Nuclear false alarm

(Agni-5 launch)
The latest edition of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington that just ended featured American and foreign nuclear specialists chasing, as usual, the elusive nuclear catastrophe they are convinced is round the corner. There was also the obligatory alarm raised about South Asia. This year, the India-Pakistan “nuclear flashpoint” thesis was tweaked to claim that India has abandoned its No First Use (NFU) commitment and adopted a strategy, in case of an “imminent” launch, of a pre-emptive “comprehensive strike” against Pakistan. Such a course is being contemplated, it was argued, to spare the country the “iterative tit-for-tat exchanges” and prevent the “destruction” of Indian cities.This hair-raising conclusion was not supported by other than extremely flimsy evidence — three unrelated statements by separate persons. Let’s examine and contextualise these statements in turn. The erstwhile defence minister Manohar Parrikar stated not long after taking office that India would “not declare one way or another” if it would use or not use nuclear weapons first. This was said expressly to inject ambiguity of response that is crucial for the credibility of the Indian nuclear posture. This credibility was lost in 1999 when the previous BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee mindlessly made the draft-nuclear doctrine public, and later compounded the problem by replacing “proportional response” in the draft with “massive retaliation”. Incidentally, Parrikar’s avowal was in light of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political decision to not initiate a formal revision of the doctrine promised by the ruling party in its 2014 election manifesto.

The second reference is to the former national security adviser (NSA) Shivshankar Menon’s observation in his recent book that the Indian nuclear strategy has “far greater flexibility than it gets credit for”. The doctrine drafters in the first National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) intended and so shaped the doctrine, especially Section 4, to make it “elastic”, to enable escaping the limitations of “minimum” deterrence imposed by the prime minister in his suo moto statement to Parliament on May 28, 1998, before the constitution of the NSAB. The NFU declaration makes for fine rhetoric, distancing India from the hair-trigger situation Pakistan strives for the world to believe exists in the subcontinent. It is in Pakistan’s interest to talk up Hindu animus and predatory India, because it justifies not just its nuclear arsenal but its emphasis on first use of tactical nuclear weapons. In the event, treating NFU as a conditional constraint is what Menon hints at.


The third piece of proof trotted out is the views of retired Lieutenant General BS Nagal, a former strategic forces command (SFC) commander, particularly his view that a democratically-elected government cannot morally risk the decimation of the Indian people by sticking literally to the NFU pledge. It was during Nagal’s tenure at the SFC, it may be recalled, when the then NSA MK Narayanan publicly revealed that the military was not in the know of nuclear arsenal details and, by implication, that the SFC was not in the nuclear loop. It may therefore be safely deduced that the views Nagal has developed was outside the SFC ambit.


However, certain developments in the nuclear weapons sphere do indeed make possible an Indian first strike. Such as the ongoing process of canisterising Agni missiles, including presumably the 700-km range Agni I meant for the Pakistan and Tibet-Chengdu contingencies. It, in fact, provides the country not only with a capability for launch-on-warning but also for striking pre-emptively should reliable intelligence reveal an adversary’s decision to mount a surprise attack.

Nuclear missiles in hermetically sealed canisters are ready-to-fire weapons and signal an instantaneous retaliatory punch to strongly deter nuclear adventurism. Thus, all nuclear weapon states keep a part of their strategic forces in ready state, there being no guarantees that a confrontation or conflict with another nuclear power will keep to a sub-nuclear script. Having the wherewithal for pre-emptive action and launch-on-warning then is only a reasonable precaution.


Whatever their capabilities to fight nuclear wars, the chances of either India or Pakistan initiating a nuclear exchange for any reason are remote for the very good reason that western governments and analysts rarely acknowledge, because most of them are unaware or wilfully ignore the social context of India-Pakistan tensions, namely, the fact, whether anybody likes it or not, of these South Asian countries being organically linked.

Divided communities, continuing kith and kinship relations, shared religion and culture, mean that the so-called India-Pakistan “wars” are less wars, more “riots” — short periods of hostilities in geographically constrained spaces, hence the famously apt description of these by the late Major General DK Palit, originally of the Baloch Regiment, as “communal riots with tanks”.


Published in the Hindustan Times, March 31, 2017 with the title “Chances of India-Pakistan nuke war are remote”  and in the newspaper’s online edition with the title “Concerns about an India-Pakistan nuclear war are highly exaggerated” at




About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Decision-making, disarmament, domestic politics, Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian democracy, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Missiles, nonproliferation, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Pakistan nuclear forces, SAARC, society, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Nuclear false alarm

  1. Shaurya says:

    Did the original draft say “punitive” or “proportional”?

    • You are right, it is “rapid punitive response”. Didn’t properly remember what we drafted (should have relooked the 1999 draft-doctrine)! But it only strengthens this argument I have been making ever since.

      • &^%$#@! says:

        @BK: All this is mere playing with words. I seriously doubt whether India will in kind retaliate to a nuclear strike. There will be plenty of posturing followed by empty philosophical reasoning and rhetoric,….., but no nuclear retaliation.

      • &^%$#@! says:

        First sentence above should read as: “…India will retaliate in kind to a nuclear strike…”.

  2. andy says:

    NFU is the worst idea,whats the point of having a nuclear arsenal if you are going to wait like lambs for the slaughter for Pakistan or China to obliterate a few Indian cities, there by killing millions of Indians before you opt to bring in the heavy cavalry[nulear bombs]to the battlefield?

    A review of this Godforsaken policy is in order,and to hell with the brownie points it gains India in western capitals.Such a review would be the creme d’la creme of any disruptive strategy India choses to adopt in future.Appearing a little unhinged vis a vis nuclear war has its own merits of deterring the enemy.Pakistan has used exactly such a strategy to squeeze Indias room for maneuver regarding conventional response to terror attacks emanating from Paki soil,its time India adopts this to keep China on its toes on the LAC.

    The recent surgical strke has proven what Bharat is saying about a nuclear war between India and Pakistan being a remote possibilitiy,the hype is created by the Pakis to keep the US and others involved in the Indo Pak equation else India might resort to robust punitive measures in response to terror attacks from Pakistan.India needs to call this bluff of the cunning adversary more often.

  3. Well said. Karnad sir,1969 Sino Soviet border clash was between two thermonuclear armed giants. New age armchair generals often forget to read basic history. They watch too much American serials, drama and junk.

  4. Satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    With the Dalai Lama about to visit Tawang, China has officially expressed fury and has virtually issued an ultimatum. Now, unless they do something, their posturing would look empty. Would they attempt to repeat 1962 and seize Tawang or Arunachal as a whole ?

    With the current level of military preparedness on our side, is’nt it premature to allow Dalai Lama to travel in Arunachal ?

    • satyaki@ – No way, PLA are in no position to do anything silly. Two full Indian army divisions are in the Tawang sector. But nothing stops Bejing from huffing and puffing. Ignore the Chinese is the best advice. And request the H.H, the Dali Lama to betake himself again, and repeatedly, ti to Arunachal.

      • Satyaki says:

        Our logistics is not so good. Their road network allows them to concentrate rapidly at a point of their choosing to achieve local superiority. Plus they have excellent artillery, incl. large numbers of accurate conventional SR/MRBMs. Given all this, I would have felt more comfortable letting the Dalai Lama travel as he wants ONLY once the Agni 4 and Agni 5 are deployed in quantity (enough to destroy five major PRC cities in a second strike and more if we use first). Agni 4 might be getting inducted; there was also talk by the DRDO chief of increasing production rates of Agni missiles. But Agni 5 is definitely not inducted at the moment. This makes GOI’s open support to the Dalai Lama seem premature.

  5. Maximus says:

    So why would you need a 1 mio.+ standing army with incurring costs galore just to fight a “brotherly riot”?

    • Exactly why I have for the last 25 years been advocating the rationalization of the army force structure, especially reconstituting the 3 strike corps into a single composite corps, and the freed up resources to be transferred to the China front.

      • &^%$#@! says:

        BK: How do you form a single strike composite strike corps from 3 strike corps, and yet cover the same geographical regions targeted, and achieve the same stipulated objectives?

      • &^%$#@! says:

        This is armchair rhetoric. It will require a fundamental change in doctrine, which will not only be extremely time consuming but possibly end up in some half-baked unworkable solution owing to the general absence of imagination, coordination, and competence that exists in the decision making levels of the forces. Further, I wonder whether there is the political will and clarity of thought to go through with it. Granted, “cold start” does/will/might not work. However, an alternative could well be even worse and/or stymied by the issues raised herein.

  6. Zaphon says:

    Professor, I’ve read this seven times in the past five months. Each time it makes more sense. Thank you for articulating it so well.

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