India’s nuclear amateurism

India’s nuclear amateurismBharat Karnad

Secretary of state John Kerry reminded New Delhi that the United States expects India to toe its line on non-proliferation and get a move on in signing the Missile Technology Control Regime, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

One hopes New Delhi will not give way on any of these issues even if membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group is the prize because, as it is, the Indian nuclear deterrent is grievously handicapped. First, by untested thermonuclear weapons with design flaws no amount of simulation can correct, whence resumption of testing becomes imperative, and secondly, matching this hardware deficiency are the “software” problems — doctrinal weaknesses and inadequate understanding in government circles of nuclear weapons and strategy. The latter aspect was illustrated by Shyam Saran, convenor of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and former foreign secretary, holding forth on May 3 on nuclear issues and, predictably, making a hash of it. Considering a Chinese military unit was holding Ladakhi real estate then, Saran went off on an anti-Pakistan tangent instead! It confirmed the suspicion that the government is unable to differentiate issues of strategic importance from lesser concerns and, as regards nuclear security, is all at sea. Informed Pakistanis promptly dismissed it as “bluster”, deeming India “a blundering nuclear power”.

At the heart of Saran’s talk was a wrong take on nuclear matters that has calcified into a strategic gospel in official quarters, courtesy the late K Subrahmanyam, starting with the belief that nuclear testing is incidental to the credibility of the deterrent, evident in his canvassing for India’s signature on CTBT in 1995-96 which Saran rightly said “would have permanently foreclosed (development of) a credible and fully tested nuclear deterrent”. Except, the problem of untested hydrogen weapons persists owing to the no-testing predicate of the India-US nuclear deal supported by Subrahmanyam and Co, and negotiated by Saran. It reflects the cavalier disregard for nuclear testing which is stark in the context of the field director of the 1998 tests, K Santhanam, recommending the re-testing of a rectified thermonuclear weapon design because the one that was tested failed.
Saran’s plea to “make public” the official nuclear doctrine, which he said was virtually the draft produced by NSAB in 1998, was of a piece with his asking for an annual numerical accounting of the country’s nuclear forces.

He didn’t pause to wonder why no other nuclear weapon state to-date has disclosed its nuclear doctrine, and why China and Pakistan are unlikely ever to reveal their weapons inventory details. The public release of the draft-doctrine to win points for transparency with America and gain traction for the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), was an appalling mistake by the BJP government that the Congress regime converted into the wrecking ball of the Indo-US nuclear deal, which destroyed the integrity of the country’s dual-use nuclear energy programme. Ambiguity is at the core of nuclear deterrence and dissuasion.

It isn’t advanced by making the doctrine an open document, even less by revealing weapons strength. Having disclosed the doctrine, however, the strategic initiative passed to the adversary states with the good sense to divulge nothing. China increased the “daunting uncertainties” for India by bringing conventional missiles under the control of its Second Artillery nuclear forces, and Pakistan developed the 60km Nasr (Hatf IX) guided rocket. The dense fog of ignorance of nuclear deterrence matters blanketing Indian government circles has eventuated in a hollow strategy emphasizing “massive retaliation” as response to tactical first use of nuclear weapon by Pakistan (on Indian armor, say, inside Pakistani territory). Promising massive nuclear destruction as retaliatory action, in the circumstances, only undermines the credibility of the Indian deterrent as it violates the principle of proportionality — the essence of “flexible response”.

A version of this concept — “punitive response” — was central to the original NSAB draft-doctrine. Owing to the usual mix of abominable advice and mindless attitudinizing lashed with deep illiteracy on these issues, “punitive response” was replaced by “massive retaliation”. All it did was spur accelerated production of weapons-grade plutonium, warheads, and missiles by Pakistan which an India, fixated on Pakistan and “minimum” deterrence, finds unable to match, what to talk of China! Truth is massive retaliation cannot doctrinally coexist with the “minimum deterrence” notion the Indian government seems wedded to. That is common sense but try telling it to the glib talkers in official quarters.

Much was also made by him of commentaries concluding India acquired nuclear weapons for status and prestige, not for security. But why is this conclusion wrong, considering India reached the weapons threshold with its plutonium reprocessing capability in early 1964 but did not weaponise after China exploded an atomic device in October that year, and with the military humiliation of 1962 as backdrop? Contrast this with the single-minded, no-nonsense, threat-propelled Chinese and Pakistani programmes to obtain meaningful nuclear arsenals fast, even as the Indian weapons programme meandered, its progress hampered by dreams of disarmament last manifested in the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan.

That the Indian government has time and again veered off into the murk of nuclear power politics without being equipped for the task is due to the generalist diplomats and civil servants playing at nuclear strategists. Saran admitted that the country had suffered from bad advice to “defer the acquisition of a nuclear weapon arsenal as long as there was still hope that the world would eventually move towards a complete elimination of these weapons”, and that it was “undeniable” that “mistakes (were) made, sometimes opportunities (were) missed or our judgments were misplaced”.

The cumulative debilitating effect of such rank bad, and amateurish, counsel is reflected in the manner India is strategically handicapped today. It indicates a fool’s world our diplomats (especially, denizens of MEA’s Disarmament Division that Saran served in), senior civil servants, political leaders and increasingly senior military officers hewing to the government line, live in. Elimination of nuclear weapons, really?
Bharat Karnad is Professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at

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