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A dangerous high

Print edition : May 18, 2012 T+T-

Euphoria over the Agni-V test flight reflects hypernationalism and jingoism, not rational concern for adequate security.

SO radical was the conceptual and doctrinal break that India made when it overtly crossed the nuclear weapons threshold in May 1998 that the architects of the new jingoist policy had to invent all kinds of rationalisations, subterfuges and pretences to normalise the rupture. The need to do so was all the more acute because no actual security threat or even a halfway serious indication of one justified the break. India, then under Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule, acquired these mass-destruction weapons largely for (false) reasons of global stature and prestige.

Four such rationalisations were important: nuclear weapons would promote strategic stability in the region; second, nuclearisation would help India limit/reduce its expenditure on conventional armaments; third, India would now have better leverage to fight for the ultimate and worthy objective of global nuclear disarmament; and fourth, India would act with exemplary restraint as a responsible nuclear weapons state (NWS) and avert the blunders the Great Powers committed during the Cold War, including sustaining a runaway arms race. Thus, India offered a no-first-use assurance and declared a moratorium on further tests.

All these rationalisations have come unstuck. The earliest to collapse was the first. India's nuclear tests provoked a hysterical reaction in Pakistan, aggravated by Home Minister L.K. Advani's hubris-driven warning to Pakistan against messing about in Kashmir because the geostrategic context had decisively changed in India's favour. This showed the alarming mis-assessment at the highest levels of Pakistan's nuclear capability. Pakistan conducted six nuclear blasts on May 28 and 30, 1998. A nasty exchange of threats and outright abuse followed between the two governments. Worse, a year after the tests, India and Pakistan fought a bitter conflict at Kargil. This was a mid-sized shooting war by global standards, involving tens of thousands of troops, top-of-the-shelf weaponry and hundreds of casualties, with a potential for escalation to the nuclear level, for which both states made preparations.

Each challenged the other to a nuclear duel, which stressed the conflict's hair-raising nature. So much for the idea that nuclear weapons would promote strategic stability or induce sobriety and maturity among South Asia's leaders. And so much for nuclear weapons deterring conventional conflicts. Contrary to the atomic apologists' claims, nuclearisation has not slowed down the conventional arms race between India and Pakistan, and increasingly between India and China. India's military spending has risen more than fourfold since 1998 to $48.9 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. India became the world's largest importer of arms in the 2007-11 period. Pakistan is bleeding itself to compete with India's new, sophisticated, pricey weapons systems.

India promised to fight for global nuclear weapons elimination. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) even pledged to update the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi plan for nuclear disarmament. These promises have proved hollow. A central feature of the United States-India nuclear deal is that it legitimises India's nuclear weapons by resuming civilian nuclear commerce with India although the country has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or any other nuclear restraint agreement. In the process of joining the global nuclear club, India has legitimised all the NWS' weapons and bid goodbye to disarmament.

The final rationalisation, offering restraint and responsibility, began fraying just a year after the tests when India issued the Draft Nuclear Doctrine, which duly mentioned a credible minimum deterrent and no-first-use, and pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-NWSs unless they were aligned to NWSs. But operationally, it emphasised maximum credibility, effectiveness, survivability and the ability to deter any NWS through effective punitive retaliation.

The doctrine dismissed the idea of fixing the size of the deterrent and committed India to a triadic (land-, water- and air-based) nuclear arsenal with multiple redundant systems that is, more than a bare minimum. It also declared that India would accept no limitation/restriction on its research & development capabilities or activities in regard to nuclear weapons and related areas.

In 2003, the government added the term massive to the nuclear retaliation proposition. It also diluted the no-first-use concept and the pledge not to attack non-NWSs: India would use nuclear weapons in response to a major attack on India or on Indian forces anywhere with chemical or biological weapons as well as nuclear arms. Soon credible minimum deterrent degraded into an obsession with a second-strike capability, which makes nonsense of nuclear restraint.


The development of the Agni series of missiles, culminating in the Agni-V with a range of 5,000 kilometres, as well as the recent acquisition, on lease, of a nuclear-propelled submarine from Russia, was a consequence of the way the doctrine of nuclear deterrence has evolved in India, with all its degenerative logic on full display.

Ironically, for half a century until 1998, India itself had warned against this logic and condemned nuclear deterrence in a principled fashion. The nuclear deterrence doctrine holds that security is best achieved not through the elimination of nuclear weapons but through a balance of terror deterring an adversary's nuclear attack by threatening him with unacceptable damage with your own nuclear armaments.

India termed nuclear deterrence morally abhorrent because underlying it is pitiless disregard for human life, and preparedness and readiness to kill millions of civilians in the enemy country. India also argued that deterrence is strategically irrational because nuclear weapons do not provide security and are not instruments of defence but only of aggression. Deterrence leads to an arms race, which creates greater insecurity and is potentially ruinous economically as well. This captured the essential truth about the Cold War, with its furious build-up of nuclear warheads, missile rivalry, and spiralling spending on mass-destruction as well as conventional armaments in the rival blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union.

This made the world even more unsafe, causing hundreds of accidents, strategic misperceptions, false alarms, near-combat situations and confrontations such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. We now know from declassified documents that the Cuban crisis was much worse than thought earlier. More scarily, neither the Kennedy nor the Khrushchev leadership was aware of its true gravity. There were hundreds of other occasions when deterrence very nearly broke down.

Nuclear deterrence assumes that there will be perfect transparency about the nuclear capabilities and doctrines of all adversaries, that there will be no accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons and no strategic misperceptions, and that command and control as well as early warning systems will work efficiently at all times.

In reality, there is very little transparency or clarity about adversaries' intentions or actions. They strive to maintain elements of surprise and deception. All kinds of accidents happened during and after the Cold War despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars on command and control systems. Early warning systems often proved unreliable. Nuclear submarines collided with ships carrying nuclear weapons. Weather rockets were mistaken for missiles. Counter-strikes were ordered to be called off in the nick of time only because a technician detected the misperception.

As a statement of 1996 by 60 generals and admirals from different countries said, deterrence was always unstable and unreliable. The probability of accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons always remained significant. Deterrence is a deadly delusion. It represents a slippery slope to disaster.


The Agni-V was greeted in India with raucous celebration and sabre-rattling rooted in chauvinist hypernationalism. Political parties vied with one another to lavish praise on Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) personnel for their scientific achievement. They ignored the hostile reaction from the Chinese state-owned Global Times newspaper, which noted Agni-V's China-specific nature and said India was being swept by a missile delusion, but stood no chance in an overall arms race with China and would gain nothing by stirring further hostility.

Some of our commentators are happy that the U.S., which had pressed India to suspend Agni test-flights in 1994 and then again in 2003-5, has not reacted unfavourably to the latest test flight and praised India's non-proliferation record. But that is because India is being drawn into the U.S.' China containment strategy. There will be a price to pay for rushing headlong into a missile and nuclear arms race with China, which is three times bigger in both economic size and military expenditure. Amidst the euphoria, nobody talks about the price. The most sober advice being offered is that India should not equip Agni-V with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-Entry Vehicles (MIRV), or numerous warheads which can hit different targets. It should only treat Agni-V as a deterrent.

This only caters to the growing smug faith among our leaders in nuclear deterrence and the notion of a responsible nuclear state, itself an oxymoron. The greatest tragedy is that New Delhi has erased from its consciousness the truth about deterrence. India must pause and rethink. It must explore peaceful diplomatic approaches to defuse rivalry with its neighbours, while returning to the global nuclear disarmament agenda.