To use, or not to use?

The first use or non-first use nuclear conundrum facing Pakistan and India
Published : 18 May 2017

By: Debalina Ghoshal

It is widely felt that Pakistan has adopted a first use policy in its nuclear doctrine. First use is the capability of a country to be able to launch a nuclear attack on an adversary, and is different from the first strike doctrine, which means destroying an adversary’s retaliatory capability.

When a state adopts a first use nuclear policy, it also develops options for its nuclear forces to be able to absorb and survive enemy retaliation and launch a second strike. Therefore, Pakistan is working towards developing a robust nuclear capability - strengthening both its first use and second strike capabilities.

In January of this year, Pakistan successfully tested multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) that enable a single ballistic missile to fire several miniaturized nuclear warheads to evade enemy ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. MIRVs would strengthen its first use policy. The following month, Pakistan reiterated its stance that it would not support the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, a global treaty being negotiated to eliminate the stockpile of enriched uranium and plutonium.

Amid these concerns, what are India’s options to counter Pakistan’s growing nuclear capability? On many occasions, many Indian analysts have suggested a change in its non-first use policy in its nuclear doctrine. So, should India rethink?

Pakistan’s growing nuclear capability

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Pakistan has 130-140 nuclear warheads for delivery. There has been speculation that, in the near future, it may become the third largest nuclear weapon power, with more than 300 nuclear warheads in a decade or so.

In 2011, Pakistan surprised the world by testing a 60-kilometer range Nasr battlefield nuclear weapon or tactical nuclear weapon (TNW). TNWs are dangerous to regional stability. Pakistan’s long-range capability includes the Shaheen category missiles, and it has test fired the Ra’ad cruise missile with a 350 km range. It also has developed the Babur, a 700 km range nuclear capable cruise. In November 2016, there were reports that it was converting its F-16 fighter jets to make them capable of delivering nuclear warheads. All of this, along with MIRV capability, would strengthen its first use capability.

However, Pakistan is also working on strengthening its second strike capability to be able to retaliate after an enemy attack. For this, it is working on sea-based deterrence and has test fired the submarine launched Babur cruise missile with a range of 450 kms.

In the initial stages, Pakistan concentrated on enriched uranium for nuclear weapons at facilities including A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories at Kahuta and the Gadwal enrichment facility. However, the desire to develop TNWs and MIRVs which require miniaturized nuclear warheads has led it to concentrate on plutonium warheads, for example the Khushab reactor facility. This is because plutonium warheads are lighter than enriched uranium warheads and, therefore, easier to miniaturize. At the same time, plutonium warheads are more powerful than enriched uranium warheads.

How should India cope?

India has also concentrated on strategic nuclear weapons, namely the Agni category ballistic missiles with a range of 700-5,000 kms, and nuclear capable fighter jets. It is also working on sea-based nuclear deterrence such as submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), including the Sagarika SLBMs, nuclear powered submarines (SSBNs) and INS Arihant (the lead ship of its Arihant class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines) to strengthen its non-first use policy. Despite apprehension of this doctrine, India must continue along this path as it adds to regional stability – first use is a burdensome doctrine and only adds to destabilization.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) are reportedly working on MIRV technology to evade enemy BMD capability. India’s BMD further strengthens its non-first use policy, as with a defense by denial capability, it can hope to prevent a disarming strike by Pakistan. However, BMD is not foolproof and, as has been mentioned earlier, Pakistan is developing counter measures to evade it, and is also developing cruise missiles.

Therefore, India would need a robust cruise missile defense system to counter cruise missile threats. Its offensive capabilities such as the Agni and Sagarika missiles, fighter jets, as well as defensive capabilities such as BMD and cruise missile defense (CMD) would only strengthen its nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis its enemies.

However, as Pakistan continues to boast of its TNW capability, India has refrained from developing TNWs that have kept the nuclear threshold high in South Asia.

The offence-defense spiral in South Asia will continue as India also sees China as a threat. However, if regional stability needs to be strengthened, it is advisable for both India and Pakistan to agree to a bilateral non-first use agreement.

Debalina Ghoshal is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Security Studies, Hyderabad.

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