Why India must build a credible nuclear deterrent

India: Nuclear diffidence,
not deterrence

More than a decade after Pokhran II, India lacks even minimal nuclear-deterrent capability against China.

Brahma Chellaney  India Abroad  September 11, 2009

certifying that the 1998 thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb test was a success,
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can hardly defuse the renewed national
controversy over that issue. After all, Dr. Singh, while in the opposition, had
not hidden his anti-nuclear sentiment. 

fact, he had
warned that the 1998 nuclear tests would seriously impair the national
economy. But
foreign-exchange reserves actually multiplied five times within seven years and
its GDP growth accelerated sharply. Who had looked at
India as a
rising power before 1998?

former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s certificate cannot squelch questions over
the thermonuclear test. From the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal to the
hydrogen bomb, Kalam has been ever ready to defend official claims, but the
missile program he headed still staggers. In the long years he spent in the
missile program, Kalam could not give
India the basic missile capability
for self-defense.  

India‘s nuclear strategic program has always been shielded
from parliamentary scrutiny and CAG audit. So, it is hard to reliably determine
sole thermonuclear test fizzled out quickly or was a success, as officially
claimed. But some facts speak for themselves.

One telling fact is that more than 11 years later,
has still not weaponized the thermonuclear technology, even though the test in
1998 was supposed to have catapulted the country into the big-power league. The
thermonuclear test, obviously, was not intended merely as a technology
demonstrator. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask: What has been the security
benefit for the country from that test?

Even more glaring is another fact: More than 35
years after Pokhran I,
stands out as a reluctant and tentative
 nuclear power,
still lacking even a barely minimal deterrent capability against
China. Given
the growing military asymmetry with
China, a proven and weaponized
Indian thermonuclear capability, backed by long-range missiles, is critical to
deter the assertive and ambitious northern neighbor. But today,
India does not
have a single Beijing-reachable missile in deployment.

Had India
developed and deployed a minimal but credible
would not have dared to mess with it. But the increasing Chinese bellicosity,
reflected in rising border incursions and the hardening of
stance on territorial disputes, suggests
is only getting emboldened against a weaker

Consider yet another unpalatable fact: No country
has struggled longer to build a minimal deterrent or paid heavier international
costs for its
 nuclear program than India
The history of
 nuclear-weapons program is
actually a record of how it helped establish multilateral technology controls. Pokhran
I, for example, impelled the secret formation of the
 Nuclear Suppliers
Group (NSG).
space program
 helped give birth to the Missile Technology Control

Yet, before it has built a credible minimal
India came full
circle when it entered into a civilian
 nuclear deal with the US and secured an exemption from
the NSG last year to import high-priced commercial
 nuclear power
reactors and fuel. In doing so, it had to accept nonproliferation conditions
that aim to stunt its
 nuclear-deterrent development.

Through this deal, India is seeking to replicate in
the energy sector the very mistake it has made on armaments. Now the world’s
largest arms importer,
spends more than $6 billion every year on importing conventional weapons, some
of dubious value, while it neglects to build its own armament-production base.

Conventional weapons simply cannot deter a nuclear adversary.
Deterrence against a
 nuclear foe can only be built on nuclear capability,
especially a second-strike capability that can survive the enemy’s first strike
to inflict massive retaliation.

The key point to note is that with a credible nuclear deterrent,
India would be
under less pressure to keep on spending more than $6 billion annually on arms
imports. Put simply, a small but effective nuclear deterrent can help the
country save money.

Another important point to remember is that
conventional weapons are very expensive in comparison to nukes.
India’s annual
bill for arms imports is far higher than its total annual budget for the
nuclear, missile and space programmes put together. 

Any cost-benefit analysis would show that a credible
nuclear deterrent would be both a cost saver and a security guarantor. It will
deter any open cross-border aggression as well as provide the savings to be ploughed
into civilian modernization.

World history attests that rapid economic power can be
accumulated only through secure national borders. Take Communist
China: Before strongman Deng Xiaoping launched
the economic-modernization program,
already had developed its first
ballistic missile (ICBM) with nuclear-warhead capability. With the security
provided by such capability, it began building economic power, generating in
the process lots of additional resources for acquiring military muscle. But
India, in the
21st century, does not have an ICBM even on the design board.

broadly, Indian policymakers have yet to recognize that no nation can be a
major power without three attributes: A high level of autonomous and innovative
technological capability; a capacity to meet basic defense needs indigenously;
and a capability to project power far beyond its borders, especially through
intercontinental-range weaponry.
India is deficient in all the three

It is not an accident that all the countries armed
with intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are permanent members of
the UN Security Council. But rather than aim for a technological leap through a
crash ICBM
 program, India
remains interminably stuck in the Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM)
stage. It is still trying to master a missile-strike range of 3,000 kilometers.

fact, in
an action that ominously harks back to the 1991-95 period when Manmohan
Singh as finance minister starved the nuclear programme of necessary funds for
expansion, the government’s 2008-09 budget slashed the Department of Atomic
Energy’s funding by $529 million. No explanation was offered to the nation.
Under the nuclear deal, the government has agreed to voluntarily shut down by
next year one of the country’s two bomb-grade plutonium-production reactors,
the Cirus, although current international estimates of India’s weapons-grade
fissile material stockpile put its quantity just marginally higher than

More than a decade after Pokhran II, 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

Against this background, the latest claim that the
1998 thermonuclear test performed well under par can only further damage the
credibility of India’s
 nuclear posture. The controversy over the thermonuclear test,
however, is nothing new. No sooner had the test been conducted than a former
head of the Indian
 nuclear program, P.K. Iyengar, questioned official claims of

In such a setting — with critics within and
outside the country questioning the success of the test — India must be ready
to convincingly re-demonstrate its thermonuclear capability, should a
propitious international opportunity arise from a
 nuclear test
conducted by another power.
 Nuclear deterrence, after all, is like beauty: It lies in the
eyes of the beholder. It is not what India’s
 nuclear establishment
claims but what outsiders, especially regional adversaries, believe that
constitutes deterrence (or the lack of it).

Brahma Chellaney is one of India’s leading nuclear and
strategic affairs experts.

(c) India Abroad, 2009.


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