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Deterrence unproved

Claims of nuclear weapons’ ability to prevent war are exaggerated.

Written by Chinmaya R Gharekhan |
October 9, 2013 1:34:21 am

Claims of nuclear weapons’ ability to prevent war are exaggerated.

Two acknowledged and respected experts,both colleagues and friends,have responded (‘Deterrence is not a fantasy’,Shyam Saran and Sheel Kant Sharma,IE,October 3),constructively and gently,to my piece on nuclear weapons (‘Nuclear weapons,costs and myths’,C. Gharekhan,IE,August 27). I offer some comments only on those points that I had written about.

Saran and Sharma specifically refer to my piece as having highlighted prestige as the motivating factor behind our overt weaponisation,but I did not,in my article,refer to the prestige factor at all. I did talk about nuclear weapons in the context of their cost. The argument that nuclear weapons were less expensive than acquiring massive conventional weapons was very much part of the discourse during the 1960s. I was personally present at several internal meetings when K. Subrahmanyam himself had put forward this argument,among others.

It is true that our superiority in conventional weapons did not prevent the wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. It would not be accurate to claim that we had overwhelming conventional superiority in 1947. By the same token,there was no India-Pakistan war for about 30 years between 1971 and 1999,even though there was no nuclear deterrence. This goes to show that we should not claim for the concept of deterrence an effectiveness that simply does not exist. As for China,I had stated that it was nobody’s case that we were looking for nuclear parity with it,since this is simply unachievable,whereas Pakistan not only can but is reported to have a larger arsenal than we do. We know of one instance when nuclear deterrence did not work,namely during the Cuban missile crisis,as pointed out in my earlier piece. Even on a global scale,it cannot be conclusively claimed that nuclear weapons have kept the world safe from another world war. Proof by absence is generally not reliable,because it is so hard to establish conclusiveness. Something not happening cannot be entirely ascribed to something being present. Yes,deterrence could have been one factor,but it cannot be claimed as the factor for avoiding war.

I did not write about “no first use” or the safety of our nuclear assets,and hence will not comment on these issues. However,one point which Saran and Sharma have mentioned repeatedly in their piece is a cause for concern. The writers have situated our nuclear weapons programme in the global security context of nuclear threats. This is new and clearly an afterthought. When we went public with our programme,only China was cited as the justification. There was no reference,that I am aware of,to the global security environment. Now bringing in the global environment suggests that India has to have the capability to deal with nuclear threats,not only from Pakistan and China,but from all other nuclear weapon powers as well,such as America,Russia,Israel,Britain,etc. If this is,in fact,what is going to guide our nuclear programme,the “minimum” in “credible minimum deterrent” is going to be huge! This is a dangerous concept and will drag us into an extravagantly wasteful,unaffordable,unachievable and eminently avoidable arms race.

We may be the only nuclear weapon power to have said that global nuclear disarmament would enhance our security. Why should we have said that? Because it

would then re-establish our conventional superiority. Our stance also suggests that we are the ones who are being deterred. In any case,since our tests,the fire of our campaign for denuclearisation has gone away.

The fact is,and it must be honestly admitted,that nuclear deterrence can neither be proved or disproved conclusively. Hopefully,there will be no empirical evidence one way or another.

The writer,India’s former permanent representative at the UN,is adjunct senior fellow,Delhi Policy Group. Views are personal

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