The Butterfly Chase: Rearmament, not disarmament, looms large

Stop Chasing Illusions


Pursuing nuclear disarmament is a good pastime for retired men.


Brahma Chellaney

Times of India, March 11, 2008


Nearly a century after chemical arms were introduced in World War I and more than six decades following the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world is at the threshold of new lethal and precision weapons, as underlined by the ongoing research on lasers, information weapons, space-based platforms, anti-satellite weapons and directed energy systems. Technological forces are now shaping geopolitics and power equations in a way unforeseen before in history. 


We live in a Hobbesian world, with power coterminous with national security and success. The global power structure reflects this reality. Only countries armed with intercontinental-range weaponry are United Nations Security Council permanent members, while those seeking new permanent seats have regionally confined capabilities and thus are likely to stay condemned as mere aspirants. Japan, with one-tenth of the population, has a bigger economy than China, but the latter, because of its rising military prowess, gets more international respect.


The past century was the most momentous in history technologically, with innovations fostering not just rapid economic change, but bringing greater lethality to warfare. Consequently, the 20th century was the bloodiest. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missiles came to occupy a central military role. In the new century, the advance of technology and the absence of relevant safeguards or regimes evoke possible scenarios of deadly information and space warfare.


Such are the challenges from the accelerated weaponization of science that instead of disarmament, rearmament today looms large on the horizon, with the arms race being extended to outer space. Take, for example, America’s February 20 destruction of a crippled satellite by missile strike. Having criticized China’s January 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test — the first ASAT kill by any power in more than two decades — the US set out to be the first to knock out a space-based asset from a mobile platform at sea, in an operation that resembled shooting down an ICBM, except that the target was larger and easier to destroy.


In a Cold War-reminiscent tone, outgoing President Vladimir Putin last month vowed that Russia will field new strategic weapons because “a new arms race has been unleashed in the world”.  Alluding to the US pressing ahead with a missile shield in Eastern Europe and working on new warheads, Putin declared: “We didn’t start it … funnelling multibillions of dollars into developing weapon systems”. The same day, the Russian foreign minister raised the spectre of “hundreds of thousands of missile interceptors all over the world … in the foreseeable future”.


            Disarmament fell off the global agenda long ago, with the UN’s Conference on Disarmament (CD) bereft of real work for nearly 12 years now. Yet, some in India continue to chase illusions. More flattering attention has been paid in India than anywhere else to two newspaper articles written by four senior ex-US officials, who in office were votaries of unbridled nuclear might but who now, while peddling a nukes-free world as a distant goal akin to an invisible mountaintop, suggest modest steps for US forces (like changing the antediluvian Cold War posture), only to advocate more rigorous non-proliferation.


India has a rich history of floating disarmament proposals that come back and haunt it as non-proliferation pacts. It was India that put forth the ideas of an NPT and CTBT. Add to that its record of not acting when the time is right. Had it tested when it acquired a nuclear-explosive capability in the mid-1960s, it would have beaten the NPT trap. Had Indira Gandhi pressed ahead and not baulked after the May 1974 test, India would not have faced a rising tide of technology sanctions for the next quarter-century. No nation perhaps has paid a heavier price for indecision than India.


India’s priority today should its security, given that it still does not have a minimal, let alone credible, nuclear deterrent against China, which is rapidly modernizing its arsenal. Yet India has placed its future deterrent capability at risk by concluding a nuclear deal with the US whose touted energy benefits are dubious and dispensable. It is also unable to control its proverbial itch to win brownie points, as shown by its recent submission of a seven-point proposal to the deadlocked CD, calling for, among other things, the outlawing of nukes. Such ardour is baffling, given that India imports virtually all its conventional weapons and is in no position to deter China conventionally in the long run.


Pursuing disarmament is like chasing butterflies — enjoyable for some retired old men but never-ending and beyond the pale. Nuclear weapons, as the last US posture review stated, will continue to play a “critical role” because they possess “unique properties”. Until such time as nukes remain the premier mass-destruction technology, disarmament will stay a mirage. The Chemical Weapons Convention became possible only when chemical arms ceased to be militarily relevant for the major powers and instead threatened to become the poor state’s WMD. Considering the rapid pace of technological change, a new class of surgical-strike WMD could emerge, even as nuclear weapons, with their unparalleled destructive capacity, stay at the centre of international power and force.


The writer is a strategic affairs analyst.


© Times of India, 2008

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s