Lieutenant-General BS Nagal was an important man in India's nuclear weapons program. From 2008 to 2010 he served as India's Strategic Forces Commander, an office established just over a decade ago to lead the process of managing and using nuclear weapons. After his retirement from the military, Nagal was appointed head of a little-discussed nuclear cell within the Indian Prime Minister's Office. This cell reportedly sought to mimic Pakistan's own powerful nuclear secretariat, the Strategic Plans Division, a body I wrote about for the Interpreter last year (See Pakistan Gets a New Nuclear Weapons Chief). Nagal’s responsibilities included the development of 'a perspective plan for India’s nuclear deterrent in accordance with a 10-year cycle'.

In the June edition of India's defence and security themed Force magazine, Nagal has written a fascinating and somewhat critical essay on India's nuclear weapons titled Checks and Balances. His comments are noteworthy not just because of the positions he held and the general secrecy around India's nuclear weapons, but also because they come at a time when a public debate over India's nuclear weapons is, gradually, intensifying.

This debate has been catalysed by a variety of factors. These include Indian disquiet at Pakistan's development of tactical nuclear weapons, a widespread sense that India's nuclear deterrence has failed in the face of state-sponsored terrorism, concern that India's ability to project deterrence against China remains inadequate, and a general sense that India has been slow to translate its national power into usable capabilities.

Typically, only those at the fringe of this debate – the ultra-hawks – have proposed radical changes in India's nuclear policies, such as the resumption of testing or a shift to nuclear war-fighting doctrines. But a growing number of mainstream Indian voices – including former officials and military officers – are expressing dissatisfaction with India's nuclear doctrine, the first and only public version of which is now over a decade old. See, for example, the former civil servant PR Chari writing for the Carnegie Endowment in June, the April manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before it came to power this year, and articles such as those in The Hindu last week.

But it is fascinating to see an official who until recently was at the heart of Indian nuclear policies, in both military and civilian institutions, make such explicit criticisms of a doctrine with whose classified details he would be intimately familiar.

First, Nagal argues that India's No First Use (NFU) pledge is undemocratic ('it was not put to the public'), harmful to the survivability of India's own nuclear weapons ('NFU policy cannot conduct a first strike on the adversary's counterforce targets, thus allowing the adversary full capability to attrite our own capability'), and allows Pakistan too much ease of mind. He pushes for Indian policy to be made more ambiguous.

Nagal claims this will bring benefits: 'it provides a better range of options to launch decapitating and/or disarming strikes to deal with the adversary leadership/arsenal'.

These words will alarm plenty of people in Pakistan, although it should be noted that India's technological and operational ability to conduct any sort of decapitation or disarming strike is presently close to nil, and will be for a long time to come. I find it hard to believe that Nagal doesn't know this (he was in charge of delivering Indian nuclear weapons, after all), so I read this as a kind of posturing, intended to place doubt in Pakistani minds about whether it could safely use its tactical nuclear weapons as a shield.

Nevertheless, when senior officials talk about Indian nuclear weapons in this manner, it gives Pakistanis ample reason to conclude that they have been right all along to dismiss India's NFU pledge as hogwash. Additionally, it gives Pakistanis every reason to be concerned about the survivability of their weapons, and therefore the continued need to churn out more fissile material for more bombs. For what it's worth, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pretty clear that he sees NFU as part of the country's cultural heritage, (see Identity and Values in Indian Foreign Policy).

Second, Nagal argues that India's commitment to 'massive' retaliation (between 1999 and 2003, India had promised the milder 'punitive' retaliation) is problematic. Nagal says India's 'response to a few or one (Pakistani) tactical nuclear weapons should not be disproportionate which could result in an all-out nuclear war', and 'escalation control should be practiced in conventional and nuclear war on moral and humanitarian considerations. The strategy is not rational, (and) our political leadership may not show resolve during crisis or at the time of decision'.

This idea has been cropping up again and again in Indian debates: would India destroy Lahore if Pakistan merely destroyed one of India's tank columns? Disproportionate threats are hardly credible ones. Ultimately, however, like the former diplomat Shyam Saran did last year, Nagal doubles down on massive retaliation. He argues that it 'is the declared policy, and must be implemented. The nation has placed faith in political leadership and the leadership is expected to fulfil their responsibility. In case we vacillate on the issue or raise doubts about our commitment to the policy, we will send wrong signals to our adversary(s)'.

Third, Nagal argues that India has been too secretive about its deterrent and allows its scientists to dominate the public discourse about nuclear weapons: 'the statements by the scientists also prematurely release information on delivery systems, which later become embarrassing when time lines are overshot/delayed'. Nagal is right. In the past, Indian scientists have certainly made confusing statements about whether particular weapons systems have conventional or nuclear roles, or both. The politicians have rarely cleared up the ensuing misunderstandings.

Nagal suggests that 'an open paper on national security including nuclear policy should be issued periodically. This will invite debate and suggestions and enrich the policy'. Again, this echoes one of Saran's arguments from last year: 'the secrecy which surrounds our nuclear programme…is now counter-productive. It is not necessary to share operational details but an overall survey such as an annual Strategic Posture Review, should be shared with the citizens of this country who, after all, pay for the security which the deterrent is supposed to provide for them'. New pressures towards openness are clearly operating on India's traditionally opaque nuclear establishment.

Fourth, Nagal sends an interesting message on the question of Indian missile defence, a subject which concerns both Islamabad and Beijing. He argues that India's own nuclear forces have to be made much more survivable against nuclear attack, but 'to protect India with a ballistic missile defence is nearly impractical. However, critical elements of Command and Control, nuclear forces and important industrial/populations can be protected'. This may provide an important signal as to how India's missile defence plans will evolve.

The debate over Indian nuclear doctrine is only just beginning in earnest. Nagal's is perhaps the most authoritative intervention so far. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi chooses to order a fresh look at this issue, as per his party's manifesto commitment, these arguments could assume much greater importance.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.