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India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Two Decades of Strategic Stability

INS ARIHANT - Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons

While it has been 25 years since India decided to go open with a nuclear capability with the Shakti series of tests, India’s nuclear doctrine was published through a Prime Minister's Office Press Release on January 04, 2003.

Two decades plus after the tenets of the nuclear doctrine were made public, the dictum has served well in ensuring strategic stability given the detailed deliberations carried out prior to public enunciation.

The Draft Nuclear Doctrine was published prior to the declared one and had served to muster thoughts that had finally gone into the short single page document with six paragraphs.

The Nuclear Doctrine in fact is the only document on national security that has been published by the government. There is a degree of lamentation over the lack of a national security strategy and while in the past there were many proclamations that the same would be published shortly this has not seen the light of the day.

Even a National Cyber Security Strategy has not found its way in the public domain. Thus, the nuclear doctrine stands unique to this day as being the only publicly declared charter by the government of India in the security domain.

Purists of doctrinal theory will be happy with the document given that it is short yet covers the essential facets for planning and organization of the nuclear forces and employment under extreme necessity.

Doctrine or even a strategy does not require an enemy for articulation, thus there is no mention of China or Pakistan, India’s traditional adversaries. However, the document covers salient facets to meet the challenge from these though there is a debate that the tactical nuclear threat posed by Pakistan after operationalizing the Nasr may not be adequately met by India’s doctrine of 2003. More about it later.

The first and foremost tenet of the Doctrine is deterrence. Simplistically speaking deterrence is designed to deter an adversary from attacking with nuclear weapons, however in the case of India and Pakistan this has also served to prevent the outbreak of a conventional war though this was tested by the Pakistan Army in Kargil in 1999 in a limited way.

It is commonly believed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 may not have occurred had Kyiv continued to possess nuclear weapons which were abdicated post reformation of the Soviet Union, this may be now in the realm of speculation.

For deterrence to be viable adversary has to be convinced of capabilities and intent to employ the same.

This has two functional components – credible atomic weaponization, means of delivery, survivability in case of a pre-emptive attack, organization and command and control and the political will to employ the same.

Given lack of adequate verified public information on these facets any assessment will remain speculation. Suffice to say India’s national security planners are cognizant of the requirements and may have put in place the necessary processes.

‘Minimum’ appears to be more an article of faith for India as a proponent of global peace and non violence and for obvious reasons is not quantified. However, in the context of No First Use and massive retaliation outlined subsequently, there is a need for a survivable deterrent capability.

The second important tenet is the posture of No First Use – India and China are the only states possessing nuclear weapons who have abdicated the first use.

This is a clear statement that nukes are not for war fighting but are political in nature and will be used against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere – implying also in Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir and Aksai Chin or forces operating in Pakistan and China.

The nuanced NFU status has been advocated by having forces on launch on warning status and so on, but the utility of the same in the strategic context needs to be debated apart from the necessity to have processes and systems in place including command and control without which such a status will not be credible.

The third tenet has also led to much debate – Massive Retaliation and Unacceptable Damage, the message is to convey to the adversary of intent – quantification, targeting etc remains ambiguous and rightly so. Will India use the Massive Retaliation option in case of use of a tactical nuclear weapon by Pakistan remains in the domain of discussion.

In combination of tenets such as NFU, credible minimum deterrent and massive retaliation - there is a necessity for a viable Nuclear Triad - land, sea and air based delivery capability. This remains in the domain of some degree of speculation so far.

Fourthly only the civilian political leadership can authorize the use of nuclear weapons which is in consonance with the principle of civil supremacy in India. While nuclear command structure has been articulated the necessity of having a service representative in the Political Council has been much debated especially after appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff.

Fifthly non use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states assumes importance to create a degree of confidence and avoidance of coercion in the Neighbourhood and beyond.

Sixthly the option of retaliation with nuclear weapons has been retained in the case of a biological or chemical weapons use. With the adherence to biological and chemical conventions by most states how far this is relevant remains to be seen?

Seventhly a commitment to non proliferation assumes importance as India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Commitment to Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty and moratorium on testing is relevant. India has not acceded to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) so far and is not likely to do so in the future.

Eighthly commitment to a global, verifiable and on discriminatory nuclear deterrence has been outlined.

The Doctrine has also indicated the nuclear command structure and composition with the Prime Minister heading the political council - the sole body authorized to order use of nuclear weapons. Some nuances of who will do so in case the prime minister is out of country, carriage of the “black box,” and so on remain in the operational domain and may have to be thought through in case such a contingency arises.

Finally, the document assures that various components of operationalization of use of a nuclear weapon have been confirmed by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).

Strategic Stability Contours

The debate over some of the tenets of the nuclear doctrine has been covered in the relevant paragraphs. The doctrine has been tested vis a vis Pakistan given adversarial relations and triggers arising thereof some of which were the 1999 Kargil penetration by Pakistan, the 2001 attack on the parliament and subsequent launch of Operation Parakram and the recent Balakote air strike by the Indian Air Force in 2019.

A component of strategic stability has been overarching supervision voluntary or requested by the United States and Russia who have interceded during these periods of intense armed confrontation to ensure that the nuclear red line is not crossed by either side.

Vis a vis China strategic stability has not been tested and is unlikely to be so given the policy of nuclear restraint by Beijing. And while there is much debate over aggressive nationalist military modernization and use of force by China there are no indications that the highest political leadership in the country – the President who is also Chairman of the Central Military Commission and the Politburo has expressed any desire to work beyond the NFU.

Hopefully this regime of strategic restraint will continue. Within the NFU level of launch readiness may differ and will have to be examined deliberately on the impact that these may have on India’s nuclear posture.

A doctrine is designed with a long term perspective thus India’s nuclear doctrine of 2003 has served its purpose of achieving strategic stability so far, while debate on various nuances and the need for change should continue but a revision is not necessary for now.

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