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Sensationalistan

Where the mind is without fear and the head is buried in the sand.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published its report on China’s nuclear forces ( pdf).  This is an annual report, and part of a series that the Bulletin publishes on the nuclear forces of other powers.  Nothing particularly earth-shattering for those that have been following China’s nuclear program, but I bring this up because of this little extract, pertaining to India:

In a section describing Chinese-Indian relations, the 2010 Pentagon report stated that China is using the more advanced and survivable DF-21s to replace DF-4s to improve regional deterrence. This was picked up by the Press Trust of India, which mistakenly reported that according to the Pentagon, China has moved advanced longer range CSS-5 [the DF-21 NATO designation] missiles close to the border with India. Not surprisingly, the report triggered dramatic news articles in India, including rumors that the Indian Strategic Forces Command was considering or had already moved nuclear-capable missile units north toward the Chinese border.

The Pentagon report, however, said nothing about moving DF-21 missiles close to the Indian border.  Instead,it described the apparent near-completion of China’s replacement of DF-4 missiles with DF-21 missiles at two army base areas in Hunan and Qinghai provinces,a transition that has been under way for two decades. The two deployment areas are each more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from the Indian border. [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists]

The Press Trust of India got wind of this “story” on August 17, and without anyone validating the statements in the article to the source,  announced:

China has moved new advanced longer range CSS-5 missiles close to the borders with India and developed contingency plans to shift airborne forces at short notice to the region, according to Pentagon.

Not to be outdone, Asian Age added in its own masala, about Agni-II being moved to the border to counter these imagined Chinese moves.

In the wake of a recent Pentagon report that China is moving advanced CSS-5 ballistic missiles to areas close to the Sino-Indian border, New Delhi is clearly taking no chances.

The government is also reportedly moving the strategic Agni-II missile inducted earlier to areas near the Chinese border. These have a range of around 2,000 km.

Asian Age ran its story despite the fact that it received official denial from the Army that missile units had not been moved to Eastern Command.  “News makers” indeed, quite literally.  The folks at the Bulletin were probably being kind by describing Indian media reaction as a “mistake.”  This is borderline warmongering.

Pity,  no one stopped to read what was written in the U.S. Department of Defense’s publication, or sought any clarification on what China was doing.  Had they done so, it would have become apparent that all the Chinese were doing was replacing their old liquid-fueled DF-4s with solid-fueled DF-21s in Hunan and Qinghai provinces (about 1,500 km from the Indian border).  The only reason the DoD mentioned India in this context was the upgrade was partly motivated by China’s desire to “improve regional deterrence.”  How this translates to “China moves its missiles closer to the Indian border,” only PTI can tell us.

But this is just symptomatic of a larger malaise plaguing large sections of our media: a flippant regard for facts, for corroboration, a desperate quest for sensational news items (even when none exist), for “dumbing-down,” and for drama above all else.

Were that not the case, stories such as this extraordinary piece about Mr. Obama’s visit to India would have never been published. Folks, 34 warships including one aircraft carrier is not a “presidential entourage.” It is an invasion. 

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US-Russian START Treaty

Find a lofty ideal; use creative accounting to make it work.

Non-proliferation hawks in the Democratic Party will be happy — the United States and Russia sealed the deal on a “new” START treaty on taking steps towards nuclear disarmament.  US President Barack Obama feels strongly about the issue and wants to work towards a multilateral framework for eliminating nuclear weapons and controlling nuclear material.  In this respect, START III sounds like a great idea; except, as they say, the devil is in the details.

According to the treaty, the United States and Russia will reduce their “deployed weapons” to 1,550 over a seven-year timeframe.  Deployed weapons only, not weapons held in reserve.  In addition to deployed weapons (~ 2,200), the US also has 2,500 weapons in active and inactive stock, which are not within the treaty’s purview.   So right off the bat, the scope of START eliminates about 50% of the US’s total possible inventory.  Second, upon Russia’s insistence, each heavy bomber deployed with weapons counts as “one weapon” towards that magic number of 1,550 (although each bomber will likely possess multiple weapons).  Pretty fancy stuff.

Some very clever people help us out with the arithmetic:

The United States currently deploys approximately 2,126 strategic nuclear warheads, with a comparable number of warheads in reserve. Russia is believed to deploy approximately 2,600 strategic nuclear warheads. However, since each deployed heavy bomber will now count as only one warhead, under New START the U.S. currently deploys far fewer than 2,126 warheads (according to the best estimates we currently have 500 warheads on 60 or 113 bombers – depending on how you count; if you do the math, that already puts us at 1700-1800 warheads)! [Nukes of Hazard]

In addition to only addressing “deployed” weapons, the cap is specific to deployed strategic weapons only — ICBMs and SLBMs.  This very neatly takes the US’s 500 deployed tactical nuclear weapons (and the 600 tactical weapons in stockpile) out of the the treaty’s purview ( link).  There is also some ambiguity over whether the treaty caps US’s ambitious ballistic missile defense systems (BMDS) project — speculation is abound that it does.  However, the White House has already tried to preempt the battle it will have on its hands with this little fact-sheet.

What does START III mean to the rest of the world? Even with 1,550 nuclear weapons each, the US and Russia will be so far ahead of the third largest nuclear weapons state (France, with 300 weapons) that it is unlikely to have a direct impact on disarmament.  Of course, some countries might choose to “right size” their arsenal (as indeed France is doing), but these are not decisions inspired by START.

START III may be just the sort of thing to parade around New Delhi, coaxing it to ratify the alphabet soup of non-proliferation treaties.  This is a non-starter.  We live in a neighborhood where one power willfully flaunts the terms of the non-proliferation treaties that it is signatory to, and is increasingly belligerent in its dealings with India.  And the lesser said about our other nuclear neighbor’s non-proliferation record, the better.   Treaties such as START III can only be conceivable to lesser nuclear powers like India once minimum credible deterrence is achieved (for which there is no magic number).  Until such time, let such treaties be part of the lofty ideals of countries with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over.

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Pakistan's nukes and those Harpoons

First, let’s get the recent reports about Pakistan’s nuclear program out of the way.  Recently, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) reported that Pakistan was expanding its capabilities across the board, including significantly increasing its nuclear stockpile and developing the nuclear capable Babur (a reverse-engineered USN Tomahawk) cruise missile.

BAS now estimates that Pakistan has between 70-90 nuclear weapons. This, as BAS also reports, is comparable to India’s own nuclear stock, which is estimated to be about 70. However, alarmist news reports in the Indian media dilute the true impact of such enhanced capabilities on India.

Qualitative and quantitative enhancements to nuclear arsenal are part of the natural evolutionary course that nuclear powers traverse. Of course, Pakistan’s unnatural increase in nuclear arsenal in the midst of a debilitating internal security situation is a function of its pathological neurosis with India.  But as The Filter Coffee has argued before, India’s nuclear posture with regard to Pakistan need not substantially change due to such revelations.

There are things that India should always continue to do to attain “minimum credible deterrence” — the quest for credible secondary strike capabilities and perfecting its delivery systems need impetus. But India must continue to do these things regardless of what Pakistan does or doesn’t do.

The truth of the matter is, Pakistan is not in a position where it can expect to “win” in a nuclear showdown with a neighbor seven times its size. The scale of damage that Pakistan’s largely sub-kiloton weapons can cause to a country spread across 1.2 million sq. miles with far-flung urban centers, cannot be compared to the cumulative impact of India’s retributive assault on Pakistan’s 2-3 main cities.  India’s lesson from this revelation is to  continue to develop, enhance and fine-tune its own weapons, and refocus on  its laggard missile programs.

The second issue that I wanted to touch on was The New York Times’ article on Pakistan’s illegal modification of the Harpoon anti-ship missile into a land based missile that the US believes is intended for use against India.  The US apparently made an “unpublicized diplomatic protest” upon learning of Pakistan’s actions.

At best, this shock and dismay that Pakistan would actually modify a US weapon to enhance its capabilities against India, can be put down to ignorance and naïveté.  At worst, it is hypocrisy and mock outrage.  If the US sold Pakistan an anti-ship missile, where would the US realistically expect the missile to be used by Pakistan? In a battle against Iran? Against Afghanistan? China? The target of the weapon was always clear — anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the subcontinent’s history will be aware of Pakistan’s preoccupation with India. So why the outrage?

The article also goes on to state: “Pakistan had taken the unusual step of agreeing to allow American officials to inspect the country’s Harpoon inventory to prove that it had not violated the law, a step that administration officials praised”. Presumably, Pakistan signed an EUMA with the US for the sale of anti-ship missiles.  We are told that “physical inspection” is a standard provision of the US’s EUMA agreements.  Indeed, we also know that similar physical inspections of US-supplied Pakistani military hardware have taken place in Pakistan previously (and found to have issues — see page 8).  So how is this apparent magnanimity on the part of Pakistan “unusual”?  Why does it warrant praise?

The continued sale of sophisticated conventional weaponry to Pakistan (refer to this, via FAS) for “good behavior” is like giving candy to a hyperactive child.  The 36 F-16s and 115 115mm howitzers aren’t and won’t be employed by Pakistan in its COIN efforts in NWFP. The US needs ask itself if the sale of sophisticated military equipment to Pakistan is a solution to the problem, or part of it.

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Nuclear Arithmetic, Deterrent Calculus

K Santhanam sent the Indian media into a flutter with his statement that the thermonuclear device (Shakti-I) tested in 1998 during Pokhran II was not completely successful and did not produce the anticipated (and reported) yield of 40-45 kT.  He put this apparent failure in the context of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), advocating that we do not sign or ratify the treaty until India’s thermonuclear capability can be successfully demonstrated.

Notwithstanding denials from APJ Abdul Kalam, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, R Chidambaram and Brajesh Mishra, the vast differential in the reported vs. observed yield is no secret.  International nonpartisan sources, such as the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) indicated 10  years ago that yield of Shakti-I was between 12-25 kT.  Indeed, Santhanam’s statements were also corroborated by both former AEC chairman PK Iyengar, and national security expert Bharat Karnad.

However, this admission does not change India’s nuclear posture much, either with regard to Pakistan or China.  Nuclear weapons are a deterrent force and Pakistan will neither be emboldened nor hindered by the admission of this yield differential, in the event that it is contemplating a nuclear attack against India, in the face of rapidly deteriorating circumstances during a conventional war.

A nuclear bomb is a nuclear bomb. Indeed, the credibility of Pakistan’s own nuclear tests in Chagai were marred by reports of a significant divergence between reported vs. observed yields.  While Pakistan reported tests of six nuclear devices (two in the kT range, and four in the sub-kT range) with a total yield exceeding 36 kT, nonpartisan sources indicate the May 28, 1998 tests produced a total yield of between 9-12 kT.

However, despite such reports, Pakistan’s arsenal consisting largely of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) acted as a very credible deterrent against possible Indian offensives across the LoC during Kargil.  Additionally, had Pakistan’s “diminished” nuclear capability been a factor, India’s responses to the December 13, 2001 Parliament attack and the recent 26/11 Mumbai attacks would have been very different indeed.

The nuclear calculus also doesn’t change much with regard to China.  India’s current nuclear posture continues to be incongruous to its “No First Strike” nuclear doctrine.  The nuclear triad, a corollary to the “minimum credible deterrence” and “No First Strike” policies remains unfulfilled, with two of three legs of the triad not currently being operational (with respect to China).  While India has taken the first step in the development of nuclear-powered submarines, the first of these, INS Arihant, will not be operational for sometime.

The most serious challenge to India’s “minimum credible deterrence” is its crippled missile program.  India’s longer range Agni-III IRBMs are as yet incapable of hitting strategic targets such as Beijing or Shanghai. The development, production and weaponization of the Surya-I and Surya-II ICBMs have experienced delays exceeding 10 years, as a result of high-technology denials by the US and the sloth-like inertia of DRDO.

Without true ICBM capability and bereft of an operational nuclear-powered submarine, India’s deterrence against Chinese aggression remains challenged; a 12 kT fission bomb or 50 megaton hydrogen bomb changes nothing under these circumstances.

The low yield of Shakti-I alters neither Pakistan’s perception of Indian retaliatory capability in the event of a Pakistani nuclear first strike, nor does it hurt any further, India’s credibility in being able to deploy nuclear payload to strategic targets in China, should the need arise.  Shakti-I changes nothing with regard to Pakistan; however, if looked through the prism of maintaining a credible deterrent against China, should reignite a debate  on the sorry state of India’s delivery systems and the credibility and logic behind our “No First Use” posture.

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