with its nuclear button
NEW DELHI - Five years after it conducted
a series of nuclear blasts, the Indian government has
taken one more step toward the actual induction and
deployment of nuclear weapons into the country's
arsenal, potentially enhancing the nuclear danger in the
troubled South Asian region.
Council of the Indian Nuclear Control Authority (NCA)
met on Monday to review the "arrangements" being put in
place for India's nuclear-weapons deployment, and
decided to accelerate work on various parts of the
infrastructure needed for "the strategic forces
This was the first-ever meeting of the
Political Council , which itself created in January. The
NCA is uniquely entrusted with developing, deploying
and, when necessary, ordering the launch of nuclear
The NCA consists of the Political
Council, an Executive Council with recommendatory
powers, and the Strategic Forces Command, composed of
the representatives of the three services, which is
meant to manage the nuclear arsenal.
Political Council alone can authorize the use of nuclear
weapons. It is composed of the prime minister, the
ministers for home, finance, external affairs and
defense, and the national-security adviser.
India's nuclear stance has gradually but
significantly hardened over the years. First, it
abandoned the old Jawaharlal Nehru policy of nuclear
abstinence and conducted a nuclear weapons test in the
guise of a "peaceful" explosion in 1974.
in 1996, India walked out of the Geneva negotiations on
a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, declaring that the ban
would not lead to genuine disarmament. But it announced
that it would itself not make nuclear weapons.
Then, in May 1998, it shocked the world - and
its own citizens - by conducting a series of five
nuclear tests. But soon after this, India developed some
hesitation and experienced problems in operationalizing
its weapons capability. The US government, which held a
dozen rounds of talks with top Indian officials on the
issue, also mounted pressure on New Delhi not to deploy
its atomic weapons openly.
There was some
ambiguity about India's nuclear doctrine and its
emphasis on the pledge of "no first use" - namely, the
commitment that the country would not be the first to
use nuclear weapons (it would only fire them in
retaliation); and it would never use them against
In the recent past, the
hesitance has given way to active preparation, and US
pressure has eased greatly under the administration of
President George W Bush, itself devoted to nuclear
weapons. India is now proceeding to "consolidate its
The new emphasis is on
making the Indian nuclear threat more "credible" by
erecting a command and control structure and
demonstrating the political will to use nuclear weapons,
as well as the military capability to do so.
Strongly associated with this shift is India's
military leadership, brought on board as special
invitees to the NCA Political Council meeting. Going by
official briefings about Monday's meeting, the Political
Council was informed that neither the
command-and-control (C-2) nor the
indications-and-warning (I&W) system is yet in
The I&W system's function is to alert
the NCA of a possible hostile nuclear attack. The C-2
system is meant to take command of nuclear weapons and
authorize their use. According to some other reports, a
planned concrete underground bunker, where the nuclear
command post is to be housed, is not yet ready, but it
is under construction.
India has plans to set up
an alternative chain of nuclear command in case the
normal, regular command is decapitated or otherwise
unable to function during a crisis. It is unclear
whether much progress has been made in this direction.
It seems likely, too, that the original target
for transferring nuclear-capable military equipment from
the three services to its operational arm (the Strategic
Force Command) by the end of August has been missed.
This may take some more time.
As of now, India
has the nuclear-capable 2,000-2,500-kilometer-range
Agni-II ballistic missile and two versions of the
short-range (150-250km) Prithvi missile, both of which
can be fitted with nuclear weapons. It is also in the
process of serially producing and inducting a new
Pakistan-specific missile, the Agni-I, with a range of
Pakistan's response to India's
nuclear preparations is entirely predictable. It will
try to match, and equalize or "get even", with India.
Pakistan is believed to be more advanced than India in
marrying nuclear warheads to missiles, and it will
certainly move toward deployment at the same pace as
This spells a special danger. There is no
strategic distance worth the name between the two
nuclear rivals. Therefore, "early warnings" and
"indications" do not amount to much. Missile flight time
between the two countries' cities is as little as three
to eight minutes.
Thus Indian and Pakistani
decision-makers will have no time interval worth the
name in which to determine whether and how to respond to
a rival missile attack. The time needed to process
information about a hostile missile launch, and pass it
up to the apex command for a political decision, is five
minutes or longer.
Therefore, no amount of
command-and-control preparation is likely to reduce the
chances of a knee-jerk launch or retaliatory response by
Comparative analysis has shown that
the chances of an accidental, unintended or unauthorized
nuclear attack are highest in South Asia of all places
in the world. They are probably higher than during the
Cold War after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis between the
United States and the then Soviet Union.
move toward nuclear deployment in South Asia comes amid
a stalling of progress toward normalization of
relations, promised by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari
Vajpayee four-and-a-half months ago.
India-Pakistan talks on the resumption of severed air
links - and conditional on them, rail links - broke
down. Vajpayee has ruled out normalization unless
Pakistan stops supporting violence from across the
border, mostly into Jammu and Kashmir. Meanwhile, the
two governments are back to megaphone diplomacy and
exchange of hostile rhetoric.
in both India and Pakistan could complicate matters and
precipitate yet another confrontation between them.
Nuclear weapons can only aggravate their mutual tension,
especially with Kashmir as the flashpoint.
(Inter Press Service)