Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Agni-II missile being paraded on Republic Day 2004

India’s Path in an Uncertain Nuclear Order

The recently concluded Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ended on a note of dissonance and lack of consensus, in the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis. Moreover, China’s growing aggression across the Indo-Pacific is raising levels of anxiety among America’s allies and the recipients of its extended nuclear deterrence. The norms and treaties relevant to arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament are experiencing the effects of a world order in the cusp of significant geopolitical, geo-economic and technological transitions. Debates on the probabilities of new nuclear weapon powers and disruptive technologies are taking a profound turn.

As the global security environment undergoes uncertain changes, what is the fate of the nuclear order, that aims to regulate its civilian and military applications. An order cannot depend merely on technological parity, it needs to be aligned with a stability of deterrence relationship crafted through hard-nosed negotiations and a clear-headed recognition of current geopolitical realities. As Chinese aggression take a new upward trend, and the credibility of America’s role as a security guarantor in the Indo-Pacific comes under critical scrutiny, the existing nuclear order will undergo further questioning. Does the prevailing nuclear order provide viable and less discriminatory incentives of cooperation and cost of defection? What does it mean for India’s nuclear doctrine, and its role in the broader question of an uncertain nuclear order?


The advent of nuclear weapons changed the meaning of war and peace in the international system and more than seven decades later, nuclear weapons continue to be a primary focus of the discourse on global security environment. Nuclear disarmament largely remains a rhetoric, as modernisation of warheads; delivery and defence systems continue to occupy pivotal roles in the growing great power competition of the 21st century. More than half a century after the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty (NPT) coming into force, the commitment towards disarmament remains a pipe dream, as the five de jure nuclear weapon powers have shown no intention to disarm in a time bound phased manner. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is burning on its own cinders, and negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) have not really taken off.

India’s path to becoming a de factor nuclear weapon power is symptomatic of the difficult regional security environment it inhabits. China became a nuclear weapon power two years after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, and by the later part of 1980s, while the U.S. was preoccupied in the Afghan war, it overlooked China’s assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions. The security predicaments it found itself in, and the failure of major powers to take into consideration India’s views on a nuclear free world, left no options before the Indian political leadership, its scientific and strategic establishment but to assess the nuclear reality staring in its face, and go for the series of tests in 1998.

This decision on the part of the Indian government and the success of the tests, forever, changed the role of nuclear weapons in India’s national security calculus and strategy. A cursory examination of current geopolitics reflects the reality that major powers will continue to rely on nuclear weapons to protect its homeland and reassure allies as a part of extended deterrence. The technological developments since the advent of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) particularly in terms of precision guided weapons, has had major implications in nuclear deterrence debates. As countries debate growing counterforce capabilities to precisely hit and destroy the strategic installations of adversarial countries, scenarios on limited nuclear exchanges are also entering the discourse. Pakistan’s continued efforts to manoeuvre India’s conventional superiority has led to debates on its development of low-yield battlefield use nuclear weapons, also called tactical nuclear weapons, raising new concerns over regional peace and stability.

Earlier the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and more recently, Trump administration’s abrogation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty mirrors not only the divergences between the United States and Russia, but the concerns relating to nuclear forces modernisation in China as well. Technological advances leading to new developments across the board, including in ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV), hypersonic vehicles and missile defence systems are rapidly changing the way major powers perceive threats and develop counter measures.

The regional security environment, which forced India to respond by developing its own nuclear arsenal, still exist. In fact, the technological advances undergoing as a part of the growing U.S.-China great power competition is having its implications for India’s deterrent capability against China; and the Sino-Pakistan alliance on the other hand, creates many challenges for India’s national security. Owing to the nuclear capabilities of China and Pakistan, India’s two nuclear-armed adversaries, and their aggressive intentions against India’s interest, India’s strategic and academic community has often engaged in debates over the relevance of India’s nuclear doctrine and its inherent ability to adapt to the requirements of a dynamic security environment. Views on India’s nuclear doctrine have largely circulated on the premises of building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent, its “No First Use (NFU) policy and massive retaliation designed to inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary.

Any statement from the Indian political leadership that remotely smells of any change to India’s NFU policy has led to divergent views in India and abroad. Moreover, the notion of “credible minimum deterrence” has also been subjected to scrutiny depending on questions of how credible is credible, and how minimum is minimum. There seems to be a larger consensus in India’s strategic community that nuclear weapons play a pivotal role in India’s rise as a power in the international system. However, how adversaries perceive India’s ability to absorb a first strike and maintain an assured capability to counterstrike remains a part of the discourse, which in turn is linked to the credibility of massive retaliation to inflict unacceptable damage. The international and regional security environment is prone to changes and India’s nuclear doctrine will need revisiting periodically for the sake of India’s national security. Advances in technologies and the evolving threat perceptions among major powers reflect more continuity than change in terms of the role of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies. In this context, while remaining committed to all sincere attempts towards a nuclear free world, India shall be mindful of the reality and adapt its nuclear doctrine to the demands of navigating the evolving international and regional security scenario.

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