Questions about capabilities

Print edition : September 11, 1999

In the light of experiences worldwide, it is impossible to accept the claims that Pokhran-II has established all-round weapons capability for India. Yet such claims are behind the grandiose vision of India's nuclear future prepared by the Nation al Security Advisory Board.

THE draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine (dIND) prepared by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) is the most hawkish document to emerge so far on the nuclear weapons issue from any official or institutional body associated with the Government of India.

Although it may, on superficial reading, seem to be a fleshing out of the details of the broad nuclear defence posture outlined earlier by the government, particularly in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Rajya Sabha speech of December 15, 1998, the document in practice stakes out a far more aggressive position on the issue of nuclear weaponisation.

While formally reiterating the position that India should build a credible, minimum nuclear deterrent, the document, in outlining the details of the proposed nuclear doctrine, prescribes in fact an open-ended, far-reaching programme of nuclear weaponisat ion with maximal capabilities.

The ambitious reach of the programme outlined in the dIND follows directly from the one-sided emphasis that is placed on the credible in the "credible, minimum deterrence" mantra. The minimum, except for its initial ritual invocation, finds little mentio n in the rest of the document. The crux of the matter is made clear in the key formulation of para 2.2 of dIND that states:"The requirements of deterrence should be carefully weighed in the design of Indian nuclear forces and in the strategy to provide f or a level of capability consistent with maximum credibility, survivability, effectiveness, safety and security." Despite the subsequent statement that the basic doctrine is one of "retaliation only", it is clear that it is the vision of para 2.2 that an imates the rest of the document.

The scope and quality of the nuclear arsenal and nuclear capabilities that the dIND subsequently prescribes would delight the heart of any nuclear weaponeer. India's nuclear forces are to be such that they can "respond with punitive retaliation should de terrence fail". They are to be based on a "triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets in keeping with the objectives outlined". In other words, even submarine-launched missiles carrying nuclear warheads are on the agenda. The nucl ear forces and their command and control are to be "effective, enduring, diverse, flexible and responsive to requirements".

The nuclear forces envisaged are to be not just survivable, but designed to "endure repetitive attrition attempts with adequate retaliatory capabilities for a punishing strike which would be unacceptable to the aggressor". In other words, the nuclear for ces are supposed to survive multiple strikes by any nuclear aggressor and then still be able to respond with punishing force. Survivability is to be aided by "mobility, deception and dispersion". The dIND repeatedly emphasises that India's nuclear forces must be ready for quick action.

They must be able to shift from "peacetime deployment to fully employable forces in the shortest possible time," and the efficacy of India's nuclear deterrent is to be maximised by, among other things, the "timeliness" of the response. The fact that this emphasis will push India's proclaimed no-first-use policy much closer to that of a launch-on-warning or launch-under-attack strategy is not allowed to stand in the way of pursuing the "credibility" and "effectiveness" of the proposed nuclear deterrent.

At Pokhran, after the nuclear explosion in May 1998.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

If these prescriptions were to be followed through to the letter, nuclear weapons could become the new growth industry in India. And if global tenders could be floated for such projects, India would have a queue of multinationals at its door, clamouring to be let in on a piece of the action. But regrettably, nuclear weapons and associated technologies are a closed-door affair, jealously guarded and not for export. The NSAB's vision has to be realised by purely indigenous efforts and it is here that real ity intrudes on hawkish dreams in a rude fashion.

The problem is that India's technical capabilities in the area of nuclear weapons, their delivery systems and command and control are nowhere near the levels required by the dIND. Nor is it clear how these capabilities could be enhanced to the levels dem anded by the dIND in the medium or long term, given the various constraints that operate on the development of indigenous capabilities in the defence sector and the country's track record in this area.

THE first issue in this respect is the limited range of capabilities in the design of nuclear weapons that has been achieved by Pokhran-II, both in terms of reliability, in the military sense of the term, and safety (to the users, that is). Following Pok hran-II, Indian nuclear weaponeers can build basic fission weapons of the implosion-type using plutonium as the fission fuel. One such warhead was tested on May 11 last year. The information on the sub-kiloton tests, and the statements of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) on the range of nuclear weapons codes that were tested therein, suggest that some capability exists for variations in the shape and size of the warheads. However, it is not clear that the capability to build reliable fission weapon s of the most advanced designs, including 'levitated' pit fission weapons, has been achieved.

These have two important implications for the scope of the arsenal demanded by the dIND. The first is that not too much leeway will be available in the choice of delivery systems. Submarine-based missiles, for instance, will require the careful minimisin g of weight without loss of yield and the ability to pack warheads with the same yield into smaller and smaller spaces. It appears unlikely that Pokhran-II has delivered such a capability. Secondly, the timeliness of response demanded by the dIND suggest s that weapons must be designed so that the fissile material would be already sealed and in place in the warhead, with many such warheads ready on board various delivery systems.

Importantly, the safety requirements for sealed-pit designs include extensive testing in the hydro-nuclear range, something that has not been undertaken so far. Nor does the DAE appear to have adequately tested three-dimensional weapons codes that are re quired to design 'safe' sealed-pit designs.

The other important aspect of India's current nuclear weapons capability is that reliable and safe boosted fission-weapons or thermonuclear weapons capabilities simply do not exist. Without entering into the merits of the controversy over the yields of t he thermonuclear device that was tested at Pokhran, it is clear from the entire history of the nuclear weapons business that one test does not make for a reliable weapons capability. To make matters more complicated, the thermonuclear device tested had a boosted fission weapon as its weapon primary stage. There has been therefore no independent test of a boosted fission weapon either. Without thermonuclear weapons or boosted fission weapons it is not clear how the dIND's claimed objective of a deterrent capability to inflict unacceptable damage on "any potential aggressor" is to be achieved. If the words of the dIND are to be taken at face value, the term 'potential aggressor' includes even the United States. It would be strange to imagine that India c ould build a deterrent (even if, for argument's sake, that piece of nuclear theology were to be granted any credibility at all) based solely on fission weapons against a nuclear weapons state like the U.S.

Nuclear weaponisation per se is bad enough but worse could be in store if it is pursued on the lines indicated by the dIND. If any thermonuclear arsenal were to be built on current capabilities, it would be highly unreliable and unsafe. And this s tate of affairs could not be remedied without further extensive testing. The logic of the dIND if taken seriously would inevitably lead to the breaking of the moratorium on further nuclear weapons testing that is currently in place, a fact that the lumin aries of the NSAB would not have been unaware of.

THE claim of the DAE that the current nuclear weapons codes and the tests conducted at Pokhran are sufficient is completely untenable in the light of the experience of nuclear weapons states like France. This is a particularly illuminating example for un derstanding the weapons test requirements of a full-fledged Indian nuclear weapons programme, for several reasons. First, the French nuclear weapons programme is by and large an indigenous effort like the Indian one. Secondly, France has tried to bypass the route of several incremental design changes and tested only a few basic designs. Thirdly, the French programme was one of the last to take off and its latest weapon, an advanced warhead designed for use on submarine-launched missiles, began developm ent only in the late 1980s. So like the Indian weapons programme, the French one would also have benefited from the recent developments in basic scientific know-how as well as in computing power, over and above the extensive experience that they already possessed. Nevertheless French weaponeers thought it prudent to conduct 22 tests even for the latest weapon.

The ocean surface froths during a French underwater nuclear test near the Pacific atoll of Mururoa in 1995.-GAMMA

Significantly, President Jacques Chirac declared in a television talk-show in September 1995, that France did not "have the technology for small weapons" (even though he ruled out the possibility of further development of such weapons). Clearly, despite the extensive testing done earlier, the French did not consider their technology adequate in some areas of nuclear weapons.

In the light of such experiences worldwide, it is impossible to accept the claims of the defence and atomic energy establishments that Pokhran-II has established all-round weapons capability for India. But undoubtedly these exaggerated claims are very mu ch behind the sabre-rattling of the NSAB and its grandiose vision of India's nuclear future. In an interview to the Times of India published on August 22, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Dr. R. Chidambaram declared: "Our country has full capability to provide technological back-up to the Indian nuclear doctrine." And further: "R&D capability and technological expertise, which we have for every area related to nuclear technology, will enable India to maintain a credible nuclear dete rrent as enunciated in the doctrine (emphasis added)." On another occasion, in an interview to the Press Trust of India that set off a round of competitive boasting between India and Pakistan about neutron bomb capability, the AEC Chairman was quo ted as saying that India can design and build nuclear weapons of "any type or size" (The Hindu, August 17, 1999).

INDIAN capabilities with regard to the development of delivery systems are clearly somewhat of a secondary issue in the context of the dIND, given the exaggerated claims about the development of nuclear warheads. But even on this front, the sabre-rattlin g of the NSAB is underpinned by the lack of a sober assessment of the capabilities of Indian S&T in this area. It is undoubtedly true that with the development of Prithvi and the further development of Agni-II India's nuclear weapons would have a moderat e reach. And this capability could certainly be achieved in the medium-term. But the requirements of the dIND are considerably higher, including the development of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and p ossible tactical nuclear weapons for induction in the Army.

The truth is that the Indian armed forces are heavily dependent on imported equipment. There is not a single combat aircraft in service that is indigenously produced. In the midst of the Kargil near-war situation, India was hurriedly shopping internation ally for shells for its imported artillery. The long-promised and much-talked-about Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is yet to be completed in prototype form. It is not clear when, if ever, it would be a production line item. The development of even conventio nal arms is enmeshed in difficulties and time and cost overruns. India's indigenous software expertise does not extend in the same fashion to electronic and communication hardware, where imports play an important and crucial role. Indeed, Dr. A.P.J. Abdu l Kalam himself estimates, in his book Vision 2020, that India is self-reliant only with regard to about 30 per cent of its defence needs. But any recognition of this reality is missing in the dIND. The fact that any accelerated move towards weapo nisation would attract sanctions that would have a serious negative effect even on conventional arms capabilities clearly does not bother the gung-ho hawks of the NSAB, who desire a state-of-the-art nuclear arsenal and command and control system.

The misplaced emphasis in the dIND on the 'credible' in the "credible, minimum deterrence", in the absence of a real technological capability to back it up, could be dismissed as a farcical exercise, if it were not for some very real dangers that follow from its prescriptions. With its complete dependence on nuclear theology, particularly deterrence theory together with the variant of "damage unacceptable to the aggressor", it is unsurprising to find that the dIND fails to take into account the issue of peace and security in South Asia, which is already seriously threatened by the first halting moves towards weaponisation.

The guiding principle is "India's strategic interests", an ambiguous term that could cloak all manner of superpower ambitions and posturing, and not security.

Despite the posturing that India's nuclear forces are directed against any potential nuclear threat, it is clear that the real confrontation will continue to be mainly with Pakistan and secondarily with China. Several commentators on nuclear issues in So uth Asia have repeatedly pointed to the fact that it is unlikely that any command and control system can cope with the awesome requirements imposed by the geographical proximity of India and Pakistan. They have also drawn attention to the fact that the l ow technological level of the two nations would contribute to the lowering of the threshold for a nuclear outbreak, due to accidental, unauthorised or deliberate use of nuclear weapons. Despite the perfunctory noting of nuclear weapons safety and securit y issues in the dIND, the rest of its formulations run patently counter to such considerations.

In a deeper sense, the country and society most seriously threatened by Indian nuclear weaponisation is India and Indian society itself. The far-reaching programme of nuclear weaponisation prescribed by the dIND would engender a serious negative shift in the priorities of Indian S&T, away from development issues that need urgent attention, towards an inevitable militarisation of science and technology. The pursuit of the mad-cap vision of India's hawks would consume substantial resources, even if the go als set are never reached.

This is hardly the vision of free India that inspired its freedom struggle. India's Strangeloves are well aware of this fact. In demanding that India possess "the will to employ nuclear weapons", the dIND in fact unequivocally advocates that India abando n any moral values in its politics and discard any peace-oriented value system underlying its foreign and nuclear policies.

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