The end of equivocation

Print edition : August 15, 1998

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has firmly indicated that India would sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; his statement in Parliament also seemed to spell out the outline of a nuclear weapons doctrine.

PRIME MINISTER Atal Behari Vajpayee's reply to the recent parliamentary debate on foreign policy has been read in some quarters as the first outline of an Indian nuclear weapons doctrine. In being the first comprehensive statement of policy by the head of government, the Prime Minister's statement in the Lok Sabha on August 4 supersedes the fragmented and somewhat uncoordinated discourse that his Cabinet colleagues were engaged in since the nuclear tests were conducted in May. To say that it reflects a political consensus may, however, be stretching the truth.

Vajpayee indicated that India's nuclear posture will be premised upon three elements: minimum deterrence, no-first use and accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). There could be varying interpretations of the relative importance of the three elements, although in actual strategic terms, Vajpayee's declaration of a policy of "minimum deterrence" is perhaps the most crucial. This is the firmest statement yet that nuclear weapons will indeed be fabricated and stockpiled. The qualification that the deterrence posture will be oriented towards a minimum agenda burdens the new doctrine with a substantial element of ambiguity - how minimal really is "minimum"?

Although an inescapable part of nuclear doctrine, ambiguity has never been known to contribute to stability in strategic planning. It leaves a wide area open for subjective judgment by both the proponent of doctrine and the adversary. In many respects, India's posture since its first nuclear test in 1974 could be described as one of "minimum deterrence". The knowledge base was established, the institutional framework was in place and the fissile material was known to exist, particularly since the research reactor Dhruva went on stream in 1985. If deterrence is almost entirely a matter of perception, then India had perhaps established its credentials as far back as 1974.

CLEARLY, India now stands in a more aggressive deterrent posture than before. It is not yet evident whether a sense of stable anchorage can be established for this new stance. Deterrence theory, as pointed out by Gen. Lee Butler, America's top nuclear warrior till 1994, is a voracious beast, which acknowledges no rational limits on the size or composition of nuclear arsenals. Far from constraining it, deterrence theory has, in fact, emerged as the most powerful justification of the nuclear arms spiral. Restraint is not inherent in the deterrence principle; appending the qualification of "minimum" does not render it any different. Rather, the possibilities of restraint are to be sought in two other components of the nuclear doctrine - only one of which, however, has been explicitly stated.

Although he has stirred up some apprehensions within the Opposition, Vajpayee has, in firmly indicating that India would sign the CTBT, put an end to weeks of equivocation. The Government's initial position after the nuclear tests on May 11 was that India would be prepared to accede conditionally to certain provisions of the CTBT. Following the second round of tests and the declaration of a moratorium on nuclear tests, a further promise was made to underwrite voluntary restraint with some kind of a de jure commitment.

Vajpayee's most recent statement sheds all ambivalence. He said that the Indian moratorium on nuclear testing reflected the country's commitment to nuclear disarmament and the general will of the international community. This could now be turned into a binding commitment, subject always to revocation if "supreme national interests" dictated such a step.

The phraseology is identical to Article IX of the CTBT, which was inserted at the insistence of the U.S. In striving to establish this identity of interests, Vajpayee has signalled his Government's willingness to accede to the treaty. However, although the suggestion of unconditional compliance is strong, the Government still seems to be holding something in reserve. "Ways and means" of formalising the moratorium on nuclear testing, said the Prime Minister, "are being explored through bilateral discussions with key interlocutors." These dialogues were underpinned by the assurance gained from the recent tests that "India no longer requires to undertake nuclear explosions", leading to the rather happy conclusion from the viewpoint of the Government that India could "maintain the credibility of (its) nuclear deterrent in future without testing."

EUPHEMISMS apart, the only interlocutor involved in the dialogue seems to be the U.S. Although September 1999 is the deadline fixed for the treaty to come into force, the BJP-led Government evidently has a compressed time schedule in mind. During his last round of talks with the Prime Minister's Special Envoy, Jaswant Singh, in New Delhi, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott conceded to the request for time to build up a favourable climate of political opinion for accession to the CTBT. Early accession by India would help the cause of ratification by the U.S. Senate and prevent the collapse of confidence among the many signatories who came on board with little sense of conviction in the treaty's effectiveness as a guarantee of international security.

If accession to the CTBT holds out an assurance that the Indian nuclear arsenal will be frozen in terms of technological sophistication, it still leaves the question of size open. The unstated part of the new nuclear posture comes up at this stage - as a corollary to its new-found commitment to the CTBT, India is also likely to join the negotiations towards a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

The first signals of a positive inclination towards the FMCT negotiations were sent out by the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary, Brajesh Mishra, as early as May 11. It was since banished to the peripheries of the nuclear debate, since public concern focussed almost exclusively on the new attitude towards the CTBT. Crucially, there has been no disavowal since Mishra's first statement. And today, the inherent logic of the situation the BJP-led Government finds itself in compels it to join the FMCT negotiations as an active participant and sponsor.

U.S. Senators Tim Hutchinson (extreme left) and Richard Shelby with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in New Delhi.-V.V. KRISHNAN

As it has been conceived by the Clinton administration in the U.S., it is crucial to appreciate what the FMCT is and what it is not. It is decisively not a disarmament measure. It does impose an upper ceiling on the size of nuclear arsenals across the globe, but at levels that already threaten human survival several times over. It is partly about limiting the quantitative growth of nuclear arsenals, partly about preserving an existing balance of forces. It will put all output of fissile material under a comprehensive system of safeguards, without imposing any such constraints on existing inventories. Finally, it brings into its scope only two kinds of material - plutonium and highly enriched uranium. The fuels used in thermonuclear devices - tritium and deuterium - would remain uncovered.

IF India had kept the faith with the disarmament agenda that it has always advocated - often in solitary isolation, as in the CTBT negotiations of 1996 - then these aspects of the FMCT would have been sufficient to merit its summary rejection. Universal and non-discriminatory - these have been the appellations that India has consistently applied to its demands in international disarmament forums. The FMCT suffers from neither of these attributes. India's willingness to join negotiations is then little else than an act of apostasy. The cause of disarmament has been forgotten. India is now willing to be one among the "responsible" nuclear proliferators who arbitrate on the global balance of power.

The Rand Corporation in 1995 estimated that four nuclear threshold states (India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea) and three technically capable states (Brazil, Argentina and South Africa) have the capacity to produce fissile material adequate to fuel about 220 rudimentary nuclear devices every year. This, said the study, is in addition to the inventories of plutonium and highly enriched uranium that already exist in these countries, which should be sufficient for around 230 bombs. No less than 70 per cent of the existing inventory, the Rand Corporation adds, was accounted for by India and Israel.

In taking into account the spent fuel from nuclear power stations, the Rand Corporation may have overstated its case. Power reactor fuel is known to be less than optimal for nuclear explosive purposes, because of the high level of contamination by unwanted plutonium isotopes. Weapons grade plutonium, rather, has to be produced in custom-designed reactors such as Dhruva and the older Cirus, built with Canadian assistance, both of which are located in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai. An estimate based on the power output of these reactors and their average capacity utilisation factor, would suggest an inventory of plutonium in India that is adequate to fuel about 30 bombs, each of around 10 kilotons yield.

THIS, in effect, is the "minimum deterrent" that India intends to maintain after accession to the CTBT and the conclusion of the FMCT. In addition, if claims of having tested a thermonuclear device at Pokhran are accurate, there are virtually limitless possibilities as far as building a nuclear arsenal is concerned. A limitation would be the availability of fissile material which is required to trigger a thermonuclear explosion. But if India has acquired the capability to extract tritium from the heavy water used in its nuclear power plants, then the leverage available from even this limited inventory of fissile material - in terms of explosive yields - would be enormous.

The deviations from the doctrine of pacifism are sharp and have provoked some dissent. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has stuck to its formulation of the "two no's' - no weaponisation and no accession to the CTBT. India should not sign the CTBT, says the CPI(M), unless it is firmly situated in a context of global disarmament. The Congress has been a bit ambivalent about accession to the CTBT, since the step represents a reversal of priorities verging on crass opportunism. Vajpayee has made a conscious effort to disarm their opposition by invoking the precedent of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963, which put an end to atmospheric nuclear explosive testing. India had then wanted a comprehensive treaty anchored in a global schedule for disarmament. Yet, it went along with a partial measure and became one of the original signatories to the PTBT. That was in the broader national interests then, as accession to the CTBT is now, said Vajpayee.

The case still fails to carry conviction across the political spectrum, although as far as the third prop of the new nuclear doctrine is concerned, there seem to be few reservations. India's unilateral pledge that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any context - and derivatively will assure non-nuclear weapon states of absolute immunity from the nuclear threat - has been generally welcomed. The Government's initial approach was to offer a mutually binding pact with Pakistan, committing both parties to a "no-first use" obligation. But over the weeks since Pokhran, the realisation dawned that Pakistan would never accede to such a pact, since that would neutralise the symmetry established in the nuclear realm and put it back into a status of inferiority in conventional weaponry. The unilateral adoption of a "no-first use" posture is an effort to win back the ethical high ground when strategic advantage has been lost. Yet it is far from apparent that the moral capital squandered with the Pokhran tests will ever be regained.

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.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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