What purpose does the NFU serve
in India’s national security preparedness? Does the NFU need any change at this
In view of this we need to decipher the meaning and rational behind the
audacity of placing in public domain the crisp NFU doctrine that seeks to govern
India’s cherished ‘nuclear assets’. Notwithstanding India formally adopting the
NFU posture, it is still premised upon India’s traditional wisdom and high moral
ground on her continued ‘commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world,
through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament’ (NFU:
2.VIII). Thus an attainment of nuclear weapons capability (NWC), borne out of
dire necessity has been premised upon and given an umbilical link to India’s
consistent advocacy of universal disarmament. The main thrust of this NFU
doctrine (NFU: 2. I, II, III) has been spelled out as follows:
Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent;…A posture of ‘No First
Use’: nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on
Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere;…Nuclear retaliation to a first strike
will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage (MEA, 2003).
However, after acquiring the NWC, there still remains some concern among the
scholars and in the national security architecture circles: Was it appropriate for
India to adopt a NFU doctrine? The issue came to the fore again in the wake of a
statement of 16 August 2019 issued by the Indian Defence Minister that somehow
also came in the aftermath of the Constitution Order (Application to Jammu &
Kashmir) of 5 August 2019. The defence minister said:
Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atalji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear
power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of NFU. India has strictly
adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances. (The
Hindu, 2019)
This statement of the defence minister in fact seeks to give effect to the ruling
Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 2014 Election Manifesto wherein it was stated that
if elected to power BJP will ‘revise and update’ India’s nuclear doctrine so as to
‘make it relevant to challenges of current time’ (BJP, 2014, p. 39). This is a public
debate where people on both sides exist. Some think that having NFU makes the
country vulnerable while others think that NFU is most secure. The rationale
behind choosing NFU is that Indian political leadership would like to ensure that
the adversaries are not able to blackmail India. This political signalling has to be
done since India sees a nuclear arsenal as a means of political deterrence by
projecting the political and military architecture as being in place. This is in the

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