|February 26, 2002||atimes.com|
Asia Times Online presents this series of articles in collaboration with Heartland. Issues that are to be covered include: Energizing India; New Delhi's learning curve; and archeology in India.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING INDIA
Part 6: Does India need nuclear weapons?
By Jasjit Singh
Several years after India declared possession of nuclear weapons concurrently with carrying out five nuclear tests (including the test of at least one weapon apparently manufactured well before the exercise), it may appear meaningless to ask the question: Does India need nuclear weapons? But I believe that Indians, for their own sake and for that of the coming generations, not to talk of the larger obligation as responsible citizens of this Earth, must keep posing this question again and again.
Unlike other weapons, which by and large affect the military forces with their impact expanding beyond the military only in case of intentional or accidental damage, nuclear weapons affect every child, woman, man and animal. This should provide sufficient reason for asking this question of every nuclear-weapon state, by their own people as well as by the larger world population. But more important is the need to ensure that the rationale for nuclearization, if any, is constantly kept under scrutiny by such questions: this process should provide the impetus for vectoring nuclear policy toward greater restraint without succumbing to mythologies and unsustainable premises. Hypothetically, there could be many reasons for India acquiring nuclear weapons, and it would be useful to examine these to ascertain the reality.
Nuclear weapons have been perceived as the currency of power in international relations. This perception is derived from a number of factors. The most important of these is the tremendously apocalyptic and destructive power that the bomb unleashes if used. The experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are grim reminders of that power of destruction; but the bombs dropped on these cities are considered small by today's yardsticks. In fact the Hiroshima bomb, with a yield of about 15 kilotons, qualifies only as a "tactical" bomb, while weapons of 1,000 kilotons and above exist in the inventories of the nuclear-weapon states.
Literature over the decades has emphasized the awesomeness of this weapon, helping to enhance the image and mystique of its phenomenal destructive capabilities. But it is the absence of any credible defense against nuclear attack that actually confers on the weapon the aura of unrivaled and unchecked power. This attribute has often been used with success intensifying the perceptions about the power and leverage that nuclear arms bestow on the possessor.
For example, there have been more than 47 incidents since 1946 in which the use of nuclear weapons has been threatened in some form. More often than not the threat was not necessarily aimed at the immediate adversary, but was intended as a signal toward a friendly country to compel a change in policy. In many cases the signal was directed at the broader international community much more than the immediate adversary, as indeed was the case with Pakistan's nuclear threats in 1987, 1990, 1994 and May 1999, when it sought to emphasize that Kashmir was a core issue - a "nuclear flashpoint". It convinced even perceptive Americans such as Steve Cohen to conclude that the route to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) lay through Srinagar. Interestingly, all the threats held out after 1991 were by China and Pakistan. When the incidents of threat of use (on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) of nuclear weapons are examined in detail, the conclusion becomes inevitable: regardless of their military utility, nuclear weapons have provided a powerful political tool of foreign policy.
The sheer coincidence that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council with veto powers are also the only acknowledged nuclear-weapon states has played a major role in identifying nuclear weapons with international status, prestige and power. But it needs to be recalled that the constitution of the UN Security Council was decided before nuclear weapons ever came on the scene.
Given this background, does India require nuclear weapons for power, prestige and status? Or does it need them for its security? Most people wish to ignore the latter issue because it would provide the rationale for other countries to acquire nuclear weapons, thus undercutting non-proliferation. Many people have argued that prestige has been the reason for nuclearization especially of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); and many statements by influential people in the Indian political, scientific, academic and strategic community would tend to confirm this perception. However, it is clear that while nuclear weapons do confer a certain aura of power and prestige on the possessor, they are not adequate to provide the wherewithal to exercise the power to tackle the problems the country is facing. For example, nuclear weapons are of no utility whatsoever in eliminating poverty, disease, social inequities, and a host of challenges that a country like India is confronted with. On the other hand, it is possible that the cost of nuclear weapons may retard the solutions to many of these problems, as possibly happened in the Soviet Union.
Mastery of nuclear science and technology is necessary to enable design and manufacture of nuclear weapons. Nuclearization therefore does represent a level of scientific achievement, and these capabilities are extremely valuable for the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology, ranging from medicine to electricity generation. But a peaceful program can be pursued for all these benefits without necessarily acquiring weapons. This in fact had been the basic thrust of India's nuclear program from the very beginning, although it was also clear that pursuit of an indigenous civil program would provide the capabilities to produce weapons if and when such a decision was made. In any case, the acquisition of nuclear weapons does not by itself remove the overall technological backwardness intrinsic to the Indian situation. Nuclear weapons may provide Pakistan (in its perception) the safety umbrella under which it can pursue aggressive cross-border terrorism with little or no risk of India imposing punishment in retaliation. But these weapons cannot provide a solution to cross-border terrorism (as indeed Pakistan's bomb cannot provide a solution to its own ethno-sectarian violence), or for that matter to the host of other challenges that the country has to deal with.
India's prestige and status, on the other hand, will be governed by the degree of success in solving the myriad problems that the country inevitably faces, and the way we solve them. Among these numerous problems is the one of defense and security for which military power is a necessity. But even here it is conventional military power that is required to defend the country against almost the entire range of armed conflict. The size, geography and political-ideological interests of India require that these threats be met with conventional capabilities. It is only when we come to the question of defense against nuclear weapons that one has to look beyond conventional capabilities.
It is this narrow window in its security calculus for which India needs a solution. This could only have been adequately dealt with in three possible ways: by global abolition of nuclear weapons, by pursuing an "open option", or by acquiring nuclear weapons. Three issues require attention. First, what is the nuclear threat to India? Second, global nuclear disarmament as the route to elimination of the threat and dilemmas of security. Third, in the event that nuclear disarmament does not become a reality in the foreseeable future, and the nuclear threat persists, what are the options available to a country to defend itself against nuclear threat?
The very existence of nuclear weapons poses a threat to international peace and security in general, and the security of some countries that are affected by potential adversaries, possession of such weapons in particular. India's security environment was nuclearized when China acquired nuclear weapons in 1964. Coming as it did within two years of India's defeat in the Sino-Indian war, this naturally affected the security calculus. This is not to say that China threatens India with nuclear weapons. In fact China's commitment to no-first-use of nuclear weapons greatly moderated the salience of the perceived threat. But the existential threat cannot be ignored, especially with major territorial disputes remaining unresolved. Even attempts to stabilize the frontier by arriving at a mutually agreed line of actual control pending the settlement of the territorial dispute have not met with much success so far. At the same time, Pakistan started its clandestine nuclear weapons program within days of the end of the 1971 war. China provided technological and material support to the program (including supply of ballistic missiles for delivery) while the United States, in pursuit of its strategic interests in getting Pakistan to function as a "front-line state" against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, turned a blind eye to it. Given the aggressive record of Pakistan (in having initiated every one of its wars with India), this added another dimension to the nuclear challenges to India's security.
Fundamentally, the dilemma of India's security with respect to the nuclear-weapons threat could be resolved either by total (global) abolition of nuclear weapons or, if such disarmament does not take place, by acquiring an independent nuclear deterrent. Typically, India pursued a middle path of keeping the option to acquire nuclear weapons (and develop the technology to enable this at a future date if required) while pursuing an active policy to abolish nuclear weapons. It is significant that India's early responses were to seek nuclear guarantees, initially from the United Kingdom and later in 1966-67 from the United States and/or the Soviet Union. However, none of these nuclear weapon states were willing to provide any security guarantee. Hence the decision to stay out of the NPT, which would have committed India to a non-nuclear status. What India adopted was essentially a policy of restraint, whereby it pursued the goal of abolition of nuclear weapons while retaining its option to acquire a nuclear capability. It paid a price for this, especially after 1974, but continued to follow this policy of keeping the option open.
The obvious solution to the nuclear-weapon problem is nuclear disarmament. For five decades India has been at the forefront of efforts and demands for total elimination of nuclear weapons. This position had been supported, within and without the UN, by a large part of the international community and some nuclear-weapon states during the Cold War. Peace movements had been extremely active especially in the 1980s in seeking nuclear disarmament. But with the end of Cold War and the risk of nuclear war receding, the international community became more sanguine about the dangers of nuclear weapons although the doomsday clock was shifted back by only a few minutes. A paradox has grown whereby nuclear weapons, justified for more than four decades in the context of the Cold War, now are sought to be retained for undefined and ephemeral threats because there is no Cold War.
There are four central reasons why India has sought global disarmament as the central objective of its nuclear policy. First, there is a strong moral and ethical basis for nuclear disarmament. Nuclear arms are the worst form of weapons of mass destruction. Indians must not fall into the cynical attitudes of many states that morality and fundamental human values must be sacrificed at the altar of national interests. Linked to the moral principle is the issue of legality and legitimacy. The acknowledged weapon states have adopted the attitude that their possession of nuclear weapons is both legitimate and necessary for their security. The NPT is the only international treaty that legitimizes nuclear weapons, although in the hands of only five states. These states managed to perpetuate the legitimacy of nuclear weapons through the permanent extension of the treaty while avoiding any commitment or linkage to disarmament. But, notwithstanding the submissions by some of them seeking legitimacy of nuclear weapons, the International Court of Justice ruled in 1996 that the use of nuclear weapons is not consistent with the laws of armed conflict that a civilized world has otherwise adopted. However, this was ignored by the nuclear-weapon states and their allies.
Second, nuclear disarmament will promote international peace and security. The argument that nuclear weapons kept the peace during the Cold War is fatally flawed since the concept, taken to its logical application, would sanction nuclear weapons for most, if not all, sovereign states in the world. And so is the view that the weapons need to be retained in future, even if only by the nuclear five. The use of nuclear weapons would affect not only the combatant countries but also large parts of the world. The conclusions regarding nuclear winter reached by experts during the 1980s remain valid and the risks arising from the possible use are no less just because the Cold War is over. The position of the nuclear-weapon states in justifying their arsenals on the grounds of strategic uncertainties is untenable. Nuclear proliferation, in all its aspects, continues to be a serious threat to international peace and security. The mere possession of nuclear weapons by the five states, and the security cover that this offers through alliance systems to nearly two dozen industrially advanced states, is the strongest incentive to nuclear proliferation. Total abolition of nuclear weapons is the only comprehensive and effective non-proliferation measure.
Third, nuclear weapons need to be abolished if we are to move toward a more equitable international order. Democracy at the national level cannot be sustained as a core principle without movement toward greater democratization of the international order. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons have sustained an inequitable order by creating a powerful distinction between the haves and have-nots. Nuclear weapons have been legitimized with the five countries who also are the permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto powers. This has created a nexus between iniquitous power based substantively on nuclear weapons as the ultimate arbiter of hegemony and influence, on one side, and the geopolitical framework of an international order reflecting the now outdated power equations of an earlier colonial era, on the other.
Fourth, and most important, India's strategic and security interests are better served if there are no nuclear weapons that can impinge on India's security calculus. Nuclear disarmament, therefore, is not only a moral/ethical principle for us, and a necessity for international peace and security, but an imperative for national security.
Pakistan, in a non-nuclear environment, would pose a far smaller military problem and a more easily manageable challenge in view of India's size and potential. The divergence in relative capabilities, in reality, has been growing in India's favor during the past three decades. It is for this very reason that Pakistan, in an effort to neutralize India's intrinsic conventional superiority, had acquired nuclear weapons by 1987. Contrary to popular belief, in a conventional military scenario, India would be in a better position to defend itself also in relation to China if a situation like that in 1962 developed. There is a limit to the quality and quantity of force that China can deploy on the Himalayan borders and sustain for operations even after its logistics capabilities improve substantively once the railway line to Lhasa is functional, as is expected by 2005.
Geography and the very nature of the terrain dictate that Indian air power (not used in 1962) will be able to influence the ground battle in its favor, unless we allow the air power balance to become seriously adverse for us. In any case, if the defense planners perceive existing force levels to be inadequate, raising additional mountain divisions should be a less demanding alternative for a country with more than a billion people. It is the nuclear factor that places us at a gross disadvantage on the two key frontiers.
Nuclear disarmament, therefore, is fundamental to India's strategic and security interests. The fact that this also coincides with our principles and the moral/ethical approach to nuclear weapons only enhances the need for disarmament, for international peace and security as well as our own. Pragmatic assessment indicates that such disarmament cannot be accepted unilaterally (and hence the position that India will accept any restraint on its policy in the absence of a commitment to disarmament) or in a narrow regional or subregional framework. It would be naive to ask or expect China to disarm in the absence of a global process. A viable solution to our security concerns, therefore, lies in pursuing total elimination of nuclear weapons from national arsenals.
It has been argued that nuclear disarmament within a foreseeable time frame is not a feasible proposition. But a large number of experts believe that a time frame of 10 years is completely realistic. Several years ago, former president Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union called for the total elimination of nuclear weapons within 10-12 years, when the global arsenal then had more than 57,000 warheads. The figure is already coming down to half that number, and the Cold War ended a decade ago. It is significant that the president of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, Nobel Peace Prize winner and eminent nuclear scientist (an erstwhile member of the Manhattan Project), Professor Joseph Rotblat, in his Nobel speech in December 1995, asserted: "We have the technical means to create a nuclear-weapon-free world in about a decade." Other nuclear scientists believe that it is feasible to dismantle nuclear warheads in about 10 years, and that the goal of global nuclear disarmament can be achieved in 20-30 years. The rate of destruction of nuclear warheads under the START-I treaty has been estimated to be about 2,000 per year. At this rate, all the warheads can be destroyed in 20 years. The issue, therefore, is not one of technical feasibility or practical difficulties, but of the unwillingness of the five nuclear-weapon states to commit themselves unambiguously to the process of disarmament. It is clear, therefore, that the nuclear-weapon states (and their allies under the nuclear-weapon umbrellas) are adamant in retaining nuclear weapons into an undefined future basically to perpetuate nuclear hegemony.
In the interim, and while we work for global abolition of nuclear weapons, there is the reality of nuclear weapons impinging on India's security to be dealt with. Given the fundamentals of India's needs and possible responses, it would have preferred to continue pursuing the middle path of an open option. Given the extent of its nuclear science and technological capabilities developed in the peaceful program, India's ability to manufacture operationally usable nuclear weapons was never in doubt. If there was any doubt, the peaceful nuclear explosion of 1974 should have set that at rest. The important point is that the open option, with capabilities available but not translated into operational weaponization, was a policy of restraint; but it also provided a level of deterrence by itself.
The scale of destruction associated with nuclear weapons is so large that the only rational way to protect oneself from a nuclear attack would be either to intercept the weapon before it impacts or rely on deterrence to ensure that no weapon is launched. As regards interception before weapon launch, the primary means of delivery of nuclear weapons is either by aircraft (with free-fall/guided bombs, or air-launched cruise missiles) and/or by ballistic and cruise missiles (whether land-based or sea-based). Efficient and extensive air defense systems should be able to intercept attacking nuclear-armed aircraft, although this cannot be guaranteed in absolute terms. The probability of a successful nuclear strike by aircraft becomes critical in view of the immense destructive potential of even a single nuclear bomb if it gets through defenses, leaving a fundamental vulnerability. The lessons of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 include the conclusion that while the United States had the nuclear capability to obliterate the Soviet Union with its more than 10:1 superiority in nuclear arsenal besides wiping out Cuba, it could not guarantee that no nuclear weapon could be dropped on a US city. This led to the final compromise and de-escalation of the crisis. Nuclear deterrence had worked despite the gross asymmetry in the size of the arsenal.
The difficulties of intercepting ballistic missiles are enormous. While rudimentary capabilities were available, the uncertainties of successful defense led to the two superpowers agreeing under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty not to create missile defenses beyond the single location allowed by the treaty within each country, which provided a clearly unreliable protection. The search for missile defenses was not given up and emerged in a major way in the Star Wars program of the early 1980s. Three decades after the ABM treaty was signed and after an investment of more than US$100 billion, the United States is now getting ready to field missile defenses. However, it would take another decade or more and somewhere between $100 billion and $200 billion more to get an operational, reliable defensive system. The question of its reliability would remain even then and the US therefore would retain a substantive nuclear arsenal for deterrence.
In the absence of a credible, reliable, and affordable defense against nuclear weapons, countries that are affected by the threat of such weapons have little option but to rely on deterrence. This could be achieved through a military alliance, whereby a nuclear-weapon state is willing to provide extended deterrence, as indeed has been the case with the United States providing the nuclear umbrella to North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries and Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc. Those who are unable to get a reliable nuclear umbrella are left with no option but either to acquire their own independent nuclear deterrent or accept the risks of nuclear asymmetry. India sought nuclear guarantees in the 1960s before adopting an independent position on nuclear weapons. As noted earlier, it would have preferred to continue with an open option and the level of deterrence it provided had it not been for the non-proliferation pressures (without any move toward disarmament) during the 1990s after the Cold War was over. These pressures, ranging from direct coercion under the "cap, reduce, eliminate" mantra of US president Bill Clinton, to expanded safeguards, technology denial measures and export controls, besides the permanent extension of the NPT without any commitment to nuclear disarmament, narrowed India's options. The imposition of the entry into force clause making the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) contingent to India's accession pushed into a corner. No one could have foreseen the US Senate rejecting the CTBT. But it was clear that India had to find a solution to its nuclear dilemma before the September 1999 deadline by which India had to sign or face collective measures by the powerful nuclear-weapon states. The irony was that the democratic states of the "West" were undermining India's policy of "self-defense with restraint" by which it tried to deal with the nuclear threats.
The slow and measured pace at which India has been nuclearizing since May 1998 indicates continuing restraint, albeit at a slightly different level. Its adoption of a no-first-use policy reaffirms the defensive orientation of the nuclear strategy. Its efforts to reduce nuclear dangers through de-alerting and other measures support the overall approach. Meanwhilem global abolition of nuclear weapons continues to remain a central goal.
((c) Heartland. This version has been edited by Asia Times Online.)
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