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Cap the nuclear arsenal now

By R. Rajaraman

If we in South Asia do not act now we will bequeath succeeding generations hundreds of nuclear weapons, in the shadow of whose hazards they will have to live.

NOTWITHSTANDING THE lip service that they periodically pay to the goal of a nuclear weapon-free South Asia, in practice the Governments of India and Pakistan are not taking serious steps to move towards it. Most of our national security experts also seem to consider nuclear disarmament to be no more than a pipe dream of peace activists. Admittedly, given the state of India-Pakistan relations and the proximity of a nuclear China, the prospects for ridding our country of these weapons do seem bleak. But I do not believe they are hopeless. However in order to achieve disarmament people advocating it have to go about it in graduated steps, rather than demand immediate disarmament on an all-or-nothing basis.

Taking on the task of full disarmament of South Asia at this stage may be forbidding . But the more modest goal of capping the arsenal at existing levels may be achievable. As of now, South Asian nuclear forces and their associated infrastructure are still relatively small compared to those of other nuclear powers. If further growth and consolidation could be stopped soon, it may be possible eventually to roll back the arsenal. It is the first step on the road to full disarmament. Keeping the arsenal from becoming larger also lowers the various risks attendant with the possession of nuclear weapons. These risks include the possibility of accidents, fires, launch through human and instrumental error, and theft by non-state actors.

Therefore a concerted effort should be made by peace lovers and arms controllers to demand the capping of South Asian nuclear arsenals at current levels as soon as possible. We in India should do this unilaterally, in our own enlightened self-interest. Even this smaller goal of capping the arsenal will not be easy to achieve. It can only be done by evolving a broad consensus among people with different shades of opinion on the nuclear issue. There are some in the subcontinent who, like me, strongly believe that nuclear weapons are not essential for national security. But there are others, many more in number and most of them not hawks by nature, who genuinely feel that nuclear weapons are a necessary evil to deter our nuclear neighbours. Their concerns must be addressed if a consensus is to be evolved to stop the onward march of nuclearisation.

The concept of nuclear deterrence is based on shaky foundations that are as much psychological as they are logical. Nevertheless, in order to address the concerns of those who believe in it, let us accept the notion of deterrence for the sake of argument. That raises the question of how large an arsenal of warheads is really needed for that purpose. The strategy of deterrence relies on possessing a nuclear capability that can still inflict, even after a first attack by the enemy, unacceptable damage to the other side. This, it is argued, would deter them from attempting a nuclear first strike.

Now, just a couple of modest 15-20 kiloton weapons dropped on Lahore and Karachi or New Delhi and Mumbai would kill half a million people. Surely, that should already be "unacceptable damage" to an even remotely responsible leadership. A leadership that finds this "acceptable" is beyond the pale of rationality and cannot be relied upon to feel deterred even by the prospect of a larger attack. Given that a successful attack on a few major cities with a couple of 20 kiloton weapons each would inflict unacceptable damage, it is not clear why the notion of deterrence should call for dozens, let alone hundreds, of weapons.

All one needs are a few surviving deliverable weapons. With clever camouflaging techniques, mobile launchers, and submarine-based missiles, losses due to limitations of reliability, accuracy, and survivability in the event of a first attack would at most be about 50 per cent. Altogether then, about a dozen safely stored warheads should really be sufficient for such deterrence.

Now, a conservative estimate based on most reports would suggest that India and Pakistan already have 40 or more nuclear weapons each — more than sufficient to serve the requirements of deterrence. Unfortunately, even with so many weapons already in hand, they see their nuclear arsenals as still being at some incomplete stage. Despite the fact that relations between the two countries have improved over the past year and a dialogue is proceeding on different fronts, there has been no interruption in the further build-up of their respective nuclear forces.

In fact not too long ago Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, assured his nation, in connection with the Dr. A.Q. Khan episode, that its nuclear assets and its missile programme would not be rolled back. On the Indian side too one has not heard any person in authority talking of stopping or even slowing down further growth of nuclearisation. India's nuclear doctrine, which is presumably still the blueprint for its nuclear strategy, speaks of a triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles, and sea-based assets with multiple redundant systems. So the present thaw in India-Pakistan relations notwithstanding, if no decisive steps are taken to reverse the existing policies of nuclear build-up there may be well over a hundred nuclear weapons on each side within a decade. Certainly I know some influential voices in India that would want even bigger arsenals.

We are aware that India's nuclear strategy is not just a bilateral matter involving Pakistan. It is designed as much, if not more, with China in mind. That we have three contiguous nuclear nations certainly makes the de-nuclearisation of this region a very complicated matter. But as far as capping the Indian arsenal is concerned, the preceding arguments for it hold just as much when applied to China as the adversary. The assured prospect of, say, Nanjing and Shanghai receiving a couple of bombs that would kill half a million people should be ample for deterring today's China (we do not yet have the missiles to deliver them that far, but no doubt we are working on them). In China's perception its main external threat comes from the United States and its missile defence programme and not India.

Furthermore, China is now focussed strongly on pursuing its economic growth and domestic prosperity. It is extremely unlikely to initiate any adventure against India that could invite nuclear retaliation against any of its major cities.

The fact that China possesses several hundred nuclear warheads does not negate the argument for capping the Indian arsenal at a much smaller number. The tenets of deterrence do not require that your arsenal match that of your adversary, but only that it be capable of inflicting damage that is unacceptable to any rational leadership on the other side. Recall that China itself has been content to stay with just a few hundred weapons, even though the U.S. and Russia, which it views as its main adversaries, possess several thousands of them.

The call for capping the arsenal may be opposed not just by pro-nuclear strategists but, ironically, also by staunch anti-nuclear groups for different reasons. The latter may feel that in arguing that the existing arsenal is "more than enough," the weapons are being rationalised and sanctified. That is not the intention. We must remember that the present arsenal is a reality that is already there. Worse still, it is growing with time. If you cannot even stop its growth there is no question of eventually achieving total disarmament.

Hard-headed strategists, on the other hand, may view the suggestion for a cap as nave and impractical given the state of India-Pakistan relations. But there are special situations when governments have to rise above traditional postures and diplomatic caution in order to achieve special goals. The dangers of increasing nuclear arsenals further are far too serious and call for drastic measures immediately.

There is an urgent need to cap the nuclear arsenals now. For, once deeply entrenched, nuclear weapon systems will not go away so easily even after political tensions get defused. We only need to look at Russia and the U.S. 15 years after the Cold War has ended. Each of them still has several thousand weapons on alert with no discernable threat left to justify them. If we in South Asia do not act now we too will bequeath our succeeding generations hundreds of nuclear weapons, in the shadow of whose hazards they will have to live for decades if not centuries.

(The writer is Professor Emeritus of Physics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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