Nuclear Deal: Strategic Blunder
by N S Malik on 11 Aug 2008 0 Comment

Parliament was coerced into proceeding with the UPA’s one-track policy, unmindful of the pitfalls in the strategic arena of its breakneck dive into the lap of the United States, in the belief that it is our energy-salvation for generations to come.


Before the celebrations, however, we must pause to reflect on questions not yet asked. Are we guilty of having glossed over something?


It is claimed that the deal is about nuclear energy, technology and enhancing our strategic relationship with America. But it is equally about National Security and our strategic nuclear deterrent. We are told by everyone who matters that these interests have not been compromised and that those who question the deal have got their fundamentals wrong; some even question their loyalties. 


Let us take up the first very fundamental question. What is strategic nuclear deterrence? It is the possession of employable nuclear weapons capabilities that can inflict unacceptable damage on an adversary. An essential feature of nuclear deterrence is that potential adversaries must know of our capabilities and must believe that we have the resolve to use such capabilities even in a second-strike scenario.


Nuclear bombs – fusion and fission – a triad of delivery systems together with the C4-I systems are the constituents of nuclear weapons capability. Bombs and delivery systems have to be tested. It is these tests that are closely monitored by all global powers to determine our capability; hence the conclusions drawn from our tests are vitally important. If an adversary is not convinced about the efficacy of our tests, the credibility of our deterrence becomes suspect. Thus tests are critical, not only from the point of view of developing capabilities, but from the point of view of conveying the content of our deterrence.


The 1998 tests were – according to all global observers – only partially successful and the yield from our fusion bombs sub-optimal. Yet our scientists claimed the tests were successful and that no further tests were necessary. This is really the crux of the matter – as the capabilities we aspire for determine the extent to which tests can be deemed successful.


If we are looking at a nuclear deterrent capability against Pakistan alone, then our nuclear deterrence is in place; equally is Pakistan's against us. So we shall not be compromising on our strategic nuclear weapons capability. It is in this context that declarations that we shall test again if changing circumstances compel us to, make sense. If Pakistan tests again, so shall we; otherwise such comments have no meaning. 


But if we are looking at nuclear capabilities beyond Pakistan, which we must, then the complexion changes significantly. From a purist’s point of view, planning for India's strategic nuclear capability for 2020-2040 should pitch for nuclear deterrence capability not against a country, but in abstract and absolute terms. This translates to possessing deterrence against all other nuclear weapon states. This is a simple deduction from a very clichéd military theory that there are no permanent friends or enemies. Nations must look at capabilities for the long-term.  


Now if our strategic envelop extends beyond Pakistan, our capability scenario acquires a different dimension. All other nuclear weapon states have for some time now entered a phase defined as stable. The US and its NATO allies, and Russia and China individually, possess nuclear deterrence against each other.


For India to enter that club we have to test, unless our ally gives us the 'know how' and then subtly spreads the word that it has done so. (Something like the recent example of the erroneous dispatch of nuclear weapon spares to Taiwan)  Otherwise no one will believe in our deterrence; perhaps this is why all three are supporting the deal.


In retrospect, it may be contended that the self-imposed moratorium on testing after Pokharan 1998 could have been avoided. If we had sufficient resolve and confidence, we should have by now carried out another round of tests. There is sufficient reason to believe that this time around our tests would have convincingly proved our ability to engineer fusion bombs.


Thus emerges the next big question. Since a test is absolutely necessary, would it be better to test before the deal, or after it? Testing after the deal would become increasingly difficult and after a while the costs would become unbearable. Can the deal therefore wait?


The number of nuclear warheads we need has also been an issue over which some scientists have expressed concern. They hint that our capacity would be considerably limited. Here the refrain has been that we do not need too many warheads. That is true. But what is too many? We may ignore American and Russian stockpiles, but Chinese figures should be relevant. Most assessments suggest the Chinese currently possess about 400 warheads. They also have the wherewithal to rapidly increase these numbers to over a thousand in short time. These ought to be the numbers on which our war gamers should work to deduce our requirements.


We now come to the US threat to either sign now or forget it. We have had perhaps the widest ever cross-section of Americans coming in hordes over the last couple of years to tell us how good the deal is and that this is our only chance. Isn't there reason to wonder why the US is so anxious over something that is of no benefit to them? Are we not being railroaded into an Agreement with far-reaching consequences?


Why should a strategic partnership be made hostage to such a deal? Why do we need this deal to have access to dual-use technology? Have the 'Next Steps in Strategic Partnership' and the other bilateral cooperation activities been directed merely at some joint exercises and the sale of US military hardware to India? 


India has persevered with her nuclear programme – both peaceful and military – for far too long and at considerable cost. Right through this journey of developing capabilities we have fiercely and deftly guarded our decision-making autonomy. Now, as we emerge poised to join the developed world with aspirations of becoming a member of the economic superpower club, should we accept limitations on our strategic horizon? This is the big question that needs to be discussed, but we have lost ourselves in a political mirage and have tied India down to centuries of slavery again. 


Lt. Gen. N.S. Malik, PVSM, is former Deputy Chief of Army Staff

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