In mid-May India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by hard-liner Narendra Modi, won an unprecedented majority in the Lok Sabha. The BJP’s election manifesto promised to “[s]tudy in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” India’s 1999 nuclear doctrine contains the following four themes concerning nuclear policy: 1) no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons (or “retaliation only”); 2) credibility; 3) survivability; and 4) effective command and control procedures.

To develop the strongest possible nuclear deterrent, the Modi administration should maintain the NFU, and continue previous administrations’ efforts with regards to survivability. Policy changes to address credibility and command and control problems could also help strengthen the deterrent.

India’s NFU policy

The BJP has taken initial steps to maintain the policy, stating publicly, “The no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons was a well thought out stand […] We don’t intend to reverse it.” This decision should prove beneficial to the maintenance of South Asian nuclear deterrence.

In Pakistan, India’s NFU is taken with a grain of salt. There is little doubt that India would ignore its self-imposed restraint in a crisis. However, the NFU still serves as a symbolic signaling policy. The practical implications of the NFU are limited, but, according to Ankit Panda of The Diplomat, a change in policy could “be perceived as provocative and lead to friends and foes alike questioning its intentions.” Because the NFU is self-enforced (and thus could easily be ignored in a crisis), it appears that India does not have an incentive to abandon its NFU. On the contrary, abandonment could lead to suspicion from Pakistani strategic planners. The BJP decision to maintain the NFU should avoid sending destabilizing signals to Pakistani military strategists.

Credibility

While the BJP seems to be on the right track in maintaining the NFU without substantial alterations, the new administration should revise India’s nuclear posture to address credibility issues. Throughout India’s history as a nuclear weapons state, its nuclear doctrine has stated that, “Any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor.” Were Pakistan to launch any nuclear strike on India, policy would dictate that India respond with massive retaliation, leading, almost certainly, to mutually assured destruction. Is this policy credible? Probably not. Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, explained that Pakistan’s newly developed Nasr (Hatf IX) tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) are intended “to counterbalance India’s move to bring conventional military offensives to a tactical level,” and Pakistani officials have stated previously that nuclear weapons could be used if “India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory.” These statements suggest that the TNWs would be used in the case of a major Indian conventional strike on Pakistani territory. However, one analysis argues that, in order to stop an attack from one Indian armored division, Pakistan would have to launch over 400 TNWs. According to India’s policy, theoretically, the launch of only one (or hundreds) of these TNWs would trigger massive retaliation, despite the limited damage that such an attack would inflict. As such, the Indian massive retaliation doctrine does not seem credible; it does not seem likely that India would respond to a relatively minor nuclear attack (for example, one that is unable to destroy a conventional division) with a massive strike, leading to mutually assured destruction. To address this problem, the Modi administration could develop limited response options to give the Prime Minister flexibility, establishing a more credible nuclear deterrence policy.

Survivability

With regards to survivability, the previous administration took the initial steps to ensure the survivability of the Indian deterrent. Earlier this year, India began sea trials of the INS Arihant, the nation’s first nuclear submarine (SSBN). By 2015, the submarine should be equipped with K-4 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) which have a range of 3,000km. At present, the Indian Navy intends to add two additional nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered submarines.

Indian decisionmakers have been divided over the issue of SSBNs. Debates rage over whether naval aviation or submarines should be a priority. Among submarine proponents, there is a second debate over developing conventional submarines versus nuclear submarines. Funding has historically been the deciding factor in Indian modernization implementation, and the new administration will have to decide where to allocate naval funding. SSBN development should continue to be a priority. By completing its nuclear triad, India is assuring the survivability of its arsenal; a submarine somewhere in the Indian Ocean would be able to launch a retaliatory strike in the event that the land-based arsenal was destroyed in a pre-emptive strike. Developing an assured second-strike capability by adding the sea-based leg of the triad enhances India’s deterrent by elevating the costs of a Pakistani first-strike.

Command and Control

Finally, nuclear command and control procedures should be an important priority in the new government’s evaluation of its nuclear policy. At present, command and control procedures state that the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), chaired by the Prime Minister, would order the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) to prepare for a strike. The SFC would then work through the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJSOC) to mate the weapons with delivery platforms. This is problematic because the chairmanship of the CJSOC is currently given to the senior-most service chief from the three branches of the military; this selection criteria means that the position can rotate within only months. The instability and inconsistency of the nuclear command and control structure could limit long-term decisionmaking and the leader’s preparedness in a crisis.

The new Prime Minister has been presented with a series of policy recommendations to address the weaknesses in the current command and control structure. These proposals suggest that a four-star general with a specified tenure be appointed to head the CJSOC and assume leadership over to nuclear armament process. Appointing a longer term leader who could focus solely on nuclear armament in a crisis (rather than being responsible for both the nuclear weapons and his conventional military branch, as is currently the case) would help streamline command and control procedures, enhancing the efficiency of the deterrent and allowing for long-term continuity. Basic structural changes could serve to advance progress towards the goal of effective command and control procedures.

As the Modi government begins to review India’s nuclear policy, decisions must be made on all four of the basic pillars of Indian nuclear policy. The NFU should be maintained and efforts to develop a strong sea-based deterrent should be continued, while issues of credibility and command and control could be addressed with basic policy changes.