Nuclear warnings

The Indian government rarely heeds warnings, does not prepare for the worst and when the storm hits, flaps about helplessly and reaches for straws to save itself. At the beginning of the 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration came to power in the US with nuclear non-proliferation on its mind and a one-point agenda of arm-twisting India to sign the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Prime Minister Narasimha Rao parried Washington’s non-proliferation thrusts the best he could and even ordered preparations for nuclear testing. He displayed a better grasp of the evolving strategic situation than the leading members of the strategic community, led by the late K. Subrahmanyam and his acolytes from the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Subrahmanyam and the IDSA group belonging to the school of minimum to non-existent deterrence instead of supporting the government’s inclination to resist, advised signing the CTBT. Recall that episode? We may be heading into an even bigger non-proliferation storm that is brewing in Washington and the government, once again, seems blissfully unaware of it.

A re-elected US President Barack Obama will now push his disarmament initiative unveiled at the 2010 Prague summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which upended the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan doggedly promoted by the Congress Party. The progress on this front is likely to be measured in terms of whether India can be lassoed into the discredited 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) stable. Pressure could begin to build up on New Delhi innocuously enough with talks as follow-up to the nuclear summits that followed the Prague summit in Washington (2010) and Seoul (2012), which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended.

The concept to contain the Indian nuclear deterrent have recently emanated from Western think tanks. The gambit is a semi-official monograph — Less is Better: Nuclear Restraint at Low Numbers authored by Malcolm Chalmers of Britain’s Royal United Service Institute (Rusi). It calls for formally “capping” the quality and quantity of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons at their 20 kiloton fission levels (validated in the 1998 tests) and their numbers well short of the 200 weapons/warheads mark that, Chalmers claims, will be reached by 2025. The idea is to get the two countries to sign the CTBT even if the US does not ratify it. India and Pakistan are also urged to announce “moratoria” on fissile material production without a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty anywhere on the horizon. It is next suggested that because any missile able to reach Europe poses a danger to it, such missiles need to be pre-empted. This will require India to not field missiles such as the advanced Agni-V, which bring almost all target sets within China and, incidentally, most of western Europe within their range. To follow this advice would require India to leave itself exposed and without a counter for the Chinese intermediate range ballistic missiles. This is necessary, Chalmers argues, because China would be unsettled by India’s Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology that will allow a single missile to carry many warheads which, combined with its ballistic missile defence, will pose a counterforce threat to Beijing, for which reason India is to be persuaded to eschew MIRV technology as well. Finally, the Rusi report declares that India and Pakistan “need to demonstrate” that they are “satisfied” nuclear weapons states, meaning, presumably, that India, at least, is content with its present half-baked deterrent that currently has no missiles with long range, no tested weapons beyond the 20 kiloton fission-type, and no MIRV.

The report permits India (and Pakistan) to undertake “system modernisation”, but they would have to forego “enhancements in their nuclear capabilities” — that is, no further testing, no MIRV, no Agni-V, no long-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The expected “concessions” in return for India and Pakistan accepting such “a package of restraint measures” is for the so-called NPT-recognised five nuclear weapon states (N-5) to show some  “transparency” regarding their arsenals. Oh, really? How about the N-5 first divesting themselves of all missiles beyond intermediate range (2,000 km), MIRV, ballistic missile defence, and warheads/weapons above the 20 kiloton fission-type? Why do such Western schemes presume that India would accept lesser nuclear security than they enjoy and, more specifically, why is Rusi confident that this extraordinarily skewed, nearly silly, proposal is something New Delhi may be prevailed upon to accept? Because, in light of the unequal nuclear deal with the US that the Manmohan Singh regime signed without much strategic forethought, the West believes the Indian government is so enfeebled of mind — assuming there is any mind at all animating the country’s policies — that New Delhi can be prodded and pushed, offered encouragement, flattery and blandishments into foregoing its nuclear security imperatives. That, essentially, Indians are saps! After all, which other country has so willingly disempowered itself so frequently? The Rusi report deserves a formal trashing by a junior official in government, lest New Delhi’s non-reaction be taken as room for the West to begin prompting India into nuclear nullity.

The other paper, “The Non-Unitary Model and Deterrence Stability in South Asia”, is by George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who wrote a stilted history of the Indian nuclear programme as viewed through anti-proliferation glasses. His paper insinuates a US role in obtaining “deterrence stability” between India and Pakistan. Deterrence stability is, of course, a good thing, but it is even better were Islamabad to show political will to zero out the danger to its nuclear arsenal by neutralising the Islamic militants rather than concede an intercession by a third party, such as America.

But New Delhi has a track record of running to Washington every time a Pakistan-assisted terrorist incident occurs in India. This has, in fact, now become a habit, a policy crutch for the Indian government to do nothing itself — the first best option. Rarely having fresh ideas of its own in a crisis, it eagerly accepts Washington’s offer to hold back Pakistan and compel it to make symbolic gestures of contrition. Such as the January 12, 2002, televised speech by the then Pakistan President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, vowing to end terrorism emanating from Pakistan in the wake of the December 13, 2001, attack on the Indian Parliament. The Rusi report is based on the assumption that India will buckle. Perkovich has a deterministic take on subconventional incidents inevitably leading to nuclear exchange.

Actually, the “dynamic” he refers to between the two countries, for reasons of organic affinity, results in India being rendered incapable of waging a war of annihilation against Pakistan. The shared kith and kinship ties of a “partitioned community”, common culture and background, and the fear of the “swing vote” wielded by Indian Muslims rule out anything other than “wars of manoeuvre” with Pakistan. For the same reasons, a nuclear exchange the West worries about is even more remote.

[ Published as “Beware! A nuclear storm brewing” in the ‘Asian Age’ Nov 22, 2012 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, China, China military, 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, Indian Politics, Missiles, nonproliferation, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Terrorism, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Nuclear warnings

  1. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    1. I was only able to access the introduction to the above report: which did mention that it would be difficult to get India and Pak to get to agree to any restraint at present unless the U.S, Russia and China agreed to big reductions. I have to read the rest of the report if I can get access to it.

    2. There is an obvious western agenda to contain India’s deterrent in some form or the other. Mostly, however, the ideas being pursued want a single warhead Agni-V to become the final weapon in the Agni series (with changing to SLBMs being OK for them provided we do not test)
    In particular no MIRVs and no further testing seems to be the agenda. This was evident in the writing of many “experts” since April 19, 2012.

    3. If we see the next Agni-V flight early next year, it will be a clear indication that we reject these lectures at least to the extent that they say “no Agni-V”. My guess is that things will build up until the first stage of 200 warheads incl. a few single warhead Agni-V. Whether they go beyond this, I do not know.

    4. One source of hope is this: it is unlikely that further U.S-Russian reductions will take place simply because Russia will insist on keeping its current stockpile, if not building up, indefinitely. Any further movement towards nuclear zero is against Russian interests.

    5. The U.S, and in the long run, China, have a vested interest in a world without nukes: weaker powers will be left vulnerable to their overwhelming conventional strength. Their mil. power thus becomes a stick that they can use more freely in such a scenario.

    6. In particular, as far as we are concerned, universal nuclear disarmament is not even a desirable goal. This is especially true keeping in mind our history of military laxity and keeping in mind that the human propensity for conflict/domination is not going to go away soon.

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