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Nuclear weapons,costs and myths

The question is whether nuclear weapons have made us more secure against potential adversaries.

Written by Chinmaya R Gharekhan |
August 27, 2013 12:14:51 am

The question is whether nuclear weapons have made us more secure against potential adversaries.

We have not had a dispassionate debate in our country about nuclear weapons: whether they have really enhanced our security or merely made us feel good about ourselves,whether they have helped in reducing our dependence and expenditure on conventional weapons,or whether the various doctrines propounded mainly by Americans during the course of the Cold War,such as mutually assured destruction,first-strike capability,second-strike capability (the basis of our “nuclear doctrine”),etc are valid,or serve any useful purpose for us.

The nuclear jargon created by “strategic” thinkers in the West might have made sense at the time,but the situation is not reproducible in our region. America and the Soviet Union did not share a land boundary,did not have emotional territorial disputes and neither was thirsting to avenge military defeat. In our region,all these factors are present,and they throw doubt on the usefulness of atomic weapons. The most relevant one for the purpose of our discussion is the doctrine of second strike. It says that if Pakistan,for example,were to attack first with nuclear weapons,we would retain the capacity to absorb the shock and destruction,and to retaliate in second strike (since we would be the second one to strike) and inflict unacceptable damage on Pakistan — indeed,erase it altogether. Ergo,Pakistan will never dare attack India. But this theory has already been proved wrong.

The first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed about 1,20,000 people and destroyed more than half the city. If a bomb of similar destructive power were to be dropped on Delhi,the casualties would be 10 times greater,considering the density of population and the nature of the habitation. Are we seriously to believe that,in the wake of such massive destruction,the government,irrespective of its composition,could retain the cohesion,the nerve,the command and control chain,no matter how convincing it might look on paper,to actually launch a counter nuclear attack? Where is the guarantee that the initial strike by Pakistan would not destroy the governing structures and that there might not be anyone left to take and pass on the necessary orders? We would,of course,be able to retain many of our nukes,since they would have been dispersed across the country and some of them would be deployed underwater in submarines.

Our nuclear theorists would argue that that is precisely the point. Since both countries would realise that the other side would have saved some of its nukes from the initial strike by the other side,there would,in fact,be no nuclear exchange. In other words,nuclear weapons are meant never to be used; they are weapons of dissuasion or deterrence and are meant to guarantee that there would be a permanent no-war situation. Their only purpose is to deter any large-scale hostilities; if they have ever to be used,whatever the circumstances,the rationale for having them would have been disastrously defeated.

There is no way to prove or disprove the deterrent theory. But there are more examples of the deterrence theory not working ever since the nuclear era began. In a slim volume titled Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons,author Ward Wilson makes a most credible case to demolish the myth,nurtured by both the Americans and the Japanese for their respective reasons,that Hiroshima forced Japan to surrender unconditionally. Constraints of space do not permit elaboration of his argument,but his short point is that destruction,irrespective of its magnitude,does not cause defeat; it was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki but the Soviet declaration of war against Japan on August 8 that compelled Japan to surrender.

An interesting example of the failure of deterrence is the one most cited as its greatest success,namely,the Cuban Missile Crisis of October1962. John F. Kennedy knew that his actions might provoke the Soviets,at some stage,to use nuclear missiles. Yet he went ahead with the ultimatum. In other words,Kennedy did not let the probability of the Soviets launching their nuclear arsenal deter him. There is evidence that he did take that into consideration but went ahead nevertheless.

People might argue about the relevance of the Cuban Missile Crisis for our region,but the subcontinent offers a conclusive case against the doctrine of deterrence. Deterrence worked in our case for just over a year from 1998 to 1999. Pakistan indulged in the Kargil adventure without,it would appear,giving the slightest thought to the fact that India had nuclear weapons. Deterrence failed,utterly. If at all it worked,it is Pakistani nukes that restrained us from using our conventional superiority to drive away the invaders. We were deterred by Pakistan’s nukes. We earned perhaps well meaning but meaningless appreciation for showing restraint,but in the process lost many of our young officers.

That is what deterrence has done in our case,removed the advantage that our conventional superiority gave us.

We do not yet have the military-industrial complexes that former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke about in the 1950s. But we do have a strong scientific community justly proud of its accomplishments in the nuclear and missile fields. The whole nation is proud of their achievements. Is it possible that it is our scientists who are the main drivers of our programmes in these areas? It is not unthinkable. If DRDO or DAE proposes some new project,it would be difficult for the government to deny it,since it would be accused of denying scientific progress,particularly if some other country develops similar weapons. This happens in all countries.

It might well be asked: why rake this up now? What is the point? We need this debate,keeping aside ethical issues,such as the morality of nuclear weapons. Citizens have to be educated and given an opportunity to air their views on a matter of this import. India and Pakistan and China have been busy building up their nuclear arsenals. Our doctrine speaks of “credible minimum deterrent”. It is legitimate to ask how much is “minimum”. Will it adversely affect our security if India and Pakistan were to declare a “freeze” on their respective stockpiles? We do not like to admit it,but the two countries are engaged in a nuclear and missile arms race.

While the probability of a major war with China is not great — given its leadership’s need to keep the economy growing for reasons of survival — we cannot build our strategic policy on this assumption. The answer does not lie in nuclear deterrent. China will always be miles ahead of us in this area,as in most others. It has the potential to inflict immeasurably more death and destruction on us than we can on them. Deterrence is likely to work in China’s favour. What is needed is a vastly enhanced conventional capability in terms of weapons systems,infrastructure,etc.

The answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this article can briefly be given as follows. Nuclear weapons have not really made us more secure against our potential adversaries. If anything,they have nullified the advantage of conventional superiority against Pakistan and put us on the defensive. Nor have they helped in reducing expenditure on conventional weapon systems,as shown by our immensely costly and continuous purchase of weapons systems from foreign vendors. The time has perhaps come to consider a freeze,even if it is only with reference to Pakistan.

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

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