Imperatives before India

Published : Jul 22, 2000 00:00 IST

Questions of nuclear non-proliferation, deterrence and India.


IN 1968 the nuclear powers signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and agreed to negotiate for complete nuclear disarmament, but they set no dates. In 2000 the five nuclear powers again reiterated their commitment to complete nuclear disarmamen t, but again set no dates. In the last 32 years, nothing has changed - not even the promises. The nuclear powers continue to maintain their nuclear arsenals, and until very recently continued nuclear tests in order to perfect their weapons.

In 1974 India showed its nuclear capability by conducting its first nuclear test. Had India followed the example of the other nuclear powers, it would have gone on to test further, and to weaponise. Instead, for 24 years it did not conduct a single test, even though the capability to test fusion devices existed since the 1980s. This track record lends credibility to India's reasons for breaking its self-imposed 'test ban', and conducting its second set of nuclear tests in 1998. These reasons had to do w ith the prevailing geopolitical situation. In 1998 India shed its ambivalence and crossed the nuclear Rubicon. There can be no turning back now, and the question is: where do we go from here?

Obviously the only way the whole world will be free from the perils of nuclear devastation is to have no nuclear weapons at all. Since that is not going to happen in the immediate future, it must be asked what is the best way to protect oneself in a nucl ear-armed world? In order to safeguard Indian interests it is necessary for the country to develop and maintain a nuclear deterrent. This has been articulated by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) as well as by the government. Nuclear deterrence means potential aggressors recognise that in the event of a nuclear attack on India it would have the ability to launch a nuclear counter-attack: it would not be possible to knock the country out with a single nuclear 'punch'. Once the adversary is con vinced of such an ability, that adversary will not launch a pre-emptive strike, because it would be clear that the consequences would be horrendous. Clearly, for a nuclear deterrent to be effective, India must have the capability for a second nuclear str ike, and it must be clear to all adversaries that it has this capability. In the absence of such a capability, someone may, by miscalculation, launch a first strike, thus beginning a war that neither side can win. In simple terms, nuclear deterrence boil s down to the dictum that prevention is better than cure, especially when there is no cure.

WHAT does it take to achieve this 'second-strike' capability? First, India must have compact, light, efficient weapons. Technically this means that it must have fusion weapons, because these are more compact, use less sensitive material, and offer better safety features than fission weapons. Fusion weapons are of different types, such as the boosted-fission device, the two-stage fusion device and the neutron bomb, which has the most efficient design and which India is yet to test. India has conducted on ly one fusion test. Many more will be needed to try out different designs and to perfect a few of them. Clearly, if India is to develop a credible nuclear deterrent, it cannot sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Next, once the designs have been perfected, India must have a deliverable weapon, that is, it must weaponise. This means delivering a design and a system that can be used in the field by the Army. There are issues of safety, reliability and command and c ontrol systems that need to be addressed. As India's experience with Agni and Prithvi, or the Arjun battle tank, has shown, this will also require repeated testing.

Finally, it is important not only to develop this capability, but to convince others, particularly potential aggressors, that India has this capability. This means it is necessary to be more transparent and to declare openly and convincingly what capabil ity India has achieved. Clearly, in the matters of the tests India and Pakistan conducted in 1998, India had much more credibility because it openly declared the nature of the different devices used and their yields. There are many doubts about the origi n, number and efficacy of the Pakistan bombs because till today Islamabad has given out no information on the nature of the bombs tested. However, it is unfortunate that India still does not have a public document evaluating the relative success and yiel ds of Pakistan's tests. Even non-governmental think tanks seem not to worry about it.

I am sometimes asked if I am opposed to India signing any kind of nuclear treaty. Not at all. We all realise that the world would be safest if there were no nuclear weapons. The debate is about how to get there. The nuclear powers feel that 'non-prolifer ation' is the key: the world should never have more than five nuclear powers. This is clearly discriminatory. The status quo could perhaps have been accepted if the nuclear powers had shown some urgency in dismantling their nuclear weapons -- at l east after the end of the Cold War. Since that does not seem likely in the foreseeable future, it is prudent for India to protect itself by arming itself. Once it has developed a credible nuclear deterrent, and finds that its geopolitical concerns have b een addressed, then India could be possibly stop testing again, as it did for a period after 1974. Perhaps it could even take the lead in formulating a time-table for the simultaneous and global elimination of all nuclear weapons.

The recent piece of news that U.S. intelligence agencies seem to find that relative to India Pakistan has established a more credible nuclear arsenal with delivery systems, and control and command procedures in place, is worrisome. It is possible that th is news has been planted just to alarm India. But if it is even partially true, then India will have to speed up the process of weaponisation. In this context, the removal of the operations of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) from the purview of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is a significant and necessary step, because the reports of the AERB are public documents that will be available internationally.

It is clear that the public in India are not satisfied with the country's state of nuclear readiness in spite of a demanding nuclear doctrine. As long as India followed a deliberate policy of nuclear ambivalence, nuclear secrecy was both desirable and ne cessary. But now that India has declared its capabilities openly, the time has come for transparency in nuclear policy, in order to inform the Indian people and to evolve a national consensus on the country's short-term and long-term policies on nuclear deterrence and disarmament.

Dr. P. K. Iyengar is a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment