India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Call for Revision


By Colonel H R Naidu Gade

With two adversarial nuclear-armed powers as neighbors, India may be about to revise its nuclear doctrine according to retired Indian Army veteran Colonel H R Naidu Gade. He discusses and analyzes the key features of India’s nuclear doctrine to conclude that although there is a consensus among the country’s strategic community about the need to re-examine India’s nuclear doctrine, not everyone agrees that it should be revised.

Since its independence India has faced serious security threats from its northern neighbours, China and Pakistan, having fought wars with both over unresolved territorial disputes. Faced with the prospect of having to confront China and other nuclear-armed states, India conducted a series of nuclear tests in 1998, and declared itself a state armed with nuclear weapons. Pakistan immediately followed India in building its own nuclear weapons, and India now faces two nuclear-armed adversaries. It is well accepted in India that its nuclear weapons are to deter their use and threat of use by India’s adversaries. To this end, India spelled out its Nuclear Doctrine and the operationalization of its nuclear deterrent on January 4, 2003.  

Key Features of the Doctrine 

The key features of India’s nuclear doctrine are:  

  • Building and maintaining a “credible minimum deterrent”
  • A “No First Use (NFU)” posture
  • Nuclear weapons to be used only “in retaliation” against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere
  • Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be “massive” and designed to inflict “unacceptable damage”;  
  • The non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states
  • Retaining the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons in the event of a major attack against it with chemical and biological weapons (CBW)
  • Nuclear retaliatory attacks are to be authorized only by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority
  • Continuance of strict controls on export of nuclear and missile-related materials and technologies, participation in fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) negotiations, and a continued moratorium on testing
  • And a continued commitment to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons through global, verifiable, and non-discriminatory disarmament.
Estimated global nuclear warhead inventories in 2023 © Arms Control Association

The Need for Revision 

The Indian strategic community has been debating India’s nuclear doctrine since its inception. Though the NFU remains the most controversial element of India’s nuclear doctrine, other aspects of the doctrine have also been debated. The adequacy of the doctrine for dealing with Pakistan’s reported development of Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) and its efficacy in deterring China are being discussed. Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan mentions the six major issues that kindle the Indian debate as: India’s NFU commitment, credible minimum deterrence, nuclear retaliation to CBW attacks, command-and-control aspects, massive retaliation, and Pakistan’s development of TNWs and allegations of state-sponsored terrorism.

No First Use  

The most controversial element of the Indian nuclear debate is undoubtedly India’s NFU pledge. Moderates amongst security strategists are optimistic about nuclear deterrence and expect that achieving deterrence is relatively easy if nuclear weapon capability exists and not striking first has any great deterrence disadvantages. They consider NFU to be the centrepiece of India’s nuclear doctrine and that NFU provides multiple advantages such as obviating the need for expensive nuclear weapon infrastructure that is associated with a first-use doctrine, and putting the onus of escalation on the adversary without preventing India from defending itself.  

The hardliners in the strategic community reject these arguments and advocate that an NFU posture is only possible for a country that has extreme confidence in both the ability of its national nuclear forces sufficient to muster a devastating retaliatory strike, but also in the efficacy of its crisis management system as the Indian politico-bureaucratic system is manifestly incapable of handling any emergency as dire as a nuclear strike. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has clarified that no review of NFU is planned and that there would not be any compromise on that, arguing in 2014 that NFU “is a reflection of our cultural inheritance”.

Credible Minimum Deterrence (CMD) 

A second important aspect of India’s nuclear doctrine is the CMD, which refers to the quantity of nuclear forces that India needs to deter potential nuclear adversaries. The moderates are less concerned about the quantity or quality of nuclear weapons and point out that credibility is a function of how well command-and-control – the essence of deterrence – functions. It is important to have a command-and-control chain from the political level to the implementing level that demonstrates its survivability under the worst conditions of a decapitation attack. A level of punishment is achievable so long as India has a survivable retaliatory force and maintains an assured capability for counterstrike.  

Meanwhile, the hardliners want much larger nuclear arsenals and worry about the slow pace of India’s nuclear weapon development. They suspect that Indian leadership might not maintain even the CMD, especially given the “concessions” that India made to Washington for the U.S. – India nuclear deal. They visualize a much grander role for nuclear weapons in India’s rise as a great power leading to a genuinely independent strategic role for the country. Maintaining the credibility of India’s threat of “unacceptable damage” requires that the size of India’s nuclear arsenal be a function of its threat perceptions, suggesting that size must be open-ended, not fixed, and that, considering long-standing China-Pakistan collusion, India should seek a capability sufficient to inflict “unacceptable damage” on both Pakistan and China. 

China is one of two of India’s nuclear-armed adversaries ©

Massive Retaliation  

Most strategists fear India’s threat of massive retaliation to any nuclear attack to be empty. Some argue that India should consider substituting “punitive” for “massive” in the doctrine. They are equally dismissive of massive retaliation, arguing that threatening such retaliation in response to Pakistani tactical nuclear first use undermines India’s deterrence by violating the principle of proportionality. The lack of compatibility between massive retaliation and minimum deterrence is also an issue.  

Nuclear Deterrence of CBW Use  

Some moderates disagree with a nuclear deterrent against CBW use, arguing that it hardly makes the Indian nuclear deterrent more credible. CBWs are outlawed anyway, and if non-state actors use these weapons then a nuclear deterrent could not in any way be effective because it is not designed to counter such actors. Hardliners on the other hand presumably support nuclear use in response to a CBW attack arguing that it leaves an option open since India has given up its CBW capacity. 

Command and Control  

The nuclear doctrine clearly states that the political leadership will determine how and when to employ the nuclear deterrent. Moderates accept the command-and-control arrangements detailed in the doctrine and point to the NFU as a critical factor in reducing pressure on Indian command-and-control systems. For hardliners, the deficiencies of the command-and-control arrangements are yet another indicator of the weaknesses of India’s nuclear doctrine. They contend that India’s nuclear deterrence will not be effective unless potential adversaries accept that India has the operational capacity to employ its nuclear weapons.

Other Issues: Terrorism and TNWs

The doctrine’s capacity to deal with challenges of Pakistan’s TNWs and allegations of state-sponsored terrorism has become a contentious issue. On Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism – historically believed to have occurred through Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence – moderates generally suggest non-nuclear measures. On Pakistan’s reported move to deploy TNWs, there is a consensus that counter-deployment of Indian TNWs provides no answer. However, some suggest that India acquire TNWs, but only to prevent any rapid Chinese breakthrough.

Pakistan Shaheen-1 & Ghauri missiles © India Today


There is a near consensus in the Indian strategic community that India’s nuclear doctrine needs to be periodically re-examined. This does not mean, however, that everyone in the strategic community agrees that the doctrine needs to be revised. The Indian government might release a new edition of the nuclear doctrine, given the strong consensus among India’s strategic elite about the need for periodic review.

Colonel H.R. Naidu Gade is an Indian Army Veteran, a Civil Engineer, Management, and Security Professional, with rich experience in the field of Combat Engineering, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNe) Defence, Security & Disaster Management. Presently, Chief Consultant with CBRNe Secure India, a forum and a knowledge center for bringing awareness to the general public, government and security entities on the threats arising from the use of CBRNe material and their disastrous consequences. He is also a prolific writer and speaker.

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