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Nuclear debate in free fall

Tuesday 19 December 2006, by BALACHANDRAN*G.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the current debate on the Indo-US nuclear agreement - incidentally the term Indo-US nuclear agreement is a misnomer considering that the agreement will finally depend on the amendments to the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Guidelines) - is the manner in which India’s strategic future has been hijacked by some retired scientists. The subtitle of one of the main paragraphs in the recent manifesto of these scientists is “Impact on our strategic defence programme.”

Why is this intriguing? The strategic, that is, the nuclear deterrence of a nation is dependent on three factors and sets of actors: First, the political leadership of the country which will determine the nuclear doctrine - the circumstances under which the nuclear weapon will be used, the purpose for which it will be used and the amount of damage or punishment it would inflict in the event of a nuclear use.

Secondly, the military leadership which will be given the task of executing the political decision will have to assess the capabilities of its own means of delivery - the numbers, types, reliability and accuracy - and the adversaries’ capabilities to neutralise its delivery systems. In addition, depending on the nuclear doctrine enunciated by the political leadership - whether the attack will be primarily first or second strike, counter-force or counter-value - the military will estimate the size and number of strategic weapons needed to give effect to the nuclear doctrine.

Finally with the doctrine - determined by the political leadership - in place and estimates of the number and size of the weapons needed - assessed by the military - it will be for the scientific establishment to assess whether the country has the capability to design and fabricate weapons of the size needed by the military and also if the stock of fissile material is sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the numbers needed.

This is not to suggest that each of the actors may not comment on the assessments of the others; only that their expertise in one area does not confer the same degree of authority when they make pronouncements in other areas. It will be no more different than the views expressed by any concerned citizen of the country.

The Indian nuclear doctrine as declared by the government in January 2003 consists of the following principal elements: one, building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent; two, a posture of “No First Use”, that is, nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere; three, nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage; four, nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority; five, non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.

Presumably within these parameters the Strategic Forces Command has determined the number and size of the deterrent force needed to carry out its mandate, although these, for obvious reasons, would not be made public.

Given these requirements from the Strategic Nuclear Command, it would be upto the scientists to determine whether or not they can fulfill these requirements. Hopefully these retired scientists do not believe that either the nuclear doctrine is flawed or the Strategic Nuclear Command does not know its mathematics. As far as the design and fabrication of nuclear weapons are concerned, the DRDO/DAE joint press release of May 17, 1998 said that, “The tests conducted during May 11-13, 1998 have provided critical data for the validation of our capability in the design of nuclear weapons of different yields for different applications and different delivery systems. These tests have significantly enhanced our capability in computer simulation of new designs and taken us to the stage of sub-critical experiments in the future, if considered necessary.

Presumably the retired scientists as a group - although some individual scientists have expressed such doubts - do not question either the veracity of this statement or the capacity and capability of the current stream of nuclear scientists’ to carry out their tasks. If they do, they ought to come out openly and state that they do not have confidence in the capability of our weapon designers to satisfy the needs of the Strategic Nuclear Command, assuming of course that they are aware of these needs. If on the other hand, they feel that the design and fabrication capabilities are there but not enough fissile material, they ought to express these concerns openly. However, even in that case nothing in the proposed agreement would compromise our capability to produce fissile material to fulfill our strategic goals.

This is not to say that there can be no future scenario which may require India to conduct a test. All indications are that there is a broad consensus in the strategic community that, one, there is no need at the present moment for any further tests given the present security scenario; two, India should now concentrate on delivery systems - their accuracy, range and other parameters; and three, the costs associated with a test now are far more than any benefits that a test may confer on our strategic programme. The situation in 1998 was different. At that time India’s economic integration with the global economy was far less and hence the costs of sanctions were also far less.

The retired scientists have not addressed any of these issues, nor have they finally made their choice amongst the two alternatives: a change in US law with subsequent changes in NSG Guidelines and civil nuclear commerce between India and NSG members or no change in US law, no change in NSG Guidelines and continuation of past embargoes on technology transfer against India. The US law has been passed. Unless they, as political scientists, believe that the law can be reopened and modified, they can only suggest the means whereby India can protect its interests in the 123 negotiations. That, as has been stressed by the government, is an agreement in the making and there it can use the scientists’ expertise, if it is focused and specific.

See online : The Indian Express

P.S.

The writer is a technology consultant specialising in nuclear issues. He’s currently a research consultant, National Maritime Foundation

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