Nuclear testing is
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
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
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.
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