India Has Good Reason to Give Up Its No-First-Strike Nuclear Doctrine. But the State of Its Arsenal Suggests That It Won’t.

In a statement to the Conference on Disarmament on Oct. 14, Indian Ambassador Pankaj Sharma reiterated that—even as tensions with neighboring China heat up—his country remains committed to its doctrine that it will not use its nuclear weapons against an adversary unless first attacked with them.

India’s adherence to a no-first-use principle is long-standing. Ever since 1998, when the country went nuclear, New Delhi has rejected the idea of initiating the use of such weapons in any conflict scenario. Nukes, in Indian strategy, are purely retaliatory. And that stance has made good military and diplomatic sense. The relatively small size of India’s arsenal ruled out a first strike anyway, and the country’s commitment to restraint, meanwhile, built its image as a responsible nuclear stakeholder and helped ease New Delhi’s accommodation in the international nuclear order.

But India’s steadfast rhetorical adherence to its no-first-use principle has been facing challenges on multiple fronts.

First, there is a growing consensus in the Western nonproliferation community that, in practice, New Delhi has already nearly relinquished the policy. In fact, experts believe that should India and Pakistan go to war, India would ready its nuclear force for preemptive strikes. And it has acquired the capability—nuclear arsenal, delivery systems, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems—to do so. Moreover, having already been granted recognition of its right to a nuclear program through the 2005 Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, New Delhi has less incentive for caution.

Second, China and India are embroiled in military scuffling in the Western Himalayas, where the Chinese army has sliced off significant chunks of Indian territory. Given the disparity between New Delhi’s conventional military power and Beijing’s, publicly adopting a first-use doctrine would communicate both power and resolve on India’s part. In other words, this would be an opportune time for India to align its stated policy with its apparent intentions.

Sharma’s message, though, amounts to a categorical rejection of both facts. The essential puzzle in India’s nuclear policy, therefore, boils down to the following: If Indian intentions and capability to initiate first use of nuclear weapons have indeed shifted, why is New Delhi hesitant about leveraging this shift where it may matter most—against China?

States do have an incentive to hide new military capabilities; the no-first-use doctrine may simply be a public lie to hide private intentions. However, backing away from the principle would also signal strength and perhaps make it less likely that India would need to use its new military capabilities to begin with.

Another explanation is that India doesn’t think it needs the added deterrence. So far, New Delhi has opted for a conventional buildup along the border with China. But that has put enormous strain on its underequipped and overstretched armed forces, as well as its underperforming economy. Diplomatically, too, building up conventional deterrence has been costly. Measures such as inviting Australia to joint naval exercises in Malabar and initiating official trade talks with Taiwan rattle Beijing, but not much more. Meanwhile, they entrap New Delhi into expensive