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Needed: An `India first' nuclear policy

Needed: An 'India first' nuclear policy

Author: Bharat Karnad
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: July 27, 2000

Sir Halford Mackinder, the great geopolitical theorist, once observed that democracies find it hard in peacetime to think strategically.

In India's case, the trouble is the inability to think strategically at all.  Complacency is so deep-rooted a trait that short of danger materialising literally on the doorstep, neither the government nor the people are roused to take effective action, and then it is a helter-skelter piling on of crisis-time decisions.  In a conventional military context, like in Kargil, this is not fatal.  In the nuclear realm, however, it can prove cataclysmic as there is no time for preparation and, hence, little margin of safety.

The reason for this characteristic Indian infirmity is in part a habit of mind the tendency of the political leadership cutting across party lines, Nehruvian-era onwards, to predicate foreign policy on universalist values and concerns, like disarmament.  Unlike other major powers which tailor their policies around narrowly-defined national interests, Indian policy has a millennial orientation.

Thus, the case, in this instance, goes something like this: disarmament is a good in itself; it is good for the world, ergo, it is good for India.  And, insofar as arms control and non-proliferation are way stations on the path to this objective, any measure dressed up by the nuclear Haves in the raiment of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the follow-on Fissile Material Control Treaty for instance, is ipso facto, believed to serve India s interests as well.  Such lack of realism has systematically weakened national security.

It does not seem to occur to the proponents of this or that `arms control' treaty that the playing field was always uneven, but that India had the means of straightening it.  Not only did India refrain from doing so, it was a spectator to the field being rendered more uneven.  With India marginalising itself until it was almost too late to either force an entry into the nuclear Club or to get out of the high stakes game altogether, the principal players ensured loopholes in treaty language qua international law, to wriggle out of tight commitments to disarm.

The CTBT, for example, allows sub-critical testing and hence constant modernisation of nuclear arsenals by the five nuclear powers (P-5), even as the cost and the complexity of the alternative means of testing (to wit, sophisticated hydro-dynamic facilities and multibeamed high-energy laser complexes to realise inertial confinement fusion), for all intents and purposes, makes these means unavailable to India.  Nor is there any particular worry about the politico-military consequences of the Indian nuclear deterrent being frozen on the low end of the technology curve which, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has candidly admitted, is the primary aim of the US and by extension the P-5.

The trouble is India's small pile of rudimentary nuclear weapons of dubious provenance and performance do not constitute a credible deterrent even vis-a-vis Pakistan, what to talk of the more advanced China, because it is armed with proven nuclear weapons designs and missile systems acquired from Beijing and thus has a more reliable nuclear deterrent.  So, what use is a deterrent if it cannot deter the lesser threat?

The problem about an unproven Indian nuclear force juxtaposed against a Pakistan armed with tested nuclear weapons and missiles bought `off-the-shelf' from China has been ignored.  This is in tune with the Government's apparent inclination to accept the under-development of the national nuclear forces as strategy.  It may keep many foreign countries and a few domestic constituencies happy, but is it wise? Such a strategy fails to appreciate the fact that the mainly political value of nuclear weapons can be maximised only by realising a substantive nuclear deterrent in a world in which the extent of the power directly to hurt another is the currency of exchange and considerations of realpolitik the motive force.  In this unforgiving milieu, what is the Indian policy?

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced the acquisition of a minimum credible deterrent (MCD) as the objective.  The draft nuclear doctrine was elastic enough to provide the Government the latitude to construct a force of meaningful quality and quantity while hewing, in principle, to the MCD concept.  Some two years after the latest series of tests, there is little progress except perhaps in simulating new weapons designs! Such nuclear deterrent as the country is presently able to muster may be minimal all right, in terms of numbers, but it is neither credible nor capable seriously of deterring anybody or anything for the reason the NBC TV report stated, namely, that it is not operational.

Moreover, like the fabled Light Combat Aircraft which, technology-wise, will be obsolete before it gets into squadron service, absent a sustained regime of nuclear testing, the Indian nuclear deterrent too bids fair to be reduced to a relic by the `fourth generation' `pure fusion' and neutron weapons coming on stream elsewhere, as Mr PK Iyengar, former chairman of the atomic energy commission, has repeatedly warned.

This situation has arisen because of the hasty, ill-advised and unwarranted moratorium announced in the wake of the tests.  Meant primarily to mute Western criticism about India s going overtly nuclear, it has ended up, ironically, doing the job of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which New Delhi has so far not signed, of freezing the country s nuclear weapons designs, including those of the decisive, thermonuclear, variety at the failed-stage, as many senior scientists maintain.

The fact is that without a whole bunch of additional tests, there is no way of knowing why previous designs fizzled out or of configuring new weapons systems.  Because explosion physics varies with even minute changes in weapon architecture, without physical testing, there will is no guarantee that any of the Indian nuclear weapons other than the basic fission-type tested will actually work.

Though worrisome, nobody appears to be losing sleep over this state of affairs; presumably, lulled by the current AEC chairman, Mr R Chidambaram s assurances that the 1998 thermonuclear flop, notwithstanding, his outfit can produce a one megatonne-yield weapon.  Considering, that, short of tests, there is no way of knowing whether this big Hydrogen weapon will work any better than the modest 43 kiloton variant which did not, we are left having to take Dr Chidambaram s claims on faith.  Surely, this is a thin reed to base a national nuclear force on.

The deus ex machina-element here is computer simulation, which is touted as adequate replacement for explosive testing.  This is errant nonsense and, like simulated sex, is not the real thing! Physical tests verify the explosion physics assumptions factored into a weapon design and the workability of the weapon assembly.  If even one of the numerous physics assumptions and/or design parameters is wrong or a single component malfunctions, the weapon will not work as specified, necessitating redesign and re-testing.

It is for this reason that the US has conducted in excess of 1,000 tests, the Russians nearly 800, the Chinese almost 50, and one is expected to believe that India s five fission tests and one fusion test are all this country will ever need by way of test data to simulate new designs, as the basis for sub-critical testing schedules (assuming India will ever be able to afford and access the relevant technologies), to field nuclear weapons systems and, in the future, to develop newer neutron and thermonuclear armaments!

(Bharat Karnad is Research Professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi )

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