Is India slowly moving away from its official doctrine of No First Use (NFU)? Rajesh Rajagopalan's recent paper, "India and Counterforce: A Question of Evidence" argues that even as India has had a long-running debate about many aspects of its nuclear doctrine, the country continues to maintain its posture on the No First Use doctrine. Rajagopalan makes a critical assessment of recent arguments made by Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang which suggest that India may be reconsidering its NFU policy because of counterforce temptations. He examines the evidence they present––statements made by mostly retired officials, as well as discrete bits of technology that India is acquiring, and argues that they are unconvincing. Further, the paper seeks to explain why the relatively smaller Indian nuclear arsenal both precludes any counterforce first-strike doctrine and is also indicative of India not pursuing such a doctrinal change.

Carnegie India hosted Rajesh Rajagopalan, Vipin Narang and Christopher Clary for a discussion on whether India is slowly shifting towards a doctrine of nuclear counterforce. The discussion was moderated by Srinath Raghavan.

Discussion Highlights

  • The Counterforce Debate: Participants opened by discussing India’s nuclear doctrine of ‘No First Use’ (NFU). The doctrine of NFU entails that India will not be the first country to strike against an adversary. In this context, participants debated on India’s nuclear posture. While some argued that India continued to maintain a nuclear counter-value posture—whereby, the nuclear strike would be targeted at the populations and industrial centers—others maintained that slowly, India is acquiring the capabilities to carry out a counterforce attack against Pakistan. In a counterforce strike, the country carrying out the strikes aims to attack the adversary’s nuclear capabilities. In the context of these counterforce developments, participants discussed whether this would imply that India was slowly shedding its doctrine of NFU. After all, with the acquisition of counterforce capabilities, a nuclear power would be tempted to strike their adversary first and preempt an attack against itself.
  • Evidence of a Shift to Counterforce: Some participants argued that India was increasingly shifting to a counterforce nuclear posture. By relying on data pertaining to the acquisition of specific types of missile systems and interviews with former senior officials responsible for India’s security, they argued that India has opted to decouple its nuclear strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan and China in order to overcome the strategic paralysis that India faces in coercing Pakistan. They referred to India's inability to meaningfully punish Pakistan, as future deterrence, for its sub-conventional level attacks––given the Pakistani threat of using lower-yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Others, however, vehemently disagreed, stating that the development of capabilities doesn’t directly imply political intention. Further, they also highlighted that deploying a counterforce first strike against Pakistan leaves India vulnerable to counter-value attacks from Pakistan, given that New Delhi is yet to acquire sufficient nuclear defence capabilities. Finally, those opposing the shift to counterforce argued that barring a few allusions by representatives of the government or former senior officials, there is little sufficient evidence to conclude that India is on a path to embracing nuclear counterforce.
  • The Utility of ‘No First Use’: Participants questioned the utility of India’s NFU policy. They referred to a recent speech made by the Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh, where he stated that India might let go of its NFU policy. Participants read this statement as no more than a threat to Pakistan in the wake of the Pulwama attacks in February 2019, and suggested that the threads of evidence pertaining to India’s counterforce could be viewed as a disinformation campaign to sustain this threat. Countering the aforementioned points, some participants argued that the development of high-accuracy missile systems potentially point to counterforce targeting intentions, and therefore would be best served when used to strike first. Participants also reflected on the potential of these very arguments on counterforce to stoke a security dilemma between adversaries, culminating in self-fulfilling prophecies.

The event summary was prepared by Raghuveer Nidumolu, who was the Knowledge Transfer Programme Coordinator at Carnegie India.


Rajesh Rajagopalan

Rajesh Rajagopalan is a professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Vipin Narang

Vipin Narang is a nonresident scholar in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Christopher Clary

Christopher Clary is an assistant professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is also a nonresident fellow at Stimson Center's South Asia program.


Srinath Raghavan

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at Carnegie India. His primary research focus is on the contemporary and historical aspects of India’s foreign and security policies.