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India, a reluctant and tentative nuclear power

By Brahma Chellaney
August 31, 2009 11:11 IST
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More than a decade after Pokharan II, India doesn't have much to celebrate. It still doesn't have minimal, let alone, credible deterrence, says Brahma Chellaney.

By certifying that the 1998 thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb test was a success, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can hardly defuse the renewed national controversy over that issue. After all, Dr Singh, while in the Opposition, had not hidden his anti-nuclear sentiment. In fact, he had warned that the 1998 nuclear tests would seriously impair the national economy.

But India's foreign exchange reserves actually multiplied five times within seven years and its GDP growth accelerated sharply. Who had looked at India as a rising power before 1998?

Even former President A P J Abdul Kalam's certificate cannot squelch questions over the thermonuclear test. From the India-US civilian nuclear deal to the hydrogen bomb, Kalam has been ever ready to defend official claims, but the missile programme he headed still staggers. In the long years he spent in the missile programme, Kalam could not give India the basic missile capability for self-defence.

India's nuclear strategic programme has always been shielded from parliamentary scrutiny and CAG audit. So, it is hard to reliably determine whether India's sole thermonuclear test fizzled out quickly or was a success, as officially claimed. But some facts speak for themselves.

One telling fact is that more than 11 years later, India has still not weaponised the thermonuclear technology, even though the test in 1998 was supposed to have catapulted the country into the big-power league. The thermonuclear test, obviously, was not intended merely as a technology demonstrator. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask: What has been the security benefit for the country from that test?

Even more glaring is another fact: More than 35 years after Pokharan I, India stands out as a reluctant and tentative nuclear power, still lacking even a barely minimal deterrent capability against China. Given the growing military asymmetry with China, a proven and weaponised Indian thermonuclear capability, backed by long-range missiles, is critical to deter the assertive and ambitious northern neighbour. But today, India does not have a single Beijing-reachable missile in deployment.

Had India developed and deployed a minimal but credible nuclear-weapons capability, China would not have dared to mess with it. But the increasing Chinese bellicosity, reflected in rising border incursions and the hardening of Beijing's stance on territorial disputes, suggests China is only getting emboldened against a weaker India.

Consider yet another unpalatable fact: No country has struggled longer to build a minimal deterrent or paid heavier international costs for its nuclear programme than India. The history of India's nuclear-weapons programme is actually a record of how it helped establish multilateral technology controls. Pokharan I, for example, impelled the secret formation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). India's space programme helped give birth to the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Yet, before it has built a credible minimal deterrent, India came full circle when it entered into a civilian nuclear deal with the US and secured an exemption from the NSG last year to import high-priced commercial nuclear power reactors and fuel. In doing so, it had to accept nonproliferation conditions that aim to stunt its nuclear deterrent development.

Through this deal, India is seeking to replicate in the energy sector the very mistake it has made on armaments. Now the world's largest arms importer, India spends more than $6 billion every year on importing conventional weapons, some of dubious value, while it neglects to build its own armament production base.

Conventional weapons simply cannot deter a nuclear adversary. Deterrence against a nuclear foe can only be built on nuclear capability, especially a second-strike capability that can survive the enemy's first strike to inflict massive retaliation.

More broadly, Indian policymakers have yet to recognise that no nation can be a major power without three attributes: A high level of autonomous and innovative technological capability; a capacity to meet basic defence needs indigenously; and a capability to project power far beyond its borders, especially through intercontinental-range weaponry. India is deficient in all the three areas.

It is not an accident that all the countries armed with intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are permanent members of the UN Security Council. But rather than aim for a technological leap through a crash ICBM programme, India remains interminably stuck in the Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) stage.

In fact, in an action that ominously harks back to the 1991-95 period when Manmohan Singh as finance minister starved the nuclear programme of necessary funds for expansion, the government's 2008-2009 budget slashed the Department of Atomic Energy's funding by $529 million. No explanation was offered to the nation.

Under the nuclear deal, the government has agreed to voluntarily shut down by next year one of the country's two bomb-grade plutonium-production reactors, the Cirus, although current international estimates of India's weapons-grade fissile material stockpile put its quantity just marginally higher than Pakistan's.

More than a decade after Pokharan II, India doesn't have much to celebrate. Nuclear diffidence continues to hold it down. It still doesn't have minimal, let alone, credible deterrence. Its military asymmetry with China has grown to the extent that many in its policymaking community seem to be losing faith in the country's ability to defend itself with its own means.

Against this background, the latest claim that the 1998 thermonuclear test performed well under par can only further damage the credibility of India's nuclear posture. The controversy over the thermonuclear test, however, is nothing new. No sooner had the test been conducted than a former head of the Indian nuclear programme, P K Iyengar, questioned official claims of success.

In such a setting -- with critics within and outside the country questioning the success of the test -- India must be ready to convincingly re-demonstrate its thermonuclear capability, should a propitious international opportunity arise from a nuclear test conducted by another power.

Nuclear deterrence, after all, is like beauty: It lies in the eyes of the beholder. It is not what India's nuclear establishment claims but what outsiders, especially regional adversaries, believe that constitutes deterrence (or the lack of it).

Brahma Chellaney is one of India's leading nuclear and strategic affairs experts.

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