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Deterrence is not a fantasy

Critics of India’s nuclear posture have failed to understand the strategic calculus.

Written by Sheel Kant Sharma |
October 3, 2013 4:35:53 am

There is a relentless campaign to depict India’s nuclear weapons programme as motivated by prestige rather than a necessary means to meet real security threats. Despite all evidence to the contrary,such criticism continues to find votaries even among Indian analysts (‘Nuclear weapons,costs and myths’,C. Gharekhan,IE,August 27). There are also more recent questions about India’s nuclear posture. Developments in delivery capabilities are portrayed as destabilising and leading to a nuclear arms race (‘Five myths about India’s nuclear posture’,Vipin Narang,The Washington Quarterly,Summer 2013).

India’s nuclear posture has evolved in the context of both regional and global nuclear threats. Nuclear weapons by their very nature are weapons of mass destruction (WMD),which recognise no national or regional boundaries. The interactive web of multiple nuclear-weapon capable states also creates a dynamic far more complex and unpredictable than that which prevailed during the Cold War,with an essentially binary nuclear equation between the two superpowers. India’s nuclear posture not only takes account of an adverse nuclearised threat environment regionally,it also takes cognisance of the impact on its security of global developments in this regard. To frame India’s nuclear posture in relation to Pakistan and/ or China and then to pick holes in it,is to miss the strategic calculus that underlies it.

India’s nuclear weapons are for deterring a WMD attack against India. It has never been argued in this country that acquiring nuclear weapons would save money by substituting conventional capabilities with nuclear assets. The contention that India has neutralised its conventional superiority vis-a-vis Pakistan by going overtly nuclear has no basis in fact. India’s conventional superiority did not deter Pakistan from repeated acts of aggression against India in 1947,1965 and 1971,when nuclear weapons were not a factor. Even later misadventures like Kargil,as revealed in Benazir Bhutto’s memoirs,were planned years before the overt nuclear transition of 1998. India will require capabilities to meet both conventional and nuclear threats from Pakistan.

Given the multiple dimensions of the nuclear threat,a limited nuclear weapons freeze between India and Pakistan will not enhance India’s security. India is the only nuclear weapon state to categorically declare that a world free of nuclear weapons would enhance and not diminish its security. However,as long as nuclear weapons remain,India’s security requires that it maintain a “credible minimum deterrent”. This posture is not specific only to Pakistan and China. Additionally,India’s development imperatives and its commitment to rapid socio-economic transformation require an enabling security environment free from nuclear threat or blackmail.

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With respect to credible minimum deterrence,it is not necessary to specify the “minimum” in numbers. This will be determined in the light of a continually evolving nuclear security environment,both in India’s own neighbourhood and globally. India does not have one minimum for Pakistan and another for China. Our nuclear planning does not take place in such tightly separate compartments.

Concerning China,India does not need a matching nuclear arsenal or delivery capability. A “credible minimum deterrent” is adequate vis-a-vis China or any other nuclear-armed adversary. We will need a “vastly enhanced conventional capability in terms of weapon systems,infrastructure,etc” in addition to prevent a possible war with China,major or minor. This is sought to be addressed by successive Indian governments,but regrettably at a pace not commensurate with what is required.

When its nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities were in a nascent stage,soon after the 1998 tests,the criticism against India was that its force posture did not match the requirements of its nuclear doctrine and hence lacked credibility. Now,when the force is being modernised and upgraded,the argument is that such developments are destabilising and even contrary to India’s declared no-first-use doctrine.

India’s nuclear force modernisation is to enhance the credibility of its nuclear doctrine,which requires a triad of land-based,air-launched and submarine-based nuclear assets and delivery systems. The survivability of these assets is a necessary condition for assured retaliation. The acquisition of additional assets,the upgrade of technological capabilities and associated command and control systems must be evaluated in that context.

The pursuit of R&D in Ballistic Missile Defence and MIRVing of delivery vehicles are not inconsistent with a no-first-use posture. It could be argued that both enhance the survivability of assets and the credibility of India’s nuclear doctrine. Official thinking in this respect remains to be ascertained.

The development and deployment of dual-use delivery assets is not peculiar to India. This is a challenge that all nuclear-weapon states confront. This does add to uncertainty and unpredictability in relations among such states,which are best addressed through multilateral negotiations,focusing on confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the first instance. India and Pakistan have bilaterally concluded several nuclear CBMs,including non-attack on each other’s nuclear facilities,requiring annual exchange of lists of such facilities; the advance reporting of missile launches within a certain range of each other’s territories and a mutually declared commitment to a moratorium on further nuclear tests. India has advocated and is willing to join in the negotiation of nuclear restraints and CBMs at the multilateral level. These include an international convention on prohibition of the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons and formal agreement among nuclear-weapon states on global no-first-use of nuclear weapons.

Questions have been raised about the safety and security of India’s nuclear assets. This is a classic case of equating the absence of information — so-called opacity — with the absence of systems and procedures to deal with such critical issues. India should be more transparent about and welcome public debate on its nuclear deterrent. There ought to be an annual nuclear posture review. However,the nuclear domain is a sensitive one and more transparency may not necessarily enhance deterrence stability. The criticism of the DRDO’s alleged penchant of overpromising and underdelivering is well taken for this reason. In this case,a little less transparency and more modesty would be welcome.

Saran,former foreign secretary,is currently chairman of the National Security Advisory Board and of RIS and senior fellow,CPR. Sharma was India’s ambassador to the IAEA and Austria and secretary-general,SAARC. Views are personal

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