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  • Rishabh Warrier

No First Use Policy: A Viable Perspective?


The NFU policy has always been a testament to India as a responsible nuclear power. However, there have been concerns from multiple government personnel that the NFU needs a revamp. The author, in this article, has examined if there needs to be a change in India’s no-first-use policy. The author has also analysed the viability of the alternative, a first-use policy, and whether such a shift is necessary. The article has examined whether the present NFU policy acts as a valid deterrent tool. Moreover, the paper discusses the value of the present policy in international relations and further, barriers to adopting a first-use policy. While examining these issues, the paper also looks at various criticisms of the present NFU policy.

Keywords: India, NFU, first-use, counterforce, deterrence ability, diplomacy, responsible, nuclear power, second-strike.


The advent of nuclear weapons has led to the possibility of maximal destruction in minimal time. Possessing a nuclear arsenal has become synonymous with greater existential survival of a nation. This has resulted in an arms race wherein states are trying to modernize and increase their nuclear capabilities. This nuclear arms race implies that the likelihood of a nuclear war is more probable than ever before.[i]

A no first use (NFU) policy is a commitment to not use nuclear weapons first under any condition.[ii] It prevents the possibility of a pre-emptive, or a first strike for that matter, by one nation on another. A total of 9 countries have been known to possess nuclear weapons.[iii] Among these countries, Israel has never openly declared the possession of nuclear weapons, hence it doesn’t have any official nuclear policy. In the remaining pool, all countries except India and China follow a first-use policy.[iv] India first came out with a draft policy in 1998. Official policy was released in 2003, which affirmed that, unless there is a major chemical or biological attack, India shall not use nuclear weapons first.[v] It also states that India shall use nuclear weapons only in a retaliatory manner, and only against nuclear states.[vi]

In recent times, comments made by various personnel in the government, and the current ruling party’s 2014 manifesto, have resulted in a view that the NFU policy shall undergo a revamp.[vii] Yet, the Prime Minister has affirmed that the NFU “is a reflection of our cultural inheritance”.[viii] Through this article, the author will argue that the NFU is of prime importance to our country and should not be tampered with.

Deterrence Ability of NFU

A. Pakistan has never accepted India’s claim of following an NFU policy, and hence has always followed a first-use policy. What if India has accurate information regarding the possibility of a nuclear strike by another country? Will we still wait for the actual strike as per our NFU policy? Critics of the NFU claim that Pakistan has always followed a low-intensity conflict against India, and has threatened of nuclear first use if India crosses Pak’s borders, inter alia.[ix] Furthermore, there is a fear that India lacks a second strike ability. An NFU policy requires the survivability of a country’s nuclear capabilities after a first strike. Critics point out that India’s arsenal may not survive a nuclear attack and hence may not act as a deterrent to an enemy country.[x] This means that the basis of adopting an NFU policy, that a devastating retaliatory attack would deter first-use, falls flat on its face.

Another factor in re-thinking the NFU policy is the increasing “counterforce” capabilities of countries like China. Counterforce pertains to a first-strike that targets enemy bases having “military value” like air force bases, a command and control station, etc.[xi] This is in contrast to “counter-value”, which targets enemy cities, economic bases rather than defence infrastructure.[xii] China has been constantly evolving its nuclear capabilities by achieving sea-based nuclear deterrence with its new Jin-class submarine; the DF-5’s, which can target cities till the continental USA, and in the future may be equipped with multiple MIRV’s; and also increasing the accuracy of its weapons.[xiii]

Moreover, these counterforce capabilities might put a dent on the survivability of  India’s nuclear arsenal in case of a first strike. Additionally, there has been the question of decision paralysis by leaders in case of a first-strike, or a possibility of a strike, especially with the small distance between countries like Pakistan and India.[xiv] First-strike may also be used by a weaker country as a means to defeat the other through means of surprise, a probable method by the far conventionally weaker Pakistan.

However, these arguments shouldn’t be taken as valid criticisms of the NFU policy. First-use is a policy used by countries that perceive an active threat to their existence/survival. The USA follows first-use for it fears the possibility of a Soviet attack, along with the fact that NATO allies feel the only way to deter surely, a Soviet attack on Europe, is through the USA’s first-use policy.[xv] The Soviet, vice-versa, fears a US first-strike. Israel, surrounded by its Arab enemies, and Pakistan, fearful of an Indian strike, perceive an existential threat to themselves, and hence follow a first-use policy.  India, though, doesn’t have any threat to its national survival to follow a first-use policy. The only possibility of the threat comes from Pakistan and China. India with its surgical strikes of 2016 and 2019 called out Pakistan’s bluff of using nuclear weapons if India crosses its borders. Nonetheless, the “readiness” of Pakistan’s first strike ability seems to be a made-up myth, denounced by their own PM, who stated that Pakistan has no intention of First-use.[xvi] Other personnel in the Pak army have also denounced the use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan.[xvii] This shows a certain fissure in the threats being made by Pakistan.

Moreover, the possibility of pin-pointing every single nuclear weapon storage of India, or any country for that matter, is too idealistic.[xviii] Any survivable nuclear arsenal, however small, can cause large scale destruction to the attacking country. Even if a country could accurately pin-point all nuclear weapons, intelligence given to the other country could result in the relocation of these weapons, and a grave retaliatory strike.[xix] Additionally, another threat in the South-Asian region, China, has followed an unconditional NFU pledge since 1964. Firstly, in spite of the apparent hardening of China’s stance concerning the Sino-Indo border, even in the worst phase of conflict (Doklam 2017), China has never even addressed the mere possibility of using nuclear weapons. Secondly, a certain parity in the conventional forces of both countries coupled with Confidence Building Methods (CBM’s) being employed makes a nuclear war an unlikely scenario.[xx] Hence an NFU policy seems to be working well in the current scenario.

Technological Barriers of NFU

Addressing the concerns regarding counterforce abilities, the author also throws light on the technological barriers of adopting first-use. To adopt a first-use policy, India needs to develop sufficient counterforce capabilities to leave no scope for retaliation. To develop this first-strike capability, India would need to adopt launch-on-warning and other hair-trigger systems, which inherently increase the risk of accidental launches and miscalculations.[xxi] This means, in addition to the very short Indo-Pak and Indo-Sino response times available (due to short distances between the countries), no leader would want to order a nuclear strike on a mere presumption of risk. Numerous cases of near usage of weapons due to such miscalculations and false presumptions add value to this logic.[xxii] Additionally, first-use policy means the greater economic cost to safely store and transport warheads during peacetime.[xxiii] There is also the added need to advance conventional forces to protect the nuclear ones.

A corollary to adopting an NFU policy is a de-alerted and de-mated posture of nuclear weapons. This means that the usage of nuclear weapons requires first, the assembly of the weapon consisting of different components, which are stored by different agencies. This significantly decreases the chance of accidents and inadvertent launches, increasing the safety of our nuclear arsenal.[xxiv] While a more cumbersome procedure for the usage of nuclear weapons may be a flaw, this process increases the time taken to think about the consequences, reducing the possibility of rash decisions in high tension times. However, there have been indications that several Agni variants shall follow a system of mated missile systems and hence, reduced response times in assembling the weapons.[xxv] While this increases the operational capabilities of India’s missile systems, the significant investments India will have to make in its control and delivery systems would be a burden on a country with a “developing economy and weak defence infrastructure” [xxvi]

India has also stated that its “second strike” ability is not to be taken lightly.[xxvii] In this context, India possesses, with the induction of INS Arihant, a nuclear triad of air, sea, and land-based missiles.[xxviii] Also, India shall soon induct the Agni-5 missiles, which will significantly increase the range of India’s missiles to 5500km.[xxix] While it is a valid argument that India’s second-strike capability may not even be close to China’s, it would be unfair to dismiss the massive strides being made in India’s nuclear capabilities as of no contributory value.

Diplomatic Value

There have been concerns that following an NFU policy adversely affects India’s policy options. However, India’s limitations in the usage of nuclear weapons seem less to be because of an NFU policy and more due to the strategic needs of India. As stated before, any first-use by India has to be a strike that can ensure zero survivability of its enemies, for any retaliatory ability shall cause havoc for the attacking country. Henceforth, it is an argument that in place of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine, and India’s insufficient counterforce ability, any first-use will only be detrimental.[xxx]

An NFU policy doesn’t limit India’s options, it instead portrays India as a responsible nuclear power. Initially, India defying its stance as a peaceful country and developing nuclear weapons had led to American sanctions.[xxxi] The NFU policy had also allowed Indian diplomats to deflect International criticism when the security council had called for sanctions, in place of its nuclear development, against India.[xxxii] The NFU policy, hence, can be construed as India re-constructing its image as a “responsible and moderate” nuclear power.[xxxiii] On the other hand, Pakistan by following the first-use policy, puts India in better limelight, giving it diplomatic mileage. China, through following a similar unilateral NFU policy, will help in stabilizing the South Asian region. As discussed further, India changing its NFU stance may prove to be detrimental.

Even though traditionally China has always viewed India’s military prowess dismissively, the 2013 Chinese defence paper recognizes India’s emerging capabilities.[xxxiv] China has always maintained, in addition to its general aversion of use of nuclear weapons, that during peacetime its weapons are not aimed at any country.[xxxv] India adopting the first-use policy will surely raise alarms in China, which may lead it to change its nuclear doctrine in turn. The consequence would be an arms-race in the South-Asian region. China modernizing its weapons to counter US counterforce abilities, leading to ongoing pacific instability, is a glaring example.[xxxvi] Even Pakistan has conveniently used India’s nuclear advancement as an excuse for their development of weapons.[xxxvii] A first-use policy shall also give them more leverage in further indulging in the modernization of weapons.

The India nuclear doctrine has always had its aim as nuclear non-proliferation in a non-discriminatory manner. Hence, even though India opposed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons due to its discriminatory nature, NFU allows for cooperation with countries like China for a global no first use policy.[xxxviii] The present nuclear doctrine hence, through portraying India as a responsible power, has also granted it Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waivers and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) go-ahead through the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, 2008.[xxxix] India through its moderate doctrine is a part of treaties like the Wassenaar agreement and Missile Technology Group. Henceforth, a shift to an aggressive policy will be detrimental to India’s future aspirations like getting full membership to bodies like the NSG.[xl]


The present nuclear doctrine is in no way an anachronistic phenomenon. An argument that it only possess cultural and not strategic significance is incorrect for various factors. In place of the fact that first-use can never result in the complete annihilation of its enemies’ arsenal, it only contributes to mutually assured destruction. Moreover, India faces no existential threat, because of Pakistan’s dismissive counterforce capabilities and China’s aversion of any talk of nuclear usage, to warrant a first-use policy.

Additionally, counterforce comes with the risk of accidental launches and other miscalculations. This, coupled with low response times between India, Pakistan, and China, can prove dangerous. Furthermore, India’s developing second-strike capability can allay fears concerning survivability in case of a first-strike against India. Lastly, NFU has shown India as a responsible nuclear power, a shift in doctrine could it could hinder India’s aspirations to join treaties like the NSG. Additionally, it could lead to an arms race and hence, further instability in the South-Asian region. In the current scenario, the NFU policy serves India in the best way possible.


[i] Nuclear weapons – an intolerable threat to humanity, International Red Cross organization (7th Aug 2018),

[ii] No first use FAQ, Global Zero,

[iii] Davenport Kelsey, Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance, Arms Control Association, (July 2019)

[iv] Id.

[v] India’s Nuclear Doctrine, CABINET COMMITTEE ON SECURITY, (4th Jan 2003),

[vi] Id.

[viii] Singh, Kunal, Why is India’s no first use policy under so much strain?, (10th Jan 2019),

[ix] Kumar, Vinod, No First Use’ is Not Sacrosanct: Need a Theatre-Specific Posture for Flexible Options, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, (27th August 2019)

[x] Nagal, B.S., Nuclear No First Use Policy, Force India, ( 22nd Dec 2019),

[xi] Counterforce doctrine, Encyclopaedia Britannica, (19th Aug 2014),

[xiii] Heginbotham, Eric, China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major drivers and issues for the US, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, (2017),

[xiv] Supra n.x.

[xv] Kober, S., Jones, D. C., Ravenal, E. C., Anderson, C. N., & Hafner, D. L. (1982). The Debate over No First Use, Foreign Affairs, 60(5), 1171. doi:10.2307/20041281.

[xvi] Shazad, Asif, PM Khan: Pakistan would not use nuclear weapons first, amid tensions with India, Reuters, (2nd Sep 2019),

[xvii] Nayan, Rajiv, India’s ‘No First Use’ Nuclear Doctrine, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, (16th Sep 2019),

[xviii] Gerson, Michael, The Future of U.S. Nuclear Policy: The Case for No First Use, Belfer Center for International Studies and Affairs, (Feb 2011),

[xix] Id.

[xx] Kurita, Masahiro, China-India Relationship and Nuclear Deterrence, Boei Kenkyusho Kiyo [NIDS Security Studies], vol. 19, no. 2, December, 2017.

[xxi] Jacob, Happymon, On the desirability of NFU, Greater Kashmir, (14th Mar 2019),

[xxii]Ramanathan, Aditya, Nuclear First Use: A Critique, Takshashila Discussion Document, Takshashila Institution, (21st June 2019),,

[xxiv] Rajagopalan, Rajesh, India’s Nuclear Policy, 12th Symposium on International Affairs, National Institute of Defence Studies, (2009),

[xxv] Kanwal, Gurmeet, India’s Nuclear Force Structure 2025, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, (30th Jun 2016),

[xxvi] Clary, C., & Narang, V. (2019). India’s Counterforce Temptations: Strategic Dilemmas, Doctrine, and Capabilities, International Security, 43(3), 7–52. doi:10.1162/isec_a_00340.

[xxviii] Davenport, Kelsey, India Moves Closer to Nuclear Triad, Arms Control Association, (Aug 2018),

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] Rajagopalan, Rajesh, The strategic logic of the No First Use nuclear doctrine, Observer Research Foundation, (Aug 2019),

[xxxi] U.S. imposes sanctions on India, CNN, (13th May 1998),,

[xxxii] (Kamath 2009, 200) through Kumar Sundaram & M. V. Ramana (2018), India and the Policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 1:1, 152-168, DOI: 10.1080/25751654.2018.1438737.

[xxxiv] Supra n.xiii.

[xxxv] China’s Endeavors for Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, (September 2005), Beijing. China Report, 41(4), 461–480.

[xxxvi] Ullah Sufian, The New Era Of Counterforce In South Asia, South Asian Voices (4th September, 2018),

[xxxvii] Report on Nuclear safety, nuclear stability and nuclear strategy in Pakistan, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, (14th Jan 2002),

[xxxviii] Menon, Prakash, Rajnath and No First Use: Tainting India’s Image as a Responsible Nuclear Power, The Wire, (18th Aug 2019),

[xxxix] Bajoria, Jayshree et. Pan, Esther, The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal, Council on Foreign Relations, (5th Nov 2010),

[xl] Pant, Harsh, Nuclear rethink: A change in India’s nuclear doctrine has implications on cost & war strategy, Observer Research Foundation, (19th Aug 2019),

This blog is a part of RSRR Blog Series on National Security Laws. By Rishabh Warrier, 1st Year, National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR).


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