In such circumstances what was considered true in the past must be discarded and new choices must be made. Take the most important one. Should India resume nuclear testing? There will be some who argue that the logic of the situation demands just that. I, for one, am agnostic. India is not a bold country. Our conduct during the 1998 nuclear tests itself suggests that.
Having broken the informal embargo on nuclear tests, we rushed in indecent haste to reassure the world of the goodness of our heart. This took two forms — first the offer of the pledge of no first use and a defensive nuclear doctrine. The second, the commitment to a unilateral moratorium. Both were made hurriedly and did not benefit from a wider debate in the government or the country.
2009 is not the same as 1998. The most important difference is the relative power of China and the US. The last time around, a quick genuflection to the US, prevented the wrath of Beijing. Recall, that in the wake of the tests, the UN Security Council had passed Resolution 1172 which demanded, among other things, that “India and Pakistan immediately stop their nuclear weapon development programmes, refrain from weaponisation or from the deployment of nuclear weapons, cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.”
Even as late as 2000, China was pressing the world community to act on this resolution. It was only when it became clear that Washington was using the Indian dissonance with China to build bridges with New Delhi, that Beijing changed tack.
Vajpayee at fission-bomb test site, the most impressive at Pokhran. With him are to his left, R. Chidambaram, head of the DAE and to his right, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
In the present circumstances, renewed testing by India could be hazardous to our health. Things are not likely to play out as they did the last time.
Fresh tests would terminate the Indo-US nuclear deal because the Hyde Act that enabled it only provides for a waiver for Indian nuclear tests till May 13, 1998. It would also pit India against the international system which is now readying itself to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Fire-eaters will argue that India should bash on regardless and stick it out as a pariah in the international system because its security is paramount.
I would argue for a middle-path because we know India lacks the stamina to make it alone as China did in the 1949-1970 period. Also it would confront us with the choice of forfeiting our economic destiny.
We must make do with what we have and this time we must do it well. Till now the Indian effort at weaponising its deterrent has been as fitful and lethargic as the pace of its missile programmes. Both are seriously lagging that of even Pakistan. For obvious reasons we could not weaponise the flawed thermonuclear design, but we do have a reliable fission weapon which yielded 25kT in the May 1998 test. This design could be safely boosted to a weapon of at least 50kT.
A great deal of work remains to be done in the missile field. The Agni series needs to be locked down by a series of tests to prove its reliability and accuracy. The Brahmos needs to be transformed into a longer range cruise missile capable of reaching 900-1500 km. Both the weapons and the missiles should be handed over to the armed forces, though the country may still choose to keep its weapons in a dis-assembled form.
But first we need to alter our nuclear doctrine so that it can guide us to a different kind of force posture. The doctrine of 1998 was a slapdash job. It did not arise from Indian practice or goals, but was imposed top down to convince the world that our arsenal was purely for defence and that it would be a minimalist one, though its credibility would be assured by the fact that it was in a triad of land and sea-based and air-dropped weapons.
Just how incomplete a job it was became apparent when India confronted Pakistan in the wake of the attack on Parliament in 2001 and found that our doctrine did not cover the possibility of nuclear strikes on Indian forces operating outside our national territory.
The biggest hole in it was that at the time it was enunciated, India did not have the wherewithal for the massive retaliation, or to use the politically more correct term, inflict “unacceptable” destruction and punishment on the adversary, that it promised. While doctrines may precede capability, we are now confronted with the fact that we do not have the key weapon we thought we had for inflicting massive retaliation — a thermonuclear bomb.
The Indian doctrine implied that since we had offered a “no first use” pledge, we would sustain a first strike by an adversary and then retaliate massively. This assumed that some of our already minimalist arsenal would also be destroyed in the adversary’s strike. And so there was need for, first, measures to secure our weapons against such strikes. And, second, to have weapons that would inflict the crushing retaliation.
If you take these two factors, it implied that an Indian retaliation would be of the “counter-value” type, targeting cities and population centres. These “city-busting” strikes rested on the possession of 200-300 kilotonne weapons, which cannot but be of the fusion or thermonuclear kind.
The revelations about the failure of the thermonuclear bomb means that new choices will now have to be made about our force structure since it could take 15- 20 bombs of the 25 kT variety to obtain the kind of destruction a single 200 kT thermonuclear bomb wreaks.
So out goes the minimalist posture. If we are to have a credible force, we need to redo the sums about the size of the arsenal. We also need to work out different ways of deploying and using our weapons and getting our armed forces into the picture, instead of keeping them out as is the case now.
Our new doctrine and re-engineered capabilities must be able to re-endorse the credibility of our retaliatory capabilities— minus the thermonuclear bomb. A “no first use” pledge could be a luxury in the present circumstances.
What we need is a system that will provide a guarantee that a nuclear attack on India will meet with assured retaliation.
This article appeared in Mail Today September 19, 2009