Since India became a declared nuclear weapon state in May 1998, there has been a concerted campaign, particularly by non-proliferation lobbies in western countries, echoed by analysts in China and Pakistan, to spread the notion that India’s strategic programme has been driven by considerations of prestige and propaganda, rather than by any real security threats. Lately such assessments have also begun to emerge from some Indian commentators, who argue that “India’s dominant objective was political and technological prestige, while for every other nuclear weapon state it was deterrence.”
These assessments conveniently ignore the steadily worsening regional and global security environment India has confronted right since its birth as an independent nation. With the advent of the atomic age, India became conscious of the fact that possession of nuclear weapons by a country or a group of countries created an asymmetrical international order which would limit India’s strategic space and independence. India’s preference was and remains a world from which nuclear weapons have been eliminated. It is the only state with nuclear weapons to profess that its security would be enhanced, not diminished, in a world free of nuclear weapons. However, India has also been categorical in rejecting the division of the world in perpetuity into nuclear-haves and have-nots.
After the end of the Cold War, a determined attempt was made to legitimise precisely such a division, firstly by making the discriminatory Non-Proliferation Treaty permanent through an amendment adopted in 1995. Then a similar discriminatory Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 was foisted without any link to the goal of nuclear disarmament, a link that India had consistently insisted upon. These moves would have permanently foreclosed India’s option to acquire a fully tested nuclear weapon arsenal, while those already in possession of nuclear weapons would enjoy an asymmetrical advantage in perpetuity. This would have severely undermined India’s security, making it vulnerable to nuclear threat and blackmail.
If we add to this the regional dimension as it unfolded over the years, India’s compelling security dilemma becomes even more apparent. In 1964, China exploded its first nuclear bomb and this came only two years after the 1962 border war, in which India suffered a humiliating defeat. One can well imagine the sense of vulnerability this would have created in the country. A serious quest for a nuclear capability may be traced to this period, culminating in the 1974 Peaceful Nuclear Explosion. Thereafter, the clandestine acquisition of nuclear weapons and missile delivery capabilities by Pakistan, fully supported and assisted by China, created a heightened security threat to India. That China actually supplied a fully tested nuclear weapon design to Pakistan in 1983 and may have even tested a Pakistani weapon at its test site in Lop Nor in 1990, confronted India with a hostile Sino-Pakistan nuclear nexus, which continues to operate even today. (There are recent indications that China may be revising its no-first use policy.) It is this evolving regional and global security landscape which precipitated India’s decision to carry out a series of tests in May 1998 and declare its status as a nuclear weapon state. It was the quest for security in a hostile and threatening environment that drove the country’s strategic programme, neither prestige nor propaganda.
A more recent argument is that since the May 1998 tests, India has not taken credible steps to operationalise its nuclear deterrent. And this demonstrates, it is claimed, that India looks upon its nuclear weapons as a political instrument, a source of prestige, rather than as a deterrent.
In fact, since January 2003, when India adopted its nuclear doctrine formally at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, it has taken a series of graduated steps to put in place a triad of land-based, air-delivered and submarine-based nuclear forces to conform to its declared doctrine of no-first use and retaliation only. Currently, at least two legs of the triad are fully operational. These include a modest arsenal, nuclear-capable aircraft and missiles, both in fixed underground silos and those mounted on mobile rail and road-based platforms. Land-based missiles include both Agni-II (1500 km) as well as Agni-III (2500 km). The range and accuracy of further versions for example, Agni V (5000 km) which was tested successfully only recently, will improve with the further acquisition of technological capability and experience.
The third leg of the triad is admittedly a work in progress. We need a minimum of three Arihant class nuclear submarines so that at least one will always be at sea. The submarine-based Sagarika missiles have been developed and tested but are still relatively short in range. It is expected that a modest sea-based deterrent will be in place by 2015 or 2016.
The National Command Authority (NCA) is in charge of India’s nuclear deterrent. At its apex is the Political Council which is headed by the Prime Minister and includes all the ministerial members of the Cabinet Committee on Security such as the Ministers of Defence, Home and External Affairs. At the next level is the Executive Council which is headed by the National Security Advisor and includes the Chiefs of the three armed forces, the Commander-in-Chief of India’s Strategic Forces Command, a three star officer, among others. There is an alternate NCA which would take up the functions of the nuclear command in case of any contingency that renders the established hierarchy dysfunctional. The NCA has access to radiation hardened and fully secured communication systems, and redundancies have been put in place as back-up facilities.
In order to support the NCA, a Strategy Programme Staff has been created in the National Security Council Secretariat to carry out general staff work for the NCA. This unit is charged with looking at the reliability and quality of our weapons and delivery systems, collate intelligence on other nuclear weapon states, particularly those in the category of potential adversaries, and work on a perspective plan for India's nuclear deterrent in accordance with a 10-year cycle. The Strategy Programme Staff has representatives from the three services, from our Science and Technology establishment and other experts from related domains, including External Affairs. A Strategic Armament Safety Authority has been set up to review and update storage and transfer procedures for all categories of nuclear armaments. It will be responsible for all matters relating to the safety and security of our nuclear and delivery assets at all locations.
The NCA works on a two-person rule for access to armaments and delivery systems.
Regular drills are conducted to examine possible escalatory scenarios, surprise attack scenarios and the efficiency of our response systems under the no first use limitation. Thanks to such repeated and regular drills, the level of confidence in our nuclear deterrent has been strengthened. Specialised units have also been trained and deployed for operation in a nuclearised environment.
This is clearly not the record of a state which regards its nuclear arsenal as having only symbolic value. While further steps may be required to make our deterrent more robust, it is misleading to spread the notion that it is dysfunctional or worse, that it is non-existent.
Recently, there have been claims by Pakistan that it has developed theatre nuclear weapons which could be used to meet a conventional armed thrust across the border by Indian forces. By seeking to lower the threshold of nuclear weapons use, Pakistan’s motivation is to dissuade India from contemplating conventional punitive retaliation against sub-conventional but highly destructive and disruptive cross-border terrorist strikes such as the horrific 26/11 attack in Mumbai.
India’s nuclear doctrine declares that while India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the perspective of its doctrine. The security of both India and Pakistan would be enhanced if Pakistan abandoned cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy and instead joined India in the pursuit of nuclear and conventional confidence building measures which are already on our bilateral agenda. An agreement on non-first use of nuclear weapons would be a significant follow-up to the existing bilateral commitment to maintain a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing.
India and Pakistan should take the lead in promoting multilateral negotiations to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. That is a better future for which to aspire.
(Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently Chairman, National Security Advisory Board, Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries, and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research. This article reflects his personal views )