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A nuclear neighbourhood

Print edition : Dec 06, 2002

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India's Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal by Ashley J. Tellis; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001; pages 885, Rs.895.

AS I finished reading the tome, I was rather intrigued by the reflection that a few non-Indians have shown much deeper insight than almost all the Indian writers into the difficult and crucial choices facing India in the aftermath of Pokhran-II. I have no hesitation in adding Tellis to that short list of non-Indians.

The author is a senior adviser to the United States Ambassador to India, and the book is part of "Project Air Force", a division of RAND (considered to be the Pentagon's own think tank). In his preface the author says that the book "should be of interest to the U.S. national security community, regional military and intelligence analysts, the non-proliferation establishment, and academics in general". Whatever be the reception accorded to the book in the U.S., in India it has attracted a good deal of attention from the strategic community.

There is an impressive comprehensiveness about the opus. The author has hardly left out any published book or article and the bibliography runs into 97 pages. In his Acknowledgements, he has listed about a hundred Americans, within and without the government, and about 80 Indians. I would not be surprised if it turns out that Tellis had better access to the Indian officials he consulted than, say, a total of ten randomly chosen Indian writers on the same subject.

The first chapter serves as introduction. Chapters two and three deal respectively with "Strategic factors affecting India's nuclear posture" and "Assessing alternative Indian nuclear postures". Chapter four deals with "Towards a force-in-being (1): Understanding India's nuclear doctrine and future force posture", whereas Chapter five is titled "Towards a force-in-being (2): Assessing the requirements and adequacy of the evolving deterrent". Chapter six, the last chapter, is on "The strategic implications of India's nuclear posture".

The very title shows that the author is a remarkably careful wordsmith. The emphasis is on the word `emerging', the implication being that India has not yet emerged as a full-fledged nuclear power. India still "has some way to go before it can acquire the capabilities that would make it a significant nuclear power". This is an important point made by Tellis, which is not grasped fully by many commentators in India and elsewhere. Tellis goes on to make a point of even wider import about the India-Pakistan-China nuclear triangle: that the nuclear capabilities of the three are not structured for the conduct of prompt operations seems to have eluded many commentators in the U.S., who confidently made assertions about India and Pakistan having weapons "on aircraft or missiles capable of striking with as little as three minutes' warning" or about either country opting for "launch on warning (LoW) attack". The argument of Tellis is and he is right that even China, much more advanced than the other two, does not have a collection of ready-to-launch weapons kept mated to the delivery system.

The subtext under the title Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal sums up the thesis of Tellis. He describes India's present nuclear posture as movement towards a `force-in-being', a phrase first used by Vijay K. Nair in his book Nuclear India (1992). Elaborating on what he means by that expression, Tellis says: "The weapons and delivery systems are developed and produced, with key sub-components maintained under civilian custody, but these assets as a whole are not deployed in any way that enables the prompt conduct of nuclear operations. Such assets are, in fact, sequestered and covertly maintained in distributed form, with different custodians exercising strict stewardship over the components entrusted to them for safekeeping." The author concludes that in the years ahead we shall see India do what is best described "as a creeping weaponisation that will eventually materialise into a force-in-being". He continues, "This, rather than a ready arsenal, will remain the outcome as India continues to put the pieces together over this decade and beyond " (emphasis added). Both to those who agonise over a nuclear arms race in the sub-continent between India and Pakistan and to those who get enthused over it, the author's confident retort is that he foresees an `arms crawl'.

Will there be a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or in technical jargon, will deterrence break down between the two? The author maintains that deterrence will hold, but for some uncertainties: "The first uncertainty derives from the presence of weak state structures and, by implication, the possibility of deficient strategic decision-making, especially in Pakistan." The second uncertainty derives from the `possibility of catalytic wars'. Catalytic wars are "conflicts brought about either by the actions of third parties or by the principals involved with the intention of entrapping third parties into intervening in an ongoing conflict'.

Though Tellis does not mention it, the Bangladesh war is a good example of such a war. Advancing along the same course, the author concludes that "Pakistan's inability to solve its internal problems (could) become a security problem for India." Any future deterrence breakdown `is most likely' to result from `miscalculation and misperception'. But Tellis qualifies his conclusions by saying that they are based on deductive logic and that we should await another RAND study, which is under way, for a more complete answer.

Tellis advances the argument that though Pakistan desires a change in the status quo, it has "for all practical purposes ruled out the alternative of securing political change through the pursuit of nuclear or conventional war even though it continues to engage in nuclear coercion at the sub-continental level and could occasionally lapse into the temptation to engage in shallow cross-border operations in efforts to attract international attention to its claim on Kashmir" (emphasis added). Such indulgence towards Pakistan's cross-border terrorism does not square with the analytical rigour that characterises the book in general.

TURNING to the question of deterrence stability between India and China, the author contends that China does not have any dispute with India which it will find worth resolving at the cost of a war, and, a fortiori, at the cost of invoking the threat of a nuclear war. China is so far ahead of India on the nuclear road that it does not take India as a serious threat.

After pointing out that the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan are unlikely to prompt emulation by others, a point that needs to be made to his American readers however obvious it might be to others, Tellis sums up his advice to his own government:

The U.S. should concentrate on shaping the character of the evolving Indian (and Pakistani) nuclear arsenals so that they can comport with the following injunctions: * Keep'em small: A modest Indian arsenal suits the American grand strategy more than a large arsenal so long as its constituent capabilities are safe, and reasonably effective. * Keep'em stealthy: A surreptitious Indian force can avoid the high costs of ensuring survivability by means other than opacity, and since mobility is a special form of stealth, mobile delivery systems should be encouraged, not proscribed. * Keep'em slow: An Indian arsenal that embodies anything other than a rapid-response capability does not subvert either Indian or American interests because it helps dampen escalation and because it has to be employed in extremis, "revenge is a dish best eaten cold."

Situating the nuclear question in the subcontinent within the larger framework of the U.S. strategy for the region and beyond, Tellis proposes further action by his own government:

* The U.S. can play the role of a helpful critic by providing `intellectual assistance' through confidential channels. India could benefit from the American experience during the Cold War.

* The U.S. can share its own assessment about the threats faced by India, without any sharing of intelligence. All the South Asian states today generally possess relatively poor information about the intentions and capabilities of their competitors and are consequently apt to base their programmatic decisions with respect to their strategic capabilities on a pervasive misreading of their threat environment (emphasis added). Ultimately, the U.S. should prepare itself to play the role of an "umpire" especially when deterrence breaks down.

* The U.S. should exert itself to resolve the Kashmir problem on the basis of transforming the LoC (Line of Control) into a permanent border.

Tellis concludes by urging India and the U.S. to develop a `strategic vision that could serve as a framework within which the competing interests of the two states may be reconciled'.

Two brief comments are in order:

1. Whether there will be an arms race or an arms crawl in the subcontinent will depend much on the evolution of Indo-Pakistan relations. Kashmir is not the core problem, it is only the core symptom of a deep-rooted malady, namely, the unwillingness and inability of the two neighbours to live as normal neighbours.

2. The U.S. might be able and willing to persuade the two countries to evolve a lasting rapprochement. On the other hand, it could be argued that a spell of neglect by the superpower might assist the two countries in recognising the obvious, namely, that geography is destiny and that it was the supply of American arms to Pakistan under Eisenhower that in the mid-1950s prevented such rapprochement. But it might be unrealistic to expect of the U.S. to desist from the temptation of playing the schoolmaster or of fishing in troubled waters. It is for India and Pakistan to recognise their predicament and to act responsibly.

India has been a reluctant gate-crasher into the nuclear club, the only club that does not provide for normal entry. Since 1974, India had been hanging around within the compound of the club. Tellis displays commendable freedom from narrow ethno-centricism in urging his government to accept the new gate-crashers as normal members. He is conscious of the ground reality of the club, which has no choice but to accept gate-crashers.

Above all, Tellis wrote the book to serve as a map for policy-makers in his government. Obviously, it will be unfair to the author to expect of him to discuss in depth all of India's concerns. He might have given us a book of more manageable length if he had been less exhaustive in his cross references. It is essential reading for all those who are interested in understanding the important and difficult choices facing India.

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