India’s retarded nuclear deterrent

The Impotent Bomb


Has India’s crucial strategic asset been fatally compromised?


Brahma Chellaney

Covert magazine, September 16-30, 2008


At a time when India’s asymmetry with China in conventional-military capability is becoming wider, India’s need for a reliable nuclear deterrent that can survive a first strike is becoming greater. India imports virtually all its conventional weapons and is in no position to deter China conventionally. Not only are conventional weapons highly expensive, but also no other large country in the world is so dependent on weapon imports to meet basic defence needs as India. The only way India can deter Chinese aggression or threat to use force is through an adequate nuclear-weapons capability.


            Yet, instead of stepping up work on building a credible but minimal nuclear deterrent, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government blithely put India’s nuclear programme — the country’s only strategic asset — on the negotiating table to clinch a civil nuclear deal with the United States. Through this insidious deal, India is accepting qualitative and quantitative constraints on its indigenous deterrent’s development.


            Such fetters come when India has yet to build and deploy even a barely minimal deterrent against China. No government leader has claimed, or can assert, that the country today can effectively deter China, its primary challenge. Indeed, the key task India faces today is to build a stout deterrent, however small, that can help deter an increasingly assertive China that has gone from preaching the gospel of its “peaceful rise” to taking its gloves off.


            India’s priority today should its security. Yet India is compromising its future deterrent capability by concluding a deal with the U.S. whose touted energy benefits are dubious and dispensable. The partisan rancour over the deal has only helped obscure facts, allowing shibboleths and fantasies to substitute for an informed debate on a critical issue. Even as the government attempts to place India’s energy needs above its national defence, myths continue to be repeated untiringly.


The notion that India can build energy “security” through imports of high-priced, foreign fuel-dependent reactors is a travesty of facts. That would be a path to energy insecurity.


Just as cheap oil now appears fanciful, cheap nuclear power for long has been a mirage. More than half a century after then U.S. Atomic Energy Agency Chairman Lewis Strauss claimed that nuclear energy would become “too cheap to meter”, the nuclear power industry everywhere subsists on generous state subsidies. The current electricity-market liberalization trends spell trouble for the global nuclear-power industry because they threaten the state support on which it survives. As a 2005 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) study by Ferenc Toth and Hans-Holger Rogner warns, “nuclear power’s market share might indeed follow a downward trajectory” if state subsidies abate and more cost-effective reactors are not designed.


Other international studies have shown that nuclear power, although a long-matured technology, has demonstrated the slowest rate of learning in comparison to other energy technologies, including newer sources like wind and combined-cycle gas turbines. Instead of the price declining with nuclear power’s maturation, the opposite has happened. Power reactors also remain very capital-intensive, with high up-front capital costs, long lead times for construction and commissioning, and drawn-out amortization periods that discourage private investors.


In the U.S., two separate studies by the University of Chicago (2004) and MIT (2003) showed new nuclear power remaining comparatively more expensive. In India, all the power reactors built since the 1990s have priced their electricity at between 270 and 285 paise per kilowatt hour or higher, despite inbuilt state subsidy. In comparison, the coal-fired Sason plant project in central India \has contracted to sell power at 119 paise per kWh.


            Wishful thinking and official spin, however, are clouding the national discourse, opening the path to damaging compromises on the integrity of the country’s nuclear-deterrent capability. The deal will impede India’s deterrent plans and eliminate the leeway the country enjoyed in 1974 and 1998 when it tested. Dr. Singh, however, pooh-poohs the nuclear-military implications and recites the deal’s supposed energy benefits. His government has also taken to chanting the disarmament mantra, although disarmament fell off the global agenda long ago. The United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament (CD) — the main disarmament negotiating forum — has been bereft of real work for 12 years now.


            India, in fact, 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 a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Add to that its record of not acting when the time is right.


Had India done a test in the mid-1960s when it first acquired nuclear-explosive capability, it would have beaten the NPT trap. Had Indira Gandhi pressed ahead with weaponization after Pokhran I, India would not have faced a rising tide of technology sanctions for the next quarter-century. Had Atal Bihari Vajpayee dangled a test moratorium as a diplomatic carrot post-Pokhran II, instead of gifting it away gratuitously, the U.S. would have hesitated to slap an array of new sanctions on India. And had Manmohan Singh sought to plug the yawning gaps in capability, instead of pushing a divisive deal with the U.S. that offers questionable energy benefits to help neuter India’s deterrent, a more-confident New Delhi today would not have had to propitiate China or any other power.


No country in history has struggled longer to build a minimal deterrent or paid heavier international costs for its nuclear programme than India. Yet, by sheltering behind calcinatory and delusional rhetoric, Dr. Singh overlooks a central reality: In today’s world, another country can impose its demands on India not necessarily by employing direct force but by building such asymmetric capabilities that a credible threat crimps the other side’s room for manoeuvre. Nothing better illustrates this danger than New Delhi’s own political timidity in the face of rising Chinese provocative actions. The government has gone to the extent of needlessly downplaying the increasing cross-border Chinese military incursions. The more India falls behind its minimum-deterrence needs, the more likely will such fecklessness get deeply ingrained in its foreign policy.


            Unlike conventional weapons, systems of nuclear deterrence have to be developed indigenously and without the lure of kickbacks. More than a decade after declaring itself a nuclear-weapons state, India stands out as a reluctant and tentative nuclear power. India’s primary focus remains more on buying high-priced conventional weapons from overseas (reflected in its emergence as a top arms importer in the world) than on plugging gaps in its nuclear deterrence. Consequently, India’s goal of erecting a credible and survivable nuclear deterrent, as the private intelligence service Stratfor put it, is at least a decade away.


            The history of India’s nuclear-explosive programme is actually a record of how it helped mould multilateral technology controls. The 1974 detonation impelled the secret formation of the London suppliers’ club (later renamed the Nuclear Suppliers Club), the reshaping of the non-proliferation regime, and export bans on dual-use items. That test helped remake U.S. policy, spurring major reforms in export policy, the passage of the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (NNPA), the attachment of non-proliferation conditions to foreign assistance, and the emergence of the sanctions approach. India’s space programme helped give birth to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).


The more India got hit with technology controls, the more it sank into its proverbial indecision, instead of doggedly pressing ahead. Almost a quarter-century passed between Pokhran I and II, as a stock-still India masochistically put up with punitive actions. A decade after Pokhran II, the present leadership is more interested in deal-making than deterrent-building. Exactly 25 years after the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) was launched, Dr. Singh’s government has announced its mysterious closure — without a single Beijing-reachable missile in deployment, and even as Pakistan has conducted countless missile tests since last year.


While China ploughs 28 per cent of its mammoth, rapidly-growing military spending into defence research and development, geared toward modernizing its deterrent, India’s total annual budget outlays for the nuclear deterrent make up less than one-tenth of the $11 billion profit in the first quarter of 2008 of one U.S. company, Exxon-Mobil. Yet India does not shy away from squandering several billion dollars annually in importing questionable conventional weapons. Consider some recent examples.


The Indian air force barely inducts the first batch of the British Hawk jet trainer — an obsolescent system in which India invested $1.8 billion ostensibly to help minimize crashes — and a Hawk crashes. No sooner the U.S. had sold India a 1971-vintage amphibious transport ship junked by its navy than a gas leak kills an Indian officer and five sailors on board. Defence Minister A.K. Anthony disclosed, nine months after the delivery date had passed, that Russia wants $1.2 billion more and another three years to deliver a refurbished Soviet-era aircraft carrier that India had agreed to buy for $1.5 billion in early 2004, although it had been rusting since a mid-1990s boiler-room explosion.


            Is India seeking to build a first-rate military with strategic reach and an independent deterrent, or a military that will remain irredeemably dependent on imports and serve as a money-spinning dumping ground for antiquated and junked weapons? The defence of India is becoming an unending scandal just when new threats are emerging and chinks in the Indian armour are obvious. Even indictments by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) seem to make little difference.


            Today, instead of investing in the rapid development of a credible and comprehensive deterrent, New Delhi acts peculiarly. In an action that ominously harks back to the 1991-95 period when Dr. Singh as finance minister starved the nuclear programme of necessary funds for expansion, the government’s 2008-09 budget slashes the funding of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) by $529 million. No explanation has been offered to the nation for this action.


            Rather than aim for a technological leap through a crash intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) programme, India remains stuck in the intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) arena, where its frog-like paces have taken it — nearly two decades after the first Agni test — to Agni-3, a non-strategic missile in deterrence argot. Instead of securing India’s interests on planet earth, the government has embarked on a $3.4 billion lunar dream, preparing excitedly to launch the first lunar orbiter.

            By disproving the prophets of doom and launching the country on a rising trajectory, Pokhran II was supposed to have lifted India from its subaltern mindset and helped focus its energies on deterrent-building. Critics like Dr. Singh had warned in 1988 that the tests would seriously impair the economy. But India’s foreign-exchange reserves multiplied five times in seven years and its GDP growth accelerated sharply. Who looked at India as a rising power before 1998? Pokhran II thus was a watershed. A decade later, however, India doesn’t have much to celebrate. Nuclear diffidence continues to hold it down. It still doesn’t have minimal, let alone, credible deterrence. Its military asymmetry with China has grown to the extent that many in its policymaking community seem to be losing faith in the country’s ability to defend itself with its own means.


            It is against this background that the strategic implications of the nuclear deal must be viewed. The core implications are two-fold. Firstly, the deal will ensure that India stays a second-rate nuclear power, with its stunted, regionally confined capability unable to aid its world-power ambitions. Secondly, more than commercial nuclear power, it is U.S. arms exports and closer strategic ties with India that the deal is likely to promote. In other words, India’s arms-imports dependency will only intensify at the expense of an independent nuclear deterrent.


From the time it was unveiled more than three years ago as an agreement-in-principle, the deal has been anchored in broader strategic objectives — from intelligence sharing and building of interoperability between U.S. and Indian forces, to roping in India as a key player both in the “Global Democracy Initiative” and a disaster-response initiative with military orientation. India has agreed to fully support U.S. non-proliferation initiatives and consider participating in “multinational operations”. New Delhi is now set to sign three agreements that U.S. officials say are critical to forge closer bilateral military ties. These will facilitate cooperation on logistical operations, provide for monitoring of the end uses of transferred weapons systems, and enhance communications interoperability.


Not many will question India’s efforts to build a stronger relationship with the world’s sole superpower. A durable Indo-U.S. partnership is desirable, but it can be built not on Indian strategic obsequiousness or joint opportunism in relation to a third country but on shared national interests. Shared interests mean far more than shared democratic values, which in practice can look very different. For instance, it is a tribute to the vitality of U.S. democracy that Congress is to closely scrutinize the nuclear deal again, after having passed an India-specific legislative waiver — the 2006 Hyde Act. In contrast, the Indian Parliament has had little role to play, although the deal’s actual terms impinge on the long-term credibility of the country’s nuclear deterrent.


New Delhi has agreed to put more than two dozen of its existing nuclear facilities and all its future civilian reactors under international inspections of a kind that only non-nuclear-weapons states accept — invasive, everlasting and legally irrevocable. In addition, India has agreed to shut down by 2010 the newly refurbished Cirus research reactor — the supplier of plutonium for India’s 1974 test and now the source of 30 per cent of the country’s weapons-grade plutonium production. In fact, as Paul Nelson, T. V. K. Woddi and William S. Charlton of the Texas A&M University point out in a U.S. government-funded study, much of India’s cumulative historic production of weapons-grade plutonium has come from Cirus, operating since 1960.


            The Cirus shutdown decision alone disproves the prime minister’s oft-repeated claim that “this deal has no bearing on our strategic programme”. Speaking in the Lok Sabha on March 10, 2006, Dr. Singh contended that, “While the Cirus reactor was refurbished recently, the associated cost will be more than recovered by the isotope [production] and the research we will be conducting before it is closed”. But he still hasn’t answered the key question: Why did he succumb to U.S. pressure over a reactor that remains crucial to India’s strategic programme?


It is true that India is free to build a replacement reactor. But thus far work on a replacement reactor has not begun, even though India needs to sharply accelerate its rate of weapons-grade plutonium production in view of the pressures it faces to declare a production moratorium and support the early conclusion of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). The Cirus dismantlement in two years’ time will certainly lead to a significant shortfall in military-grade plutonium production.


Furthermore, the watertight civil-military separation the deal is imposing will destroy what then Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Chidambaram in 1996 described as “the lateral synergy” that exists between these two parts of the Indian nuclear programme. The officially sponsored history of the DAE titled, Atomic Energy in India: 50 Years by C. V. Sundaram et al, quotes Dr. Chidambaram as follows: “India has comprehensive nuclear capability, some of which is latent, some of which we have exercised to a limited degree and some of which we have exercised fully. And this goes over into development of nuclear power reactors, building research reactors, non-electricity applications of radiation, spinoff technologies and also keeping open this nuclear option. And all these are in some fashion linked together. And the kind of lateral synergy which exists between the one and the other is, of course, very difficult to define or identify even for insiders. But it exists. You can’t have one without the other”.


By acquiescing to a status less than that of a nuclear-weapons state even as it retains a nuclear military programme, India can expect the IAEA to enforce fail-safe, verifiable civil-military “firewalls” and maximize its inspectors’ intrusive ability to detect the smallest possible diversion from the civilian sector.  The “Additional Protocol” the IAEA will conclude with India will offer this Agency the means to create such firewalls and deter the transfer of specialized equipment, trained personnel, designs and operating manuals to the strategic programme. With the invasive access it grants, the Additional Protocol is a much-more useful tool for the IAEA than even special inspections.


The deal, with its many eclectic conditions designed to firmly tether India to the U.S.-led international non-proliferation regime, is set to crimp Indian deterrent-building. The Hyde Act, in fact, has less to do with nuclear-energy cooperation and more with seeking to fashion wide-ranging non-proliferation controls on India, including fetters on the Indian nuclear military capability.


While the Hyde Act’s bar on Indian testing is explicit, the one in the NSG waiver is implicit, yet unmistakeable. The NSG waiver is overtly anchored in NSG Guidelines Paragraph 16, which deals with the consequence of “an explosion of a nuclear device”. The waiver’s Section 3(e) refers to this key paragraph, which allows a supplier to call for a special NSG meeting, and seek termination of cooperation, in the event of a test or any other “violation of a supplier-recipient understanding”. The recently leaked Bush administration letter to Congress has cited how this Paragraph 16 rule will effectively bind India to the Hyde Act’s conditions on the pain of a U.S.-sponsored cut-off of all multilateral cooperation. India will not be able to escape from the U.S.-set conditions by turning to other suppliers.


Both the U.S.-legislative and NSG waivers aim to constrict the Indian deterrent’s space by subjecting Indian actions and activities to the glare of international scrutiny. While the Hyde Act demands that “the President shall keep the appropriate congressional committees fully and currently informed” about “significant changes in the production by India of nuclear weapons or in the types or amounts of fissile material produced”, the NSG is to regularly “confer and consult” with India on “all aspects” of its pledges. Contrast this with Dr. Singh’s assurance to the Rajya Sabha on August 17, 2006: “We have made clear to the U.S. that India’s strategic programme is totally outside the purview of the July Statement, and we oppose any legislative provisions that mandate scrutiny of either our nuclear-weapons programme or our unsafeguarded nuclear facilities”.

Dr. Singh is willing to bring the deal into force despite the U.S. making it explicit that if an Indian government tested, fuel and spare-part supplies and other cooperation would cease “immediately”. He is also willing to saddle the country with a host of legally irrevocable obligations — from accepting permanent international inspections on all its civilian facilities to adhering to U.S.-led cartels from which India has been excluded. There were no such conditions when India first entered into civil nuclear cooperation with the U.S. in 1963. Yet, when America unilaterally walked out of its 123 Agreement with India in 1978, why did New Delhi not exercise its right to terminate IAEA inspections at Tarapur, the sole plant set up under that accord?

Declassified U.S. documents show that the CIA had correctly assessed that India would not end its obligations even after America had broken its word, but instead would seek U.S. help to find a substitute fuel supplier to keep electricity flowing to the Mumbai region. That is exactly what happened. In that light, ask yourself: Having invested tens of billions of dollars in importing a series of nuclear power reactors and having created electricity dependency, would India be able to test, when the basis of new cooperation is an explicit test prohibition written into Hyde Act’s Section 106, an unequivocal U.S. “right of return” enshrined in the 123 Agreement’s Article 14(4), and the threat of multilateral sanctions manifest in the NSG’s Paragraph 16 rule?


Recent developments are a testament to the fact that the powerful anti-deterrent lobby within India has not fully reconciled to the country’s overt nuclearization. A reminder of that came four months ago when no government celebrations marked the 10th anniversary of India going nuclear. Forced to accept India’s nuclear-weapons-state status as a fait accompli, this lot is indifferent to the long-term strategic implications of the nuclear deal.


It is worth pausing to remember that no nation can be a major power without three attributes: (i) a high level of autonomous and innovative technological capability; (ii) a capacity to meet basic defence needs indigenously; and (iii) a capability to project power far beyond its borders, especially through intercontinental-range weaponry. With its strategic-vision deficit compounded by a leadership deficit, India’s deficiencies in all the three areas are no secret.


If this deal takes effect, India can forget about emerging as a full-fledged nuclear-weapons state or a strategic peer to China. At best it will be a mediocre nuclear power whose quest for a credible minimal deterrent will be locked at the level of a retarded undersized deterrent, with functionality equivalent to a mentally challenged child.


Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan (HarperCollins, 2007).

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