A nuclear wedge

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

The reported move by India to deploy nuclear weapons opens up the possibilities of accidental or unauthorised use of the weapons, nuclear accidents and development of more weapons as a result of inter-service rivalry.

AS the United States mobilised its armed forces in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the world's attention was focussed on Pakistan, especially its nuclear weapons. Addressing the nation, President Pervez Musharraf proclaimed that the "safety of nuclear missiles" was one of his priorities. The Bush administration began to consider providing Pakistan with perimeter security and other assistance to guard its nuclear facilities. There were even reports that U.S. and Israeli commandos had been training together to snatch Pakistan's nuclear weapons if the need arose.1 Given the current instability in the region, the fact that Pakistan had not deployed its nuclear weapons prior to September 11 is something to be thankful about.

It is ironical that at such a time Indian officials seem to be going ahead with the process of deploying nuclear weapons on missiles. According to a report in The Pioneer, a seminar organised by the Army Training Command at the School of Artillery near Nashik will see scientists from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and top personnel of the artillery wing of the Army focussing attention on the nuclear weaponisation of the Agni missile.2 The report follows several articles revealing that such a process was under way. Following the second test of Agni-II on January 17, 2001, an official statement said that the missile was tested in its "final operational configuration", that is, the "ready for battle" status.3 On January 25, V.K. Atre, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, announced that Agni would be inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF) by the end of the year. Asked if it would be fitted with a nuclear warhead, Atre reportedly said, "Obviously."4 In his speech to the Parliamentary Consultative Committee attached to the Ministry of Defence on May 31, Defence Minister Jaswant Singh announced that Agni would be inducted into the Indian armed forces by 2002.5 It was also reported at the same time that the government had given the go-ahead for the development of missiles with a longer range under the Agni project.6 These are disturbing developments.

At least three dangers would result from deployment. The first, and the most worrisome, danger is that deployment opens up the possibility of nuclear weapons being used accidentally or by unauthorised persons, especially during a crisis. With the ongoing low-level war in Kashmir, and the current destabilising events in Pakistan, crises are bound to occur. Deployment will almost inevitably involve delegating authority to military officers on the field to make the decision about using nuclear weapons, partly because of the poor state of communications. (It is reported that the Boeing 737-200 that took Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on his three-nation tour did not have the facility that would allow him to call a number directly from the aircraft.7

The possibility of unauthorised use is only going to increase with time, since it is likely that the ranks of the Indian military, like those of the Pakistani military, may include persons who are sympathetic to fundamentalist causes. While Pakistan has a two-decade lead in this process, thanks to the U.S. channelling through Pakistan its funds to the Islamic fundamentalist groups fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the saffronisation of the Indian polity would certainly have affected its armed forces. Investigations into the riots that erupted after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, especially those in Mumbai, revealed such a trend in the police force and in the Provincial Armed Constabulary. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has never hidden its desire to use nuclear weapons against Pakistan.

During the Kargil War, Panchjanya, the RSS mouthpiece, proclaimed: "The time has come again for India's Bheema to tear open the breasts of these infidels and purify the soiled tresses of Draupadi with blood. Pakistan will not listen just like that. We have a centuries-old debt to settle with this mindset. It is the same demon that has been throwing a challenge at Durga since the time of Mahammad bin Qasim. Arise Atal Behari! Who knows if fate has destined you to be the author of the final chapter of this long story. For what have we manufactured bombs? For what have we exercised the nuclear option?"8 Given such exhortations, if a military officer sympathetic to the RSS is authorised to use nuclear weapons, then the possibility of his launching a weapon against Pakistan cannot be ruled out.

It is the threat of unauthorised use that command and control systems are supposed to avert. However, even the most advanced command and control systems are not foolproof. The complexities involved in preparing for all contingencies, especially given the short flying times for Indian and Pakistani missiles and airplanes to each other's territory, would almost inexorably allow the launch of nuclear weapons without authorisation, making a mockery of the stated commitment not to be the first side to use nuclear weapons.

Thanks to the deployment of their nuclear weapons, the U.S. and Russia live in perpetual fear of a first strike and hence have put in place elaborate early-warning systems. Multiple satellites monitor the world, looking for signals of missile launches. Once any missile is detected, early-warning radars would take over and follow its trajectory and pass on the data to processing centres. After checking for possible error, the information is conveyed to senior decision-makers - all this within a few minutes. During the next few minutes, decision-makers could discuss the likelihood of the attack being real. If no other explanations could be found for the signals, the President would be notified and he could call the other side to check if there had been an accidental launch of a missile. All this was possible because missiles take about 25 minutes to travel from one country to the other.

Despite the enormous financial and technical resources invested in setting up and operating them, the early-warning systems failed frequently. Information on these failures is largely kept as a secret. It is known, however, that between 1977 and 1984, the early-warning systems in the U.S. made over 1,000 false alarms of missile attacks that were considered serious enough for bombers and missiles to be placed on alert.9 There were similar scares on the Russian side as well. For example, on January 25, 1995, military technicians at several radar stations across northern Russia thought they had seen a missile from a U.S. submarine coming towards Russia. This information was passed on through the chains of command to President Boris Yeltsin who activated the "nuclear briefcase", thus putting Russian forces on high alert. Subsequently, after about eight minutes, senior military officers determined that the "missile" was headed far out to sea. It turned out to be an American scientific probe to study the Northern Lights.10

In the case of South Asia, even if such systems could be set up at costs that the countries in the region could scarcely afford, geography makes them ineffective. India and Pakistan are adjoining nations with a long border and missile and airplane flight times are very short. A Prithvi missile launched from India would take only three to five minutes to reach almost anywhere in Pakistan. A Ghauri missile launched from Pakistan would take about five minutes to reach Delhi. Where then is the time to analyse signals from satellites and radars, or to discuss the threat? How can leaders on both sides check whether a launch is accidental or intentional?

The second potential danger of deployment is accidents involving nuclear weapons themselves or their delivery vehicles such as missiles and aircraft - over and above the risk of accidental nuclear war owing to the failure of early-warning systems and communication and control. An accident involving a nuclear weapon can lead to the dispersal of fissile materials into the atmosphere, which could result in hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the vicinity of the accident site being afflicted with cancer.11

The third danger is the possibility of inter-service competition for the control of nuclear weapons and the consequent increase in requirements for nuclear weapons. In the U.S., for example, a study by the Brookings Institutions, which estimated the cost of the U.S. nuclear weapons programme at $5.5 trillion, concluded that one reason for the astronomical figure was "inter-service rivalry, with the Air Force getting nuclear arms and then the Navy and Army wanting them, too."12 Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll argues that "inter-service rivalry led to the rapid proliferation of nuclear missions... each service acquired its own arsenal of nuclear weapons for every conceivable military mission: strategic bombardment, tactical warfare, anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank rockets and landmines, anti-submarine rockets, torpedoes and depth charges, artillery shells, intermediate range missiles and ultimately intercontinental range land and sea-launched ballistic missiles armed with multiple, thermo-nuclear warheads."13 In such a milieu, "the Air Force, Navy, and Army each assessed their nuclear requirements largely in isolation, without considering the forces of their sister services. This led to duplicative targeting... (and) the problem of overkill."14 A missile-tracking radar near Moscow, for example, is the target of no less than 69 nuclear weapons of the U.S.15

One can already witness inter-service rivalry with respect to nuclear weapons in India. One report traces this to the 1998 National Security Council Advisory Board's Draft Nuclear Doctrine, which recommended a triad of air, mobile land-based, and sea-based assets.16

In May 2001, according to a Press Trust of India report, the Indian government approved plans to deploy the nuclear-capable medium-range missile Agni-II during 2001-2002. Around the same time it was reported that the three wings of India's military were locked in a tussle over who would take over the new post of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), the office that would have its finger on the actual nuclear button.17

More recent reports suggest that the Indian Army is to raise a special missile regiment to induct Agni. The decision was apparently made in June this year and was primarily based on three considerations. First, the Army was the largest of the three forces. Secondly, it had an infrastructure that could be adapted for storing and deploying Agni-II with minimum modifications and cost. Thirdly, it had the maximum experience in handling the Prithvi ballistic missile.18 In response to this decision, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, the Chief of the Air Staff, wrote to Defence Minister Jaswant Singh that the IAF's views had not been incorporated into the CDS structure.19 Joining hands with him was former Chief of the Air Staff O.P. Mehra, who sought an immediate review of the decision allowing the Army to raise a "strategic rocket command".20

The IAF is apparently not enthusiastic about being absorbed in a new tri-service architecture and the formation of a strategic command where all the three services will be equally represented.21 A news report quotes an unnamed IAF official as claiming that the "question whether the Agni should also be given to the IAF is being considered."22 Sometime earlier, Uday Bhaskar, a retired officer of the Indian Navy, who is currently Deputy Director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, argued that the nuclear button should be with the Navy since it had "both maritime and aviation roles." Dismissing the IAF's doubts, he argued that these should "not distract us from the inevitability of a CDS."23 Regardless of who wins this battle, if the Draft Nuclear Doctrine's recommendation for a triad is followed, sooner or later all three services are likely to get nuclear weapons of their own - at least if the current plans for deployment are followed.

The next crisis may also see the military encroaching further on the nuclear turf even prior to a concrete decision to deploy. For example, it could request custody of nuclear weapons during the crisis so as to be able to use them at short notice. This follows the pattern seen in the U.S. where the military gained control of nuclear weapons following the Korean War.24 Even if the poorer economies of India and Pakistan do not allow for the reproduction of arsenals of the kind that a superpower has with tens of thousands of weapons, the same qualitative dynamics will obtain in South Asia as well. The induction of the nuclear-capable Agni missile may well be the thin end of the wedge. The time to cut off these developments is now, before the services build up sections with vested interests in maintaining deployed nuclear weapons arsenals and finding targets to justify greater numbers.


1. Seymour M. Hersh, "Watching The Warheads", The New Yorker, November 5, 2001.

2. Rahul Datta, "Agni to Dominate Agenda", The Pioneer, November 7, 2001.

3. Atul Aneja, "Agni-II Second Test Successful", The Hindu, January 18, 2001.

4. "Agni to be Inducted into Indian Air Force Soon", The Times of India, January 26, 2001.

5. "Agni, Other Missiles to be Inducted by 2002", Deccan Herald, June 1, 2001.

6. "Govt. Okays Longer-range Agni Missiles", The Times of India, June 1, 2001.

7. Bhavna Vij, "Minor embarrassment: Vajpayee cannot dial direct from his aircraft", The Indian Express, November 7, 2001.

8. Panchjanya, June 20, 1999; quoted in The Kargil War by Praveen Swami (LeftWord Books, New Delhi, 1999), p 100.

9. H.L. Abrams, "Strategic Defence and Inadvertent Nuclear War", in Inadvertent Nuclear War: The Implications of the Changing Global Order, ed. H. Wiberg, I.D. Petersen, and P. Smoker (Pergamon, Oxford, 1993), pages 39-55.

10. Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson, and Frank von Hippel, "Taking Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert", Scientific American, November 1997.

11. Zia Mian, R. Rajaraman and M. V. Ramana, "Yet another nuclear danger", Frontline, August 4, 2001.

12. Matthew Wald, "Study Puts Total Cost of U.S. Nuclear Arms at $5.48 trillion", The New York Times, July 1, 1998.

13. Eugene Carroll, "United States Policy and Nuclear Abolition", Address to Olaf Palme Institute, May 12, 1998, https://www.wagingpeace.org/articles/carroll-sweden.html.

14. Stephen Schwartz, "Introduction", in Atomic Audit edited by Stephen Schwartz (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1998), page 24.

15. Carla Anne Robbins and Andrew Higgins, "Russia Holds Key to Bush's Dream of a National Missile Defence System", The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2001.

16. Rahul Bedi, "India is Developing a Longer-range IRBM", Jane's Missiles and Rockets, April 1, 2001.

17. "India's military branches squabble for control of nuclear button", Sify News, May 15, 2001.

18. Atul Aneja, "India has 'Problems' Managing Nuclear Arms", The Hindu, August 14, 2001.

19. Rahul Bedi, "Indian Army will Control Agni-II", Jane's Defence Weekly, August 22, 2001.

20. "Former Air Chief Seeks Nuclear Command Under IAF", The Times of India, September 10, 2001.

21. As in 18.

22. Rajat Pandit, "Army to Induct Agni Missiles", The Times of India, September 15, 2001.

23. As in 17.

24. See for example Janne Nolan, Guardians of the Arsenal: The Politics of Nuclear Strategy (Basic Books, New York, 1989), pages 50-54.

M.V. Ramana is a research scholar at the Programme on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, U.S.

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