India’s nuclear program: illusory gains and unaffordable risks

Ramesh Thakur | Japan Times

In May 1998, India conducted five nuclear tests. Even if one were to concede the tests were understandable, the question arises: What did India gain? The short answer, contrary to facile claims of strategic, military or political utility, and cost-effectiveness is: not much.

Unilateral nuclear disarmament is unlikely by any of the nuclear-armed states, including India, and is thus unrealistic as a policy goal. However, a denuclearized world that includes the destruction of India’s nuclear stockpile would favorably affect the balance of India’s security and other interests like development and social welfare, national and international interests, and material interests and value goals.

Although prospects for nuclear disarmament look dim, especially after the Ukraine crisis, the goal of an eventually denuclearized world is both necessary and feasible. For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time.

For nuclear Armageddon, deterrence or fail-safe mechanisms need to break down only once. This is not a comforting equation. As long as any one country has nuclear weapons, others will want them. As long as nuclear weapons exist, they will be used again someday by design, miscalculation, rogue launch, human error or system malfunction. And any nuclear war fought by any set of nuclear-armed states could be catastrophic for the whole world.

Nuclear weapons may be sought for (1) compellence, (2) defense, (3) deterrence and/or (4) status.

“Compellence” means the use of coercion to force an adversary to stop or reverse something already being done, or to do something he would not otherwise do. There is no demonstrable instance of a nonnuclear state having been cowed into changing its behavior by the threat of being bombed with nuclear weapons. Indian doctrine, backed by deployment patterns, explicitly eschews any intent to use nuclear weapons as tools of coercion.

It is hard to see any role for India’s nuclear armaments as instruments of defense. India’s no-first-use doctrine disavows use of nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks. Nuclear weapons cannot be used for defense by nuclear-armed rivals whose mutual vulnerability to second-strike retaliatory capability guarantees that any escalation through the nuclear threshold would be mutual national suicide.

India’s nuclear arsenal offers no defense against a major conventional attack by China, Russia or the U.S. — the only three countries with the capability to do so. As for intent, Russia is a diplomatic ally and friend of long standing. Relations with the U.S. have warmed to a remarkable degree, including a just concluded high-profile visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which was remarkable for the fact that a person denied a U.S. visa from 2005 until May 2014 was hosted to a state dinner by President Barack Obama.

Deepening and broadening bilateral Sino-Indian relations, and cooperation on several major international issues based on converging interests in forums like the group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), provide considerable substance, texture and ballast to that relationship today. During his recent visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed agreements to invest $20 billion to upgrade India’s woeful infrastructure.

With nuclear weapons being unusable for defense, their sole operational purpose and role is mutual deterrence. Deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being always in office on all sides: a shaky precondition. It depends equally critically on there being no rogue launch, human error or system malfunction: an impossibly high bar. Nuclear weapons have failed to stop wars between nuclear and nonnuclear rivals (Korea, Afghanistan, Falklands, Vietnam, 1991 Persian Gulf War).

To believe in deterrence is to argue that Iran should be encouraged, indeed facilitated in getting the bomb in order to contribute to the peace and stability of the Middle East where presently Israel is the only nuclear-armed state. Good luck and good night.

The subcontinent’s history since 1998 gives the lie to the then-hopes and expectations, on both sides of the border, that nuclearization would prove to be a largely stabilizing factor.

Powerful domestic constituencies have grown in both countries to identify multiple threats that justify a matching expansion of a highly elastic nuclear posture. The low-cost, low-risk covert war in the shadow of the subcontinent’s nuclearization had three attractions for Pakistan: It would weaken India by raising the human and economic costs of Kashmir’s occupation; the fear of nuclear escalation would raise the threshold for cross-border Indian retaliatory raids; and it would help internationalize the Kashmir dispute by highlighting the risk of nuclear escalation.

Pakistan has invested in terrorist groups as part of its unconventional inventory against India. In responding to a terrorist attack, any deliberate escalation by India through the nuclear threshold would be extremely high-risk. The development of tactical missiles and battlefield nuclear weapons by the two sides, whose utility is contingent on proximity to battlefields, multiply the risks. India must also live with the nightmare possibility of jihadists getting their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. While obviously more acute for Pakistan, the threat is grave for India also.

Just what is a “credible minimum deterrent” — India’s official doctrine — that would dissuade nuclear blackmail and coercion and permit second-strike nuclear retaliation? China and Pakistan are incommensurate in their national power, strategic frames and military capabilities. The requirements of numbers, reach, deployment patterns and locations, and the distribution between land-based, air-launched and sea-borne platforms, are as mutually incompatible between them. That which is credible toward China cannot be the minimum toward Pakistan, and vice versa.

Few analysts would take issue with the claim that currently nonnuclear-armed Germany has a higher status, weight and clout in Europe and the world than nuclear-armed Britain and France. Nuclear brinkmanship earns North Korea neither prestige, power nor friends; nonnuclear-armed South Korea fares better on all three counts.

India does have a higher international profile today than in 1998. This is despite, not because of, nuclear weapons, and rests in its economic performance and information technology credentials.

No serious Indian analyst is likely to claim that Pakistan’s profile has risen alongside India’s since 1998, despite Islamabad’s more focused efforts on expanding, deepening and broadening its nuclear weapons capability.

If India’s economy stutters, its social pathologies intensify and multiply and its political system proves incapable of making and implementing hard decisions. The fact that India has nuclear weapons will add to international unease and worries rather than enhance its global stature and international prestige.

If India’s economic future is mortgaged to bad governance rooted in populist politics pursued by corrupt politicians, other countries will return India to the basket of benign neglect while offering ritual but empty praise for its rich civilization and culture. Prime Minister Modi at least seems to get this.

A nuclear catastrophe was averted during the Cold War as much owing to good luck as wise management. The number of times that we have come frighteningly close to nuclear holocaust is simply staggering.

According to one study by a U.S. nuclear weapon laboratory in 1970, more than 1,200 nuclear weapons were involved in accidents from 1950 to 1968 because of security breaches, lost weapons, failed safety mechanisms or accidents resulting from weapons being dropped or crushed in lifts, etc.

In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, U.S. strategy was based on intelligence that indicated there were no nuclear warheads in Cuba. In fact there were 162 warheads already stationed there and the local Soviet commander had taken them out of storage to deployed positions for use against an American invasion. Intelligence agencies are necessary even in democratic societies to protect us against quotidian threats, for example wannabe terrorists who will discuss targets and tactics on open international phone lines. But it’s amazing how often they fail to forewarn us of the big picture like the erection and fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, 9/11, etc.

Recently declassified documents show there was another near-miss in November 1983, when strategic arsenals were far more lethal on both sides. In response to NATO war games exercise Able Archer, which Moscow mistook to be real, the Soviets came close to launching a full-scale nuclear attack against the West under the misapprehension that a NATO nuclear attack was imminent. And the West was blissfully unaware of this at the time.

On Jan. 21, 1961, a 4-megaton bomb (260 times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast) was one ordinary switch away from detonating over North Carolina; the effects would have covered Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and even New York. Days after President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, a B-52 bomber on a routine flight went into an uncontrolled spin. Two hydrogen bombs fell loose over Goldsboro, North Carolina. One, assuming it had been deliberately released over an enemy target, began the detonation process. Three of four fail-safe mechanisms failed and only the final, a simple dynamo-technology low-voltage switch, averted what would have been the greatest disaster in U.S. history with millions of lives at risk.

In addition to close calls based on miscalculations and misperceptions and accidental near misses, the nuclear age has left a trail of grave environmental damage. There is also a significant economic cost. Nuclear weapons have not permitted any of the states that have them to buy defense on the cheap.

In terms of opportunity costs, heavy military expenditure amounts to stealing from the poor. India’s core expenditure on nuclear weapons are around $4 billion, and the full nuclear costs amount to $5 billion. Yet nuclear weapons do not help to combat India’s real threats of Maoist insurgency, terrorism, pandemics, poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and corruption.

As demonstrated in the 1999 Kargil war, the possession of nuclear weapons by both sides in a conflict does not rule out either an initial military incursion across a disputed border or a conventional military retaliation. But it did dampen a full-scale conventional attack by India in order to avoid escalating to the nuclear threshold. If India is to retain the option of being able to respond to provocations (border skirmishes, incursions and state-sponsored terrorist attacks) with calibrated use of conventional military power, it must invest still more heavily in conventional military capability than would have been required in the absence of a nuclear overhang in the subcontinent.

In a convergence of Indian military-nuclear thinking with international norms, India’s military doctrine has begun to emphasize prompt offensive action with division-sized battle groups upon provocation. India’s maritime strategy also increasingly emphasizes offensive action with power-projection capability both to the east and west across the Indian Ocean. Indian weapons scientists are working on a successor Agni-VI missile with a 10,000-km range (that is, covering all of China) with a projected test flight date of 2017.

In the absence of an official strategic defense or nuclear posture review, it is hard to discern how India will ensure that a capability meant to deter does not in fact provoke, including additional Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. There is the added risk of proliferation to extremist elements through leakage, theft, state collapse and state capture.

Domestically, meanwhile, a nuclear program encourages excessive centralization of political control and obsessive secrecy. Nuclear weapons can lead to the creation of a national security state with a premium on governmental secretiveness, reduced public accountability and increased distance between citizens and government.

Relying on secrecy and obfuscation, a nuclear program undermines democratic accountability and contributes instead to a culture of lies and evasions. Shielding the program from public scrutiny hides the inefficiency, malpractice, mismanagement and dangers — and nuclear technology is unforgiving when things go wrong with grave safety and environmental concerns. Just ask the former residents of Fukushima.

In other words, India is caught in an escalating cycle of increased nuclear and conventional military expenditures with no net gain in defense capability against the most likely threat contingencies. Internationally India has shifted from being a disarmament champion to a nuclear-armed state. While the former was informed by a strategic vision, the latter has been ad hoc and episodic.

As a disarmament crusader, India was the foremost critic of the Non-Proliferation Treaty-centered “nuclear apartheid” regime. As a non-NPT nuclear-armed state, India has been gradually integrating with the global nuclear orders while hypocritically preaching nuclear abstinence to others like North Korea and Iran. Nuclear weapons confer neither power, prestige nor influence. South Asia’s insecurity dilemma has intensified since May 1998.

India still lacks effective deterrent capability against China. History and geography make the India-Pakistan nuclear equation less stable than Cold War U.S.-Soviet deterrence. Nuclear weapons failed to deter Pakistani infiltration and Indian retaliation and escalation in the two-month Kargil war in 1999, and a year-long full military mobilization by both in 2002. Nuclear weapons are not going to help India combat internal insurgency, cross-border terrorism or parasitical corruption.

Nor can nuclear weapons help to solve any of the real problems of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition. And they are irrelevant to India’s security needs against any other country.

While not advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, such a conclusion should at least encourage India to be a champion of phased, regulated and verifiable global nuclear disarmament governed by a nondiscriminatory nuclear weapons convention.

This would be in keeping with: the legacy of Indian initiatives on nuclear arms control and disarmament, including the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988; the fact that India was the most reluctant nuclear weapons possessor of all the nine nuclear-armed states; and its official nuclear doctrine that lists global nuclear disarmament as a national security objective.

With more than 90 percent of the global nuclear weapons arsenal, the U.S. and Russia bear primary and heaviest responsibility for nuclear disarmament. That is no reason for the other nuclear powers to abdicate their responsibility commensurate with their status as nuclear weapons possessor states.

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