Use First or No First Use? Potential New Arms Race in South Asia

21 August 2019 Norbert Chang, Research Assistant, Indo-Pacific Research Programme


The recent escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan has led to discussions about the use of nuclear weapons in one of the most heavily-populated regions of the world. Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh hinted of a possible change to India’s “no first use policy” (NFU) on nuclear weapons, emphasising ambiguous ‘future circumstances as a reason for the strategic policy change’. Pakistan, while not having a similar policy, indicated through its Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmoud Qureshi, that such a change is a ‘damning reminder of India’s unbridled thirst for violence’. China, on the other hand, also began to move to change its NFU policy.



In light of India’s decision to revoke Article 370 of its Constitution, which gave Jammu and Kashmir special status, India has made two major changes to its geostrategic security vis-a-vis China and Pakistan.

First, the revocation of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special status allows India to open new fronts against both Pakistan and China and to move its military forces to the region. Article 35(A) prevented the purchase of land by non-Jammu and Kashmir residents. Revoking the special status means that the Indian military can now re-purpose land for military use and, thus, place its missiles closer to both Pakistan and China. In this context, it is important to keep in mind that India’s construction of the Prototype Fast-Breeder Reactor in Kalpakkam is due to be completed in 2020, which will enable New Delhi to procure more weapons-grade plutonium. Also, the recent nuclear energy agreement between Russia and India will come to fruition with the completion of Kakrapar-3 and -4 nuclear power stations within three years, which  will significantly increase India’s nuclear arsenal from 150 warheads to a new figure of 200.

Second, in conjunction with that situation, India has, since 2003, reduced its dependence on aircraft-based delivery systems and begun to emphasise a missile-based deterrent capability. For example, it initiated the development of the Agni range of missiles. Currently, India’s missile arsenal consists of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM), Prithvi-II missiles (with a range of up to 350 kilometres) and Agni-II medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) with a range of 500 to 3,500 km.

Should these missiles be deployed within J&K, it will significantly shorten the reaction time for Pakistan in the case of nuclear or conventional missile strikes. At the same time, the Agni-III intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) (with a range of 3,000 km to 5,000 km), could negate China’s use of Tibet as a buffer zone in the case of war with India. These missiles also have the capability of striking both Beijing and Shanghai. India is also testing the Agni-IV (up to 5,000 km) and Agni-V, with a greater range, to strike China.

Moving further away from its NFU policy, India is emphasising the development of Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) missiles, each of which carries multiple warheads, which increases first strike capabilities. India’s recent purchase of the Russian-made S-400 anti-ballistic missile system highlights New Delhi’s concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear-capable, MIRV-based Ababeel missiles and its lack of a NFU policy. Additionally, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Public Relations has indicated that Pakistan’s MIRV-capable missiles are directed towards India’s nuclear force. Pakistan has also constructed remote hardened storage facilities for its nuclear stockpile, as a way of protecting its missiles from Indian strikes.

According to then-Director General for India’s Defence Research and Development (DRDO), V.K. Saraswat, India’s Agni-VI with MIRV capabilities will become a ‘force multiplier’. It will enable India to inflict maximum damage against multiple targets in both China and Pakistan. India could be deploying countermeasures that allow it to compensate for what it lacks in sea-based nuclear attack capabilities by focussing on its land-based nuclear force.

In short, India’s move to potentially abandon its NFU policy is not surprising and was, arguably, foreseeable. The current tensions have exacerbated the potential for an arms race between the two nuclear armed countries.

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