Walking Back Delusional Nuclear Policies

Research article by Bharat Karnad for the Special Issue of the Journal ‘Strategic Analysis’ 
Pages 181-193 | Published online: 08 May 2018


India’s ‘dual use’ nuclear policy has been strung out from the beginning between the peaceful atom and military atom as illustrated in Jawaharlal Nehru’s use of the phrase for the country’s nuclear energy programme—‘Janus-faced’. However, the Indian Government has been too influenced by its own rhetoric of peaceful use to equally emphasise the security aspects that the phrase implied.

While Nehru championed disarmament, he did so in the 1950s in the United Nations’ First Committee as cover for the military capability being developed under Homi Bhabha’s astute leadership. But the myth about disarmament leadership meant that even after Indira Gandhi refrained from signing the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty because it sought to freeze the ‘have and have-not’ divide, Delhi has been pusillanimous about weaponisation but gung-ho about beefing up its non-proliferation credentials by joining or seeking to join the very technology denial regimes (Missile Technology Control Regime, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Wassenar Arrangement, Australia Group) that have victimised the country. The desire to please the US and the West has to end and national security aspects prioritised as all weapons states are doing.

It is time for India to resume nuclear testing to equip the arsenal with proven, reliable and safe thermonuclear weapons/warheads, and limit damage and recover strategic space by ensuring that neither the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty nor the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty happens.

North Korea conducted a successful underground thermonuclear explosion of a staged device on September 2, 2017, and test-fired three Hwasong intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on July 4, July 28 and November 29, 2017, emerging in the process as a credible threat to American allies in Asia and for the first time, to continental US. It is a threat made real by the reputation for unpredictability and ruthlessness that its leader, Kim Jong-un, has cultivated over the years. Jong-un burnished his image some more by boldly calling the 72-year-old US President ‘a mentally deranged dotard’, in response to Donald J. Trump mocking him as ‘rocket man’ and vowing to rain down ‘fire and fury’.1 To show his defiance, Jong-un communicated the possibility of implementing his army’s strike plan to take out the mid-Pacific island of Guam, housing a large US military base.2

Pyongyang used irrationality—an old trope in nuclear deterrence literature—to signal readiness for a nuclear rumble, to deter the US. Pakistan is equally vocal in emphasising its tactical nuclear weapons hoard both as means of absolute security and for quelling such conventional military threat as it believes is posed by the Indian Army’s three strike corps, pivot formations and their ‘Cold Start’ strategy. Islamabad has been equally open about developing warheads of various yields, other than the Nasr short-range rocket, for sea-based and air-launched cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles.Whether the US armed services are cowed by Kim Jong-un’s bluster, or the Indian military impressed by Pakistani warnings of first use is not the point. What is, is the fact that these relatively small and weak states, out of desperation and instinct for survival, grasped the essence of nuclear deterrence which has completely escaped India that has had usable nuclear weapons since 1974 (and formalised by Rajiv Gandhi’s decision in 1988).4 The essence is that an overbearing adversary can be brought to heel if gall is shown, albeit in a declaratory sense, to go first, even if such nuclear initiation would eventually be a suicidal move. Projecting the readiness to give as good as one gets while going down is the obvious way of playing the mind game of strategic deterrence in a weak state–strong state conflict dyad in which nuclear weapons otherwise have no utility.

Twenty years after the Shakti-series of tests in Pokhran, there is little understanding in India about nuclear weapons, and even less about the uses they can be put to. There is no appreciation of the fact that strategic weapons are not for reduction of a tactical-level foe, Pakistan, but for strategically jousting with China and militarily holding off a power superior to India in every respect. As far as Pakistan is concerned, it never was, is not now and can never be a credible conventional or nuclear military threat to India. This much is self-evident, and a point that will not be belaboured here, notwithstanding great amounts of ink expended, metaphorically speaking, on exaggerating a paper-thin threat by think tanks and the academic industry in the West, particularly the US and imitatively, in India. These experts are mostly mis-adapting Cold War notions to the subcontinent and creating more alarm about ‘a nuclear flashpoint’ than clarity.5

India has been on the wrong track from the start, believing that its nuclear reticence is a political virtue that has created diplomatic leverage and somehow elevated the country as a morally ‘responsible’ state, a cut above the North Koreas and Pakistans of the world.6

The truth, however, is that the Indian Government has hobbled the country’s strategic deterrent by:

  1. not actualising a weapons capability when its ‘Janus-faced’ nuclear energy programme reached the weapons threshold in Spring 1964;

  2. not carrying on with open-ending testing, after the first test in May 1974 to obtain fully fledged nuclear weaponisation;

  3. repeating this strategic mistake 25 years later by announcing a ‘voluntary moratorium’ on tests in 1998 despite information available to the government that the weaponised thermonuclear device that was tested was a dud;

  4. fixating politically on minimum deterrence and No First Use;

  5. making public the draft nuclear doctrine and thereby exposing the Indian Government to increased US-directed international pressure to reveal more, be more transparent and to further minimise the nuclear deterrent;

  6. not periodically revising the doctrine in line with the country’s evolving weapons technology and capability;

  7. signing the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the US predicated on India not resuming nuclear testing; and

  8. not using the ample provocations offered by China’s aggressive moves (pre- and post-Doklam) and the China-fuelled North Korean fusion test and Pakistani nuclear build-up as political cover for resuming hydrogen weapon tests. These tests are important, especially for the Indian military, to secure proven and tested thermonuclear and fission weapons of varying weight-to-yield ratios for different missions ranging from city-busting strategic to tactical weapons for battlefield use.

Rethinking the basic disarmament-non-proliferation thrust of nuclear policy is a must. To do so requires jettisoning strongly held but historically suspect views, puncturing a few delusional beliefs and walking back some of the less productive notions lovingly held and nurtured by the Indian policy establishment, military and the academe and more realistically reorienting India’s nuclear weapons policy and posture.

Pet delusions

India’s nuclear weapons policy is studded with unsupportable views that need debunking to free it of its disarmament-non-proliferation shackles: First is the view that Jawaharlal Nehru’s advocacy of a ‘standstill’ agreement on nuclear testing was instrumental in obtaining the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) prohibiting atomic testing in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater.7 The disarmament-non-proliferation slant of Indian foreign policy thus got linked to virtuous behaviour and to promoting a universal good that was its own best justification. The truth: it was President John F. Kennedy’s concurring with his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, that restricting the Soviet Union to underground testing would keep its weapons programme lagging behind America’s that did the trick. Russia had out-exploded the US. The 60-megaton ‘Tsar Bomba’ in October 1961 dwarfed the US’ 15 MT ‘Castle Bravo’ shot in the Bikini Atoll in March 1954.Second, it is often held that Indira Gandhi’s use of America’s ‘Plowshare programme’ as screen for India’s first nuclear test in 1974 was clever statecraft. After all, labelling the Pokhran explosion as ‘peaceful’ hoist the US with its own petard and retained for the Indian nuclear energy programme its connection to the idea of a ‘peaceful atom’. Western analysts argue that the idea that atomic devices could be used to dig canals, tunnels, etc. had a ‘pernicious’ effect because something so obviously of military utility was passed off as benign.9 Its negative impact on Indian policy was graver still because the nonsense about ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ got so internalised that it reinforced thereafter the supposed peaceful nature of Indian nuclear activity, undermined the deterrence value of the test and reinforced inhibitions against further testing that took 25 years to overcome. And it spawned nuclear regressivism in the nuclear community, throwing up leaders such as R. Chidambaram, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who as science and technology adviser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi minimised the need for testing and in effect, has saddled India with the pretensions of a thermonuclear weapon power without proven thermonuclear weapons in the arsenal.

Third is the view that Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 ‘Action Plan’ for time-bound disarmament created ripples when in reality it was generally ignored in international circles when not dismissed outright as a quixotic attempt at reviving the international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons. Its insistence that the Big Five draw down their nuclear arms stockpiles to zero within a negotiated time frame had as much chance of realisation as Nehru’s campaign for ‘general and complete disarmament’ of the 1950s. It encouraged the unreconstructed disarmers, mainly within the Congress Party, into righteous frenzy, even though ‘Ban the Bomb’, as Harold Macmillan, the British Foreign Secretary, noted in his diary in the early 1950s is ‘a syllogism’—‘If we abolish the nuclear bomb (which has abolished war) shall we not bring back war?’10It inflicted damage in terms of Indian foreign policy that was getting unmoored from an ideological interpretation of Nehruvian moralpolitik becoming schizoid. After all, Rajiv Gandhi that same year formally approved weaponisation.11

And, finally, the extraneous baggage of morality attached to Indian nuclear weapons and the confusion attending on it meant that when the country came out of the nuclear closet, its deterrence rationale was fated to be minimalist. The minimum deterrence trap is particularly insidious because it is premised on the fallacious belief that given the scale of destruction a few nuclear weapons are as effective as many nuclear weapons to deter even a powerful adversary. It permits the political class and government to have a hands-off attitude, leaving it to nuclear scientists, such as Chidambaram, with little knowledge of military deterrence and nuclear deterrence history and literature, to decide the country’s nuclear stance. Moreover, what also gets ignored is the fact that like any other technology, nuclear weapons and nuclear command, control and communications, too, need to be continually modernised to remain relevant. And, for this purpose, the country needs to have technology to refine weapons designs short of explosive testing, such as the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Testing facility, which has so far been deemed unnecessary.

In the new century, the three countries with the largest, most lethal nuclear weapons inventories—the US, Russia and China—are re-legitimating the Bomb as an instrument of military coercion and foreign policy leverage. Alexei Arbatov, the former deputy chairman of the Defence Committee of the Russian Duma, after surveying the international security landscape was the first to announce the ‘end of history for nuclear arms control’.12 The prevailing circumstances constitute a crisis and ‘may quite possibly result’, he concluded glumly, ‘in the total disintegration of the existing framework of treaties and regimes’.13 It is in this context that India’s support for the extant non-proliferation order makes so little sense and needs re-examining.

A brief history of the evolution of India’s nuclear policy and capability

Realpolitik is obviously the propellant of non-proliferation policies, treaties and regimes promoted by the five Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-legitimated weapons states (P-5). Nothing has transpired and no initiative has succeeded in the non-proliferation realm that hasn’t safeguarded the P-5’s strategic interests. Nehru was on to this big power game before anybody else and accordingly fashioned his approach. While vociferously advocating a testing ban as a step towards nuclear disarmament, which kept the weapons states on the back foot, and muted suspicions about what India was up to in the nuclear field, he laid the foundations for a ‘Janus-faced’ Indian programme capable equally of producing nuclear power plants and bombs. It reached the weapons threshold in March 1964 with the commissioning of the plutonium reprocessing unit in Trombay. It was a remarkably nuanced and sophisticated foreign policy that used disarmament advocacy as political screen for nuclear weapons capacity building and reflected the realist precepts of international affairs mostly missing from Indian foreign and nuclear policy post-Nehru.14

The 1974 atomic test ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for example, instead of leading logically to open-ended testing and speedy weaponisation ended in the follow-on tests she had approved being abruptly cancelled, leaving India to face the worst possible situation—economic and technology sanctions, no nuclear arsenal to fend off politico-military pressure and no means to force an entry into the nuclear weapons club. She took this decision to stave off termination of Western aid. Henry Kissinger later admitted that Washington was in no real position then to prevent India from securing a nuclear arsenal and forcing an entry into the nuclear weapons club had Delhi proceeded with nuclear force build-up.15 But loss of nerve, infirm will and the sheer ignorance about the political utility of nuclear weapons have, ever since, been the constant companions of India’s nuclear policy.

The non-proliferation peril became real during the Janata Party interregnum when, motivated by his Gandhian belief in nonviolence, Prime Minister Morarji Desai seemed intent on signing the 1968 NPT. His muddle-headed External Affairs Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, inadvertently assisted the prime minister’s moves, expertly orchestrated from the outside by the US Ambassador Robert Goheen, that almost sprang the non-proliferation trap on India. A mixture of luck, Desai’s bullheadedness and plucky rearguard action by M. A. Vellodi, secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), involving inspired bureaucratic flummery pre-empted a denouement the country would, in hindsight, have hugely regretted (on the same scale as Shah Reza Pahlavi’s signing this treaty is hindering present-day Iran’s crossing the nuclear Rubicon to pre-empt US arm-twisting).16

The demise of the Soviet Union and the approaching fin de siècle reignited the cause of a nuclear weapons-free world, this time spurred by the millennial hope that the better angels of our collective nature would dictate national policies. That, of course, didn’t happen. Rather, the hard calculations of advantaging national interest prevailed. However flimsy such a hope, it was reflected in Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 Action Plan for time-bound disarmament that was submitted to the United Nations General Assembly. It was the last, flickering, attempt by the ruling Congress Party to reconnect India with the public activism for nuclear disarmament by Nehru, whose subsurface strategic purpose was largely missing from Rajiv Gandhi’s thinking. It was only the evidence of Pakistan reaching the weapons threshold seminally helped by Chinese nuclear materials, weapons design and Washington’s deliberate inattention—the price that General Zia ul-Haq extracted for helping the US fight the Soviet occupation troops in Afghanistan with the mujahideen—that convinced Rajiv Gandhi to go overt with nuclear arming India.

Another shot in exactly the opposite direction to the Action Plan, the Indefinite Extension of the NPT in 1995 succeeded, however, in legally cementing the unfair and unequal international nuclear order of the haves and have-nots for the new century dominated by the P-5.17 As a non-signatory to the NPT but as observer at the Review Conference (RevCon) in New York, India could have played the spoiler from the sidelines, and roused the non-nuclear weapons states on the issue of the P-5 failure over three decades to be in compliance with Article VI requiring substantive progress towards disarmament. Except a deal was cut with the US—India stood aside as the NPT was indefinitely extended in return for the lifting of the technology sanctions.

Tensions nevertheless increased after the Indefinite Extension agreement when the US and the West began ratcheting up pressure on New Delhi to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Thus, in 1996, India once again came perilously close to permanently shackling its weapons programme by sacrificing the testing option. Pushed by external powers and prodded internally by the leading lights of the Indian strategic policy enclave—the late K. Subrahmanyam, the late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (Retd.) and Chidambaram, the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission—the Indian Government inclined towards signing the CTBT.18 Chidambaram’s view that testing was unnecessary, as computer simulation would suffice for fashioning credible warheads/weapons was apparently persuasive. Fortunately, H. D. Deve Gowda, a prime minister with common sense, decided it was a bad idea strategically to hobble the country this way, and nixed the deal.

The contrafactual advocacy of crafting a nuclear arsenal without carrying out any tests disappeared from the public discourse, however, once it became clear that the incoming Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Vajpayee was bent on resuming nuclear tests. The same opinion leaders who had opposed testing, in the aftermath of the 1998 tests, now tom-tommed ‘minimum deterrence’, the need to keep nuclear forces small and to join the international mainstream by giving up testing—ideas subscribed to by the then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra. Thereafter history repeated itself, this time as tragedy. Additional underground tests to obtain fully proven and certifiable fission and fusion weapons of various yield-to-weight ratios and for different and distinct missions would have been the reasonable way to proceed. However, to pacify the US and the West and forestall the inevitable economic-technology squeeze, Vajpayee, like Indira Gandhi before him, shut down the testing option by announcing a ‘voluntary moratorium’. This was despite the initial evidence conveyed to the government by K. Santhanam, director (field tests) at the Pokhran test site, that the staged fusion device had fizzled, and that the country needed to test again.19  India’s show of ‘restraint’ resulted in the ‘strategic dialogue’ between Jaswant Singh and the US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, and the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership (NSSP).20 The NSSP paved the way for the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the US promoted by the Congress party government of Manmohan Singh as the means to deliver ‘20,000 MW by 2020’ via imported reactors, and predicated on India’s sticking to its moratorium decision. It left the integrity of the country’s nuclear energy programme in tatters, with the surge production capacity of weapon-grade plutonium (WgPu) eliminated, and all but eight of the pressurised heavy water reactors finding themselves in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards net.

More worryingly, the Indian nuclear energy programme was diverted from the plutonium path promising energy sufficiency envisaged by the 1955 three-stage Bhabha Plan based on India’s thorium reserves—estimated as the world’s largest. This Plan emphasising pressurised heavy water reactors, breeder reactors and thorium reactors in the three stages to achieve energy independence was upended. Several downsides of importing low enriched uranium fuel-run reactors were pointed out in the public campaign against the Indo-US nuclear deal. Chief among them: the country would be converted into an energy dependency; its policies would become hostage to US whims and interests; and the in-built dissuader-mechanism of unaffordable economic costs would keep India from testing again. This last drawback was not fully understood, and has to do with Indian tests triggering (1) the cessation of fuel supply, spares and service support, and rendering waste tens of billions of dollars-worth of imported light water reactors; and (2) bringing the industrial zones dependent on this energy to a grinding halt with thousands of megawatts of electricity going off the grid. Such considerations did not apparently figure in the Manmohan Singh government’s decision to accept the nuclear deal.21

The Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) negotiations meanwhile got stuck in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (CD) on Pakistan’s insistence, unacceptable to every other country, that the current weapon states disclose the size of, and account for, their total fissile material production. Needing rapidly to enlarge its WgPu holdings to merely stay in place in the context of the rapid nuclear force modernisation/augmentation programmes underway in the P-5 states, Islamabad’s obstructionist tactics served, and continue to serve, India’s interests well, especially as Delhi bears no onus for the works being thus gummed up.22 In case Islamabad is coerced into abandoning its opposition to the FMCT, India should don the mantle and ensure this treaty does not get out of the CD.

The above riff on Indian policy indicates that in the nuclear weapons-related policy fields, balancing national security and the cost of opposing the big powers has too often led New Delhi to err on the side of pacifying the US and the rest of the NPT-ordained nuclear order. Rather than steadfastly advancing the country’s nuclear security and national interest, the Indian Government under alternating BJP and Congress party dispensations has sought to avoid confrontation, curtail the country’s latitude for action, and hew to self-imposed restraint on its nuclear weapons-making capability. This when a more assertive stance would serve the country’s strategic interests better by equipping India to face nuclear crises in which megaton weapons give China marked psychological edge.23

Moreover, the P-5 arms control measures only minimally affect their own weapons capability, and are geared to supporting actions and forging legal instruments to restrain adversary states, non-signatory states and threshold states. This record reveals why New Delhi needs to curb its lingering enthusiasm for nuclear non-proliferation, and adopt the position of shadow-boxing around the issue and agreeing on innocuous steps in lieu of genuine progress towards ‘nuclear zero’ while continually upgrading Indian nuclear weapon designs and production facilities, nuclear forces and associated infrastructure. And why the Indian Government ought to restrict the country’s exposure to imported nuclear reactors and recommit to the Bhabha Plan to restore its energy autonomy. In trying to balance the political and economic costs of importing reactors by approving in mid-2017 the construction of 10 indigenous 700 MWe pressurised reactors to nearly double the nuclear energy production, Prime Minister Modi may ensure that the indigenous stream is underfunded because there simply isn’t enough financial capacity to afford both.24 If the Indian Government still needed to be convinced to be, from here on, no part of any non-proliferation or regional arms control campaign, then the self-serving shenanigans of the P-5 at the 2015 RevCon would have provided proof.

The RevCon scene

The five-yearly NPT RevCon in New York, April 27–May 22, 2015, came and went without creating a stir, which about sums up the prospects for meaningful arms control, leave alone disarmament, in the new century. Predictably, the biggest rift at the meet was caused by two issues—the always contentious Article VI of the NPT and Egypt’s insistence on convening a conference to negotiate a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone within a specified time frame but without a prior conference to agree on a consensus agenda.25 The opposition to it by the US, Canada and other countries led for the first time to the absence of a consensus Final Document at the end of the conference.26 It will be a hard act to live down and may in fact be the beginning of the formal unravelling of the NPT regime.27 

In contrast, the so-called ‘Humanitarian Pledge’ submitted by Austria was endorsed by 109 states, supported by another 50 states, and polarised the conference attended by 188 NPT signatory states, as it demanded that the P-5 meet their Article VI obligations.28 The P-5 are unlikely to relent, however, thereby pushing off the prospect of verifiable disarmament to the indeterminate future, but will try and mollify the more technologically capable signatory states by other means, and continue pressing the non-signatory states, such as India, to refrain from testing just so the CTBT does not blow up and the NPT regime does not come tumbling down. In fact, the offline Western disarmament endeavours such as the ‘Canberra Commission’ study propagated just this line of action.29 In its 300-odd pages, it nowhere explains why Ukraine (or Iran, or North Korea or Pakistan) are wrong in believing that possessing nuclear weapons deters military adventures against them.

Weapons state shenanigans

As long as the Islamic State lasted, terrorists as nuclear menace held sway.30 Western nuclear policies began orientating against this presumed threat with missions conceived for precision nuclear weapon strikes to take out Islamic State strongholds and prevent terrorists from capturing and using nuclear devices and credibly mustering ‘dirty bomb’ threats.31 Russia sees value in refurbishing the Russian strategic forces and renewing military rivalry with the US to revive its international standing and status.32 Post-Crimea, the US–Russian tussle has taken a combative turn.33 The two big powers are racing to upgrade their nuclear weaponry under the rubric of disarming themselves, a lead that other nuclear weapons states—China, UK and France—quickly followed. Former US President Barack Obama extolled the world of ‘nuclear zero’ and proposed a decade-long US nuclear modernisation programme costing some $355 billion, and a trillion dollars over the next 30 years. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), conveniently for the US and Russia, does not require them to actually get rid of any nuclear armaments but only to curb the numbers of missiles deployed on land or sea to 1,550 each by 2018. What the two powers actually decommissioned or destroyed in the past decades were old, unreliable weapons/warheads that for safety reasons would have been phased out anyway. The replacements are advanced warheads, missiles, nuclear submarines, new-generation strategic bombers and even nuclear torpedo. Not to be left behind, China has built up its Second Artillery Strategic Forces to the 250 nuclear weapons/warheads level.34 Further, the leading nuclear powers are fusing their nuclear arsenals with cyber warfare capabilities and unsettling notions of deterrence.35

Nearer home, Pakistan’s 130 nuclear weapons-strong and rapidly growing arsenal has for many years outpaced the Indian holdings of some 110-odd nuclear weapons.36 While New Delhi goes out of its way to downplay the danger from China, Beijing justifies the increase in, and modernisation of, its nuclear forces by referring to India’s supposed strengthening of its strategic wherewithal.37 ‘Supposed’ because all India has done is infrequently fire off Agni-5 missiles that the Indian media insists on mislabelling as an ICBM which, at 5,000 km range, it is not. Moreover, all the test launches of this intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) will not guarantee that the warheads with yields above the 20 KT level, which alone is tested and proven, will work. Short of a resumption of testing, doubts will continue to swirl around the thermonuclear warheads on Indian missiles. In the wake of the 1998 tests, Chidambaram had stated that India would need to conduct more tests within a decade. But in 2008, the Indian Government foreclosed the country’s testing option with the signing of the civilian nuclear cooperation deal.

Elsewhere, the pumped-up great power tensions legitimated the nuclear augmentation drives in Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, while other nuclear capable Asian states pondered nuclear weapons as the answer to their security concerns revolving around a relentlessly abrasive China. With Article IX of its ‘peace Constitution’ amended, a nuclear weaponised Japan may emerge, possibly followed by other Asian states.Taken in totality, the international arms control and disarmament scene today does seem like ‘an outdated charade’.39

The hopelessness of arms control

In the wake of the 2015 NPT RevCon it is hard to see any glimmer of light at the end of the disarmament tunnel. ‘The notion that we can abolish nuclear weapons’, noted the late James Schlesinger, former nuclear strategist and US Secretary of Defense, ‘is like the [1929] Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war as an instrument of national policy … It’s not based upon an understanding of reality.’40 This is the big power view, whence no serious effort can be expected by the P-5 to disarm themselves to convince other states to do the same.

By any reckoning, the balance sheet on nuclear arms reduction is bleak with no real progress on the disarmament front but ample proof of P-5 backsliding. It should induce caution in the Indian policy establishment that is always ready to compromise to please the US in the guise of furthering the cause of a nuclear weapons-free world, which is a foolhardy thing to do.41 Prudence dictates that India emulates the P-5—say what they say, and do as they do. This is the way to vigilantly serve, protect and advance the national interest.

India’s path ahead

In hindsight, other than Nehru’s dual-purpose nuclear energy programme, the best decision the Indian Government made was not to sign the NPT, because that would not just have written finis to India’s self-reliant nuclear energy future but, by keeping nuclear weapons out of India’s hands, also ended India’s great power ambitions. It proves that not being part of the herd, going it alone if need be, is not a bad policy to follow. By the same token, the worst thing the Indian Government has done in the last decade is agree short-sightedly to the 2008 nuclear deal with the US. That this deal has, a decade later, not delivered on its basic promise of affording India ‘the rights and privileges of a nuclear weapons state’ should have given the Modi government pause. Instead, it joined the various technology denial regimes—Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenar Arrangement, and is seeking membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)—thereby giving up the residual leverage that would have accrued from retaining the freedom to sell its indigenously developed nuclear and missile technologies outside the ambit of these accords. We know what is coming down the pike—the decision by the Indian Government to buy six units each of the French Areva light water reactor and of the Westinghouse AP 1000 light water reactor, which last the US Nuclear Regulatory Authority has had trouble certifying for safety reasons and will be a high-risk liability. Worse, Indian consumers will end up having to purchase exorbitantly priced energy from these imported reactors.42

The Indian Government should also make it plain it will not ratify the CTBT under any circumstances short of its own weapons inventory achieving a military-certified status, which will not be possible without open-ended testing, and of the P-5 delivering on the NPT Article VI commitments by zeroing out their nuclear arms inventories on a verifiable basis. And it should recommit to the Bhabha Plan, speedily bringing on stream the breeder and thorium reactors along with the 700 MWe PWRs, while skittering away from buying the French and US reactors. In parallel, it should begin exporting indigenously developed technologies in the three fuel cycles—uranium, plutonium and potentially thorium—it has gained proficiency in. It is incomprehensible that the Indian Government, by imputing too great a value to the NSG membership and seeking acclaim for its restraint, has failed to exercise its inherent right and freedom commercially to sell indigenously produced nuclear materials and locally developed technologies, such as the INDU reactors, which the IAEA has recognised as a new, different and more efficient genus of PWRs, to friendly countries of strategic import to India, such as Vietnam. There is nothing barring such transactions except New Delhi’s pusillanimity.

Indeed, an active programme of exports of nuclear goods will more quickly ease India’s entry into the P-5 club on the principle pithily enunciated by the US President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s that it is better to have a nuclear capable country, such as India, ‘in the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in’! All that India’s submissive attitude and pleadings and supplications have fetched it so far is diplomatic manipulation, finger wagging and counsels of patience by the US and other P-5 states. Why the NSG membership on US terms is so prized is unclear. China’s success in this arena points to success emanating from precisely the opposite policy tack, namely ‘bad boy’ proliferant behaviour. By challenging the existing global nuclear order with policies brazenly transferring nuclear material, technology and expertise especially to the so-called ‘rogue states’ (Pakistan, North Korea, Iran), Beijing has obtained the power to calibrate the resulting turbulence and turmoil, setting itself up thus as an inalienable part of both the problem and of the solution. It has gained enormous diplomatic leverage as mediator with North Korea, and has led to China vaulting into the great power ranks.43 On the issue of new tests to obtain safe and reliable thermonuclear weaponry, the Indian Government has since 1998 been paralysed, unable to summon the courage and the political will to resume testing despite China’s aggressive military posturing and the North Korean tests disrupting the international security situation, providing both strategic provocation and political excuse for such an Indian decision. Lacking boldness and gumption, Delhi can do the next best thing: prepare to resume nuclear testing at an instant’s notice because it is only a matter of time before something gives in the growing US–Russia and US–China military stand-offs, with all these parties racing to upgrade and technologically improve the strategic armaments in their employ. Once India resumes testing, it should be on an open-ended basis to reassure the military end-users that the fission and fusion weapons they fire will in fact work as advertised—confidence the Strategic Forces Command presently lacks!

The danger to the country in the arms control field is the Indian Government’s delusional belief that India is some kind of leader on disarmament issues. In any case, what Delhi decides to do or not do will have no great effect other than crippling India’s own strategic deterrent. Hence, it is foolhardy for the Indian Government to assume either a leadership role or be tempted into conceding more and more to prove its ‘responsible state’ credentials, as it has time and again been lured into doing. It does not strategically or diplomatically pay for a nuclear weapons state with, international law-wise indeterminate status, such as India, to take the lead on any arms control or disarmament issue lest, as the record shows, it redound to the country’s disbenefit. Recall that Nehru’s moralising on nuclear weapons in the 1950s was used to pressure India into joining the NPT and, in the case of the nuclear deal with the US, into accepting IAEA safeguards on most of the dual-use capacity.

The Indian Government should also bear in mind that technological developments relevant to its nuclear weapons have irrevocably changed the policy and negotiating baseline for India. Thus, even interim measures such as de-mating warheads and rockets/missiles are now defunct given the ongoing canisterisation of Indian nuclear missile systems, which requires hermetic sealing of ready-to-fire nuclear warheads. Whether anybody likes it or not, with canisterised nuclear weapons India has attained launch-on-warning (LOW) capability, and a secure, invulnerable second strike capability with the autonomously operating Arihant and Arighat SSBNs joining fleet service.44  The Indian Government’s thinking and the Indian nuclear doctrine stressing only retaliation have still to catch up to these developments.

With canisterised Agni missiles, canvassing for a de-alerting agreement and an international No First Use convention would be to set a trap for ourselves. The 2013 Congress Party government initiative in this regard should, therefore, be quickly and quietly buried.45 India’s qualified support for the draft FMCT is equally problematical. For instance, the Indian representative in the Conference on Disarmament stated that ‘without prejudice to the priority we attach to nuclear disarmament, we support the negotiation in the Conference on Disarmament of an FMCT that meets India’s national security interests’.46 Except, in this construction ‘disarmament’ and ‘national security interests’ undercut each other. It will serve India’s purposes better to issue a statement akin to Pakistan’s—asking only for a global nuclear order that is ‘equitable and non-discriminatory’. Such an anodyne position preserves maximum space to grow and qualitatively improve the Indian nuclear forces, and permits Delhi the freedom to shape the regional and international nuclear orders and agreements to, for a change, suit India’s strategic interests.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.



1. Abby Philip, ‘Trump Trades Insults with “Mad Man” North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’, The Washington Post, September 22, 2017, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/09/22/trump-warns-that-madman-north-korean-leader-kim-jong-un-will-be-tested/?utm_term=.7eae7908b4cb.

2. Katrina Manson and Bryan Harris, ‘North Korea Threatens Guam after Trump “Fire and Fury” Vow’, Financial Times, August 9, 2017, at https://www.ft.com/content/5564982c-7c6c-11e7-9108-edda0bcbc928.

3. ‘Pakistan Developing New Types of Nuclear Weapons, Warns US Intel Chief’, News18.com, February 14, 2014, at http://www.news18.com/news/india/pakistan-developing-new-types-of-nuclear-weapons-warns-us-intel-chief-1660067.html;Urooj Jawed, ‘Pakistan Has Developed Short-range Nuclear Weapons to Counter India’s “Cold Start” Doctrine: PM Abbasi’, Express Tribune, September 21, 2017, at https://tribune.com.pk/story/1512301/pakistan-developed-short-range-nuclear-weapons-counter-indias-cold-start-doctrine-pm-abbasi/.

4. Bharat Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy, Second edition, Macmillan, New Delhi, 2005, ch. 3.

5. Bharat Karnad, ‘South Asia: The Irrelevance of Classical Deterrence Theory’, India Review, 4 (2), 2005, at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14736480500225640.

6. For a detailed analysis of the Beijing-primed rogue nuclear triad of China–Pakistan–North Korea, see Bharat Karnad, ‘Countering the Rogue Nuclear Triad of China, Pakistan, and North Korea’, The Wire, July 25, 2016, at https://thewire.in/53338/countering-the-rogue-nuclear-triad-of-china-pakistan-north-korea/.

7. Bharat Karnad, no. 4, pp. 227–228.

8. Ibid., ch. 2.

9. Michael Barletta, ‘Pernicious Ideas in World Politics: “Peaceful Nuclear Explosions” ’, Monterrey Institute of International Studies, 2001, at http://web.mst.edu/~rogersda/umrcourses/ge342/Miltary%20Geo%20Presentations/Nick%20Nazarko/Swords%20Into%20Plowshares/019013BarlettaMi.pdf.

10. Peter Caterall (ed.), The Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years 1950–1957, Pan Books, London, 2003, p. 447.

11. Mani Shankar Aiyar, ‘Failing to Take the Lead’, Indian Express, October 27, 2016, at http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/failing-to-take-the-lead-3104485/.

12. Alexei Arbatov, ‘Protecting Nuclear Sanity’, Defense News, June 15, 2015, at www.defensenews.com/story/defense/commentary/2015/06/15/commentary-protecting-nuclear-sanity/71262990/; Alexei Arbatov, An Unnoticed Crisis: The End of History for Nuclear Arms Control?, Carnegie Moscow Center, Moscow, June 2015.

13. Alexei Arbatov, Unnoticed Crisis, no. 12.

14. Bharat Karnad, no. 4, ch. 3.

15. Ibid., pp. 278–331.

16. Ibid., pp. 332–340.

17. Ibid.

18. Bharat Karnad, ‘The Quality of “Expert” Advice’, Seminar, 444, August 1996.

19. See Ajaz Ashraf and Pranay Sharma, ‘The Myth Bomber: An Interview with K. Santhanam’, Outlook, October 9, 2009, at https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/the-myth-bomber/262027. And, more importantly, for a refutation on the basis of physics by Dr. P.K. Iyengar, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), who initiated the thermonuclear programme of R. Chidambaram’s and the Department of Atomic Energy’s claims about the ‘success’ of the fusion test (S1) in 1998, see P.K. Iyengar, ‘Non-fissile Doubts’, Outlook, October 26, 2009, at https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/non-fissile-doubts/262331.

20. Ibid., pp. 92, 151. For an account of the Jaswant–Talbott talks, see Strobe Talbott, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, And the Bomb, rev. ed., Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 2006.

21. P.K. Iyengar, A.N. Prasad, A. Gopalakrishnan and Bharat Karnad, Strategic Sell-out: Indian–US Nuclear Deal, Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2009.

22. Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, Praeger Security International, Westport and London, 2008, pp. 93, 133.

23. Bharat Karnad, no. 4.

24. Anil Sasi and Amitabh Sinha, ‘Govt Clears 10 New Nuclear Reactors in Big Power Push’, Indian Express, May 18, 2017, at http://indianexpress.com/article/india/govt-clears-10-new-nuclear-reactors-in-big-power-push-4660869/.

25. Paul R. Pillar, ‘A Missed Nonproliferation Opportunity’, National Interest, June 9, 2015, at http://nationalinterest.org/print/blog/paul-pillar/missed-nonproliferation-opportunity-12967.

26. See Rose Gottemoeller, US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, ‘Remarks at the Conclusion of the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference’, United Nations, New York City, May 22, 2015, at https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/us/2015/242778.htm.

27. The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) called the impasse only a ‘midlife crisis’. See ‘NPT Review: Failure Underlines Challenges ahead’, IISS Strategic Comments, 21 (15), June 04, 2015, at https://www.iiss.org/en/publications/strategic%20comments/sections/2015-1f4d/npt-review-failure-underlines-challenges-ahead-2d2e.

28. See Rose Gottemoeller, no. 27.

29. Gareth Evans, Tanya Ogilvie-White and Ramesh Thakur, Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015, Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University, Canberra, 2015, p. ix, at https://cnnd.crawford.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publication/cnnd_crawford_anu_edu_au/2015-02/printer_copy.pdf.

30. James Schlesinger warned in 2009 about ‘the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States’. See Melanie Kirkpatrick, ‘Why We Don’t Want a Nuclear-Free World’, Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2009, at http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124726489588925407; Adam Withnall, ‘Isis’s Dirty Bomb: Jihadists Have Seized Enough Radioactive Material to Build Their First WMD’, Independent, June 10, 2015.

31. The US, British and French governments expressly adduced the terrorist threat as rationale for their nuclear forces. See Bharat Karnad, no. 22, ch. 1.

32. Russia’s National Security Strategy and Military Doctrine and their Implications for the EU, Directorate General for External Policies, Policy Department, European Parliament, February 2017, at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/IDAN/2017/578016/EXPO_IDA%282017%29578016_EN.pdf.

33. ‘European War Games: Responses to Russian Military Drills’, Stratfor Worldview, May 5, 2015 at https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/european-war-games-responses-russian-military-drills.

34. John Mecklin, ‘Disarm and Modernize’, Foreign Policy, March/April 2015, pp. 54–59. On the modernisation imperative, see ‘Modernizing Nuclear Arsenals: Whether and How’, Development and Disarmament Round Table, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 2015, at http://thebulletin.org/modernizing-nuclear-arsenals-whether-and-how7881.

35. Andrew Futter, ‘The Dangers of Using Cyber Attacks to Counter Nuclear Threats’, Arms Control Today, 46, July/August 2016, at https://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2016_07/Features/The-Dangers-of-Using-Cyberattacks-to-Counter-Nuclear-Threats.

36. Ashley Tellis, ‘China, India, and Pakistan—Growing Capabilities with No End in Sight’, Testimony before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, February 25, 2015, at http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/02/25/china-india-and-pakistan-growing-nuclear-capabilities-with-no-end-in-sight.

37. Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015, Annual Report to Congress, Office of Secretary of Defence, US Department of Defence, Washington, DC, April 7, 2015, p. 31 at http://www.defense.gov/pubs/2015_China_Military_Power_Report.pdf.

38. Bharat Karnad, no. 22, pp. 29–32. For a belated recognition of the emerging ‘nuclear crowd’ nuclear reality, see the recent National Bureau of Asian Research ‘Round Table’—‘Approaching Critical Mass: Asia’s Multipolar Nuclear Future’, Asian Policy, 19, January 2015.

39. John Mecklin, no. 34, p. 55.

40. See Melanie Kirkpatrick, no. 30.

41. For a fuller exposition of the argument that disarmament has no future, see Bharat Karnad, ‘Banning Nuclear Weapons: A Hollow Exercise’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 10, 2014; Bharat Karnad, ‘Diagnosis: Tlatelolco-itis’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 25, 2014; Bharat Karnad, ‘Riding the Moral Hobbyhorse’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, August 15, 2014; ‘Ban the Bomb?’, Development and Disarmament Round Table, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July–August 2014, at http://thebulletin.org/ban-bomb7303.

42. Suhasini Haider, ‘Forging a New Nuclear Deal’, The Hindu, February 3, 2018, at http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/forging-a-new-nuclear-deal/article22637628.ece.

43. See Bharat Karnad, no. 6.

44. Sandeep Unnithan, ‘A Peek into India’s Top Secret and Costliest Defence Project, Nuclear Submarines’, India Today, December 10, 2017, at https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/the-big-story/story/20171218-india-ballistic-missile-submarine-k-6-submarine-launched-drdo-1102085-2017-12-10.

45. ‘India Ready to Negotiate Global No-First Use treaty’, Economic Times, September 27, 2013; ‘India Ready for Nuclear No-First Use Agreements’, The Times of India, October 22, 2014.

46. Pakistan’s stand articulated in the United Nations General Assembly is for a non-proliferation system realised ‘through policies that are equitable, criteria-based, and non-discriminatory’. Ibid.

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 asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Culture, Decision-making, disarmament, domestic politics, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Japan, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Missiles, nonproliferation, North Korea, Northeast Asia, nuclear industry, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, nuclear power, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Russia, russian military, South Asia, South East Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US., Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Walking Back Delusional Nuclear Policies

  1. vivek says:

    Does India really need to test if there’s a possibility of buying a tested thermonuclear weapon design from money hungry NK ?

  2. Vishnugupt says:

    @ Prof. Karnad.

    BARC has be sitting on the three stage nuclear programme for more than 5 decades with the first 2nd stage FBR still delayed and the 3rd stage thermal reactor nowhere in sight.

    I don’t know why we tend to gloss over the fact that the Indian nuclear scientific community failed to deliver. Just like their counterparts in other sarkari departments.

    They are mediocre at best, just like their counterparts in DRDO & HAL. I for one think no one shouldn’t put much faith on these sarkari scientists anyways.
    Delhi still hasn’t come to terms with the ‘crucial’ fact that the Soviets & the Chinese have succeeded in extracting the best from their “sarkari” scientists by hanging the sword of “GULAG” over their heads should they “fail” in delivering whatever impossible weapons system Moscow/Beijing demands.
    On the other hand Delhi neither rewards them for success nor punishes them for failures. So, is this sorry state of affairs really a surprise?

    Making a nuclear device is far less complex than designing and running a FBR & TBR. Which quite frankly i don’t think our scientists have the stomach for. And Modi knows this. There is no way out Unless we outsource these to Indian private players. Then we might see some progress.

    Thats why he has to import these reactors to ease the dependency on crude and save the precious dollar outflow in the long run which will be much more should we continue to import crude and keep trusting our scientist to deliver.

    This is why NSG membership is so crucial.

  3. Strongly disagree. The budgetary distribution has meant the Bhabha 3-stage plan — the breeder 2nd stage and the thorium 3rd stage have been hugely underfunded, because the money for the last two decades was funneled into NPC which channel became mainstream with the idiotic “20,000MW by 2020” mantra of Manmohan Singh’s and the emphasis on imported reactors. Meanwhile, starting in the mid-90s, the spending on weapons research was reduced to a trickle thanks to that bane of the N-programme — the wretchedly subversive R Chidambaram who believed in computer simulation and minimal weapons inventory to the point of virtually dismantling the weapons unit at BARC. It led to bright prospective weapons designers getting out. And no, India does not need to join NSG coz there are enough states who promised yellow cake for Indian investment, such as Niger — an offer GOI did not take up. And India could have destroyed the nonproliferation NPT regime, NSG and all the other tech-denial schemes by selling INDU reactors, tech, and N-related goods to whosoever wanted it. The world would have come pleading to Delhi to cease and desist and to name its own terms for joining them, rather than joining these cartels on their terms as is the case now. These are themes I have ceaselessly advocated and been writing about for the last three decades and more.

    • Vishnugupt says:

      The funding issue, i think stem from Delhi’s overall lack of confidence in the whole 3 stage programme. And the fact that even the Russians are struggling with their FBR, didn’t exactly boost Delhi’s confidence. In short BARC has to be the pioneers in this tech, which is completely new turf.

      I don’t think Delhi is comfortable venturing into such high risk fields specially given the magnitude of funding it demands. And if they are distrustful of their “wretchedly subversive” scientists on uncle SAM’s payroll, it further muddies the water.

      More over the 2nd stage- Fast Breeder Reactors needs to churn in at least “50GW” for the 3rd stage- Thermal Breeder Reactor(Th) to be sustainable, and it is a huge threshold to be met.

      On the topic of procuring Yellow cake from Niger and the likes.

      Since Niger signed the NPT as early as 92, and the fact that socialist India was dirt poor and literally going bankrupt, the preposition to spare money for investing in an African nation in return for Uranium is unfathomable. so i think, there wasn’t much scope there either.

      It would have been a fair preposition today if Niger or the likes were still open for such negotiations.But i don’t think that’s the case now, is it?

      • Niger, as many other Ur-rich countries, will deal — NPT or no NPT. Here I recall the Niger foreign minister visiting the National Defence College on the day I was ;lecturing there, telling me this over lunch. And this was around 2004-2005.

  4. &^%$#@! says:

    “Twenty years after the Shakti-series of tests in Pokhran, there is little understanding in India about nuclear weapons, and even less about the uses they can be put to. There is no appreciation of the fact that strategic weapons are not for reduction of a tactical-level foe, ”

    Well sad! I’ll go a few steps further and state that the most Indians do not know strategic from tactical, and that an India with all the N-where with all’s, purposefully built and deployed can get a far better deal in commercial transactions than it gets today,

  5. Gopalan says:

    Stopping the nuclear testing program to get Western Aid!!! I can’t believe it! What insanity? Aid is usually a trojan horse and troublesome enough by itself. So why would they stop it for that?! Why did Indira do this? I think she received threats to her life.

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