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The barren wasteland of Pokhran, birthplace of India’s atomic weapons programme, is more accustomed to explosive material than incendiary rhetoric. That wasn’t the case last week. India’s sworn commitment to fire missiles only in retaliation, the cornerstone of its nuclear doctrine, is in doubt, a senior official told reporters assembled at ground zero. As regional tensions surge – and global disarmament efforts stall – the creeping threat of nuclear war seems to be quickening.  

“Until today, our policy is ‘No First Use’ (NFU), [but] what happens in the future depends on circumstances,” announced defence minister Rajnath Singh. A follow-up official tweet echoed the terse warning, confirming the remark’s authenticity. The signalled change in policy direction, however vague, was sanctioned at the highest level, and its implications could be seismic.  

India’s on-off war with Pakistan has, for a generation, played out under a low nuclear ceiling – a fragile dynamic propped up by New Delhi’s NFU pledge. Friction between the atomic armed neighbours has been mounting in recent times: a brief air-war played out in February, and last month the disputed region of Kashmir had its autonomy stripped. The fact that the nuclear gloves have come off at this junction is no coincidence – India’s message is clear: their ultimate weapon is primed, and the rules of the game might be changing. 

The emerging superpower is, alongside China, one of only two atomic heavyweights bound by NFU. The pledge’s philosophy is simple: maintaining the threat of a retaliatory strike will deter an attack, while firing first can achieve only mutual annihilation. Other members of the nuclear club – least not the United States and Russia – dispute this rationale, favouring instead a policy that reserves the right to fire first if threatened.

More of a reassurance than a legally binding restriction, sceptics also take issue with NFU’s trust based system. Nuclear war and national security can’t be peddled on the promises of a foreign government, critics argue – faith has no place in the atomic arena. This is a belief subscribed to by Pakistan, who have long rejected the NFU principle. 

Islamabad developed their weapons on the premise that, heavily outnumbered, it would lose a conventional conflict with India. Taking the nuclear option off the table in such a scenario would negate their atomic arsenal’s sole purpose, strategists argue. New Delhi’s apparent NFU step down has increased the likelihood of that unsettling eventuality, warned Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan. “The world must seriously consider the safety and security of India’s nuclear arsenal,” he said. “This is an issue that impacts not just the region but the world”.

In truth, debate around NFU had been intensifying even before India’s announcement. In America, the world’s largest nuclear power, there have been fresh calls to enshrine the policy in law. Successive White House administrations have endeavoured to dial down the US’s atomic entanglement with international treaties and missile reduction pledges. President Trump has adopted a different approach. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Cold War era accord that eliminated an entire class of weapons, was ditched by Washington last year. Mr Trump has also signalled his intention to broaden the US’s ‘first use’ scenarios, including retaliation for cyber-attacks targeting its nuclear infrastructure.

But it’s Trump’s expansion of America’s atomic arsenal, including a build-up of new ‘low-yield warheads’, that has opponents most alarmed. These relatively diminutive devices are half as destructive as WWII-era bombs, making them more likely to be used in a conventional war, critics argue. Fearing the White House’s seemingly unbridled atomic appetite, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has introduced a bill that would make NFU official US policy. The move is necessary to uphold America’s “moral and diplomatic leadership in the world,” she said – a point leadership rival Bernie Sanders has backed her on. 

But back in South Asia, neither side of the atomic deadlock seems interested in de-escalation. Equipped with low-yield weapons of their own, Pakistan’s nuclear posturing has increased in recent days. With reference to the Kashmiri crisis, Prime Minister Khan last week made it clear that “a direct military confrontation” between the two nations is growing “ever closer”. Fearing their neighbour’s nuclear potential, New Delhi is understood to have drawn up hypothetical ‘counterforce’ plans – preemptive strikes on the enemy’s warheads before they can be launched. Unhindered by NFU, experts fear these blueprints could become a mutually destructive reality.

“Counterforce attacks require perfect intelligence about where the adversary’s nuclear forces are located so that they can be targeted,” says Rajesh Rajagopalan, Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “Not even the world’s most powerful states have such intelligence; and India will pay a heavy cost if even a few weapons of an adversary survives such an assault”.

And that’s the conundrum facing all nuclear states: if even a fraction of their enemy’s arsenal survives a strike, collective oblivion is all but guaranteed. Both India and Pakistan know this, but caught in a cycle of provocation and retaliation, neither is interested in peacemaking. Amid these spiralling tensions, NFU offers a measure of calm. For how much longer, nobody knows.