Nuclear Correctness

National Security Adviser (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon was at an Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) meet on August 27 to launch a revived Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for nuclear disarmament. In his speech, he teased the audience with his claim that pre-1998, India faced “explicit or implicit” nuclear coercion on three occasions “to try and change India’s behaviour”.

Making informed guesses, two obvious instances are, of course, the 1971 episode of the Enterprise carrier Task Group with aircraft armed with nuclear ordnance steaming into the Bay of Bengal holding out an explicit threat. Another equally explicit threat was, perhaps, made in 1995 thwarting Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s decision to test. The third instance is the tricky one but it happened, I believe, in 1974 imediately after the first test. Indira Gandhi had approved an open-ended series of underground tests but abruptly cancelled testing after just the first Pokharan explosion on May 11. The question why, had troubled a number of senior nuclear scientists at the time, who were aware that Dr. Homi Bhabha, the nuclear visionary, was killed by an American timed-explosive on board his Geneva-bound flight – which has since been borne out by an admission by the alleged agent who admitted placing the explosive on the plane. Bothe because stopping the Indian Bomb was a Washington priority and it was surprised by the Indian test, an implicit threat was likely conveyed to the Indian government to halt testing or face action. There was no further testing in Indira’s lifetime.

Hard pressure and dire threats have always been part of the Standard Operating Procedure of the nuclear Haves to keep the nuclear club manageably small, and a way of imposing disarmament on the nuclear Have-nots. Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 Action Plan for a nuclear disarmed world was a quaint attempt to replicate Jawaharlal Nehru’s championing nuclear disarmament in the Fifties. Except, Nehru  cleverly sought “general and complete disarmament”, which required all countries to disavow nuclear weapons, of course, disband their conventional militaries, and retain only small constabularies for internal law and order purposes. The thinking behind Nehru’s stratagem was that general and complete disarmament being an unrealistic and unachievable goal, it allowed India to take the moral high-road while providing cover for an India furtively pursuing the weapon option and reaching the weapon threshold by 1964 with the commissioning of the plutonium reprocessing plant in Trombay.

The main difference between the Nehruvian initiative and the Action Plan was that the latter lacked the former’s realpolitik foundations. People around Rajiv Gandhi actually believed that this Plan was a practicable proposition and that nuclear weapon states would rush to zero-out their thermonuclear arsenals as per a definite timetable. The same people, with Rajiv Gandhi’s confidante Mani Shankar Aiyar in the van, are now seeking to revive that Plan at a time when President Barack Obama’s Prague Initiative, eventuating in two nuclear summits in Washington in 2009 and in Seoul two years later, packs far greater international weight and credibility. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been a regular at these summits, and endorsed this U.S.-led effort. With the Indian government on the Obama bandwagon and the nuclear summits trumping the Action Plan, not only does the latter not have a chance, it does not even pack much moral heft that Nehru’s advocacy did 60 years ago. It is rather like a tired, old mare being whipped to go round the track one more time.

As to why Congress party stalwarts, like Aiyar, see political value in reviving the Rajiv Plan, is hard to say, except in terms of trying to remain relevant in a Nehru-Gandhi party because, in the real world, more countries are inching towards the safety and security afforded by nuclear weapons. Actually, with uncertainty and spreading international anarchy, nuclear weapons are a security comforter for nations. In the event, Shiv Shankar Menon’s straight talk on the subject at the ICWA event — “Until we arrive at that happy state [of] a world truly free of nuclear weapons”, India will not disarm — was the firmest official declaration to-date. It also  torpedoed the refloated Action Plan.

Alas, the NSA stuck to the Establishment view revolving around the minimum deterrence concept, which seriously needs to be junked. Derived from this concept is the view that Menon dutifully mouthed, that nuclear weapons are not meant for “war fighting”. Naturally, a small nuclear force cannot perform diverse strategic roles other than try and deter the adversary with threat of “massive retaliation”. But this is a manifestly incorrect take on the military aspects of the Bomb incessantly propagated by the late K. Subrahmanyam. Unfortunately, it has put down deep roots in the higher bureaucratic and military circles.

In the nuclear realm, as in the conventional military sphere, the greater the variety of armaments and more of them that a country has in its nuclear weapons inventory, the larger will be the array of options available to meet different military contingencies, and why is that not preferable to limiting one’s choices?

Because for every incident, the Indian response is “massive retaliation”, it didn’t take Pakistan, for instance, long to work out that it can get away with “small” provocations and, hypothetically, even initiation of low-yield nuclear weapons use on aggressing Indian formations on its own territory because massive retaliation is simply too disproportionate a reply to be credible. This is the reason why “minimum deterrence” and secondary precepts (No First Use, etc.) are worth discarding in substance, if not as rhetoric.

There’s a desperate need, moreover, for a large and diverse arsenal with nuclear weapons in every yield bracket, and tactical doctrines for their use. Deterrence may be the desired end-state, but nuclear war fighting and the Strategic Forces Command practicing and preparing for this eventuality – are the means of enforcing it. Parroting the “not for war fighting” mantra may be the politically correct thing to do, and reassuring to the political leadership, but to actually stick to it would be for India to lose the strategic nuclear game before it begins.

[Published September 13, 2012 in the ‘Asian Age’ at and in the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Strategic Forces Command. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Nuclear Correctness

  1. gururaj says:

    A really thought provoking article. The fact that the government is determined not to unilaterally disarm, a fact stated by the NSA himself, does convey the innate realistic and pragmatic approach that the official stance has now adopted. While the path of universal and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament is ideologically, at least, difficult to dismiss, the fact remains that the world is still far from accepting such idealistic prescriptions. It is a harsh reality that nations respect power and soft power, while powerful in its own way, is not a substitute for hard power. India, a long time proponent of global nuclear disarmament needs to pursue it, however, the realistic paradigm must not be lost sight of.

  2. Jagdish says:

    What chances in probability terms would you give to a BJP led government, that they would junk the IUNCA (at least temporarily) and resume testing?

  3. Jagdish says:

    Also, I have to say this. I do not think the US has or had a realistic intention to take on India conventionally let alone a nuclear threat. They do not have much core interests to protect and know that India would not be a threat. My view is, if tomorrow there is a nuclear exchange between Indian-TSP or with PRC, and even if 500 million in the region have to die, the US and the west shall not intervene and we are all alone. As you have said in the past, when the balloon goes up, no one is sitting alongside us with money, sweat and blood on the line.

    Why was this not clear to our MEA to believe in these threats?

    • Kfir says:

      So what? Even if the worst case scenario “when the balloon goes up”, the Indian coolies would still have the items they cherish the most – the White Man’s “sympathy”, dynastic rule, more scams, and secularism!

  4. Jagdish says:

    Also, can any of these three threats cited by NSA be from PRC or TSP? You are attributing all of these to the US only.

    • It is not enough to make threats — Pakistan has made them by the dozen. Rather, can the country making them realistically implement them, and survive its consequences? That’s the metric.

      • Jagdish says:

        Fair enough. Another question comes up. Where did the NSA get this from? I mean, if it is part of the MEA record, then this would be known to others too. However, it is coming out only now, so maybe it is within the PMO only. What are the chances that the NSA is relying on information from someone who has interpreted these so called three instance of nuclear threats wrongly. After all, these threats would not have been on paper and the US making a direct nuclear threat to pursue a desired policy goal is a little difficult to believe. Not because they are great but because they are not that stupid too.

        So, what are the chances that NSA’s source for this information is not reliable? I ask because the NSA has had some incredible past goof ups.

  5. Goof-ups aside, the fact is communications bearing threats are invariably put down on paper in MEA or some place else, as matter of record, I reckon.

  6. Kfir says:

    What would be the Indian response to (say) a nuclear device triggered on Indian soil by Pakistani “non-state actors”? The NTRO claims it can trace a fallout to the source of the fissile material, but as you perhaps know very well, the NTRO claims a lot of things.

    • For obvious reasons of plausible deniability, sourcing the nukemat to any particular country may be difficult, not impossible, considering NTRO is supposed to have, as part of its nuke forensics capability, built up an adequate data bank. In any case, massive retaliation cannot, for obvious reasons, be the response

      • Kfir says:

        In summary you’re saying Indian deterrence is breached without the “other side” ever having fired a shot!

      • Kfir says:

        Any responsible government would issue a Godfather warning” to forestall such eventualities. However, such base acts would go against the “principles” of the Indian coolies who cherish being lavished with the White Mans “sympathy”, perpetual dynastic rule, more scams, and “secularism”.

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