The South Asia Channel

Modi’s Nukes: Five Questions He Should Be Asking

There is a common refrain among many in the Indian commentariat these days: the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is “making all the right noises.”

Controversial as Modi and elements of his agenda may be, his ambitious plans to jumpstart the Indian economy, his bold pronouncements about rooting out poverty and corruption, his unprecedented hosting of eight regional leaders at his swearing-in ceremony—including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—and his apparent “let bygones be bygones” attitude toward the United States have all won him plaudits and left more than a few India watchers giddily (if cautiously) optimistic about India’s future.

Yet there is one crucial topic on which the new prime minister has not been making much noise at all: India’s nuclear deterrent.

Early Signals

In the lead-up to Modi’s election, his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) caused a stir when it stated in its electoral manifesto plans to “revise and update” the country’s nuclear posture. A similar pledge by the previous BJP-led government manifested itself in a succession of nuclear blasts in 1998, so the party’s vow understandably raised a few eyebrows; even the editorial board at The New York Times felt compelled to chime in: “In signaling its willingness to take a more provocative stance toward Pakistan and China, the party does not advance India’s interests.”

Much of the alarm stemmed from an impression that an assertive Modi-led government would scrap the country’s vaunted “no first use” policy—its commitment to employ nuclear arms only in retaliation to a nuclear attack. Modi moved quickly to put those fears to rest, saying of the policy, “there is no compromise on that,” and referring to it as “a great initiative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” the previous prime minister from the BJP. Yet for a variety of reasons—regional, international and domestic—a reboot of the doctrine governing New Delhi’s nuclear deterrent is in order.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine

India’s existing nuclear doctrine can be broken down into three key elements: deterrence, reassurance and nonproliferation. This combination of factors is meant to at once discourage adversaries—China and Pakistan, in particular—from attacking, soothe international concerns about India’s nuclear arsenal, and demonstrate New Delhi’s commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons.

In an effort to deter its foes, successive Indian administrations have committed themselves to building and maintaining a “credible minimum deterrent” and have promised massive retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. An arsenal of some 100 nuclear devices, including advanced ballistic missiles; excess stocks of domestically produced plutonium; and an emerging capability to launch nuclear arms from land, air and sea—a so-called “nuclear triad”—lend credence to such a posture. That the threat of nuclear retaliation has been expanded to allow for use in response to a biological or chemical weapon attack in recent years further demonstrates India’s conviction.

At the same time, Indian leaders—firmly rooted in a tradition that the scholars Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta refer to as “strategic restraint”—have sought to reassure states across the globe of their country’s non-threatening intentions. They have done so through a combination of the expression and adherence to the aforementioned “no first use” policy, as well as a pledge to refrain from using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-armed states and an explicit declaration that final nuclear decisions will only be taken by the civilian leaders, independent of the military.

Rounding out the three-legged stool is a long-held commitment to global disarmament and non-proliferation. “The basis of Indian nuclear policy,” explains Jaswant Singh, defense minister in the previous BJP-led government, is that “a world free of nuclear weapons would enhance not only India’s security but the security of all nations.” As such, India has pledged to maintain strict controls on the export of sensitive materials, has observed a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests, and voiced a “continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.” New Delhi’s efforts to gain entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), its observation of Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) exercises, and its recent proposal for a global no-first-use convention underpin these commitments.

Taken together, this framework has allowed India to both showcase its military might and to largely maintain standing as a responsible nuclear actor. Yet as the BJP’s own electoral manifesto notes, “changing geostrategic realities” merit a second look at the decade-old doctrine.

An Evolving Nuclear Order

Chief among those changing geostrategic realities are potentially threatening military developments to India’s north and west. Pakistan’s development of the Nasr tactical nuclear missile, enhancement of its short-range ballistic missile capabilities, rapid production of fissile material, and upgrading of its own nuclear facilities all raise serious concerns for military planners in New Delhi. Likewise, reports of China’s development of nuclear-tipped sea-based cruise missiles, Beijing’s building of sophisticated nuclear-powered attack submarines, and its advanced work on anti-satellite capabilities—coupled with the apparent watering down of that country’s own “no first use” policy and its assertiveness in the region of late—chip away at the credibility and perceived potency of India’s deterrent.

Worrisome as well is the threat of nuclear-armed non-state actors, about which New Delhi’s existing doctrine has little to say; this omission is of particular note given the acute threats India continues to face from terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and other extremist outfits—including some that have actively sought nuclear arms. In addition, India’s standing in the global nuclear order has changed considerably since the most recent drafting of its doctrine in 2003. Approval of the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal in 2008 brought India (partially) in from the cold, despite its status as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Further, as the international security scholar Rajesh Rajagopalan has argued, a rising China—and the consequent (if gradual) shift toward global bipolarity—is creating new opportunities for India, particularly as a regional power, to exert itself in the sphere of arms control and nonproliferation.

Domestic considerations have also altered the strategic landscape. As noted above, India is close to fielding a nuclear triad. And with tremendous arms development and procurement in recent years, its nuclear capabilities have outgrown the doctrine that governs their use. Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategy expert at MIT, has shown that, despite a pledge of “credible minimum” deterrence, India’s operational capabilities—weighted as they are in favor of long-range missiles—are more appropriate in dealing with the threat from Beijing than the one from Islamabad. What is more, Narang argues, is that those capabilities have undergone only limited testing, leaving Chinese policymakers unconvinced of their efficacy. India’s credible minimum deterrent, he says, “is neither credible toward China, nor minimal toward Pakistan.”

Time for a Change

It is evident, therefore, that a series of tweaks, nudges, pushes and shoves are in order to bring India’s nuclear doctrine up to speed, and five questions must be asked.

First, is “credible minimum deterrent” still an appropriate characterization of India’s nuclear posture? While the notion of a “minimum” deterrent may have at one time served to demonstrate a reluctance to develop and employ nuclear arms, it now sends mixed messages to India’s adversaries and undermines the country’s aim of being seen as a trustworthy actor. Will the new government be willing to part with this tired phraseology, in favor of a more nuanced one emphasizing credible deterrence of myriad diverse threats?

Second, is India willing to more explicitly demonstrate the survivability of its arsenal? To establish credibility in the nuclear arena—particularly if nuclear policy is governed by “no first use”—a nation must make it clear that its arsenal can survive an attack and can be used to carry out a so-called “second-strike.” Clearer reference to missile defense and other diverse retaliatory capabilities—namely the nuclear triad—could significantly enhance India’s credibility in this area.

Third, how would India respond to a WMD attack carried out by terrorists? The United States’ latest Nuclear Posture Review characterizes nuclear terrorism as today’s “most immediate and extreme danger.” Do Indian policymakers agree, and if so, how can India best signal to its adversaries and those sponsoring terrorist groups the devastating consequences of such an attack on Indian soil?

Fourth, can India offer clearer, more centralized messaging around its capabilities and deployment status in order to both deter and reassure adversaries? “India’s external signaling has long been too opaque,” Narang argues, calling for discipline and uniform messaging about India’s nuclear capabilities. Would Indian policymakers be willing to shed some of the secrecy around their nuclear program in order to better reassure enemies and partners, alike, about their intentions?

Finally, will India more energetically and creatively engage with multilateral arms control bodies? The previous BJP-led government made an effort to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and announced a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests, which has held ever since. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in the waning days of his administration, issued a call for a global no-first-use convention. Despite considerable roadblocks, renewed leadership by the Modi government on the multilateral nonproliferation front—and direct reference to it in a revised nuclear doctrine—could create momentum in arms control spheres, highlight India’s role as a responsible nuclear actor, and concretely demonstrate New Delhi’s longstanding commitment to a world without the most destructive weapons. The Modi government’s recent decision to allow stricter International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversight of India’s civilian nuclear facilities is a dramatic step in the right direction; reported plans to expand covert enrichment, on the other hand, are not.

In answering each of the above questions, new and fitting formulations for India’s nuclear posture may begin to emerge, serving to better deter, reassure and promote global nonproliferation—or to put it another way, on the nuclear doctrine front at least, Narendra Modi will be “making all the right noises.”


Benjamin Weiss is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), focusing on international security policy and conflict resolution in South Asia. He is currently living in New Delhi and can be reached at
benjamin.r.weiss@gmail.com or @brweiss on Twitter.

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