| On a leash
The India-United States of America cooperation in the nuclear field started in the Fifties under President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms For Peace programme. In the Sixties, India and the US cooperated in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty discussions at the Geneva disarmament conference, although India then chose to stay out of the NPT. When it conducted a peaceful nuclear test in 1974, the US introduced legislation prohibiting US nuclear assistance for peaceful purposes. India's 1998 nuclear tests drew further US sanctions covering even technology for the light combat aircraft. Historically, from the US perspective, India has been a nuclear upstart defying the US's non-proliferation agenda. India has steadfastly considered the NPT discriminatory and against its security interests. The joint Bush-Manmohan Singh statement of July 18 last year suddenly appeared to have changed all this, until the fine print began to sink in.
Having gate-crashed into the nuclear club, India found it somewhat difficult to adjust to the harsh realities that go along with the wearing of the club tie ' quite apart from the embarrassment of not being invited into the nuclear sanctum sanctorum. The draft nuclear doctrine, for all practical purposes, remains the only formal enunciation and should thus be guiding nuclear policies and programmes. It makes the following points. First, India's strategic interests require effective nuclear deterrence, and adequate retaliatory capability should deterrence fail. Second, India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but should deterrence fail it will respond with punitive retaliation. Any nuclear attack on India and its forces shall result in punitive retaliation with nuclear weapons. Finally, India will pursue a doctrine of 'credible minimum nuclear deterrence', which is a dynamic concept, related to the strategic environment, technological imperatives and the needs of national security. But of late, signals originating from authoritative sources both here and in the US in the context of the current Indo-US nuclear discussions have created a sense of ambivalence, a condition not conducive to the concept of credible deterrence.
India and China share a disputed border and are emerging as strategic rivals in the Indian Ocean littoral countries, the south- east Asian region and the adjoining seas. A study by a US-based think-tank says that an aggressive China may offer 'no notice challenges' to India and by 2020 will have an enhanced nuclear and conventional counter-force strike capability against a significant number of targets in India and other countries. As long as the levers of power remain in military hands in Pakistan, the bogey of an external threat from India will be kept alive. Pakistan continues to consider India as its only threat and its nuclear weapons are 'aimed solely at India'. Its nuclear programme is solely controlled by the military under whose stewardship a nuclear arms bazaar has flourished as does terrorism.
The declaration of India as a nuclear weapons state in 1998 amounted to defiance of the US- led non-proliferation regime, which holds nuclear weapons to be legitimate instruments of security only for five nations. The strength and commitment of the non-proliferation lobby in the US cannot therefore be underestimated. It can be felt today by way of some strong anti-Indo-US nuclear partnership sentiment prevalent in the US, the latest being the open letter by 67 Nobel laureates of the Federation of American Scientists opposing the deal.
Technologically, the five recognized nuclear powers have continued to develop their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. It was this need that delayed the finalizing of the comprehensive test ban treaty until they had acquired the technology to test warheads using non-explosive techniques. Even so, the US did not ratify the CTBT in part because it is currently engaged on a new nuclear warhead design, the first after nearly two decades. While China already has delivery systems covering the Indian subcontinent with warheads in the multi-megaton range, it continues development of warheads and delivery systems with the aim of achieving inter-continental reach covering the US.
Pakistan has chosen a pragmatic route by clandestinely obtaining a proven, tested and certified nuclear weapon design from China and missile systems from China and North Korea. Pakistan's nuclear programme being India-centric, its current capability is adequate, more so as India's 'no first use' policy bestows on it the benefit of 'first use' advantage. So Pakistan does not need to allocate time and financial resources towards technological upgradation and consequent testing as this will be done by its benefactors.
Of the five nuclear tests conducted by India in May 1998, only one was claimed to be a thermonuclear device and that too of only 42 Kt yield. Doubts have been expressed in many quarters on the efficacy of India's nuclear warhead and missile capability based on very limited tests. In his book Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, Bharat Karnad mentions that the armed forces were not convinced about the efficacy of the 1998 tests and that without a new round of tests, the confidence of the military in the nuclear/thermo nuclear weapons and weapon designs would be low. He also argues that 'the service chiefs could demand that nuclear weapons and missiles of every genus and type in the inventory be tested to the satisfaction, not of the scientists and DRDO technologists alone, but of the user-services, as was done in the case of Prithvi'. The Agni II missile delivery system with its 2500 kilometre range effectively limits the Indian deterrent capability to the subcontinent, indicating a disconnect between the professed nuclear doctrine and current capability.
All this is not to imply that India does not have the capability to design, develop, test and field more powerful thermo nuclear warheads and longer range delivery systems, but that scientists, engineers and armed forces can only do this in a doctrinaire environment which sets strategic goals and allows them the space and time to develop and operationalize needed systems as is done for conventional weapon systems and missiles.
If Indian security planners wish to field a credible nuclear deterrent, then status quo is not an option. India needs to continue design and engineering efforts towards higher yielding thermo nuclear warheads. Apart from the research, development and engineering effort, this will require more exhaustive testing than for conventional weapon systems. Agni III and its successors should be designated priority areas for development and testing. Until we achieve reliable inter-continental capabilities, we will not be able to fulfil the tenets of our own doctrine, which calls for punishment of any nuclear aggressor, which could be any of the known nuclear powers or unknown non-state terrorist organizations, not just Pakistan.
In the joint statement, President Bush had committed 'that as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology, India should acquire the same benefits and advantages as other states'. After nearly a year of negotiations through which we seem to be perpetually at the giving end, statements from US quarters talk of 'strengthening the global non-proliferation regime by bringing India into the nuclear fold'. The change in emphasis is not so subtle. Quite apart from any test moratorium, which will make us worse off than the CTBT signatories, we are being collared into supporting the fissile material cut-off treaty. While NPT states can opt out on national security considerations, our dependence on nuclear fuel and technology and investments made makes this a bitter pill to swallow. An indication of how the wind is blowing comes when the defence minister supports the government's withholding of political clearance for testing of the Agni III adding, 'as responsible members of the international community, we want to keep our international commitments on non-proliferation'.
There is concern that, far from being admitted to the nuclear clubroom, we are being led to the NPT doghouse. Does our credible nuclear deterrence now stand consigned to the bin' Claiming membership of the nuclear club is one thing, donning the mantle of a nuclear power quite another. As India is slowly beginning to learn, nuclear powers need to be made of sterner stuff.