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Rethink on no-first-use doctrine

New Delhi, Jan. 13: Defence minister George Fernandes today said India will remain committed to its nuclear doctrine and will not be the first with a nuclear strike in the event of a war.

But a series of steps this month and a recommendation to the national security advisor that the “no-first-use” promise should be buried are signs that pressure is building up within the security establishment to mark a change in India’s strategic posture.

“We have a nuclear doctrine. A nuclear and strategic force command chain is in position. So we stand by the no-first use policy,” Fernandes said.

But there are clear signs that a rethink on the no-first-use policy is on with the national security advisory board recommending that India should give up the commitment that it will not strike with nuclear weapons as a first option in the event of a war.

The change could signal a switch from the security establishment’s accepted doctrine of a “limited, conventional war”, despite the nuclear shadow over South Asia, to one in which both India and Pakistan put their atomic arsenal on hair-trigger alert.

Even as the army is still clearing up the detritus of a war it has not waged, the decibel-level of sabre-rattling in South Asia has gone up. In the first fortnight of the new year, India has announced its nuclear command and control system, formalised its Nuclear Command Authority and has said it will use a nuclear strike in the event of not only a nuclear but also a chemical or biological attack on it or its forces.

India has also test-fired a missile (the Agni-A1) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead and it has said the strategic Agni III ballistic missile with a range of over 3,000 km will be tested this year. The steps came in the wake of — but did not necessarily follow from — a recommendation of the third security advisory board that India should give up the commitment of “no-first use” in its nuclear doctrine.

“Theoretically, a limited conventional war is still possible. But Pakistan’s continued support to infiltrators in Kashmir on the one hand and its nuclear blackmail on the other means that we have to be very clear in our response,” a senior official in the defence ministry said.

“While we still do not envisage a nuclear exchange, it is another thing that we do not want to be found wanting in such an event.”

Successive statements from Pakistan — beginning with its ambassador to the UN Munir Akram — and General Pervez Musharraf’s threat of a “non-conventional response” in the event of an attack by Indian forces is being interpreted in the security establishment here as a sign that the “nuclear threshold” has been significantly lowered.

“Nuclear threshold” is the jargon used by strategic experts to indicate the point beyond which a conflict between India and Pakistan can turn into a war in which atomic weapons will be used.

So far, the perception has been that Pakistan will resort to using nuclear weapons to overcome India’s superiority in conventional military forces. India’s larger army and air force, in a wargamed scenario, would be able to make a deep thrust into Pakistan. The deeper the thrust, the more the chances of Pakistan using “unconventional” weapons.

However — and this will never be officially admitted — one of the lessons of Operation Parakram is that though India indeed has a larger armed force, it is not large enough to be overwhelming. For instance, the Indian army has 21 divisions, Pakistan 19. This is not the kind of “asymmetry” — imbalance — of forces that the US had in the war against the Taliban or is building up in West Asia around Iraq.

Even a year ago, the security establishment in Delhi frowned on any talk of a nuclear exchange. So much so that Fernandes issued a statement to clarify his own army chief’s remarks that India was committed to the “no-first strike” clause in its nuclear doctrine.

But now, the lapse into what Bharat Karnad, former member of teh security board, calls “rhetorical nuclear war”, is already a marked change. New Delhi is not as cagey about “talking nuclear” any more.

The first security board had formulated India’s nuclear doctrine in August 1999 and had recommended both a commitment not to use nuclear weapons first and also a cap on nuclear tests.

The last security board — its report was sent to national security advisor Brajesh Mishra on December 20 — has recommended not only that India should do away with the no-first-strike commitment but also resume testing nuclear devices if the US resumes its own nuclear tests.

Critics are watching with growing unease the tit-for-tat responses between India and Pakistan on the nuclear policy. Close on the heels of India’s January 4 announcement, Pakistan also let it be known that its strategic forces chain is in place. Musharraf also accepted a nuclear-capable missile for his army last week.

In a statement here, the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace said it views the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s decision to “operationalise” India’s nuclear “deterrent” with great alarm.

“The creation of a Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) and Strategic Forces Command is one more step up South Asia’s ladder of escalation moving India and Pakistan closer than ever before towards deploying nuclear weapons on high alert and, hence, actualising the possibility of using them to cause demonic destruction,” the organisation said.

“It is cold comfort that only the NCA’s political council, headed by the Prime Minister, can authorise nuclear strikes. A democratic government ordered the Hiroshima and Nagasaki outrages. Both India and Pakistan cavalierly exchanged nuclear threats in Kargil and during the recent 10-month-long confrontation, and continue to do so today.

“With NCA in place, these threats will become especially menacing. A South Asian nuclear catastrophe must be prevented by negotiating Nuclear Risk-Reduction Measures. We call upon the people of India and Pakistan to force their governments to pull back from the brink,” CNDP conveners Amarjit Kaur, Kamal Chenoy and Admiral (retd) Ramdas said.

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