A destabilising misadventure

Print edition : February 13, 1999

It appears that post-Pokhran-II and post-Chagai, India's nuclear policy and nuclear defence posture have handed Pakistan a diplomatic advantage while degrading considerably its own security.

THE next round of talks between India and Pakistan will take place soon. These talks will be on a broad range of issues including peace and security in the subcontinent. But it is clear that the key to immediate progress lies in the handling of the nuclear issue by the two nations. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government made a provocative linkage between the nuclear issue and other questions that bedevil bilateral ties, including Kashmir, in the immediate aftermath of Pokhran-II and this worsened matters considerably. In any case, India-Pakistan relations would not have remained on an even keel after Pokhran-II and India's declaration of its nuclear weapon state status and Pakistan's matching response.

Among the options that the Indian Government has chosen for itself in what it calls its effort to promote a nuclear restraint regime in the subcontinent, the option of non-weaponisation is absent. In a statement made in the Rajya Sabha on December 15, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee indicated yet again the Government's intention to take India on the path of nuclear weaponisation. The statement revealed for the first time to the Indian public the broad contours of India's nuclear defence posture, contours that had been detailed earlier to the United States, the de facto mediator between India and Pakistan on the nuclear issue, in the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks.

First, according to Vajpayee's statement, India is to have a "minimum credible deterrent, which will safeguard India's security - the security of one-sixth of humanity, now and into the future". Secondly, the statement asserts, leaving no room for doubt, that India's nuclear deterrent will be deployed. Third, India's nuclear doctrine will include a policy of "no first use" and non-use (of nuclear weapons) against non-nuclear weapons states. Fourth, as a corollary to the no-first-use policy, the statement clarifies that the aim is to achieve a "deployment of assets that ensures survivability and capacity of an adequate response". In other words, a second-strike capability is envisaged.

However, the statement does not spell out in any noteworthy detail the security rationale for this nuclear defence posture. It confines itself to the brief observation that the nuclear deterrent posture follows the same logic as that of India's conventional defence capability, namely, "to safeguard the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India against any use or threat of use of force." The statement further notes that regional issues have been kept apart from disarmament and non-proliferation in the Jaswant Singh-Talbott talks . "India's concerns in these matters go beyond the South Asian region, and involve a wider perspective," it asserts. The suggestion, therefore, is that India has entered the nuclear weapons game as a global player, and not merely in response to the situation in the subcontinent. This emphasis on the global nature of the game is also partly in response to fears expressed worldwide about the dangers of a nuclear confrontation in the subcontinent and the diplomatic pressure against weaponisation brought to bear on India and Pakistan, particularly by the P-5 (permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) led by the U.S.

It is therefore worth examining in the South Asian context whether the line of pursuing nuclear weaponisation is sustainable. Underpinning the defence of nuclear weaponisation in the subcontinent is the argument that while nuclear weapons are necessary more for global security reasons than for other reasons, nuclear deterrence will in fact ensure stability and security in terms of the subcontinental situation, provided matters are suitably handled with Pakistan. India's nuclear doctrines are to be developed with this basic argument in mind. However, it is not very difficult to see that this line of reasoning is untenable. In any realistic assessment, there is nothing in the current nuclear postures that guarantees security or stability. An arms race is inevitable and India in particular will lose substantially rather than gain from the current path of weaponisation.

It is well-known that Pakistan has long considered its nuclear capability to be a hedge against India's strategic superiority in conventional arms. Before Pokhran-II Pakistan had even rejected a suggestion that it sign with India a pact on non-first-use of nuclear capabilities. In the light of this it was predictable that Pakistan would not join India in a no-first-use pact but instead propose a general reduction of arms on both sides, linking conventional arms to nuclear weapons. By its acceptance of the logic of deterrence, the current Indian nuclear defence posture serves to validate Pakistan's position.

In this context no-first-use can be described as a stance that reduces nuclear tensions only partially. While it is better than the nuclear defence postures of most of the P-5 (a fact that domestic apologists of weaponisation do not tire of reminding us), it makes clear that nuclear weapons will be inducted and deployed by India. This provides Pakistan an opportunity to claim that it needs the capability to match India's weapons, thus creating conditions for an India-Pakistan nuclear standoff.

Indeed, this is the same logic by which both the BJP-led Government and strategic affairs experts have often argued for an Indian nuclear deterrent to match Chinese capabilities. What is sauce for the Indian goose can justifiably be sauce for the Pakistani gander.

In this situation, an arms race is inevitable. If India's stance would be one of pushing to protect its nuclear weapon and delivery systems in order to maintain a credible second-strike capability, then Pakistan's would be logically that of trying to override this advantage by developing a substantially greater first-strike capability. If a policy of deterrence is indeed what the two countries are going to follow, then the pious statements from the governments of India and Pakistan that they do not want an arms race can be entirely discounted. The policy will, however, be implemented not at the breathless pace of weaponisation seen at the height of the Cold War but in a slow-motion, almost farcical, replay of it, given the relatively backward technological infrastructure and capabilities and the general economic conditions of the two countries.

It would be futile and counter-productive for India to try and win such a race by virtue of its greater economic strength. A weakened but nuclear-armed Pakistan would pose a far greater threat to India's security. India would do well to heed the example of Russia: faced with a deterioration of its conventional military strength in the last few crisis-ridden years, Russia has gone back from its posture of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and is hesitating to ratify START-II.

THE clarifications given to the Rajya Sabha by Prime Minister Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh on the term "minimal" in India's minimal credible deterrent do not help either. According to these clarifications, the "minimum" is not to be understood as a definite number or to be pinned down in any way, but is to remain flexible, to be decided as the security situation warrants, or, in plain-speak, to be decided unilaterally by India as the government of the day deems fit. Such a posture is obviously not conducive to avoiding an arms race or developing a restraint regime with Pakistan since it leaves unclear what India seeks to build by way of a nuclear arsenal. What is minimal for India with respect to China will certainly not be interpreted as minimal by Pakistan.

Further specific implications of nuclear weaponisation depend on the details of the current capabilities of India and Pakistan. Today both countries possess only basic fission weapons. India's thermo-nuclear capability is quite uncertain and, without further testing, the building of reliable warheads will be a chancy affair. The fission weapons will initially be deliverable only by aircraft, but one may reasonably expect that warheads deliverable by short-range missiles will be available in the near term. Densely populated areas in both India and Pakistan will be within the range of nuclear weapons. In the medium term the development of longer-range missiles will render even larger parts of the two countries vulnerable to attack. However, command, control and intelligence systems on both sides will take considerable time to develop.

It is obvious that Indian capabilities will not for several years - probably even for a few decades - amount to anything that can be termed a "deterrent" against a nuclear threat from any of the existing nuclear weapon states. India's main confrontation in nuclear weaponry will be only with Pakistan.

India's second-strike capability will not be put to any serious test until a later stage. Currently, if India's missiles and nuclear-capable aircraft are not deployed near the border, they will be fairly invulnerable. Neither Pakistan's delivery systems nor its command, control and intelligence capabilities will enable it to target these assets so effectively as to incapacitate them in their entirety. Conversely, any forward deployment of these assets to sites closer to the border will be read as an aggressive gesture. It would promote an increased state of readiness of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, though to what extent this would actually take place will depend on the specific situation. India's linkage of missiles to nuclear warheads, made explicitly in several statements after Pokhran-II, has rendered the forward deployment of its short-range missiles as a conventional deterrent problematic. In general, the continued development of missiles and suitable warheads can be expected to be a destabilising factor since they are harder to detect and less vulnerable to interception and have much shorter flight times (of the order of a few minutes) than strike aircraft. A cheaper second-strike option, such as that involving short-range nuclear-tipped missiles on mobile launchers, can substantially add to the instability in crisis conditions and encourage Pakistan to use a similar strategy.

For the next several years, potential Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals are unlikely to possess the ability to incapacitate or seriously damage each other's military, particularly nuclear, assets. But each side will be far more capable of seriously damaging the other's civilian targets. Pakistan can, with a fair degree of certainty, inflict serious damage to at least a few Indian population centres. As Gen. K. Sundarji, a leading proponent of Indian weaponisation, once put it, India can retaliate even after a delay of a few days with a fair chance of inflicting damage. But is it credible that an Indian government will be willing to gamble with the lives of millions of people and will not actually shift to a first-strike posture in a crisis situation? No-first-use may be an announced doctrine. But if there is a grave crisis with the possibility of a nuclear confrontation, the temptation to move towards a first-strike posture will be overwhelming where nuclear weapons have already been deployed. It is worth remembering that armies in the real world plan not for deterrence but for what is politely termed the "breakdown of deterrence". In other words, they always end up planning for the use and not the non-use of their weapons.

The proponents of weaponisation will undoubtedly argue, as government spokesmen and their apologists have often done, that India is a peace-loving nation that has never initiated an attack on a neighbouring country and hence Pakistan should accept India's mutual no-first-use offer. But the development of a regime of nuclear restraint on this basis requires that the other side accept the argument. Such moral arguments will obviously be rejected out of hand since India has declared itself a nuclear weapon state and seeks to deploy a nuclear arsenal. If such arguments are genuinely meant, it would then appear that the present government has pushed India towards weaponisation by compromising its security in the near term and exposed its population to a first-strike capability in the event of a crisis, all in exchange for an insurance against possible nuclear threats in the distant future from unidentified sources and with the illusion of thermo-nuclear superpower status.

Stability in the subcontinent with fully deployed nuclear weapons will critically depend on the ability of India and Pakistan to read correctly and influence the thinking of the other in relation to its security and to be able to understand the possible reactions under various situations. The two sides need to "communicate" to each other through words and deeds. To be successful, this requires, apart from constant diplomatic communication, itself at a premium in India-Pakistan crisis situations, substantial technical investment in command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I, to use the popular acronym). High-quality C3I would appear to be a necessity even if India and Pakistan do not use the high-alert, counterforce strategies of the Cold War rivals.

Without these systems in place and with deployed weapons, wrong signals or the misreading of each other's intentions and capabilities will heighten the danger of actual use of nuclear weapons. Any accidental use of nuclear weapons is also a real danger that has to be guarded against. Without independent intelligence capability, including technical means such as satellites, both sides are vulnerable to misinformation from third-party sources. The development of such C3I capabilities is in fact a long process and the situation in the intervening period will be highly volatile. The fact that the two Cold War rivals never really read each other's words and deeds correctly despite high-quality C3I capabilities, thus leading to incredibly critical situations, has been one of the central arguments of people like Gen. Lee Butler, former commander of the Strategic Forces of the U.S., who now are convinced that the entire theory of deterrence is fallacious. There is little reason to believe that an India-Pakistan nuclear standoff will be an exception to this rule.

Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan, K. Raghunath (left) and Shamshad Ahmad, during their talks in New Delhi in September 1997. There is nothing in India's current nuclear postures that guarantees security or stability. An arms race with Pakistan is inevitable and India in particular will lose substantially rather than gain from the current path of weaponisation.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

OVERALL, it appears that post-Pokhran-II and post-Chagai, India's nuclear policy and nuclear defence posture have handed Pakistan a diplomatic advantage while degrading considerably its own security. In retrospect, India's earlier policy of an open nuclear option coupled with self-restraint in the development and deployment of nuclear weapons appears to have been more than a morally justified or politically peace-oriented strategy. It was, in fact, a policy that met substantially the geopolitical and strategic realities that India faced.

What is in fact a sustainable policy option today in terms of peace and security in the subcontinent? The key lies in halting the process of nuclear weaponisation that is yet to take off fully. India must first of all commit itself to the non-deployment of nuclear weapons. Pakistan, facing enormous constraints in continuing with any serious programme of nuclear weaponisation, has more than once made it clear that it sees no need to deploy nuclear weapons if India did not do so.

Next, there must be a commitment to the non-use of current fissile material stocks or future production of such materials for weapons purposes. And the final step should be the dismantling of existing nuclear warheads, not by the dictates of the U.S. or other members of the P-5 but by the sovereign choice of the people of India. It is necessary that these steps are taken in tandem or in cooperation with Pakistan.

These steps will also ensure that missiles and strike aircraft that are currently in use will not be suspect as nuclear weapons delivery systems. Further confidence-building measures would also be necessary in order to ensure that conventional missile capability in particular does not act as a destabilising factor in the future.

The moratorium on testing that is in place needs to be continued and strengthened by a resolution or an act of Parliament. This will effectively curb the temptation to push nuclear weaponisation outside the purview of public scrutiny by hawkish forces as well as the scientific establishment in the atomic energy and defence research sectors. Any attempt to return to weaponisation would be subject to some degree of parliamentary supervision.

A nuclear policy such as this will provide little room for the interference of the U.S. and its allies in security issues in the subcontinent and enable India to return to the pursuit of the agenda of global nuclear disarmament, with the total abolition of nuclear weapons as its central goal.

Without non-deployment of nuclear weapons there is no prospect of peace or security in the subcontinent. This is the least that is owed to the "one-sixth of humanity" in whose name the BJP-led Government's nuclear misadventure has been cynically conducted.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor