Low Nuclear Threshold
Source : War on the Rocks

Sameer Ali Khan 

Revision of the Indian No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons policy has been under significant discussion since 2014 once BJP announced its intent to review and revise the Indian nuclear doctrine. This debate is now focusing on what other options India could potentially use to achieve its objectives vis-à-vis its adversary(ies). There is a belief that India might decide to strike first if use of nuclear weapons by the other side is imminent. First strike is essentially pre-emption, which is not only a murky domain under international law but can also lead to dangerous miscalculations between nuclear armed belligerents. With a huge stock of weapon-usable fissile materials, wide array of nuclear delivery systems (currently fourteen), a triad of nuclear forces and a burgeoning space capability; such a course of action from the Indian side cannot be ruled out.

India’s nuclear threshold is lowering with the development of tactical ballistic missiles like Paralay. Its nuclear doctrine has yet to reflect these changed realities. Indian military leadership may claim that they can fight a two-front war, but developments on the nuclear side tell a different story of lowering nuclear threshold to offset Chinese conventional advantage.

The current debate tends to overly focus on statements from current and former Indian officials rather than assessing existing Indian capabilities and gauging its ability to take alternative routes. Amidst this debate on revision in Indian nuclear doctrine and possibility of pursuing a first-strike posture, an upcoming development needs to be seen in more contemporary context rather than through the lens of declared Indian nuclear doctrine. On 15 December 2018, some Indian media outlets claimed that India was about to test its ‘tactical’ Short Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM) – Pralay. The new ‘much faster and accurate’ Pralay has a strike range of 500 km and weighs around five tonne. The closest missile system in the Indian inventory turns out to be Prithvi-II with a range of 350 km and a weight of 4.6 tonne.

Pralay missile system has gained slight weight as compared to Prithvi-II and is based on solid-fuel unlike the liquid fueled Prithvi-II. This will provide India with a missile system that is relatively ready to be used in times of conflict. Dissecting the title
tactical,’ one would tend to draw its relative utility against China and Pakistan. In case of Pakistan, the missile could essentially cover its entire geographical depth (400- 600 km) with the exception of few areas in Balochistan. Since the missile would be able to hit almost every part of Pakistani territory, it cannot be termed as a tactical missile against Pakistan. In case of China, the other available missile systems are either liquid fueled (hence, not so readily available for use), have a shorter range, or both. While Prahaar is touted as a quick tactical missile system, it becomes irrelevant against China because of its short range of just 150 km. Missiles like Prithvi-II would somewhat cover for range but end up losing in terms of greater readiness times being liquid fueled. Hence, Pralay promises to provide solution for the problems of both range and readiness.

The ‘readiness factor’ is not a new consideration for Indian policy makers and is not just manifested through the solid-fueled Pralay. India is moving towards a more ready nuclear arsenal. Former Indian officials have acknowledged that all Indian missiles are canisterized i.e. they have to be mated with the nuclear warheads and ready to be used. Moreover, India has already conducted multiple canister-based tests of its Inter Continental Ballistic Missile Agni-V. Besides, operationalization of Indian INS Arihant is a clear indicator that it now has a ready arsenal on-board a submarine. All this indicates a reversal in Indian policy of keeping the warheads de-mated from the delivery systems – essentially increasing the likelihood of nuclear use.

With a range of 500 km, Pralay can be tactical missile against China rather than Pakistan. This missile system’s development makes more sense given the recent military stand-off between China and India at Doklam. While the issue appears to have been amicably managed, the possibility of recurrence lingers as the strategic issues driving the tensions between them remain unresolved. India clearly felt the need for greater military muscle to have settled the issue on more favorable terms. South Asian watchers have observed that, India appears to be modernizing its nuclear forces with an increased emphasis on its strategic relationship with China in the aftermath of the Doklam stand-off. One of the leading platforms for geopolitical analyses, points out that India may be developing Pralay missile to offset the military imbalance that it faces against China. Indian analysts have also alluded to this possibility while stating that Pralay is likely to be deployed against China. Similarly, India has also significantly increased the deployment of its Su-30MKI combat aircraft to the Siliguri Bagdogra and Hasimara air bases, close to the IndiaChina Bhutan border, following the crisis. Notably, India is already developing an air launched variant of its Nirbhay cruise missile with a range of 1,000 km. The missile is currently being modified for launch from Su-30MKI. India’s Air Force Chief had claimed that India can handle Pakistan and China in a two-front war. However, the outcomes of recent India-Pakistan crisis showed otherwise and Indian leadership remarked that outcome would have been different if India had Rafale fighter jets. Like his Airforce counterpart, Indian Army chief had also claimed that India was prepared for a two-front war. But developments in Indian nuclear forces indicate otherwise i.e. India’s nuclear threshold might not be as high as is generally perceived.

India is developing nuclear forces which would be in sharp contrast to its declared policies of NFU and massive retaliation. For instance, if Pralay or Nirbhay are to be deployed against Chinese conventional forces, these do not make sense in view of China’s NFU policy and a more recessed nuclear posture against India. Especially given India’s own policies of NFU and massive retaliation. India continues to maintain its restraint projecting’ nuclear policies as it continues to develop more aggressive and offensive nuclear forces in contradiction with its declared policies. India has not yet issued a new official document reflecting a lowered nuclear threshold but this reality is manifested in the developments that are underway and the statements where Indian PM  is equating nuclear weapons with firecrackers.

Sameer Ali Khan is a visiting fellow at Atlantic Council, Washington DC. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the policy of his institution.