Dreaming India's nuclear future

Print edition : August 28, 1999

THE first significant act of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government after it came to power in March 1998 was to hijack India's independent, self-restrained and disarmament-oriented nuclear policy and twist it out of shape - rendering it a menace , first, to the people of India and, then, to peace and stability in the region. Perhaps the last significant act of the caretaker government that has, illegitimately and in an anti-democratic way, made several forays into substantive decision-making and policy-making is the unveiling of an open-ended, non-accountable, three-quarters-madcap, one-quarter-inhibited vision of India's nuclear weaponised future. The six-page draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine (dIND) presented as a 'consensus' document in the name of 27 members of the hawk-packed but largely amateur National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) is an egregious exercise of bomb-rattling without responsibility.

The manner and timing of its unveiling has been attacked in Opposition political circles and criticised in the press, but this must be recognised as being entirely in character. The dIND is a worthy follow-up to the authoritarian decision made by the Ras htriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS)-BJP high command to explode five nuclear devices in Pokhran on May 11 and May 13, 1998 and to weaponise the nuclear option, a decision made pre-emptively, in the utmost secrecy, in the name of 'national security' - targeting especially Pakistan and China - and 'shakti', without any objective review or democratic decision, in clear violation of the promises made in the National Agenda for Governance, in utter disregard for both the consequences for the region and the basic interests of the Indian people. It is significant that the only reference to the nuclear issue made in the 1999 manifesto of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is the promise that the recently established National Security Council will advise the gov ernment on "the establishment of a credible nuclear deterrent". However, as part of a motivated post-Kargil, pre-election exercise to boost Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's image as a great leader in war and peace, the Prime Minister's Office has pu t out a draft that was not preceded by the long-promised "strategic review" and was not discussed by the Cabinet. The adverse reaction the NSAB document has drawn in the Indian press, from Opposition parties, and internationally has made the Vajpayee gov ernment go instantly on the defensive. It has claimed that the dIND does not signal any real change in the nuclear weaponisation policy in place and, in any case, is meant to be debated before a final 'consensus' national decision is arrived at after the general elections.

A CLOSE study of the hawkish document reveals first its pretentious, confused character: this is unmistakably the work of amateurs (mostly self-proclaimed strategic affairs specialists) playing nuclear games and a bit of star wars as well, not anything t hat reflects professional military, or serious security, thinking. The exercise involves an attempt to cover all bases and, in aggressiveness, goes well beyond the doctrine of 'credible minimum nuclear deterrence' presented in outline by Prime Minister V ajpayee in his statement of December 15, 1998 in the Rajya Sabha. In that statement, Vajpayee indicated that the main features of the weaponising nuclear policy were as follows: (a) India will deploy its nuclear deterrent; (b) India's nuclear doctrine in cludes a policy of 'No-First-Use' and 'Non-use against non-nuclear weapons states'; (c) a policy of 'No-First-Use' with a minimum nuclear deterrent "implies deployment of assets in a manner that ensures survivability and capacity of an adequate response, " in other words the development and deployment of a deterrent with a second-strike capability; (d) by way of meeting the concerns of the United States and its allies, India was willing to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Mat erial Cutoff Treaty (FMCT)-to-come and to make its export control laws relating to "sensitive technologies" more stringent; and (e) India will continue its missile development programme and not accept "any restraints on the development of India's R&D cap abilities".

The dIND is an attempt to seize the high ground of militarism in the Indian nuclear weaponisation debate. This is why it has assumed a significantly more aggressive posture than that indicated in Vajpayee's somewhat defensive statement made eight months earlier. The apologia of India's nuclear weapons programme being a minimal exercise in the development of instruments of self-defence forced by an insensitive world on a reluctant, peace-loving nation has been dispensed with. While paying lip-service to the formulation that "India shall pursue a doctrine of credible minimum nuclear deterrence", the dIND prescribes an open-ended, far-reaching programme of nuclear weaponisation with capabilities that will push the limits of the minimum.

The preambular section attempts to set out the context in which BJP-led India made its security-led choice: the continued reliance of the nuclear weapons states on their large nuclear arsenals; their proclaimed willingness to use nuclear weapons "even in a non-nuclear context"; their virtual abandonment of nuclear disarmament goals; and "the very existence of offensive doctrines pertaining to the first use of nuclear weapons and the insistence of some nuclear weapon states on the legitimacy of their use even against non-nuclear weapon countries." Out of such international threats to "peace, stability and sovereignty of states" sprang India's nuclear weaponisation. The job of the dIND, the Preamble explains, is to outline the broad principles for "the d evelopment, deployment and employment of India's nuclear forces".

The Objectives section leads off with the assertion that "India's strategic interests" (emphasis added) require in consequence "effective, credible nuclear deterrence and adequate retaliatory capability should deterrence fail" and it is even conte nded that the U.N. Charter allows such a course by sanctioning "the right of self-defence". Two things about this formulation are worth noting. The first is the reference to strategic - and not security - interests, a distinction that is of some importan ce. More important, it becomes clear that the grand inspiration for the dIND is deterrence theory.

The new-found official fascination with the logic of deterrence marks a low point in the history of India's nuclear policy and indeed in the country's politics and international relations. It represents an abject acceptance of the cast-off intellectual r ags of western nuclear weapons establishments at a time when the theory has been shown to be dangerously flawed and indeed false and when it has begun to be questioned by those (like Robert McNamara and General Lee Butler) who once held leadership roles in its practice. The lowest point perhaps came when Prime Minister Vajpayee, replying on March 15, 1999 to the Lok Sabha debate on the motion of thanks to the President, came up with his famous statement: "The nuclear weapon is not an offensive weapon. I t is a weapon of self-defence. It is the kind of weapon that helps in preserving the peace. If in the days of the Cold War there was no use of force, it was because of the balance of terror." Not surprisingly, the dIND stands or falls by the theology of nuclear deterrence.

THE principal source of confusion in this document, its most damning failure, is the inability to answer in any rational, meaningful or logical fashion the questions: deterrence against whom? "Credible" or "minimum" or "effective" against whom? Driven pa rtly by the reluctance to admit openly that the major preoccupation of the pro-nuclear weapons lobby is with Pakistan and China and driven partly by delusions of thermonuclear superpower status, the document presents the absurd proposition that India's n uclear weapons are directed against all possessors of nuclear weapons. To quote para 2.4 of the dIND: "The fundamental purpose of Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any State or entity against India and its forces."

The heart of the dIND is para 2.2, which is worth quoting in full: "The requirements of deterrence should be carefully weighed in the design of Indian nuclear forces and in the strategy to provide for a level of capability consistent with maximum credibi lity, survivability, effectiveness, safety and security." Although subsequently it is pleaded that the basic doctrine is one of "credible minimum nuclear deterrence" and "retaliation only", it is clear that the whole exercise is to raise the nuclear stak es by introducing the principle of maximising so-called minimum deterrence by emphasising second-strike (or even third-strike) capability and "survivability". It is this maximum and "dynamic" version of "credible minimum deterrence" directed against all nuclear weapons states (and their military allies), read along with the justification of the Indian misadventure in terms of a global rationale, that animates the open-ended, adventurist and unlimited programme of nuclear weaponisation recommended by the NSAB.

It is worth noting that the Objectives section of the dIND, while asserting the validity of the doctrine of deterrence, adds to the irrationality by emphasing the principle of "punitive retaliation to inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor". The no tion of unacceptable damage has often been promoted in the debate among Indian strategic affairs hawks, notably by K. Subrahmanyam, the conceptual father of the dIND, as a more rational basis for determining the size of India's nuclear arsenal than the p rinciple of assured destruction. However, on closer examination, the principle of "unacceptable damage" turns out to be as nebulous as the notion of deterrence itself. In the first instance, just as in any other form of deterrence, the notion of unaccept able damage involves determining the state of mind of the adversary, a virtually impossible task as the history of nuclear deterrence shows. Secondly, the assertion that "the actual size, components, deployment and employment of nuclear forces", that is the nuclear force structure, will be aimed at "convincing any potential aggressor that... India... shall inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor" sounds as absurdly non-credible as the boast made (in a May 17, 1998 press conference) by Dr. A.P.J. Ab dul Kalam, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and the key figure behind India's ballistic missile programme, that with Pokhran-II India had acquired the "capacity to vacate" any nuclear threat to itself. Does this mean that India will build a nuc lear force able to retaliate and do unacceptable damage to the United States after a U.S. nuclear attack on India, as worst case analysis suggests? Since the threshold of unacceptable damage varies considerably between, say, Pakistan and the United State s and given the all-embracing nature of the target of Indian nuclear deterrence, the notion of unacceptable damage to "any potential aggressor" is virtually useless. What is worse, this means that the minimum in the "credible minimum nuclear deterrent" has less and less meaning.

IN India, democratic and secular public opinion has always regarded nuclear weapons with horror, as weapons of mass destruction of a genocidal character. The hawks of the NSAB are quite aware that their doctrine, which seeks to legitimise and even glorif y nuclear weapons as acceptable means of achieving strategic goals, runs directly into conflict with this sentiment. The dIND has no inhibition in identifying the building blocks of Indian nuclear deterrence: "sufficient, survivable and operationally pre pared" nuclear forces; a "robust" command and control system; effective intelligence and early warning capabilities; comprehensive planning and training for "operations in line with the strategy"; and, perhaps most important, the politico-military "will to employ nuclear forces and weapons". In other words, no moral qualms, no squeamishness, no falling back on Gandhian or Nehruvian values, no peace-oriented value system that has underpinned the country's foreign and nuclear policies since Independence c an be allowed to come in the way of fulfilling this madcap vision.

Underlining the dIND's militarist vision of India's future is the formulation in para 2.7 that requires the maintenance of a high level of conventional capabilities. The claim that this will raise "the threshold of... threat (of use) or use of nuclear we apons" is demonstrably false. In fact, the opposite is true, as Munir Akram, Pakistan's Ambassador at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, pointed out recently: "Thus, although the Indian document states the purpose of a conventional arms build-up is to raise the nuclear threshold, in fact the conventional build-up will further lower the nuclear threshold and bring closer the danger of nuclear use in the sub-continent." At any rate, if this is the adversary's perception, it is clear that Indian dete rrence thinking has got it hopelessly wrong.

Sections 3, 4 and 5 of the dIND deal with nuclear forces, credibility and survivability, and command and control. In this hawkish vision, "minimum" virtually fades away and "credible", "effective", "enduring", "diverse", "flexible" and "responsive" take over in a way that suggests that no real limit will be placed on the Indian nuclear programme in quantity, scope and quality. Thus Indian nuclear forces, according to para 3.1, will be based on "a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-bas ed assets in keeping with the objectives outlined..." Although nuclear-powered submarines as carriers of nuclear-tipped missiles are not mentioned, this is primarily because official Indian policy is not to talk about India's supposedly secret nuclear su bmarine programme; the whole dIND approach makes it clear that submarine-based assets, considered the least vulnerable but the most complex and expensive, are envisaged. Survivability of all these forces will be "enhanced" by a combination of "multiple r edundant systems, mobility, dispersion and deception". Clearly, this encourages the adversary (who may be different at different points of time) to target Indian nuclear and other strategic assets in a far more comprehensive fashion. In the sub-continent al nuclear standoff that is bound to follow should the dIND be accepted by the government, the elements of mobility, dispersion and deception will add substantially to the risk of an actual nuclear exchange.

A notably irresponsible and dangerous feature of the recommended doctrine is that it will push what is claimed to be a 'No-First-Use' policy towards "launch-on-warning" or "launch-under-attack". Para 3.2 of the dIND envisages "assured capability" (emphasis added) to "shift from peacetime deployment to fully employable forces in the shortest possible time" (emphasis added). Timeliness of response is re-emphasised in para 4.2 that speaks about the need to maximise the efficacy of India's nuc lear deterrent "through synergy among all elements involving reliability, timeliness, accuracy and weight of the attack." The matter is clarified further in para 4.3(i), which, addressing the issue of survivability, states that "India's nuclear forces an d their command and control shall be organised for very high survivability against surprise attacks and for rapid punitive response" (emphasis added). Precisely how rapid is the response to be? It is here that the ambiguity and confusion begin. Fu ture interpretations of this formulation may extend to the position that Indian nuclear forces should launch either on warning or under attack. The building of such a capability will mean that India must undertake a nuclear weapons programme with all the associated assets that will approach the levels of the advanced nuclear powers. While all this may seem as grandiose and unreal as it is irresponsible and dangerous, it is very much the dream of the hawks of the NSAB, who will not let us forget for a mo ment that India must be ready to "effectively employ nuclear weapons".

The dIND vision is unmarred by any acknowledgement of the realities of Indian nuclear capabilities or of Indian S&T in general. Nuclear forces and command and control need to survive even "repetitive attrition attempts", meaning more than one strike [par a 4.3(i)], demanding a capability that it is not clear even the advanced nuclear weapon powers possess in practice. The emphasis on timeliness of response will inevitably lead to India's nuclear weapons being on alert status of increasingly high levels. The option of India keeping the fissile material for its weapons separate from delivery systems, a possibility suggested by Jaswant Singh in his last round of talks with Strobe Talbott, is clearly at odds with the prescriptions of the dIND. The NSAB is e ither unaware of, or not bothered by, assessments that Indian nuclear weapons are not adequately safety-tested given the limited range of tests conducted at Pokhran-II. The only way that the 'safety' of Indian nuclear weapons can be ensured with current technical capabilities is to keep the fissile material separate from the warhead assembly and the delivery systems.

In keeping with its complete freedom from humanitarian concern, its total insensitivity to issues of economic, developmental and human security, the dIND does not even attempt a token discussion of a civil defence programme commensurate with the scale of nuclear weaponisation recommended. Nor has any economic cost consideration entered its ken. Earlier ballpark estimates by economists, notably the work of C. Rammanohar Reddy, suggested that the cost of India's "credible minimum nuclear deterrent" might run to Rs.50,000 crores over a ten year period. The open-ended, 'maximal' version of the nuclear deterrent proposed by the NSAB will render such numbers tremendous underestimates.

Indisputably, the dIND has caused deep anxiety and unease among India's neighbours and a tit-for-tat response from Pakistan seems guaranteed. In their enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, the confused luminaries of the NSAB have even amended official commitme nts, made for instance in the Prime Minister's December 15, 1998 statement in the Rajya Sabha, on non-use of India's nuclear weapons against "non-nuclear weapon states". The dIND, in a disturbingly ambiguous formulation, recommends that "India will not r esort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against States which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapon powers" (emphasis added). As Admiral L. Ramdas, former Chief of the Naval Staff, puts it, what the dIN D has done, for transparently partisan reasons, is to open "a Pandora's box to frighten the entire neighbourhood".

All this does not necessarily mean that the prescriptions of the dIND will remain unchanged when a new government takes over after the general elections. Nor does it follow that official nuclear policy has returned to a path of defiant independence. The essence of the strategy of the Hindu Right is to try and hang on to de facto nuclear weaponisation at any cost. Among other things, this will mean abandonment of the global nuclear disarmament agenda and all principled opposition to the discrimina tory global nuclear order. As External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh told Arun Shourie in a remark quoted proudly by the latter in the Rajya Sabha debate of December 15, 1998: "Look at it as a crowded railway compartment. When you are trying to come int o it, your perspective is one. When you are in it, you want the rules that will keep you in and keep the others out." From a democratic standpoint, the pursuit of nuclear weaponisation while surrendering to the CTBT and the FMCT that is being negotiated and being co-opted into the discriminatory global nuclear order as a minor partner must be recognised as the worst possible course for India's nuclear policy. Meanwhile, the hawkishness that has underlain Pokhran-II, the subsequent articulations of offic ial policy relating to nuclear weaponisation, the test-firing of the extended range Agni II intermediate range ballistic missile and the explicit linking of this to nuclear weaponisation is likely to be modulated in accordance with perceived short-term p olitical exigencies and the twists and turns of the evolving regional and international situation. Everything except de facto nuclear weaponisation is bargainable; the limits of acceptance/non-acceptance by the United States and its allies can be probed and tested. The aggressive posture signalled by the dIND must be understood only in this context.

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