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June 4, 1998


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The Rediff Special/ Gaurav Kampani

The BJP's Monumental Blunder

In the world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
~ Oscar Wilde

What was the point of bringing our nuclear weapons capability out of the closet? Have we arrived as a great power in the international system? Have our security interests been enhanced? Has the declaration of the government that India is now a nuclear weapons state advanced our strategic interests? None of these objectives have been achieved. Instead, we have squandered precious diplomatic capital, suffered political isolation, become the target of economic sanctions, and are now haunted by the spectre of heightened regional tension.

By playing nuclear Diwali at Pokhran, the BJP has destroyed the bedrock of security that prevailed in South Asia for much of the last decade. That bedrock was non-weaponised deterrence. Non-weaponised deterrence did not prevent our ability to produce nuclear weapons if and when needed. It only introduced an element of opacity in our nuclear capability. The entire world knew that India was a threshold nuclear weapons state and that the objective of our unsafeguarded nuclear programme was to keep the sanctity of our fabled "option" strategy intact.

Non-weaponised deterrence was a brilliant approach to manage our nuclear capability. It minimised the economic cost of maintaining a nuclear deterrent, stabilised the nuclear equation between India and Pakistan, and statistically reduced the risk of a nuclear war in South Asia. Because there was never any nuclear deployment, India was also able to tacitly support the security objectives of the global nonproliferation regime without compromising any of its national security or ideological objectives.

By now electing to exercise the nuclear option, India has opened the floodgates of nuclearisation in South Asia. Despite the huge investments needed to field and maintain a robust deterrent and the added risks of a nuclear war due to inadvertence or a command-and-control failure, the benefits of an overt deployment strategy will be the same as before, namely deterrence.

Prime Minister Vajpayee, in his to letter to leaders of the G-8 group of countries, has attributed India's decision to resume nuclear testing to a deteriorating nuclear security environment. In particular, he has referred to India's 1962 border spat with China, a declared nuclear weapons state. He has also pointed out the distrust that China has created by covertly nuclearising Pakistan.

I am no apologist for China. But it needs to be said that China has never been a nuclear threat to India. Ever since it acquired nuclear weapons, China adopted a no-first-use doctrine. Since then, it has scrupulously refrained from using its nuclear capability to influence relations with any of its strategic interlocutors.

Of course, this is not to argue that strategic behaviour is immutable. In fact, the nuclear debate in India always centred on the classic dictum that it is the capability and not the articulated intentions of adversaries that must be factored into security planning; intentions can change overnight. This is true.

Chinese nuclear capability poses an existential threat to India's security. But then India has had an existential nuclear capability since 1974 to deal with that threat. The consolidation of strategic long-range strike technologies under the rubric of an "option" policy would have provided New Delhi a low-cost and diplomatically viable security blanket to counter any threatening changes in Chinese nuclear behaviour.

Overt nuclearisation is unlikely to offer any leverage in securing a favourable border settlement with China because nuclear weapons are not weapons of war. They cannot be employed in battle. Their sole purpose is to "vacate" nuclear threats by threatening nuclear devastation. By singling out China as its "enemy number one," New Delhi has risked all the gains from the border-related confidence building measures negotiated with China over the span of a decade.

Indian analysts have long complained of Chinese nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan. But are these any different from the assistance that India's nuclear, space, and missile sectors have received from Canada, Europe, Russia and the US?

Although the Chinese have transferred strategic technologies to Pakistan, they have played a subtle balancing game and done nothing that would radically change the balance of power on the subcontinent.

For instance, Chinese technology transfers to Islamabad have been restricted to short-range ballistic missiles. Even those missiles that were transferred were never allowed to be uncrated. Furthermore, persistent US pressure has put an end to Chinese inputs into Pakistan's nuclear weapons complex. More recently, China declined to extend a nuclear umbrella to Pakistan.

New Delhi ought to have used a mix of incentives (non-weaponisation of nuclear weapons), warnings (development of medium-range ballistic missile prototypes), and veiled threats (potential nuclear and missile transfers to states in East and South East Asia) to freeze Chinese strategic arms transfers at their current levels. Unfortunately, by rushing to exercise its nuclear option, India has lost what little leverage that it may have had to influence Chinese behaviour. Co-operation between China and Pakistan, that was sporadic in the past, will now most probably be upgraded to the strategic level.

In essence, Indian weaknesses vis--vis China did not stem from the lack of a nuclear capability. Indian policy objectives suffered from the absence of a politically imaginative strategy to wield that capability.

The prime minister has also trumpeted Pakistan's nuclear capability as the other justification for India's crossing the nuclear threshold. Is this, however, anything new? Pakistan's nuclear capability was well known and was always factored into India's military planning. Sometime during the mid-1980s India and Pakistan reached a stable nuclear plateau and an informal regime of non-weaponised deterrence came into existence.

This is corroborated by two nuclear crises. The first crisis occurred during the Brasstacks exercise in the winter of 1987. Pakistan responded to Brasstacks -- the largest military exercise in India's history -- with a counter mobilisation of its own; Pakistan also openly declared that it had a nuclear weapons capability. Realising the risk of war, India truncated the size of the exercise and defused the crisis.

The second nuclear crisis occurred in the winter of 1989-1990. Exasperated by the escalating insurgency in Kashmir, India seriously contemplated limited military strikes across the border at insurgent training camps in Pakistan. Threatened, Pakistan apparently weaponised its nuclear capability and hinted that it would use nuclear weapons if confronted with an Indian conventional strike. Faced with escalation to a nuclear level, India backed down. Although the V P Singh government denied that a crisis was at hand, a senior government official later revealed that the Indian government had indeed taken Pakistan's nuclear threat very seriously.

If nuclear deterrence prevailed under a regime of non-weaponised deterrence then what have we gained by testing an array of sophisticated nuclear devices that are unusable? If the BJP seriously believes that nuclear superiority will provide India a strategic edge in its relations with Pakistan, then it would be advised to reassess its strategy. The first and fundamental rule of the nuclear revolution is that nuclear superiority does not matter. A country possessing even a few crude nuclear devices can stave off a giant.

Indeed, Pakistan's strategy is similar to NATO's stance in Europe during the Cold War. NATO realised that it could never match the Warsaw's Pact's conventional might. Therefore it settled for a doctrine that gave it the flexibility to use nuclear weapons first. Pakistan has adopted a similar strategy and hinted that it could contemplate a nuclear first strike if its security were seriously threatened.

Now, several Indian political hawks believe that Pakistan's doctrine of first-use is a strategy of bluff and bluster; first-use, as the argument goes, is the high road to national suicide. But it is impossible to determine whether Pakistan is bluffing because no rational Indian leader is likely to risk a nuclear war.

All these years, Pakistan had a limited nuclear-strike capability. Pakistan's F-16s could only threaten targets in North and Western India. It was also never clear whether Pakistan could miniaturise and mate nuclear warheads to ballistic missiles without a programme of field tests. India has now provided Pakistan the opportunity to test warheads for its inventory of ballistic missiles. Nuclear threats from India have also spurred the development of long-range ballistic missile systems in Pakistan. Once these are developed and deployed, India's strategic depth will be shattered.

In recent weeks, India's bomb lobby has advanced the dubious idea that nuclear weapons eliminate conflict between states. The horrors of a potential nuclear war, we are told, are enough to induce great caution in the relations between nuclear states. The argument is that once India and Pakistan acquire stable nuclear deterrents, political stability will reign in South Asia. This is only partly true.

If the first rule of the nuclear revolution is the irrelevance of nuclear superiority, then the second rule is Glenn Snyder's "stability-instability paradox." This means that whereas nuclear weapons confer great stability at the top, there is instability at the bottom. Thus, although large-scale conventional wars between nuclear weapon states are very unlikely (because of the fear that a conventional war might escalate to a nuclear level); the chances of a war at the bottom or along the periphery are quite high.

For instance, during the Cold War years, whereas the central balance in Europe remained unchallenged, this did not stop the superpowers from pursuing proxy wars in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The situation in the Indian subcontinent is no different. Nuclear deterrence has ensured that India and Pakistan will never dare confront each other in a large-scale conventional war. But this does not prevent the two countries from waging insurgency or low-intensity conflicts on each other's territories.

Pakistan has seized upon this paradox to wage a gruelling low-intensity war with India in Kashmir. Unlike 1965, the Indian army can no longer cross the border to punish Pakistan for its misbehaviour. A nuclear shield now protects Pakistan, and no amount of nuclear superiority is going to swing the balance in India's favour.

Recently Home Minister L K Advani made a statement that the strategic scenario in the subcontinent has changed dramatically after the current round of Indian tests. He also did not rule out limited military strikes across the border at insurgency training camps in Pakistan. Before undertaking such adventurism, however, it would be prudent for India to study the case of Israel.

Israel is an undeclared nuclear weapon state and enjoys unchallenged nuclear and conventional superiority in the Middle East. It faces protests in the West Bank and Gaza and guerrilla raids from groups based in Lebanon. Israel also maintains a security zone in South Lebanon and regularly conducts conventional military raids across the border. But this has not stamped out the Lebanon-based guerrilla raids.

In fact, no insurgency in military history has ever been defeated so long as it enjoys a safe haven and a disaffected populace. The United States got a taste of this in Vietnam, the Soviets in Afghanistan, Pakistan in Bangladesh, and the Indian army in Jaffna and now in Kashmir. Cross-border raids into Pakistan are more likely to intensify the insurgency and bring South Asia to the brink of nuclear war.

By buying into the collective stupidity of our bomb lobby, the BJP has committed a monumental blunder. It has embarked on a high-risk strategy that over time will bring us diminishing security returns. The nuclearisation of our armed forces won't serve our security interests; it will feed the constructed worldview of a narrow-minded national security priesthood.

The BJP would like the nation to believe that it has resolved a great strategic contradiction. It is more likely that it has walked India into a strategic trap.

The author is a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey CA. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies or the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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