Nuclear South Asia: Still on the edge

Print edition : January 31, 2003

Pakistan's Hatf-V-Ghauri missile on a mobile launching pad at a nuclear research plant on the outskirts of Islamabad. - PAKISTAN MILITARY DEPARTMENT/REUTERS

India's announcement of a Nuclear Command Authority and further preparations for weapons deployment do not reduce risks but raise the possibility of nuclear weapons use - with catastrophic consequences.

WHEN the Vajpayee government decided overtly to cross the Nuclear Rubicon in May 1998, it did so without reviewing India's security environment, without consulting the armed services, and without attempting doctrinal clarity about what function its atomic arsenal would perform. Essentially, it plunged into the nuclear abyss to fulfil a long-standing, morbid, obsession of one specific political current with weapons of mass destruction - and present the nation with a fait accompli. There thus remained a gap or hiatus between the manufacture and testing of nuclear bombs/warheads, on the one hand, and their induction and deployment, on the other.

This gap offered a limited window of opportunity to maintain and prolong a firebreak between Pokhran-II and nuclear deployment, which could have been used by a non-NDA government to negotiate nuclear risk-reduction measures and to freeze, and eventually rollback, the weapons programme. This political possibility has not materialised. The gap has been gradually closing - with the evolution of doctrines, testing of missiles, stockpiling of fissile material and, above all, drawing up of contingency plans for the actual use of nuclear weapons, both during the Kargil conflict and the recent 10-month-long India-Pakistan military confrontation, involving a million soldiers.

On January 4, the Vajpayee Cabinet took another big step in this process when it announced the creation of a two-tiered Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) and its decision to appoint a head of the Strategic Forces Command, which will manage India's nuclear `assets' and missiles. The NCA will `operationalise' India's nuclear `deterrent' by inducting and deploying these weapons, while clearly signalling that they can be fired at very short notice to inflict `massive' and `unacceptable' damage upon the adversary.

The Cabinet decision, followed immediately by the exchange between India and Pakistan of some of the filthiest nuclear rhetoric ever heard anywhere, and a few days later, by the test-firing of a short-range version of the Agni, brings the two rivals closer than ever before to a possible nuclear confrontation. Along with Pakistan's own nuclear and missile preparations, it significantly heightens the nuclear danger in South Asia. This calls for some radical rethinking about steps to reduce the nuclear danger.

Supporters of India's nuclear weapons programme have tried to present the NCA and the `summarised' version of `India's nuclear doctrine' as a continuation and the logical culmination of the principal recommendations of the first National Security Advisory Board, which wrote the Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) in August 1999. This claim is misleading. The DND was never officially adopted by the government, nor rejected. It is believed that American officials considered it far too ambitious because it talked of deterring any possible `state' or `entity' (presumably including military alliances), and had an open-ended commitment to a huge triadic (land, sea and air-based) arsenal with `multiple redundant systems'. Given U.S. disapproval, the Vajpayee government simply put the DND in abeyance.

What it has released now is not the full statement of a new doctrine, leave alone one accompanied by an explanation of its rationale, nor an alternative to the DND, but a rough-and-ready set of eight manual-like formulae. The timing of the announcement has more to do with recent consultations with the U.S. than with nuclear sabre-rattling by Pakistan.

A report (January 8) in The Hindustan Times, quoting "U.S. sources", says that "during the Indo-US nuclear dialogue in November... U.S. Assistant Secretary for Non-proliferation John Wolf made it clear his government had no objections to India developing its own nuclear deterrent. Washington's concerns had shifted towards India's ability to control the export of sensitive technologies... " The officially released `doctrine' highlights differ from some of the formulations of the 1999 DND. Although both emphasise a `credible minimum deterrent', the new formulation adds the phrases "nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere" as a qualification to the `no first use' (NFU) policy.

Even more important, the new formulation further dilutes the NFU commitment. It says New Delhi will now retaliate with nuclear weapons "in the event of a major attack against India or Indian forces anywhere" - an attack made not just with nuclear weapons, but with "biological or chemical weapons" too. In this, India is emulating the U.S.'s December 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. Massive nuclear retaliation will kill lakhs of non-combatant civilians, in response to chemical or biological weapons which usually kill on a smaller scale, for instance, hundreds of soldiers. This disproportion makes NFU policy's dilution especially obnoxious.

There are other differences: absence of terms like `promptest' or `quickest possible' retaliation, `safety and security' of weapons, accepting no `restrictions' on research and development capabilities or `activities in regard to nuclear weapons and related areas', and continuous research into `advanced' weapons and `space-based' systems, etc.

Yet, supporters of the new `doctrine' see virtue in three things: the NCA will `control' loose nuclear weapons and prevent them from falling into unauthorised hands or being handled in unsafe ways; the authorisation for a nuclear strike is unambiguously vested solely in civilian, not military, authority; and third, the doctrine retains a commitment to NFU, a `sober' posture which can inhibit, even prevent, a nuclear arms race and thus impart functional meaning to the term `minimum' in the `minimum credible deterrent'.

All three propositions are open to question. Centralised control is preferable only in relation to an excessively dispersed and chaotically deployed arsenal, which lacks safeguards and authorisation locks/codes. It is certainly not a virtue in comparison with an arsenal-in-becoming or one in which nuclear warheads are not meshed with delivery vehicles, themselves ready to be launched at extremely short notice, such as some minutes or a few hours. In the latter situation, centralised control would enable and promote deployment at high levels of alert.

This represents an escalation of nuclear preparedness. India has not so far maintained its nuclear weapons at high levels of preparedness. But with the establishment of the NCA and the SFC (to be headed by Air Marshal T.M. Asthana), it is set to move rapidly in that direction.

The NCA and the SFC are likely to create the impression that India's command and control structures are super-safe, watertight, and based on a clear line of authority. This may be more than a little misleading. For instance, it is not clear what relationship the SFC will have with the armed forces' Chiefs of Staff Committee and the NCA, and whether it will have its own staff, funding, equipment and training programmes, or will remain dependent on the services. Will it report to the CSC or only to NCA Executive Council which is likely to comprise senior bureaucrats, soldiers, and intelligence agency chiefs? If the Executive Council functions in the whimsical and ad hoc ways that mark the National Security Council - it has already gone through three National Security Advisory Boards whose meetings are held at arbitrary intervals - the NCA could become a plaything of clever operators.

Secondly, civilian control over nuclear weapons is indisputably preferable to military control mandate, unlike elected leaders. Yet, civilian control cannot guarantee sober and responsible decision-making. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were ordered by a democratic government.

That apart, India's armed forces have never been great nuclear enthusiasts. Nuclearisation's most ardent advocates have not been our generals (individuals like K. Sundarji being the exception), but officials in the nuclear and defence science establishments - and of course, politicians of the Hard Right or maverick variety. It is not apparent that, say, Vajpayee, Advani and Fernandes will be more restrained in nuclear decision-making than the three services chiefs.

That apart, one function of the NCA is to facilitate the greater involvement of the military in nuclear decision-making. The armed forces personnel who join the Executive Council will evaluate the strategic environment, interpret intelligence and offer advice on security `threats'. Scientists and engineers entrusted with manufacturing nuclear weapons will reportedly share with the armed forces information about their exact capabilities and yield. The military will thus play a more active role in controlling information about and making decisions about using nuclear weapons than it did in the Pokhran-II tests.

Agni-1, India's `answer' to it, before it blasted off from the test range at Chandipur-on-sea, Orissa. The South Asian neighbours have descended deeper into missile rivalry since the setting up of the Indian Nuclear Command Authority was announced.-AFP

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) claims that it has not only made but "also reviewed and approved the arrangements for alternate chains of command for retaliatory nuclear strikes in all eventualities". Such eventualities usually include what is called decapitation: a nuclear first strike, say, on the Capital, which destroys one's nuclear weapons (which are highly vulnerable), disrupts the normal chain of command, or physically eliminates the apex political leadership.

In such a situation, someone other than the Prime Minister must take over the NCA. Will that be the Deputy Prime Minister, or also the Defence Minister? Typically, there is some delegation of the authority to arm and use nuclear weapons for a second strike: the relevant codes are entrusted to military personnel. The January 4 press release does not clarify these matters. Nor does the special January 7 briefing in Delhi for journalists by "authoritative sources". These sources only said: "The alternative nuclear command authority will be in a position to take charge" and ensure massive retaliation. "There could be more than one alternative command structure."

They also stressed that effective deterrence consists in letting the adversary know that "there are alternative arrangements", but hiding their location. In sum, ambiguities remain.

Finally, the government has considerably diluted India's NFU policy. Even in undiluted form, it could not have produced stable deterrence. The concept of nuclear deterrence is degenerative and unreliable by nature. In essence, NFU means the lapse of a short interval before a retaliatory strike. In the India-Pakistan context, with no strategic distance worth the name between the two, and missile flight-time of three to eight minutes, this cannot practically mean a great deal.

Within the military calculus, the NFU policy has to compete with concerns about decapitation and the "use-them-or-lose-them" paradigm. This is rooted in the fear that a first strike would cripple not just nuclear weapons but also electronic communications thanks to its electromagnetic pulse. This paradigm drove the U.S. during the Cold War to adopt a `launch-on-warning' strategic doctrine - and gravely raised the nuclear danger, both generally, through thousands of weapons being put on hair-trigger alert, and through the possibility that a warning (of an impending attack) might be false.

Even worse, the NFU policy, unpopular among many hawks, has now come under sharp attack from the National Security Advisory Board, no less. The Board, headed by C.V. Ranganathan, has recommended in a 160-page report submitted on December 20 that "India must consider withdrawing from this commitment as the other nuclear weapons-states have not accepted this policy". The story, first broken by India Abroad (, has since been confirmed. According to The Hindustan Times, the report will be considered by the Strategic Policy Group consisting of the Secretaries of Defence, External Affairs, Home and Finance, the three service chiefs, and the heads of intelligence agencies before being put up to the CCS.

Whatever view the CCS takes in the short run, the NFU policy could in the long run become a victim of India-Pakistan hostility: Indian leaders could always cite Pakistan's `belligerence' and nuclear sabre-rattling to abandon the NFU commitment. A unilateral offer can be easily rescinded in an emergency. Even multilateral treaties can be, citing the `supreme national interest'.

This gives no room for comfort. Even more worrisome is India's and Pakistan's descent into deeper missile rivalry since the NCA announcement. On January 8, Pakistan inducted an `indigenously developed' intermediate-range missile (Hatf-V-Ghauri) into its Army. The next day, India test-flew Agni-I, a Pakistan-specific missile with a range of about 800 km. All this is taking place amidst nuclear one-upmanship and exchanges of abuse.

Following Pervez Musharraf's spine-chilling disclosure on December 30, 2002, that he would have unleashed "unconventional war" on India - presumably with nuclear weapons - had a single Indian soldier crossed the border during the recent standoff, the level of rhetoric has been plumbing new depths, with George Fernandes threatening "there will be no Pakistan left" if India uses its nuclear weapons, and Pakistani officials warning India of "an unforgettable reply" and accusing it of indulging in "sick war hysteria".

This casts serious doubts over the two states' claimed ability to deter each other through a rational calculation of self-interest.

The present situation is completely unacceptable. India and Pakistan are both behaving like rogue elephants or bullies bent on destroying each other. If they cannot restore normal diplomatic relations, reduce the dangerous high level of tension which follows their costly 10-month-long confrontation, and negotiate nuclear risk-reduction, then their conduct would warrant external intervention to draw and keep them apart - perhaps through a multilateral buffer force or some other means. But their leaders must not be allowed to hold the sword of mass extermination over the heads of more than a billion people.

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