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India toys with its nuclear button
By Praful Bidwai

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.

The Political 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 program".

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 weapons.

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.

The 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.

Then, 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 non-nuclear powers.

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 nuclear deterrence".

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 place.

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 700-800km.

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 India.

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 either side.

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.

The 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.

Last week, 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.

Domestic factors 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)
Sep 4, 2003

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