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India debates the nuclear bomb (1991)

A discussion with K Subrahmanyam, Gen. Sundarji, Jaswant Singh, Praful Bidwai, and others.

Rummaging through Indian Express’ archives has unearthed an interesting discussion in India in January 1991, on the merits and demerits of going nuclear and costs associated with such a decision.  Interestingly, the discourse in India at the time was motivated by accounts of Pakistan already possessing a nuclear stockpile;  not the other way around, as some commentators would like the world to believe.  Clearly, AQ Khan’s admission to Kuldip Nayar in at the height of the Brasstacks crisis played a critical role in shaping Indian perceptions of the regional security environment, post 1987.

The seminar, entitled “Nuclear Pakistan and Indian Response,” was sponsored by IDSA and included commentary from K Subrahmanyam, Gen. Sundarji, Jaswant Singh, Gen. Vohra and Praful Bidwai.  Excerpts from Manvendra Singh’s op-ed follow:

Mr. Praful Bidwai expressed doubts as to whether Pakistan was in fact capable of producing nuclear weapons.  He called it a bogey used by many in Delhi, for the sole purpose of justifying India going nuclear.  David Albright’s article in the June (1987) issue of “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” was heavily quoted by him for the technical aspects of his arguments.

Albright’s article was full of uncertainties, as Mr. RR Subramaniam pointed out in his vociferous rebuttals of Mr. Bidwai, whose claim that Pakistan’s nuclear policy was a response to the 1974 Pokhran test was historically incorrect.  And in fact none of the other participants pointed out to him that ZA Bhutto’s famous (we will eat grass but make a bomb) speech was made in January, 1972 in Multan.

Gen. Sundarji, with his quick-draw tongue, was at his articulately hawkish best.  A specialist in “Deterrence theories,” Gen. Sundarji made a very pertinent point when he stated that simple deterrence, without political engagement leads to overkill, as it did for the Soviet Union.  This was in response to the argument that desire for nuclear weapons in the belief of acting as deterrents can never be satiated, as stockpiles go on rising.  While unequivocally calling for India to go nuclear, he was of the view that diplomatic dialogue has to be encouraged if an overkill situation is to be avoided.

Mr. K Subrahmanyam, the doyen amongst defense specialists, was characteristically blunt and sharp in his analysis. Debunking the argument put forward that an active nuclear policy is grossly expensive, Mr. Subrahmanyam convincingly backed his  thesis that in terms of the value of returns for investments, a nuclear weapons programme is the most effective.  The total amount, he clarified, spent on our nuclear weapons programme is minuscule compared to the overall defence outlay.  Lamenting on the absence of direction and purpose in our nuclear policy, he grimly reminded the participants about the period post-1962, when India went, prostrate before Britain and the United States, desperate for a nuclear umbrella vis-a-vis China, backing Gen. Sundarji’s statement that “weakness is not a virtue.”

Mr. Jaswant Singh, the only active participant from the ranks of politicians (Mr. IK Gujral was largely an observer), created a bit of a ripple amongst the participants when he declared that India had lost the strategic initiative to Pakistan.  He declined to elaborate, saying that it was vital for all to ponder over it.  In all probability, his thesis revolved around the fact that primarily out of our inaction, the internal and external range of India’s maneuverability has shrunk to levels incompatible to India’s status and role in the world.  This is the sum total loss arising out of an absence of clear long-term policy formulation and implementation.

And taking this setback into account, he said, makes it all the more necessary to have permanent bodies like the National Security Council Secretariat.  Active during the period of the National Front government in the formation of the NSC, Mr. Singh stated convincingly that it was imperative for India to have such a specialized decision-making body, given the circumstances that it finds itself in. The shortage of active politicians participating in seminars of such importance is a phenomenon for all Indians to seriously think about.

The decision to go nuclear, or not, rests entirely on the political leadership of India, and which is to a large extent, totally unacquainted with this and related subjects.  In Pakistan,however, it is the military brass that is in control of defence policy-making.  A military in power, directly or indirectly, will always enlarge its arsenal to keep the internal balance of power, psychologically or otherwise, in its favour.  It is therefore natural, no matter how much static exists between Washington and Islamabad, that Gen. [Aslam] Baig will go ahead with increasing and improving Pakistan’s nuclear capability.

In the unlikely event of Pakistani civil leadership initiating moves towards a nuclear treaty with India, Gen. Baig could very easily torpedo the whole process with some populist gimmickry.  A nuclear capability will be an enormous psychological boost for Pakistan’s aims in Afghanistan, Punjab and Kashmir. [Indian Express]

 

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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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