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Don’t sign the CTBT, not now at any rate

Unconditionally signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will freeze the low quality Indian nuclear deterrent in its present state and pe...

Written by Bharat Karnad |
August 4, 2000

Unconditionally signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will freeze the low quality Indian nuclear deterrent in its present state and permanently hobble this country strategically. Jasjit Singh (`To sign or not to sign’, IE, July 12), reflecting the thinking of the government, believes this is a fair exchange for nothing more than a hope that the sufficiently appeased Nuclear Suppliers Group will ease up on the sale of power reactors to India without also insisting that full-scope safeguards be extended to all the other existing and planned nuclear installations in India.

That the political and deterrent utility of nuclear weapons are thus trivialised by equating the needs of “absolute” security with making up the shortfalls in the national electricity grid, is the least of the problems with this viewpoint, which has far graver infirmities.

For one, it rests on a gross misunderstanding of nuclear deterrence. Deterrence works best because of the overarching fear of wide area, city busting, capabilities of the nuclear weapon. The larger the capacity to wreak havoc at great distances, the greater is the value of the deterrent. That is why multi-megaton thermonuclear warheads/weapons riding intercontinental ballistic missiles are at a premium, especially for a new nuclear weapons State, which cannot, in the foreseeable future, generate sufficient accuracy for its missiles to obtain genuine counter-force capability. It is precisely this high-yield thermonuclear capability, which requires additional tests, that will be denied to India were it to sign.

The government fears economic penalties. But can the international community risk economically to quarantine a fully thermonuclear weaponised India, which is also one of the two big emerging markets the other being China?Nuclear weapons are implements of war and subject to the standard weapons dynamic requiring periodic modernisation. This means regular underground tests at least until the country can afford the expensive and sophisticated large scale hydro-dynamic and inertial confinement fusion facilities for “subcritical testing” allowed by the CTBT.

Deterrence being a mind-game, relatively large numbers of proven and powerful weapons are of greater psychological value than a small stockpile of antiquated armaments or of high-yield weapons but of untested design. A minuscule and primitive nuclear force, moreover, may not survive in an era when precision conventional munitions can be terminally guided to target.

An intensive testing regime is an imperative also because this country has a total of only one fully tested fission weapon design the thermonuclear device fizzled out in 1998 and one proven short-range missile system (Prithvi) as building blocks. How a “credible” and “survivable” nuclear deterrent can be realised from these without further testing, is a mystery.

Presumably, it will materialise from computer simulation. But will a computer-designed nuclear force work? The Indian military is convinced it won’t because of its experience of indigenously produced missiles which perform well but mostly on computer screens!

If, security-wise, signing the CTBT does not make sense, the political argument that such a move will remove “irritants” in relations, is even weaker. The likely new US President, the Republican Party’s George Bush, has deemed the treaty “unwise”. His chief secretary advisers, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleeza Rice, have called for greater “realism” on nonproliferation and slammed the Clinton policy on sanctions. There are reportedly three other countries New Delhi seeks to placate by this move. Russia is opposed to a full-fledged Indian deterrent because it will devalue its own nuclear clout. France has always run with the hares and hunted with the hounds.

Japan, making its “no bomb” pitch from under the US nuclear umbrella, has no moral justification to do so. So, where is the compulsion to sign the CTBT? Finally, signing this treaty will oblige India to conform to its provisions, whether or not it eventually ratifies it, and the costs of withdrawing from it will be far more than of not signing it. But it is by now characteristic of Indian policy to dig a hole and then fall into it.

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