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India’s ‘First Use’ Policy can Hamper India’s Soft Power Image


The nuclear doctrine of any country resonates its world view shaped by historical experiences, its leadership, its threat perception and technical capabilities, along with the role it assigns to its nuclear weapons. With growing technology and ever changing geopolitical realities, the nuclear doctrines also evolves.

India released its nuclear doctrine in 2003, five years after testing the weapon. India’s nuclear test had caused a turmoil at global level, to calm which India had to put forward its idea behind building nuclear capability. Keeping its ideals intact, India said that it would not be the one to initiate a nuclear warfare but if attacked its retaliation would cause ‘unacceptable damage’ to the perpetrator. This came to be known as India’s ‘No First Use’ or NFU doctrine.

The Indian Ideology

The Indian nuclear philosophy can be seen as the middle path to realpolitik and ‘moralpolitik’. Rakesh Sood (Sood, 2014) tags India as a ‘reluctant nuclear-armed state’ that makes it unique. This reluctance grew out of India’s belief in a nuclear weapon free world for a secure world. This philosophy is rooted in India’s non-violent struggle for freedom and its immediate aspiration to be an autonomous state, able to provide development and equity to its people. Keeping this in mind, India acquired a tradition of restraint with regards to using violence but it was also aware to develop the capacity to ‘coerce’ which was to be used when everything else failed.

Just after the 1998 tests, former Prime Minister Vajpayee tabled a paper titled ‘Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy’ which was the first comprehensive document on India’s nuclear stand. This document stated that ‘nuclear weapons were not weapons of war’ and declared that India’s nuclear capacity was for self defence, an insurance that India would not be threatened or coerced by flexing nuclear might. These are the element which were continued in the nuclear doctrine of 2003.

The doctrine

A nuclear doctrine has three objectives. Internally, it guides the military of the country and also provides reassurance to its people and allies. Internationally, it is a way to send message to the potential adversaries. Lastly, because nuclear weapons are not conventional weapons, a nuclear doctrine is essential to prevent a nuclear war.

Rakesh Sood has briefly summarized the Indian Nuclear doctrine of 2003 as following:

  1. Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent;
  2. A posture of no-first-use;
  3. Nuclear retaliatory use in response to a nuclear attack on Indian territory, or on Indian forces anywhere;
  4. Nuclear retaliation to be massive and inflict unacceptable damage;
  5. Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states;
  6. Option of nuclear retaliation in response to chemical or biological attack on India, or on Indian forces anywhere;
  7. Continuation of strict export controls on nuclear and missile related materials and technologies;
  8. Participation in the FMCT negotiations;
  9. Continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests;
  10. Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free-world, through global, verifiable and nondiscriminatory nuclear disarmament

The doctrine reflects the idea that nuclear weapons are political in nature and are not weapons of war. The document explains India’s need for security in a nuclearized environment. The doctrine also establishes India as a ‘responsible nuclear-armed state’ which is ready to develop confidence building measures in the region. 

The Debate

Time and again, policymakers have put forth arguments for why India should review its nuclear doctrine. Some say that India’s doctrine is unreliable because of its limited capabilities and disconnected military with nuclear question. The doctrine’s credibility is question also on the basis of India’s capacity to impact a massive retaliation and the domestic cost of absorbing a first strike. Scholars also argue that India’s security has been adversely impacted by revealing its nuclear status as Pakistan is also a nuclear state but has maintained ambiguity. Moreover, it has almost been two decades since the declaration of the doctrine. Since then there has been many regional and global changes, so a review is certainly required. It is suggested by them that India would be more secure by changing NFU to First Use or FU or ambiguity.

According to Prof. Rajesh Rajagopalan, nuclear warheads are for tackling the insecurity of national survival. This applies to countries like Israel and Pakistan who have perceived existential threats from their neighbours. India does not have such existential threat, it only has fear of a nuclear attack, to which it has built up capacity to retaliate.

The NFU provides resistance to the temptation to make a disarming first strike in a crisis. In case First Use is adopted, the country will have to keep its warhead assembled along with the delivery vehicles. This increases the chances of miscalculation and consequently the chances of nuclear exchange. Moreover, NFU also shuts the possibility of any irrational pre-emptive strike.

Why it should not be removed?

A policy is never a static document and ought to change with times and geopolitical dynamics. India’s doctrine has been reviewed with time and it has been realised that it is not prudent for India to change it No First Use doctrine. First of all, India’s deterrence will not be strengthened instead will suffer if no first clause is removed. The NFU brings clarity to India’s nuclear policy by defining the limits which if breached would cause massive nuclear retaliation. Abandoning the NFU would mean compromising the ‘credible minimum deterrence’ by removing the clarity. As ‘credible minimum deterrence’ is built upon an assured second strike capability, and remove the need and urgency of indefinite expansion of nuclear arsenal; removing NFU would cause a nuclear arms race in the region ending up in high insecurity and instability.

According to Shivshankar Menon, the credibility of nuclear weapons is derived from the clarity and simplicity of task assigned to the weapons and their credibility decides the strength of their deterrent effect (Saxena, 2018).

Moreover, if there would not be a policy like no first use then the aggressor would feel that striking pre-emptively would benefit them in a possible nuclear exchange. It would also increase mutual suspicion between the two ever hostile and nuclear armed nation having first strike capacity.

Way Forward

Lt. Gen Syed Ata Hasnain emphasizes that NFU is no cast in stone, we can always be flexible and make a decision of first use if the crisis demands so. He adds that India while maintaining its NFU doctrine can prepare for the instance of first use also (Indians, 2022).

Periodic review of the nuclear doctrine should be done to ensure its credibility and relevance vis-à-vis the dynamics of the region. A greater civil-military coordination is desirable with enhanced engagement of India’s defence forces with its nuclear scheme.

However, the basic elements of its doctrine appear sound and form a coherent whole which is consistent with India’s world-view and provides a reassuring continuity.


The first nuclear age was largely during the cold war, dominated by US-USSR dyad and depending on their dynamics. Today we are in the second nuclear age when the center of gravity has shifted from Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific which brings in multiple players into the equation. A nuclear war between two players might draw in other players.

The Indian government has repeatedly reviewed it’s no first use policy and upheld it for achieving the goal of credible minimum deterrence. NFU aligns very well with India’s world view and aspirations. With NFU India has maintained the continuity in its image as a responsible state. 


Indians, A. (2022, July 18). Should India Discard The No-First Use Nuclear Doctrine ? Retrieved from

Saxena, S. (2018, February 20). Should India amend its nuclear doctrine? Retrieved from LSE:

Sood, R. (2014, December). Should India Revise its Nuclear Doctrine? Retrieved from Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament:


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