No Hope For N-Power

Unclear Nuclear Future

[An interview with Prof Achin Vanaik]

K Sahadevan

India's Nuclear Doctrine was a hot topic among the strategic experts and peace activists since it was concieved. When the Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) put for public debate, most of the militarists and hyper nationalists strongly opposed the very essence of its No-First-Use (NFU) stand. However the Vajpayee government strictly adhered the doctrine as it was drafted, especially on the NFU policy.

India's nuclear doctrine can be summarised as follows:

a). Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent; b). A posture of "No First Use": nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere; c). Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage; d). Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority, e). Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states; f). However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons; g). A continuance of strict controls on expert of nuclear and missile related materials and technologies participation, in the Fissile Material Cut off Treaty negotiations, and continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests, h). Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.

As it is difficult to get an official policy document, as of all nuclear related matters are under the official secrecy act, no body knows the exact government position on it. Influential strategists and diplomats are arguing very long back that India should abandon its NFU stand. The recent statement made by India's Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Rajasthan that, "Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal Ji's firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of No First Use. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in the future depends on the circumstances", once again puts the issue on the centre stage. Most of the peace activists opined that, Rajnath Singh's statement will increase the risk of 'escalation dynamic'. Here Prof Achin Vanaik reflects his thoughts on this topic.

Achin Vanaik is an eminent political commentator and ardent advocate of nuclear disarmament. He is a former professor at Delhi University and Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. Achin is one of the founder members of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, a Delhi based organisation working for a Nuclear-free world. He has authored several books including "New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Disarmament". (this interview took place a couple of days before Home Minister Rajnath Singh's tweet)

India's nuclear doctrine is based on a No-First-Use policy, Credible Minimum Deterrence and a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests. But, one can see a gradual, unstated, doctrinal shift happening in the last two-decades. Your opinion?

Shiv Shankar Menon in his book categorically says No First Use will not prevent preemptive strikes if required. There has been a deliberate attempt to give ambiguity to India's NFU posture but despite some calls to formally revise it, this is unlikely to happen. India's NFU is less qualified than China's pledge since India allows for a nuclear strike against countries having other weapons of mass destruction (biological or chemical) and also if a non-nuclear state is allied to a nuclear state. China does not qualify its pledge in this way. As for credible minimum deterrence posture this does not and is not meant to prevent continuous upgrading, quantitatively and qualitatively of that 'minimum', which is exactly what is happening. There is a drift towards greater ambiguity about NFU but everyone was aware from the beginning about the upward shifting character of 'minimum credible deterrence' both because of enemy preparations and domestic pressures and compulsions. It is now called 'credible minimum' whereas earlier 'minimum credible' was the more usual and generally preferred term.

Is it possible for a majoritarian right-wing government, which is always hankering for a military state, will be a serious threat to India's conventional nuclear weapon policy?

Achin says, Yes. It is important to understand what Balakot meant. It is the first time since 1945 that one nuclear power has carried out an earlier assault deep in the territory of another nuclear power. Also aerial skirmishes between two nuclear powers along the border is also something new. Moreover, Hindutva forces will exercise more bravado in words and sometimes in deed which increases risk of what is called 'escalation dynamic'. What Balakot establishes is a new precedent for India carrying out other such territorially deeper conventional non-nuclear attack which can then set off a conventional arms conflict which always has the potential to ratchet upwards to a possible/likely nuclear exchange even if both sides at the start of the conflict have no wish for this to happen.

Does, any change in India's No-First-Use policy will seriously alter South Asian strategic geopolitics?

Not really. Pakistan always assumed that despite India's NFU posture it could attack first and this required preparing for i.e., to have enough NWs to hit hard after absorbing such a possible Indian first strike. And since India is much larger, Pakistan feels it has to have much more which then pushes India to make more and bigger—a dynamic reinforced by the BMD/TMD US preperations against China forcing it to make more and bigger NWs as well as putting more such warheads on a single rocket, and so on. This is, there is a dynamic of external arms racing not controlled by India that pushes India and then Pakistan to increase and improve their respective nuclear arsenals.

India has imposed a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests. But, there are several reports about India's covert uranium enrichment plant that could potentially support the development of thermo-nuclear weapons.

India wants and is preparing for thermonuclear bombs but reliability about their use does require actual testing. But rather than go in for this and get widespread opprobrium they will lie low but have things ready just in case it does become possible. It depends on the US which has not ratified the CTBT (and therefore China has not). If the US moves towards testing or if its hostility to China grows to the point that New Delhi thinks it will accept an Indian gamble to test justified in the name of helping the US to counter China, then an Indian thermonuclear test could happen. Alternatively, if the US ratifies the CTBT, China will follow as also the signing and ratification by both Pakistan and India.

On the one hand, India is claiming 'credible minimum', and on the other, it is developing such destructive defence technologies which could wipe off the entire subcontinent. Is it a policy paradox?

Not a surprise or a paradox. From the beginning in its draft nuclear doctrine of 2003 it allowed for triadic development and deployment of delivery systems carrying NWs which is now taking place. This can and will be justified in the name of maintaining a 'credible minimum deterrent'—"see how the Chinese and Pakistanis making more"—and Indian nuclear strategists will put forward the view that submarine based missiles are the best guarantee for assured second-strike capacity but unlike UK will not abandon other arms (land and air) once they achieve this which will still take a long time. Besides India wants militarily to be a globally (at least regionally) powerful country. Hypocrisy, dishonesty, dissimulation by the Indian nuclear elite and governments when declaring their commitment to NFU and minimum deterrence certainly, but no paradox. Nuclear elite discourse is not paradoxical, but morally dishonest and deceitful.

Unlike Pakistan, India has always put a civilian body to take decisions on nuclear weapon issues. But, the recent victory of an ultra nationalist party, which is always preaching for a highly militarised Hindu Rashtra, with a stunning majority, makes the regional peace process in peril. The recent comments and statements of Prime Minister and other ruling leaders put the matter more vulnerable.

For domestic reasons and ideological reasons this government will take more intransigent line vis-a-vis Pakistan, but the latter is nuclearly armed and no pushover so there can be periods where tensions are eased. This govt. can't push too far and it is its image of being more willing than other parties to 'stand up' against Pakistan that is important. But there is a danger that a more wary Pakistan may react against being pushed too far where the tipping point may not have been intended even by this Indian government. The risk is always there and somewhat increased by the ideological nature of Hindutva.

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Vol. 52, No. 35, Mar 1 - 7, 2020