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The Rediff Special/Lt Gen K S Brar (retd)

How long can India afford to give in to external pressures at the cost of its national security?

Should India go nuclear? What happens if China or Pakistan launch a nuclear attack against India? Will India be in a position to retaliate, having never tested a nuclear weapon? Lt General Kuldeep Singh Brar (retired), the former army commander, examines the issues involved in this fascinating expose.

Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav finally announced last month that a decision has been taken to accord high priority to the next phase of the Agni programme. But the question that needs to be answered is: What is the structure and process of decision-making on such issues of national security in this country? Just last October, the parliamentary standing committee on defence was informed by the defence ministry that the Agni programme was a technology demonstrator which had been completed and further development would depend on the threat perception at any given time.

Even at that time the deployment of missiles by China and Pakistan, on both flanks of India, was public knowledge. The China-Pakistan missile technology relationship was no secret either. It therefore appeared that India was under pressure from the US to put the Agni programme on hold, if not wind it up. Now that Pakistan has built its missile factory with Chinese help and test-fired its HATF 111 (a clone of the Chinese M-9), even as the US maintains a thunderous silence, the Indian government seems to have suddenly woken up to state that it is going ahead with the Agni programme.

This just goes to prove that India lacks a decision-making structure and no process exists whereby the political leadership absorbs a long term threat assessment to be able to formulate appropriate pro-active policies in time. Though Prime Minister Gujral has promised to revive the defunct National Security Council, he is yet to take the first step.

It is time our national leadership realises that the country's bureaucracy is not well suited to render responsible advice on such matters and that the need to set up a high-level advisory body such as the NSC can no longer be kept on the back-burner except at the peril of India's national security.

In a recent article on the nuclear issue titled 'In the Shadow Of Fear', one of India's better known defence analysts, Manoj Joshi, has painted an interesting scenario which reads something like this:

New Delhi, August 15, 1999. Nine minutes past midnight, three nuclear bombs explode over India's capital, instantly wiping out its political, bureaucratic, and military leadership which is in the city for the Independence day celebrations.

The next senior officer in the military hierarchy, Lt Gen XYZ who is GOC-in-C Southern Command, rushes to his operations room some hours later, by which time waiting for him are Air Marshal ABC, AOC-in-C of the supporting air command, and Mr JKL of the Defence Research and Development Organisation's Field Ballistic Laboratory.

The general's military secretary places before him a sealed envelope marked 'For your eyes only'. The document informs him that he and ABC are now the National Command Authority. Nuclear weapons for retaliation are with the FBL. They are to be armed and dropped by the recently acquired Su-30s from the Pune air base. XYZ is stupefied when ABC says 'the Su-30s are not configured for nuclear delivery. I need at least two days to hard-wire the system and train pilots to deliver the bomb'.

In a nutshell -- the civilians in Delhi had devised an elaborate plan for this contingency, but they had not confided in the armed forces. As a result, neither the army nor the air force was familiar with ways of using or confronting nuclear weapons!

This may sound like fiction but is, perhaps, an alarming fact. Whereas India is flanked by China and Pakistan, both of which have ongoing disputes that led to wars in the past, and both of which are armed with nuclear weapons India feels content with its stated capability of deterrence and the fact that whereas it perceives no confrontational threat from China in the short term, it would be in a position to wipe out Pakistan in a retaliatory nuclear strike in case the former dared to initiate one.

The question that needs to be asked is: What is the true credibility of a declared statement such as this? Is this a question to be answered by the national leadership (in the absence of a NSC) on the basis of what it is told by the bureaucrats? Or the military top brass? Or the fraternity of nuclear scientists? As, seemingly, it is a safeguarded secret from the final executers, which would have to be either the army or the air force.

If such a presumption is true, it would have to be the bureaucracy, or the scientists (the Atomic Energy Commission), or both. In all probability, it would be the latter which, perhaps, is not such a bad idea as the nuclear scientists of this country such as the late Homi Bhabha, Raja Ramanna, Abdul Kalam and Chidambaram, to name a few, were/are not only a highly dedicated and motivated lot of individuals in their fields, but also have the added advantage of long continuity as against frequent changes in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and defence.

Yet the factor which needs to be understood is that there has to be very close interaction between the developer and the executor just as in the case of industry, between the producer and the retailer.

Over the year, ever since the first nuclear test in 1974 at Pokharan, the nuclear issue seems to have been given a somewhat lackadaisical treatment, with a series of hiccups, every now and then bowing down to the dictates of the United States of America. We get going on our Agni project and all of a sudden it is put on hold as a result of US pressure; similarly, we plan to test-fire the Prithvi and end up not doing so for the same reasons.

How long can India afford to give in to external pressures at the cost of its national security? It is difficult to understand the dichotomy of taking a strong stand despite all sorts of external pressures and threats on the NPT and CTBT issues, and, then, buckling down when it comes to moving forward from being a 'nuclear capable State (we hope!), to a 'nuclear weapon State'.

There are two somewhat conflicting views expressed by senior Indian defence analysts, one of which is that there is no need to move into the 'nuclear weapon club' and invite the wrath of the major world powers as they consider the present status of a 'nuclear capable nation' adequate to serve the purpose of 'minimum deterrence'.

In their view, the warheads do not need to be either assembled, crated, or test-fired as long as all the bits and pieces can be put together and the counter strike delivered in a reasonable period of time (say, anything between six and 24 hours), since it will be against area value targets such as major cities and, therefore, the lack of pin-point accuracy as a result of not having test-fired the weapon and the need to have a 'trigger-response' (as the Americans have), will still serve as an adequate minimum deterrent to our adversary, particularly Pakistan, as long as it understands that it would have to pay a stiff price in terms of unacceptable damage in the counter-strike.

The other view point is that 'technological demonstrators' or 'computer simulators' are just not good enough, and that there is no short cut to taking the decision of going ahead and test-firing the nuclear warhead, regardless of external pressures.

Tell us what you think of this opinion

Lt General K S Brar, continued

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