The Times of India, July 29, 2009
In India, no technological advance is too small to be celebrated nationally. The launch of a nuclear-powered submarine for underwater trials is an important step forward in India’s quest for a minimal but credible nuclear deterrent. But India still has a long way to go. After all, it will be some years before India can deploy its first nuclear sub armed with sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Yet the mere flooding of the dry dock to begin the harbour trials of INS Arihant became an occasion for national jubilation, with the prime minister present at the event to hail it as “a historic milestone in the country’s defence preparedness.” It is as if India already has joined the club of nations with nuclear subs.
To be sure, nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarines (known in American argot as SSBNs) can help India bridge the yawning gap in its deterrent against China. Moreover, only such subs can underpin India’s no-first use (NFU) posture. For an NFU to be credible, the country needs a second-strike capability. If a country does not have the capability to retaliate after surviving an enemy’s first strike on its nuclear assets, a NFU would make no sense. Nuclear-propelled subs, with their high endurance, serve as a stealthy, least-vulnerable and cost-effective launch-pad for nuclear weapons. Deterrence can be achieved with a lesser number of missiles at sea than if they are land-based.
Still, some harsh facts stick out. India has paid a tremendous international price for its nuclear programme without reaping the kind of security benefits it should have. And the gaps in its deterrent posture remain glaring. Indeed, among nuclear-armed states, India stands out as the country with the slowest-rate of progress in deterrent development. Can it be forgotten that India’s nuclear programme is the oldest in Asia and that its first nuclear test happened more than 35 years ago? Yet, India’s “credible minimal deterrent,” far from being credible, has yet to deliver minimalist capabilities against China. India still does not have a single deployed missile of any type that can reach Beijing.
Let’s face it: No country in history has struggled longer to build a minimal deterrent than India. There are multiple reasons for that, including the absence of a resolute political leadership, the country’s accountability-at-a-discount culture, Western technology sanctions, the non-existence of independent oversight or audit, creeping politicization of topmost scientists and the bureaucratization of strategic establishments. Also, unlike Britain, China, Israel and Pakistan, India received no assistance from another nuclear power and has had to develop everything indigenously while facing a rising tide of technology controls.
In the absence of a reliable nuclear deterrent, India remains irredeemably dependent on imports of conventional weapons, spending more than $5 billion annually on such purchases, some of questionable utility. Among important states, India is the only one that relies on imports to meet basic-defence needs, to the extent that it has become the world’s top arms buyer.
Yet that record has not stopped India from being boastful. The start of Arihant’s underwater trials ought to have been a quiet affair, not a national event. After all, 11 years after a thermonuclear test, that technology is yet to be weaponized. Take another example. The Agni 3 has still to be deployed, yet the DRDO chief held a news conference earlier this year to brag about the likely first test next year of the Agni 5, which is still at the design stage. The press then went totally gaga, portraying the Agni 5, with a maximum range of 5,000 kilometres, as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) when, in reality, it is just another intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in India’s agonizingly incremental missile-development path.
Which other country in the world advertises every technological move or brags about a missile still on the drawing board? To the contrary, the long-standing tradition in the nuclear world is to quietly develop and deploy capabilities. India is the lone exception to that tradition.
Instead of launching a crash ICBM project drawing on the intercontinental-range capabilities of the space programme, India remains stuck in the IRBM arena, where its frog-like paces have taken it — two decades after the first Agni test — to Agni-3, a non-strategic system. In fact, if everything goes well, India’s first SSBN will be deployed with a non-strategic weapon — a 700-kilometer SLBM under development. That would further underpin the regional and stunted character of India’s deterrent.
Of the three technologies — nuclear propulsion, SLBM and ICBM — the most complex are the first two. Developing a nuclear-weapon-strike capability from under water is far more difficult than firing missiles from the ground. Yet, while seeking to develop an SLBM-armed nuclear sub, India still does not have an ICBM project, even on the drawing board. India wants to go down in world history as the first nation to deploy an SSBN without having developed an ICBM. “Incredible India” indeed.
The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research.