This piece is part of a compilation bringing together Regional Voices on the Challenges of Nuclear Deterrence Stability in Southern Asia.


Rajesh Rajagopalan
Rajesh Rajagopalan is a professor at the Center for International Politics, Organization, and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

India’s nuclear doctrine is an important variable determining nuclear stability in South Asia, especially because the doctrine is generally considered to be restrained. So any indication of change in the doctrine is a cause for concern. Such an indication of change happened most recently in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) released its election manifesto, in which it promised to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine to “make it relevant to challenges of current time.”1 This led to some speculation that a key element of India’s nuclear doctrine, India’s no-first-use commitment (NFU) for nuclear weapons, might be altered.2 Though the BJP leaders quickly denied that the NFU policy would be altered, this episode indicated the continuing discomfort among sections of the Indian strategic elite about India’s NFU pledge.3 This essay surveys the debate over India’s nuclear doctrine for signs of any imminent changes. It suggests that though there continue to be significant disagreements within the Indian strategic community about many elements of nuclear doctrine, the debate has stagnated, and no longer produces new ideas about how to deal with the most pressing dilemma that New Delhi faces: countering Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). India might need to shift its massive retaliation nuclear strategy to some form of modulated retaliation to deal with this challenge.

I begin with a brief overview of the official Indian nuclear doctrine. In the subsequent section, I survey the debate over various aspects of the doctrine, examining six major areas around which India’s nuclear doctrine debate revolves. Indian perspectives on the nuclear doctrine can be broadly divided into two camps: those who largely support the current doctrine, the moderates; and those who would revise it significantly to make it more aggressive, the expansionists. To the extent that the moderates seek any revision, it is to align India’s nuclear plans more closely with the Draft Nuclear Doctrine that the National Security Advisory Board produced in 1999. As with any exercise in taxonomy, this is a necessarily crude effort, and not everyone within each camp might agree with others in their group on all aspects of doctrine. More complicated taxonomies are also possible, but they are unnecessary for the purposes of this effort, which is to broadly outline the current debate and, more important, the possibility of change in India’s nuclear doctrine. I conclude with an assessment of the prospects for changes in the doctrine.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine

India released its Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) in August 1999. The DND was prepared by the semiofficial National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and was quickly disowned by the Indian government, though many details of the DND faithfully followed previous government statements, including authoritative statements in parliament regarding credible minimum deterrence and NFU. In January 2003, New Delhi released its official nuclear doctrine.4 The official doctrine itself was based on the DND, though there were also some differences. These included suggesting that India might use nuclear weapons to retaliate against attacks using chemical and biological weapons (CBW), and that Indian retaliation to any nuclear attack would be massive. In a speech in 2010, the then national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, stated that India’s doctrine is “no first use against non-nuclear weapon states,” implying that NFU does not apply to nuclear-armed powers.5 Though Menon’s remarks created some controversy, they appear to have been an inadvertent error—such a formulation has not been reiterated subsequently. In April 2013, a few additional details about the nuclear doctrine were outlined in a speech by Shyam Saran, the head of the NSAB, in a speech in New Delhi.6 Saran explicitly stated that the “views” he was sharing were his own and not those of the government, but he did reveal details about the management of India’s nuclear forces that were not in the public realm, so his speech can be considered an unofficial elaboration of the details of India’s nuclear doctrine. He outlined the makeup of the Strategic Programme Staff, which carries out the general staff work of the NCA, and of the Strategic Armament Safety Authority, which looks after the safety and security aspects of nuclear weapons. In March 2012, a nonofficial task force of strategic analysts, put together by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, also produced an alternate nuclear doctrine for India, which largely stuck to the principles of the official doctrine, with the exception of rejecting the characterization of “massive” to refer to retaliation to any nuclear attack on India, preferring the characterization of “punitive” that was used in the DND.7

Surveying the Debate

Indian strategists have debated India’s nuclear doctrine sporadically and inconclusively for well over a decade. Though the NFU remains the most controversial element of India’s nuclear doctrine, other aspects of the doctrine have also been contested. These include references in the doctrine to “massive” retaliation and to deterring CBW attacks, as well as the adequacy of the doctrine for dealing with new developments such as Pakistan’s reported development of TNWs.

Despite many contestations over the nuclear doctrine, the dominant view within India broadly endorses the current Indian nuclear doctrine, with one exception: There is almost unanimous rejection of the doctrine’s allusion to massive retaliation. It is also important to note that many developments in the region that are related to nuclear weapons have not triggered very much debate in India—in particular, persistent reports that Pakistan has surpassed India in the size of its nuclear arsenal, or frequent reports about Pakistan’s missile capability. Similarly, only scant attention has been given to the doctrine’s efficacy in deterring China.

The following considers opposing perspectives on six major issues that agitate the Indian debate: India’s NFU commitment, credible minimum deterrence, nuclear retaliation to CBW attacks, command-and-control aspects of the doctrine, massive retaliation, and Pakistan’s resort to TNWs and terrorism.

No First Use

The most controversial element of the Indian nuclear debate is undoubtedly India’s NFU pledge. One analyst calls India’s NFU “not so much a strategic choice, but a cultural one.”8 India’s nuclear doctrine promises an NFU posture, and also that India will only use nuclear weapons in retaliation—though a subsequent line modulates the NFU commitment to say that India will retain the option of nuclear weapons retaliation to CBW attacks. The inclusion of a CBW attack as a reason for nuclear retaliation is considered in a later section; here, I consider the arguments over the usefulness of the NFU pledge itself.

Moderates and expansionists disagree with great vigor over NFU. Moderates tend to be nuclear deterrence optimists who generally expect that achieving deterrence is relatively easy as long as nuclear weapons capability exist. They are not particularly concerned about the possibility that not striking first has any great deterrence disadvantages. As the late K. Subrahmanyam pointed out, deterrence is more about perception than numbers, and as long as the other side perceives a survivable nuclear capability, deterrence will hold.9 Moderates therefore consider NFU to be the centerpiece of India’s nuclear doctrine and strongly support it. For them, India’s NFU posture provides multiple advantages. As Manpreet Sethi points out, the most important advantage is that it obviates the need for the expensive nuclear weapons infrastructure that is associated with a first-use doctrine.10 Sethi points to several other advantages of an NFU posture; for one, it puts the onus of escalation on the adversary, without preventing India from defending itself.11 Elsewhere, she suggests that by conceding the initiative to the adversary, NFU is actually “liberating,” which is a good way of describing the attitude of moderates to the NFU.12 In addition, a purely retaliatory posture allows New Delhi to limit its reaction to nuclear attacks, forgoing threats of use of nuclear weapons. Further, there is little need for India to have nuclear forces on hair-trigger alerts, which are always risky.13 Finally, NFU allows India to keep its weapons disassembled, thus averting the need for systems such as Permissive Action Links, which are necessary to maintain control over nuclear weapons if they are stored ready to fire. NFU thus reflects India’s traditional abhorrence of nuclear weapons.

These and similar points are reflected in the writings of many moderates. Admiral Verghese Koithara, who wrote a well-received book on the Indian nuclear forces, suggests that NFU avoids the need for war-fighting approaches that use TNWs and counterforce targeting philosophies, both of which add to the size and complexity of a nuclear arsenal. NFU also reduces the difficulties and expenses associated with a complicated command-and-control system.14 But India’s NFU commitment is also conditional: Rajiv Nayan points out that, by making the NFU conditional, India lost an advantage without gaining any strategic or security value.15

The expansionists reject these arguments, and Bharat Karnad provides the best exemplar of opposition to NFU. Karnad argues that an NFU posture is only possible for a country that has “extreme confidence not only in the survivability of its national nuclear forces sufficient to muster a devastating retaliatory strike, but also in the efficacy of its crisis management system.”16 He argues that crisis management is not India’s forte. The Indian bureaucratic system, he says, “is manifestly incapable of handling any emergency as dire as a nuclear strike.”17 He also points to an additional flaw with NFU, that “the NFU principle is unenforceable.” Since there is no way in which nuclear weapons can be designed only for a second strike, NFU is more a peacetime declaration that a country does not have to abide by during war.18 Not surprisingly, those who recommend against altering the NFU turn this argument around, pointing out that since the NFU is a declaratory policy that does not affect India’s war-fighting ability, there is no reason to move to a first-use doctrine, which could bring unwanted international pressure, spur an arms race, and prevent confidence building between the two sides.19

P. R. Chari, not so much an expansionist as an opponent of nuclear weapons, also highlights the “insufficiency” of NFU, proposing that it frees Pakistan from fearing an Indian nuclear riposte to either terrorism or limited war. He believes that Pakistan could even deploy TNWs without fear that India might attack them, though he does not appear to consider the possibility that India could use conventional military forces for such contingencies.20 Some expansionists suggest that India should abandon NFU because India cannot keep its arsenal limited if it has to prepare to receive an initial attack and then have enough weapons left over for retaliation. They believe, in short, that NFU is a solution that makes the problem worse. Moreover, they suggest that Pakistan does not actually believe India’s NFU pledge.21

Moderates dismiss many of these arguments. In response to the often-expressed fear that NFU will prevent India from acting against an imminent nuclear attack, Subrahmanyam points out that such a preemptive strike would not prevent retaliation. Subrahmanyam, however, did not consider the possibility than striking first could potentially reduce the lethality of the retaliation. Much more important, he points out that it is always possible that an adversary might decide not to launch an attack at the very last moment but that a preemptive strike will force them to retaliate.22 This is without doubt the most important argument against nuclear preemption.

Rajesh Basrur, a moderate, agrees with critics that no country can believe others’ declarations about NFU.23 He rejects, however, the argument that NFU makes Indian doctrine defensive, arguing that if that were the case, Pakistan—which has rejected NFU—should have actively deployed nuclear weapons on high alert, which it does not do. He rightly points out that there is no major difference between Indian and Pakistani nuclear deployment styles in peacetime. In wartime, India can be expected to deploy its weapons much the same way as Pakistan does. In essence, then, beyond of declaratory policy, there is no real difference between India and Pakistan in how they deploy nuclear weapons. This is another important argument that expansionists ignore: that Pakistan’s refusal to accept NFU does not mean there is a great distinction between the two sides in actual deployment patterns.

Credible Minimum Deterrence

A second important aspect of India’s nuclear doctrine is credible minimum deterrence (CMD), which refers to the quantity of nuclear forces that India needs to deter potential nuclear adversaries. Moderates and expansionists disagree about how many weapons are necessary, as well as about India’s progress in weaponization.

As deterrence optimists, moderates are generally less concerned about the quantity or quality of nuclear weapons. Writing immediately after India’s official nuclear doctrine was released, K. Subrahmanyam pointed out that credibility is a function of how well command and control functions; the essence of deterrence, he argued, is to have a command-and-control chain “from the political level to the implementing level” that demonstrates its “survivability under the worst conditions of decapitation attack.”24 Many years later, Subrahmanyam wrote that what matters is not so much the “exchange ratio” of damage suffered by both sides, but how much punishment an adversary calculates that it can accept. This level of punishment is achievable “so long as India has a survivable retaliatory force.”25 In other words, decisionmakers are worried not about who suffers more, but about how much they themselves will have to suffer. Other moderates argue that India does not need to seek superiority “or even parity” with adversaries in terms of numbers, yield, or types of weapons. All India has to worry about is maintaining an assured capability for counterstrike.26 In a detailed analysis of India’s CMD, Basrur argues that CMD fits well within India’s overall strategic culture, pointing to reports that the Indian nuclear weapons are kept unassembled and undeployed—a physical arrangement close to virtual deterrence.27 Basrur is also dismissive of arguments about credibility, suggesting that in previous India-Pakistan crisis situations, “there is no evidence that the question of credibility significantly shaped the thinking of either side.”28

However, moderates worry that India will develop a much larger arsenal because of political inattentiveness or bureaucratic inertia. Ali Ahmed argues that cultural factors have already led to a more assertive Indian military doctrine.29 Basrur suggests that Indian strategic culture could change, and that there are elements in the Indian nuclear doctrine that could lead it away from CMD. As he puts it: “Because Indian thinking and practice lack clarity on minimum deterrence as a concept, particularly with respect to the operational aspect, there is a tendency towards drift.”30 He argues that Indian thinking on nuclear deterrence is ambiguous, pointing to differences between the DND and the official doctrine.31

Basrur argues that India has moved from deterrence to compellence in the aftermath of the terror attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, claiming that the attack “seems to have opened the door to an open-ended future in which a minimalist conception of deterrence will no longer be the solitary plank of nuclear policy. Compellence directly contradicts minimum deterrence.”32 He admits this might be a one-off occurrence; and in retrospect, it is difficult to conclude that it was indicative of a pattern. For moderates, the absent-mindedness of India’s political leadership on strategic issues is a concern because it could potentially lead to India acquiring a much larger arsenal simply through drift and bureaucratic inertia. Some moderates submit that the CMD concept itself might be a problem because of the possible contradiction between minimum and credible.33

In contrast to moderates, expansionists tend to be deterrence pessimists who see deterrence as a matter of delicate balance that needs constant care. They want much larger nuclear arsenals and worry about what they consider to be the slow pace of India’s weapons development. Analysts like Brahma Chellaney argue that India needs intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to “underpin its doctrine of minimum but credible deterrence.” Relying on long-range bombers, he says, “is antithetical to a credible deterrence posture.”34 He has also argued that Indian nuclear forces are being allowed to deteriorate, pointing to an isolated statement by then–defense minister Pranab Mukherjee that referred to India’s “minimum credible deterrent” instead of “credible minimum deterrent.”35 That statement was simply an example of the Indian political leadership’s unfamiliarity with the arcana of India’s nuclear policy, but Chellaney latched on to it as an indication of a fundamental change in policy. This in itself is a good illustration of the concern that expansionists have about the deterioration of India’s nuclear deterrence. Chellaney worries that Indian leaders might not maintain even the CMD, especially given what he and others considered were “concessions” that the Indian government made to Washington for the United States–India nuclear deal.36

Karnad has argued that the idea of CMD, at least as visualized by the NSAB in the DND, was an elastic concept that sanctioned “sizable and progressively more modern nuclear forces.” Karnad believes that India’s nuclear development has since strayed from this conception.37 Moderates like Subrahmanyam accept that, although it is not necessary for deterrence, CMD could be adjusted to facilitate “influencing the perception of the adversary.”38 Here, Subrahmanyam is not necessarily supporting the expansionist suggestion that the nuclear arsenal be enlarged, but only leaving open that possibility should such a need arise. In contrast, Karnad disagrees with the very notion of “minimum” nuclear deterrence, which he calls “a real military liability.”39 Karnad visualizes a much grander role for nuclear weapons in India’s rise as a great power. He argues that “a relatively large and robust nuclear deterrent . . .would lead to a genuinely independent strategic role for India.”40 A “megaton thermonuclear-ICBM” will also permit India to “stare down” China and deter China from seeking a military confrontation.41 Such a capability “will entail a millennial reordering of nation-States [sic], that is perhaps overdue,” hamstring China from seeking to undermine India, and remove the threat of a preemptive strike by the United States, while also permitting India to depend on itself if other powers like the United States or China decline.42 He does not explain how this conversion happens, but in any case his ideas go far beyond the purpose of deterrence alone. Moderates have suggested that such an expansive arsenal is unnecessary for the purposes of deterrence.43

Though Chellaney and Karnad do not represent the dominant viewpoint on India’s nuclear arsenal, they are not alone in holding expansionist views about India’s nuclear arsenal. A former official closely associated with the framing of the nuclear doctrine, Ambassador Satish Chandra, has argued that maintaining the credibility of India’s threat of “unacceptable damage” requires that the size of India’s nuclear arsenal be a function of its threat perceptions, suggesting that size has to be open-ended and not fixed.44 Elsewhere, Chandra had argued that, in light of long-standing China-Pakistan collusion, India should seek a capability sufficient to inflict “unacceptable damage on both Pakistan and China.”45 Chandra points to the complexity of the triangular deterrence relationship that has not been fully considered in the Indian nuclear doctrine literature.

In addition to Chandra, a former commander of the Strategic Forces Command, Lieutenant-General B. S. Nagal, has also suggested that India needs to keep the idea of CMD open-ended, saying that “with a policy of No First Use and Massive Retaliation, the concept of CMD must factor in ‘survivability and sufficient numbers’ that can inflict unacceptable damage.”46 In a later essay, Nagal argues that the actual size of the arsenal associated with CMD “has to be dynamic, because, the adversaries’ arsenals are increasing by the year.”47 Nagal goes on to argue that India has “adequate means and potential to cause unacceptable damage to any adversary if attacked by nuclear weapons,” notwithstanding the gap in long-range missiles to reach all of China.48 CMD is tied to India’s capacity to cause unacceptable damage, which Nagal defines expansively as requiring a plan to “destroy a large number of countervalue targets to include population centres, industrial complexes and important infrastructure, and available counterforce targets.” For Nagal, CMD requires the capacity for destruction of the enemy’s society to an extent that would make recovery and reconstruction long and costly. A nuclear strike must render the adversary’s economy “regressed,” the military defeated, and “the political leadership that decided on war is decimated.”49 Though not all expansionists suggest such requirements explicitly, most probably agree with Nagal’s assessment, which illustrates the distance between expansionists and moderates on the key question of sizing the arsenal.

Nuclear Deterrence of CBW Use

The Indian nuclear doctrine leaves Indian decisionmakers the option of using nuclear weapons to retaliate against CBW use, something which was not considered in the DND. This expansion is something to which moderates have objected, but it is also an issue on which not much debate has been generated. Some moderates such as Sethi disagree with this expansion, arguing that this did not work in the case of the United States, and it “hardly makes the Indian nuclear deterrent more credible,”50 an argument with which most moderates would agree.51 Sethi argues that the CBW are anyways outlawed, and if nonstate actors use these weapons, then India’s nuclear deterrent could in any way not be effective because it is not designed to counter such actors. Expansionists have not developed arguments about the CBW issue, but they would presumably support nuclear use in response to a CBW attack—arguing, as some officials reportedly have done, that nuclear retaliation for CBW attack is simply leaving an option open since India has given up its CBW capacity.52

Command and Control

The nuclear doctrine mentions a few details about command-and-control issues, but the main point it makes is that the political leadership will determine how to employ the nuclear deterrent. There is little disagreement on this score, but moderates and expansionists disagree about how centralized India’s nuclear command-and-control structure should be.53 Moderates largely accept the command-and-control arrangements detailed in the doctrine and point to the NFU as a critical factor in reducing pressure on Indian command-and-control systems. None of the moderates, however, have written on the specifics of these arrangements. For expansionists, on the other hand, the deficiencies of the command-and-control arrangements are yet another indicator of the weaknesses of India’s nuclear doctrine. Military doctrines are, after all, about how military forces are to be used in war. Expansionists contend that India’s nuclear deterrence will not be effective unless potential adversaries accept that India has the operational capacity to employ its nuclear weapons. As former admiral Koithara points out, “both doves and hawks skirt operationalisation issues in India.”54 To many critics of the Indian nuclear doctrine, especially those within the military, India’s nuclear operational capacity is doubtful because the Indian nuclear doctrine leaves the military out of the decisionmaking loop.

There are several subissues within the command-and-control debate. Menon identifies the lack of a chief of defence staff as a serious lacuna.55 Writing in 2003, Menon was hopeful that the new Integrated Defence Staff would help overcome this problem; but a decade later, he was much less hopeful.56 As far as Koithara is concerned, the lack of attention to operationalization issues is tied to the discounting of the military’s role in nuclear issues. As he points out, a “higher level of operationalisation and much greater involvement of the military in nuclear matters are essential both for robust deterrence and for safe and secure operations under alerted conditions.”57 These problems are only likely to get more complicated as the Indian nuclear force grows. An enlarged nuclear force—based on multiple, mobile platforms—makes “safety, security, and control issues far more problematic than was the case earlier.”58

Even India’s de-alerted and de-mated nuclear posture, which moderates see as a great virtue, is severely criticized by former military officers. Menon, a former admiral, argues that India’s posture is a “bizarre arrangement,” adopted because of bureaucratic turf battles.59 This is not an unchallenged view—others, such as Koithara, suggest that integrating the warheads in storage would be detrimental to safety and security.60 Other analysts point out that the imminent deployment of India’s nuclear missile submarine makes the de-alerted and de-mated posture a moot point.61 Whether canisterized weapons require a different doctrine has been disputed by some analysts, who point out that China has also deployed such warheads without it affecting China’s nuclear doctrine.62

Expansionists such as Karnad argue that a de-mated posture elongates the logistics chain and increases the number of potential targets, rendering the delivery system or warhead inoperable if even one of the targets is hit.63 Large numbers of such strikes with advanced conventional weapons “would leave the entire nuclear deterrent in disarray and, great parts of it, unusable.” It also makes the nuclear force vulnerable while these weapons are being readied for operation, a process that he expected would take days, weeks, or months. Instead of creating additional time for Indian decisionmakers to react, the additional time would be used by the adversary to conduct “mopping-up strikes.” Moreover, the additional time would be used by global powers to pressure India into settling for some “symbolic” token retaliation. He also dismisses other presumed benefits of a de-alerted and de-mated nuclear force, such as the greater safety of such a force and its reduced vulnerability to theft and inadvertent use or misuse. He suggests that it is easier to protect fewer mated weapons than a large number of distributed components, and that the Indian military has a good record of protecting its hardware. In addition, he also points out that in a nuclear war, India will have to go to war with whatever forces it has on hand—there will be no time to increase manufacturing. It is not manifestly clear why this would be a hindrance since the components would already be manufactured.

Massive Retaliation

One of the rare areas of agreement between the moderates and the expansionists is over India’s threat of massive retaliation to any nuclear attack. Most analysts in both camps fear the threat to be empty. Some argue that India should consider substituting “punitive” for “massive” in the doctrine.64 Moderates such as Basrur say that massive retaliation is a threat that the enemy will always expect, and is unnecessary since it does not take much to deter.65 Others suggest that any Pakistani first use might be a very limited attack calibrated to avoid massive retaliation by India. They propose that India retaliate with low-level strikes in the case of Pakistan’s limited first use.66

Expansionists such as Karnad are equally dismissive of massive retaliation, arguing that threatening such retaliation in response to Pakistani tactical nuclear first use undermines India’ deterrence by violating the principle of proportionality.67 Another problem to which Karnad points is the lack of compatibility between massive retaliation and minimum deterrence. Though Karnad does not spell out his reasoning, he presumably means that a small nuclear force cannot produce massive attacks.68

It is quite possible that these analysts are misreading what is stated in the doctrine. Many Indian analysts continue to refer to “massive retaliation” as Indian doctrine,69 though the doctrine actually does not use this phrase, saying instead that “nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”70 Saying retaliation will be “massive” is different from massive retaliation; in all likelihood, the framers of the doctrine were ignorant of the meaning of “massive retaliation” in nuclear theology and simply wanted a tougher-sounding word to replace the DND’s phrase “punitive retaliation.”

Other Issues: Terrorism and TNWs

Though issues such as terrorism and TNWs were not mentioned in the Indian nuclear doctrine, the doctrine’s capacity to deal with these challenges has become a contentious issue. On Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism, moderates generally suggest non-nuclear measures. They propose building up India’s conventional military capabilities, holding the state that is giving sanctuary to terrorists responsible, and creating better global norms as well as better intelligence capability.71 Former diplomat Arundhati Ghose argues that, while the military option should not be closed, bilateral and multilateral diplomacy has to be the first option.72 Expansionists also suggest conventional or covert military responses; Karnad, for example, suggests that Pakistan’s use of terrorism can be countered by India also developing similar capabilities, rather than having to escalate to the nuclear level.73 But moderates such as Subrahmanyam discount arguments for the preemption of Pakistan, saying that as a status-quo power, India should be focused on “forestalling threats as they arise and cannot be planning any pre-emptive moves.”74 It is clear that neither moderates nor expansionists have any credible answers to Pakistan’s support for terrorism under the nuclear shield.

On Pakistan’s reported move to deploy TNWs, there is a general consensus that counterdeployment of Indian TNWs provides no answer. This is clear from the various contributions to the only book-length study of the TNW problem, an edited volume by Gurmeet Kanwal and Monika Chansoria.75 Even expansionists such as Karnad dismiss concerns that Pakistan might escalate a conventional war to the nuclear level. “The actual possibility of use of nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic, is near zero,” he argues.76 This is because of India’s overall superiority will mean that any Pakistani use of TNWs will be national suicide, and the Pakistan army as a professional army would do no such thing. Other analysts suggest that India develop conventional military means to neutralize Pakistan’s TNWs,77 and double down on its doctrine to ensure that its retaliatory forces are ready, especially since any use of nuclear weapons will be strategic.78 Some, like former senior Army officer Sawhney, do suggest that India acquire TNWs, but only to prevent a rapid Chinese breakthrough. He proposes that such TNWs be maintained under central control rather than delegated to local commanders.79 Both the general consensus in the debate and the clear absence of even theoretical alternatives for how New Delhi might deal with Pakistan’s TNWs reflect a recognition that the problem is with India’s political credibility and that it cannot be solved by tweaking the doctrine. One solution that does not appear to have been seriously considered in this debate yet is the possibility of considering some Indian version of the flexible response doctrine. Indian nuclear doctrine could be modified from “massive retaliation” to “modulated retaliation” to leave options for the level of response that India could consider in response to any nuclear attack, giving it the flexibility to consider a proportional or proportional-plus retaliation. This requires no change in Indian nuclear force structure or command-and-control arrangements, which are the biggest problems with TNWs. India could conduct such a proportional retaliation with low-yield gravity nuclear bombs delivered by aircraft. At worst, this requires India to develop such a low-yield weapon, if one is not in its inventory. The added benefit to such a change is that it also alters the one element of the doctrine that both moderates and expansionists dislike: massive retaliation.

Conclusion and Implications

There is a near consensus in the Indian strategic community that India’s nuclear doctrine needs to be periodically reexamined.80 There is also a consensus that the Indian government needs to release more information about its nuclear doctrine and policy, both in order to deter adversaries and so that Indian public debate is better informed.

This does not mean, however, that everyone in the strategic community agrees that the doctrine needs to be revised. At the least, there is no consensus about the direction any revision would take. Though there has been significant debate and disagreement about the advisability of India’s NFU policy, the dominant opinion is still that India should maintain it. To the extent that there is a desire to change the NFU, moderates would like to reorient the doctrine more in the direction of the DND and abandon some of the expansion that the official doctrine introduced, such as nuclear retaliation for CBW attacks and references to massive retaliation. Expansionists, on the other hand, would prefer abandoning the NFU altogether and retaining a much more flexible approach toward nuclear force expansion.

On the issue of tactical weapons, though there has been disquiet about Pakistan’s TNWs and their impact on India’s conventional war options, the predominant opinion appears to be that there is no need for India to consider any change to its doctrine. This reflects the fact that New Delhi has few realistic alternatives available for dealing with Pakistan’s TNWs.

Ultimately, these public doctrinal debates might not be particularly important in keying changes to India’s nuclear doctrine. As Vipin Narang has pointed out, India might drift toward a much more aggressive nuclear doctrine simply because the country’s political leadership does not pay sufficient attention to the military and defense scientific bureaucracies.81

The effect of these debates on India’s official policy is difficult to predict. On one hand, it appears as if the Indian government was indeed responding to public criticism when it released the official doctrine in 2003. On the other hand, despite several years of vigorous debate, there is little public indication that there is any effort at the official level to respond to criticisms from either the moderates or the expansionists. While it is unlikely that the Indian government will radically alter its existing nuclear doctrine, it is possible that it might release a new edition of the nuclear doctrine, given the strong consensus among India’s strategic elite about the need for periodic review and the need for the release of more information about the nuclear doctrine. If a new edition of the doctrine does come out, it will hopefully correct some of the errors and contradictions in the previous edition, thereby strengthening the doctrine as a whole.

Rajesh Rajagopalan is a professor at the Center for International Politics, Organization, and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.


1 Bharatiya Janata Party, Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat: Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas: Election Manifesto 2014 (New Delhi: Bharatiya Janata Party, 2014), 39.

2 Sanjeev Miglani and John Chalmers, “BJP Put ‘No First Use’ Nuclear Policy in Doubt,” Reuters, April 7, 2014,

3 “Will Stick to ‘No-First-Use’ of Nukes Policy: Rajnath Singh,” Rediff, April 14, 2014,; Douglas Busvine, “Modi Says Committed to No First Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Reuters, April 17, 2014,

4 Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008), 85.

5 “Speech by NSA Shri Shivshankar Menon at NDC on ‘the Role of Force in Strategic Affairs,” Indian Ministry of External Affairs, October 21, 2010,

6 Shyam Saran, “Is India’s Nuclear Deterrent Credible?” (speech at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, April 24, 2013).

7 Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, India’s Nuclear Doctrine: An Alternative Blueprint (New Delhi: Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 2012).

8 Raja Menon, “Just One Shark in the Deep Blue Sea,” Outlook, August 10, 2009,

9 K. Subrahmanyam, “No Second Thoughts,” Indian Express, September 8, 2009,

10 Manpreet Sethi, Nuclear Strategy: India’s March Towards Credible Deterrence (New Delhi: Knowledge World / Centre for Air Power Studies, 2009), 130–31.

11 Other than where noted, this section is based on Sethi, Nuclear Strategy, 312–18.

12 Manpreet Sethi, India and No First Use: Preventing Deterrence Breakdown (New Delhi: Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2014).

13 For a similar argument, also see Sheel Kant Sharma, “Should We Review India’s Nuclear Doctrine?,” Tribune, April 28, 2014,; and Happymon Jacob, “On the Desirability of NFU,” Greater Kashmir, April 13, 2014,

14 Verghese Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), 84–85.

15 Rajiv Nayan, “Modi Sarkar’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Pioneer, May 25, 2014,

16 Bharat Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002), 442.

17 Ibid., 442–43.

18 Ibid., 443.

19 Pravin Sawhney, “Re-Visiting Our Nuclear Doctrine,” Pioneer, April 10, 2014,

20 P. R. Chari, India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Stirrings of Change (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2014),

21 D. Suba Chandran, “Should India Give Up Its NFU Doctrine?,” Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, June 29, 2010,

22 K. Subrahmanyam, “Because the Bluff Might Just Be Called,” Indian Express, September 16, 2009,

23 Rajesh Basrur, Minimum Deterrence and India’s Nuclear Security (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 44; Rajesh Basrur, South Asia’s Cold War: Nuclear Weapons and Conflict in Comparative Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2008), 69–70.

24 K. Subrahmanyam, “The Essence of Deterrence,” Times of India, January 7, 2003.

25 K. Subrahmanyam, “Thinking Through the Unthinkable,” Indian Express, September 15, 2009,

26 Sethi, Nuclear Strategy, 130.

27 Basrur, Minimum Deterrence, 30.

28 Basrur, South Asia’s Cold War, 64.

29 Ali Ahmed, India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (New Delhi: Routledge India, 2014).

30 Basrur, Minimum Deterrence, 49.

31 Ibid., 30.

32 Ibid., 100.

33 Reshmi Kazi, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: A Study of Its Tenets,” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal 9, no.1 (January–March 2014): 46–55.

34 Brahma Chellaney, “India’s Missing Hard Power,” Mint, April 21, 2010,

35 Brahma Chellaney, “Why India’s Powerful Anti-Deterrent Lobby Supports Nuclear Deal with the U.S.,” Asian Age, January 5, 2008,

36 Brahma Chellaney, “Mortgaging Nuclear Crown Jewels,” Hindu, September 17, 2008, Also see Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 15; Ashok Mehta, “Nuclear Doctrine Must Reflect Ground Reality,” Pioneer, April 16, 2014,; Brijesh D. Jayal, “A Nation and Its Toothless Doctrine,” Telegraph, October 2, 2008,; and Pravin Sawhney, “Areas the DRDO Should Work On,” Pioneer, April 24, 2014, Other than Chellaney, the others are all former senior military officers.

37 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 85–86.

38 Subrahmanyam, “No Second Thoughts.”

39 Karnad, Nuclear Weapons, 583.

40 Ibid., 578.

41 Ibid., 604.

42 Ibid., 604–8.

43 R. Rajaraman, “The Fizzle Doesn’t Really Matter,” Hindu, September 16, 2009,

44 Satish Chandra, “Revisiting India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Is it Necessary?,” IDSA Issue Brief, Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, April 30, 2014, 3.

45 Satish Chandra, “Prepare Against Pakistan Nukes,” Vivekananda International Foundation, September 1, 2012,

46 B. S. Nagal, “Checks and Balances,” Force, June 2014, 13.

47 B. S. Nagal, “Perception and Reality: An In-Depth Analysis of India’s Credible Minimum Deterrent,” Force, October 2014, 9.

48 Ibid., 13.

49 Ibid., 12.

50 Sethi, Nuclear Strategy, 127–28.

51 Gurmeet Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Is a Review Necessary?,” CLAWS Issue Brief no. 43 (December 2014): 4.

52 Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, 86.

53 Rajesh Rajagopalan and Atul Mishra, Nuclear South Asia: Keywords and Concepts (New Delhi: Routledge India, 2014).

54 Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 10.

55 Raja Menon, “A Mismatch of Nuclear Doctrines,” Hindu, January 22, 2014,

56 Raja Menon, “Reflections on India’s Nuclear Doctrine and Command and Control,” USI Journal 133 (April–June 2003): 196–214; Menon, “ Mismatch.”

57 Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 12.

58 Ibid., 14.

59 Menon, “Mismatch.”

60 Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 15.

61 W. P. S. Sidhu, “Updating India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Livemint, April 27, 2014,

62 Arun Viswanathan, “India’s Missile Modernization and Credible Minimum Deterrence,” South Asian Voices, December 5, 2013,

63 Karnad, Nuclear Weapons, 593–4.

64 Raja Menon, “Boxed In by Pakistan,” Indian Express, September 6, 2014,; Kanwal, “India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” 4.

65 Basrur, Minimum Deterrence, 117–20.

66 Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, 244–45.

67 Bharat Karnad, “India’s Nuclear Amateurism,” New Indian Express, June 28, 2013,

68 Ibid.

69 See, for example, Bharat Karnad, “South Asia: The Irrelevance of Classical Deterrence Theory,” India Review 4, no. 2 (2005): 190.

70 “Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews Progress in Operationalizing India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” press release, Press Information Bureau, January 4, 2003,

71 Sethi, Nuclear Strategy, 138–39.

72 Arundhati Ghose, “Nuclear Weapons, Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament: Evolving Policy Challenges,” India Quarterly 65, no. 4 (2009): 437.

73 Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, 504–10.

74 K. Subrahmanyam, “Generally Speaking,” Indian Express, January 8, 2010,

75 Gurmeet Kanwal and Monika Chansoria, eds., Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Conflict Redux (New Delhi: Knowledge World, 2014).

76 Bharat Karnad, “Scaring Up Scenarios: An Introduction,” in Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons, eds. Gurmeet Kanwal and Monika Chansoria (New Delhi: Knowledge World, 2014), 1–18.

77 Vijay Shankar, “Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Step Closer to the Abyss,” in Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons, eds. Kanwal and Chansoria, 19–35.

78 Kapil Kak, “Rationale and Implications,” in Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons, eds. Kanwal and Chansoria, 63–84; Manpreet Sethi, “India’s Response Options,” in Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons, eds. Kanwal and Chansoria, 215–32. Also see Gurmeet Kanwal, “India-Pakistan and Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Implications of Hatf-9,” Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, November 2013,; Menon, “Boxed In”; Vijay Shankar, “India-Pakistan and Tactical Nuclear Weapons: A Step Closer to the Abyss,” Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, November 2013,; Varun Sahni,“Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: The Inevitability of Instability,” Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, September 2014,; Amit Gupta, “India, Pakistan and Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Irrelevance for South Asia,” Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, January 2014,; and Jacob, “On the Desirability of NFU.”

79 Sawhney, “Revisiting Our Nuclear Doctrine.”

80 Indian Pugwash Society, “Future of India’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Indian Pugwash Society, April 25, 2016,

81 Vipin Narang, “Five Myths about India’s Nuclear Posture,” Washington Quarterly 36, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 143–57.