"Campaign to Uphold/Preserve India's Nuclear Autonomy, National Security & Sovereignty"


Nuclear testing is the crux
By Bharat Karnad
Asian Age, Dec 19, 2006

The real problem with the eventual 123 agreement is that it will meet the standard laid down in the July 18 Joint Statement, which predicates any civil nuclear cooperation on India's continuing with its "unilateral test moratorium" - a side-door entry for this country into the defunct Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty regime. (Incidentally, the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store at a Delhi seminar last Friday implied that the only reason Norway might join the consensus to ease the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines is because the nuclear deal will have CTBT-type consequences for India.)

In fact, the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Atomic Energy Promotion Act of 2006 goes beyond CTBT and prevents India from conducting sub-critical tests, assuming the country can, at some time in the future, afford the necessary extraordinarily expensive facilities.

When even an M.R. Srinivasan, a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who provided the Manmohan Singh government with some comfort by giving it the benefit of doubt, excoriates the Hyde Act as something that will result in the "total loss of control" by India "over its future nuclear policies" (Hindu, 14 December 2006), a stand buttressed by the senior scientists' group meeting in Mumbai on December 15, then the nuclear deal, as far as this country is concerned, has no scientific leg to stand on.

Preventing India from ever testing again, as this analyst has been stressing in his articles in this paper and other writings since Manmohan Singh's July 2005 Washington visit, is the chief American motivation for the deal, because it achieves two of the three longstanding US non-proliferation goals of "capping and freezing" the quality of India's nuclear weapons technology at the 20-kiloton fission level. The third objective of "eliminating" Indian weapons will occur naturally with the technologically primitive Indian weapons becoming progressively irrelevant with the continuous upgrading of nuclear arms in the neighbourhood (by China and Pakistan) and by the great powers. Thus, India will not be able to transform its existing inventory of "boosted fission" and fusion weapons of doubtful quality into a safe, proven and reliable arsenal.

Facing the predicament he has contrived to get India into, Manmohan Singh can walk away from the deal and protect the national interest. Or, as is more likely to happen, he will dissemble in Parliament, sign a 123 agreement forever hobbling the country strategically, and then justify this, as semi-official supporters of this deal are doing, by saying that testing is not an option because, deal or no deal, the US will clamp down technology, trade and capital-flow embargoes bringing the Indian economy speeding at 8% growth rate to a grinding halt, which this country cannot afford. But the US imposed embargoes after the 1998 tests and had to withdraw them because other countries, more intent on profiting from the Big Emerging Market, benefited vastly from America's absence from the scene.

India today is in a far stronger position to frustrate US-engineered bans and other punitive measures. As far as advanced technologies are concerned, in the nuclear realm there is nothing intrinsically advantageous about 1,000 MW reactors procured from France, Russia or the US, considering that these will be perennially hostage to instant fuel cut-off, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is a test-bed for a distant technological dream, and the Generation Next Energy Programme will not involve participation by India other than as a paying customer.

And, in the military sphere, India will be allowed to access Sixties' vintage hardware of the F-16/18 type when more modern systems are already available from other suppliers. In any case, no cutting-edge dual-use technologies will be accessible under any dispensation because the US, according to the Hyde Act, will be establishing the standard.

If the nuclear deal is being sought to meet immediate shortages of natural uranium, then there is even less reason to forsake the testing option. Especially because indigenous ore-bearing areas, like in Domiesat (Meghalaya) and Nalgonda, identified long ago, can be brought on stream within 12-18 months from the word go. This will necessitate working the existing reactors at lower capacities for a short period of time. But that's definitely preferable to a legal obligation never to test which will be tantamount to gutting the nuclear weapons programme.

It is one thing for the government of the day to decide not to test during its watch so as to not hurt the flourishing trade and economic links with western states. It is quite another thing for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to decide that because he deems testing inadvisable at the present time, that the option will never be required to be exercised any time in the future and, therefore, can be done away with altogether. This is criminal folly of the highest order. Great powers or would-be great powers leave open not even the smallest window of vulnerability. But the PM is taking the roof off of our nuclear weapons programme.

But, what is behind the set of complacent beliefs that has spawned the Manmohan Singh government's readiness legally to acquiesce in a non-testing regime? It is the concept of "minimum deterrence" articulated, in the main, by K. Subrahmanyam, the influential ex-civil servant regarded by those advising the PM, including national security adviser M.K. Narayanan as their "guru" on nuclear matters.

Subrahmanyam is essentially a votary of "existential deterrence," believing that because of the physical enormity of the scale of nuclear destruction disparity in armament quality and numbers does not matter, that a few, simple, atomic weapons in one's armoury, however deployed (including in a "de-alerted, de-mated" mode), can deter another country equipped with more numerous and more powerful nuclear armaments. This simplistic argument does not reckon, for instance, with the reality of masses of megaton-yield thermonuclear weaponry with an adversary, like China. If readied in a crisis for possible use, these can be expected to psychologically disable an Indian government (which, as the record shows, can be unnerved by very little) with only kiloton-yield weapons in its employ.

Originally, when McGeorge Bundy, US President John F. Kennedy's national security assistant, conceptualised "existential deterrence" - the Bomb exists (in whatever form) and, therefore, it deters - it was at a time when surveillance and mobile target-seeking and tracking technologies slaved to precision-guided conventional munitions were not as developed as is the case now. These technologies (that China is set to acquire by 2007) can pre-emptively wipe out small nuclear forces without offering nuclear provocation.

In the event, genuine city busting megaton-yield thermonuclear armaments, which occasion unparalleled dread and hence can deter even the most powerful countries, are the urgent need. The best India can theoretically muster is a 200-kiloton weapon. It can, moreover, be certain of its reliability only after many more tests, because the sole fusion weapon design tested in 1998 was not up to mark. And simulation, based on single test data, cannot help obtain reliable weaponry.

But Subrahmanyam, rooted in his existential deterrence ideas circa the Sixties, does not mind India not being able to test again under any circumstances nor unilaterally agreeing to a test ban. He strongly opposed any testing in the period before the 1998 tests, believing that the one-off test carried out in 1974 - compared to the 1,000 plus conducted by the US, the 750-odd by Russia and the 74 tests by China - was entirely adequate for the purposes of configuring a credible Indian deterrent! And he advocated India's signing CTBT in 1996 which advice, Prime Minister Deve Gowda, fortunately, rejected.

Further, if deterrence is a mind-game then, in the context of the nuclear deal with the US, India will not be able to compete at the strategic-global level or even the regional level with the five so-called "NPT-recognised" nuclear weapon states or even Pakistan - all of which, unconstrained by any legal undertakings, will remain free to test, design new weapons, and improve effectiveness of the existing ones in their inventories.

But Subrahmanyam is pitching for this deal on the basis that it will help the US install India as a counterpoise to China in Asia. How credible will such an attempt at balancing China be if it simultaneously ensures that India cannot emerge as a consequential thermonuclear counterweight, he did not explain. But neither did Ashley Tellis, one-time adviser to US ambassador Robert Blackwill, when asked this question at a Confederation of Indian Industry do several months back. There is, after all, only so much political punch a, nuclear-wise, fly-weight India can pack in a world dominated by nuclear heavy-weights and a muscular middle-weight, like China, bulking up to enter the higher weight class. Cobbling "strategic partnerships" with various countries, which Subrahmanyam recommends, will not be able to compensate for India's lack of strategic wherewithal and heft.

Subrahmanyam, hailed as the Bhishma Pitamaha by the strategic community (and his chelas in government), might care to remember that the Mahabharata grandee, for all his sagacity and wisdom, ended up supporting the wrong cause and on the wrong side of history.

Bharat Karnad is Professor at the Centre for Policy Research and author of Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, now in its second edition



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