It is not the first time that India’s No First Use policy has become a topic of controversy. Ironically, March 2017 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference pledged a new wave of tense debate on the preemptive nuclear strike, decapitation strike and counter strike in South Asia. Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, managed to grab the attention of the conference attendees by inkling that:
“there is increasing evidence that India will not allow Pakistan to go first”
He added that:
“India’s opening salvo may not be conventional strikes trying to pick off just Nasr batteries (launch vehicles for Pakistan’s tactical battlefield nuclear warheads) in the theatre, but a full ‘comprehensive counterforce strike’ that attempts to completely disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons so that India does not have to engage in iterative tit-for-tat exchanges and expose its own cities to nuclear destruction.”
Comprehensive counterforce here is used as an informal phrase that describes counterattack on a nuclear arsenal.
It is impossible to completely disarm a nuclear weapons state. If a nuclear weapon state is on the other side, one has to face not only massive retaliation but a nuclear counter attack, in response. Well, analytically, it could be assessed, as a consequence to the ambitions of completely disarming Pakistan that India intends to build more nuclear weapons, with enhanced and more sophisticated technologies, ballistic missile defense, a shift away from recessed and de-mated deterrent postures, multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), and expansion of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
It would be pertinent to mention here a well-known fact that India is the largest arms importer, and is engaged in several nuclear deals worldwide for which US is the biggest helper. An evidence estimated that for the US it would be desirable if a friendly Asian power beat Communist China to the punch by detonating a nuclear device first, for which the very likely country was no other than India. So, the US assisted by helping India acquire nuclear explosive, for balancing communist China that is evident from the recently declassified Sept 1961, top secret memorandum from State Dept official George McGhee to Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
Coming back to the point, there is another way of looking into Vipin’s above quoted comments; they is a direct indication of Indian inclination towards the doctrinal duplicity. Meaning, thereby, varying in case of Pakistan and China. On one hand, Indian nuclear strategists are on their verge of launching preemptive nuclear strike on Pakistan by flushing off its No-First-Use (NFU) policy and on the other hand they’re keeping the same doctrine for China. It is a clear double standard of its nuclear doctrinal policy of NFU. Ironically, the revolving continuing speculation on the transformation of NFU policy of Indian Nuclear doctrine is very much proved in the recent statement of Indian nuclear expert. The strategy might be to keep all options open by putting ambiguity in its nuclear doctrine. Diplomatically, Indian doctrine is only to show the international community that India has maintained a responsible use of its nuclear weapons by declaring a written doctrine, paradoxically which was never credible enough.
Operationally it is not possible to go for decapitation strike. Indian current nuclear developments such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles and an ambitious ballistic missile defense program, reflect its aggressive nuclear posture. But, no matter how much Indian political elite wants to signal aggressively, it is standing in the international community quite diplomatically at the same time. India actually aspires to alter regional and global order by its day-by-day hardline revelation. It was India’s ‘unrestrained behavior’, after which it became necessary for Pakistan to take a step forward towards a sea-based deterrent. India is extending the range of its missiles (Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles) right after the MTCR membership just within days – what will India do if its dream comes true of getting NSG membership? It would, for sure, lead the way for enhancing its uranium reserves for military usage or a thermonuclear weapons test.
Finally, the conventional wisdom of South Asia's strategic stability problem is challenged by the Indian expert’s delivered remarks. India may be demonstrating a ‘seismic shift’ in its nuclear strategy from 'no first use' to a preemptive nuclear counterforce allowing for escalation dominance or a ‘splendid first strike’ against Pakistan. Islamabad must be prepared for New Delhi opting to nuclear first-use and ever more so with hardliners like Manohar Parrikar, Ajit Davol, Shivshankar Menon and Sushma Sawraj at the helm. Last but not the least, India still does not have the means to carry out a “splendid” pre-emptive strike against Pakistan’s nuclear forces. It would be worth noting here that it requires Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets, which are not within India’s reach for decades.