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Jettison the no-first-use nuke policy

November 27, 2007 16:17 IST
Those hostile to the Indo-US nuclear treaty fear that it is actually a bear hug that would crush our strategic muscle. They fear that the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards 'in perpetuity' on 14 and 'all future reactors' will emasculate our military nuclear programme.

As regards the 'in perpetuity' row, India was ready to place reactors under permanent safeguards only after obtaining credible guarantees on fuel supply for these. The prime minister settled the issue of 'all future reactors' by averring that the Government of India retained the sole right to determine reactors as civilian and nothing stopped us from building as many unsafeguarded military facilities as we want.

Putting 14 out of the 22 power reactors in operation and under construction would take place in a phased manner in an eight-year period. The prime minister and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission have assured that the fissile substances extracted from the remaining eight would be enough for India to sustain the minimum deterrent for decades to come. So the Bharatiya Janata Party's contention that the nuclear treaty will 'cap' our weapons programme does not hold water.

Lately, S K Jain, chairman and managing director, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, admitted that several nuclear power plants are running under capacity because of shortage of nuclear fuel. Therein lies the rub: A dearth of uranium. Nobody is going to sell uranium for us to make bombs. It makes sense to buy uranium from the Nuclear Suppliers Group for civilian plants and employ our own uranium for the military programme. We need the nuclear treaty for that.

If the BJP seriously believes it can gild the lily by renegotiating a better deal, they are luxuriating in a fool's paradise. The Left's agitprop on the US as our strategic suzerain is nothing but a bestiary, for India is no banana republic. Petty politics at its worst. If India needs to scale great heights, whenever opportunity knocks, we need to open the door and embrace it, and not whinge about the noisy knock.

Professor Yoginder Alagh clinched it: If the Left wanted to object, it should have opposed uranium import as that makes us almost as vulnerable as petroleum dependence. In fact, worse as uranium trade is supervised by governments.

If the BJP doesn't play hooky, the winter session of Parliament may stage a cut-and-thrust debate on the nuclear treaty and an attempt to square the nuclear circle. Since nuclear issues are linked, Parliament must seize this moment to scrutinise the nuts and bolts of our nuclear doctrine, which is still a work in progress.

Let us revisit the Shakti tests of May 11, 1998, which sowed the seed of our nuclear doctrine. The Department of Atomic Energy said the yields for the fission, thermonuclear and sub-kiloton devices were 15, 45 and 0.2 kilotons respectively. But independent analysts quoting seismic data argued the cumulative yield was likely between 20 and 30 kilotons, implying the second stage of the 'hydrogen bomb' was a damp squib.

A defiant Dr R Chidambaram, then AEC chairman, stood by the 60 kilotons figure and added that India had the know-how and expertise to make nukes with yields up to 200 kilotons.

The nuclear Brahmins came down on outcaste India like a megaton of bricks for our intrepidity to cross the nuclear Rubicon. The National Democratic Alliance government -- though we needed to fix the glitches and test more to consummate the devices -- battled the fallout by announcing abstinence from further tests and the nuclear doctrine with the 'no-first-use policy' (NFUP) as its cornerstone.

The NFUP was obviously an attempt at high-mindedness but Pakistan didn't fall for it, meaning Pakistan would have no compunction in nuking us.

The NFUP smacks of an extremist version of masochism. It's tantamount to: You, there, c'mon clobber me, but if you leave me alive I'll disembowel you! How can a 'democratic' government treat the citizens like cannon fodder? Though I believe no sane country will resort to nukes, Heavens forbid! Pakistan has to go for broke by launching its entire nuclear arsenal to try to ensure its survivability. Wonder what will be left of India to retaliate! Yuck!

Our nuclear doctrine also envisions 'credible minimum deterrence' founded on a triad of land, air and sea-based nuclear forces. But how can one define and quantify deterrence? What is going to deter the evergreen Communist regime in China -- razing few cities, industries and annihilating a million? Few more cities and fifty million?Hundred million? Similarly, the army run/sponsored reign in Pakistan? Even perdition might not move them!

What about India, where human life is the cheapest commodity in the government calculus? How can something subjective like 'deterrence' be determined and then converted into megatons of explosive capacity needed to deter States? Isn't the mere possession of nukes a sure-fire deterrent? Of course, atomic weapons are as much instruments of political coercion as deterrence.

The Indian government appears to have taken a conscious decision to leash the missiles to the intermediate range, short of the intercontinental realm. Obviously, we want only China and Pakistan to be in our nuclear cross-hairs, and not poke the other established nuclear powers. Hitherto, China and India are the only Nuclear Weapon States committed to NFUP. This effectively means our nuclear cause is Pakistan-specific.

The NFUP hinges on the survivability of a percentage of nuclear forces for revenge (to inflict 'unacceptable' losses on the adversary). This necessitates building large number of warheads, all scattered to increase the probability of survival. Which will further warrant a robust command-and-control apparatus that must survive any type of nuking. Imagine the colossal cost NFUP is going to entail and the resources it will tie up.

I think it was the late General Krishnaswamy Sundarji who enunciated the 'small is beautiful' aphorism as a nuclear doctrine. If a smaller force can arguably do the same job, why not? After all, national security interests must override our national itch to monopolise the moral pulpit.

Ideally, every Nuclear Weapon State must pledge NFUP. But we live in an unequal world, and there is no need for India to assume a holier-than-thou demeanour. Why not revoke the no-first-use policy and leave our stance ambiguous like the US, Russia, France and the UK? Let us share NFUP vibes with NFUP States only, and open-ended conduct vis-a-vis the rest (read Pakistan). This will unshackle us from building a large nuclear force raised primarily to ensure first-strike survivability.

The possession of nukes and credible delivery systems are at the kernel of deterrence, the numbers are simply grist to the think-tank mill. So, the big question: How many bombs and how much fissile material do we need to stockpile? I'll stick my chin out: Forty to fifty strategic and a similar number of tactical warheads should suffice.

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), India's nuclear stockpile is most likely produced by two research reactors Cirus and Dhruva, and India has probably accumulated 280 to 600 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, which can build 40 to 120 nuclear warheads. We've a small stock of highly enriched uranium, and analysts believe we have the capability to use reactor grade plutonium (Pu-240).

NTI believes China has about 400 warheads and Pakistan approximately half that of India. So, we do have reasonable volume of fissile material stock, and the BJP need not lose its sleep over the nuclear treaty circumscribing our strategic gamut. Funnily, it is the BJP-led NDA government that foisted the NFUP on the country and thereby compelling us to aggregate a needlessly large nuclear force.

And the delivery system? At present, we are constrained to the dyad of IAF fighters and the short and medium range Prithvi and Agni missiles. The envisaged third arm of the triad, offshore and undersea-based missiles will take some time to materialise. Besides, the first indigenous nuclear-powered submarine -- also known as the Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) -- is yet to enter service. Hopefully, two Shchuka B-class submarines on lease from Russia should see us through till the pride of ATVs begin its patrol with India's 'credible minimum deterrence' dwelling in its bellies.

Parthian shot: Unlike conventional war, there will be no victor in a nuclear exchange, only a vast continental graveyard of the vanquished. Though it might sound chimerical today, I believe global nuclear disarmament is just another Gorbachev away. Nuclear disarmament is too cool an idea to cold shoulder.

M P Anil Kumar is a former fighter pilot.

M P Anil Kumar