The Indian nuclear debate
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Mon Nov 15 04:32:13 MST 1999
The Hindu on indiaserver.com :
Friday, November 12, 1999
The great Indian nuclear debate
By Kanti Bajpai
WHEN THE Indian Government released the National Security Advisory Board's
nuclear doctrine paper, it invited the Indian public to a debate on the
proposed guidelines. Something of a debate has indeed ensued, although it
was driven off the editorial pages by the elections. Underneath this
seemingly esoteric debate is another more consequential one on India's
nuclear posture more broadly conceived. This is a debate between various
pro-bomb analysts and publicists. It has been held in- camera in the
Advisory Board, in seminars and in a thinly-veiled way in the press. The
lineaments of that debate are now clear enough and can be set down with some
Fundamentally, three positions have emerged within the pro-bomb lobby. For
convenience, let us call these: rejectionism, pragmatism, and maximalism.
Rejectionists, pragmatists, and maximalists differ in relation to three
questions. First, does India need nuclear weapons for its security and if so
what should India's nuclear posture be? Second, should India now join the
global non-proliferation regime, at least to the extent of signing the CTBT
and an eventual Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT)? Third, is nuclear
disarmament desirable and feasible?
All three groups answer the first part of the first question in the
affirmative. India, they are agreed, does need nuclear weapons for its
security. There are shades of opinion here, in the sense that the
rejectionists are probably the most apologetic about the bomb and see
nuclearisation as a regrettable necessity in a world where other powers
insist on retaining nuclear weapons. Where the three differ more
significantly is in respect of the second part of the question, namely, the
nature of India's nuclear posture.
At base, rejectionists and pragmatists differ with maximalists over the
nature of deterrence. Rejectionists and pragmatists are nuclear moderates in
the sense that they believe in a ``relaxed'' deterrence posture. At the
heart of relaxed deterrence is the view that it is ``uncertainty'' rather
than ``certainty'' of retaliation that deters. In the relaxed view, India's
nuclear opponents will be deterred if there is any chance that India can
retaliate with nuclear weapons after absorbing a first strike. This is in
contrast to the more classical view, held by maximalists, that it is
certainty - or near-certainty - of retaliation that deters.
Operationally, moderates take the view that a small nuclear force in the
two-digit or three-digit range will suffice for deterrence. Moderates
estimate that between 60-140 Hiroshima-type weapons will do, that in
addition the warheads and delivery vehicles (airplanes, missiles) can be
``de-coupled'' (ergo, deployed separately and mated only when it is
necessary to retaliate), that command and control can be modest, and that no
first use is politically and strategically viable. Maximalists, by contrast,
want a much larger force, perhaps as many as 500- 1000 weapons, warheads
that are ``ready to go'' rather than de- coupled, and a much more extensive
command and control system.
Secondly, rejectionists, pragmatists, and maximalists differ on whether
India should join the CTBT and a future FMCT. For rejectionists, the CTBT
and the FMCT are anathema. Signing them would represent capitulation to the
new world order led by the United States and the other P-5 countries, an
order that is weighed in favour of the powerful. Rejectionists see both
treaties as fundamentally discriminatory since they are embedded in a
nuclear and diplomatic order that is unequal.
By contrast, pragmatists argue that having gone nuclear, India should sign
the CTBT and a possible FMCT. New Delhi should look for a deal with the
international community in which India accedes to the CTBT, negotiates an
FMCT in good faith, and brings its dual-use export control laws in line with
global norms. In return, the international community lifts the post-Pokhran
sanctions on India and eases the non-proliferation restrictions on dual-use
and other high technologies. As an ``insider'' within the new world order,
pragmatists claim, India will count for more. With access to high
technology, India will not only strengthen its military capabilities but it
will also benefit economically. Ultimately, pragmatists believe, power grows
not so much out of the barrel of a gun but rather from economic and
Maximalists are closer to the rejectionists on the issue of the CTBT and the
FMCT. Maximalists do not disagree that the new world order is an unequal and
dangerous one for India and that the CTBT and the FMCT are part of an
asymmetrical system. But their difficulty with the global non- proliferation
regime and the CTBT and the FMCT is that these agreements may adversely
affect India's deterrent. Maximalists are convinced that a ban on testing
and the production of fissile material will stop India from building a
robust deterrent. If so, New Delhi must at least buy time before it signs
either a CTBT or an FMCT.
The third area of difference between the rejectionists, pragmatists and
maximalists is over the desirability and feasibility of nuclear disarmament.
For rejectionists, India's traditional stand on disarmament is a viable one.
A world without nuclear weapons is a desirable world because it is a more
secure world. Rejectionists argue that, armed with the bomb since May 1998,
India has gained diplomatic leverage in pushing for the total elimination of
For pragmatists, disarmament is unrealistic, a relic of the Nehruvian era
that should be given a decent burial. Pragmatists point out that the P-5
continue to affirm the centrality of nuclear weapons in their strategic
postures. Indeed, the five nuclear powers are engaged in research on a new
generation of nuclear weapons. Worse, their advances in conventional
weaponry mean that if nuclear disarmament ever becomes a reality, India will
be even more vulnerable than it is today. Since India cannot match the
so-called ``revolution in military affairs'' in conventional weaponry, it
will need the bomb as a strategic equaliser. More important than
disarmament, therefore, is a global arms control process that limits the
pace, direction and numbers of nuclear weapons and that negotiates
confidence- building measures. The focus of Indian diplomacy, according to
pragmatists, should be to take India into various regional and multilateral
arms control processes.
Maximalists join the pragmatists in questioning the future of disarmament
efforts. Disarmament diplomacy, they suggest, was a useful tactic for India
in the 1950s and 1960s when the country was weak and the nuclear programme
had to be protected from the gaze of suspicious outsiders. Today, in a world
led by a rampant superpower and its close allies, disarmament is not in
India's interest. In any case, for maximalists, the idea of disarmament is
an untenable one.
In short, the pro-bomb lobby is divided on a series of vital issues relating
to India's nuclear posture. Rejectionists and pragmatists believe in a
relaxed deterrent; maximalists want a more classical posture. Pragmatists
want India to sign the CTBT and be active in negotiating an FMCT;
rejectionists and maximalists see this is as capitulation and fatal to the
deterrent, respectively. Finally, rejectionists believe in both the
feasibility and desirability of complete nuclear disarmament; pragmatists
and maximalists do not.
Who is winning this nuclear debate? The NSAB's nuclear doctrine paper might
have given us the answer. Unfortunately, it seems to be all things to all
people. Each group sees its preferences reflected in the document. This is
not surprising given the phrasing of key clauses that is suggestive of a
number of different interpretations. The Indian public should pay attention
to the debate. How it is resolved will profoundly affect Indian society and
India's relations with its neighbours and the rest of the world.
(The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru
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