Implications of India’s changed nuclear doctrine
by N S Rajaram on 29 Aug 2019 8 Comments

Defense Minister Rajnath Singh has announced that India might reconsider its nuclear doctrine of no first use. Since the Modi government is not in the nature of engaging in empty talk without serious study, we can assume that a major decision has been reached by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet. This was the case with the triple talaq bill and revoking Article 370. So we can assume there has been major rethinking on our nuclear doctrine.


We should know it in due course. The fact that Rajnath Singh was vehement in his claim that the only topic of discussion is Pakistan’s illegal occupation of POK, leads one to believe that the change of nuclear doctrine is not unconnected with the recovery of Occupied territories.


This might mean that in the next war with Pakistan, India might be prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons to destroy key targets. Pakistan no doubt recognizes this, which helps account for Imran Khan’s hysterical reaction following his return from his fruitless visit to the US and his failure to get the United Nations to get involved. We need to understand what this means and its implications.


Nuclear weapons are of two kinds - fission and fusion (hydrogen bomb). The yield is roughly speaking of several orders of magnitude greater with fusion bombs. A fission bomb like those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki yield around 10-40 thousand tons (kilotons) equivalent of TNT. The first bomb tested by India in 1974-5 yielded about 12.5 kilotons. Pokhran II tested in 1998 yielded about 65 kilotons, and was a thermonuclear device (hydrogen bomb or H-bomb).


In terms of usage, they can be tactical or strategic. A strategic bomb is usually a very high yield bomb that can cause great damage, like totally destroying a city, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. A strategic weapon is more a threat than an actual weapon used in warfare. India’s H-bomb like the one tested in Pokhran II can destroy a large city like Karachi and may never be used in actual warfare.


No first use doctrine means India will not be the first to use such a destructive weapon, but can hold it out as a threat. Also, as a possible retaliation in the event Pakistan uses its nuke on an Indian target. India can retaliate massively and virtually destroy Pakistan. Imran Khan surely recognizes this.


The decision to use such a weapon is made not by a military commander on the ground, but the national leader. Even in 1945, the use of the atom bomb against Japan was made by President Truman and not General MacArthur who was commanding the troops, even though the bombs used were relatively small by present day standards.


A more lethal development is miniaturization of bombs coupled with field delivery systems, like bombers, submarines and accurate missiles like cruise missiles. These could be of relatively small yield, about 10 kilotons or less, but delivered accurately. The real difference is that using them is left to the military commanders, just as weapons like tanks, mortars artillery, etc., are left to the field commander, who does not need authorization by government to use them. These non-strategic weapons (usually called “tactical” nukes) generally use smaller yields, though still deadly compared to conventional explosives. Imagine how deadly the Balakot strike would have been if the IAF had used tactical nukes instead of conventional bombs. 


The difference is not only technical but in their implications. Tactical weapons are for local battlefield use, and are designed to be deployed against targets strictly of immediate military value, like short range missiles, cruise missiles, which India possesses (Brahmos, Nirbhay, etc). They can be used in tank warfare as well as against ground military targets like anti-aircraft batteries and army command headquarters.


The important thing is that their use is left to the judgment of the commander on the ground. Tactical nukes have never been used in battle so far. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 were strictly strategic in goal to destroy to mid-sized cities and impress upon the Japanese people’s mind and morale, the might of the new weapons.


Rajnath Singh’s statement may be interpreted to mean that India would not hesitate to use tactical nukes in order to fight Pak-sponsored terrorism. It shows that the Government has recognized that fighting terrorism is a form of warfare and not ordinary law enforcement that can be done by the police.


Terrorists are engaged in unconventional warfare that also needs to be fought using unconventional methods and weapons. As Krishna said:

MAyAvinam rAjAnam mayayaiva nikruntat

An enemy who uses deceptive methods must be destroyed the same way (by deception or by unconventional means).

One hopes it will not come to this, with tactical nukes being used, but the ball is in Pakistan’s court.


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