Indo-Pak Nuclear Tests: Ten Years After

03 Jun, 2008    ·   2580

Report of IPCS Panel Discussion held on 16 May 2008

Report of the Panel Discussion held at the IPCS on 16 May 2008

Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee

Mr PR Chari, Research Professor, IPCS
Mr NS Sisodia, Director, Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses
Dr Rajesh Rajagopalan, Professor in International Politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Adm Raja Menon, Former Assistant Chief of Naval staff (Operations)
Amb Arundhati Ghose, Former Permanent Representative of India to UN, Geneva


PR Chari

An assessment of the official and non-official history explaining the 1998 nuclear tests highlights the following points:

  • The decision to weaponize India's nuclear option was taken in 1989 by Mr. Rajiv Gandhi

  • Narasimha Rao attempted to conduct the tests in 1995, but failed due to its detection by the US

  • Having failed to conduct the tests, Rao urged AB Vajpayee when he became India's Prime Minister to conduct the tests

  • An essential continuity existed in India's military nuclear policy among all its Prime Ministers since Indira Gandhi and the conduct of the 98 tests was also marked by an all-party consensus

The event however, can also be viewed from an alternate historical vantage point and summed up as follows:

  • The progression towards the Pokharan-II tests occurred through a process called 'creeping proliferation'. Further, it did not happen in a linear, straight line, but occurred in fits and starts

  • Pre-1974, one can find the first glimmers of the desire to become a Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) in the Indian political establishment, especially after the 1964 tests conducted by China

  • India's SNEP (Subterranean Nuclear Explosion Project) faded into the background in 1966 with Bhabha's death, but was revived in 1971, culminating in the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) of 1974. Security was among the prime considerations leading to Pokharan-I, especially in view of the US-Pak-China axis that had developed. More important, however, were considerations of domestic prestige. With a bad drought and rising prices, the need was felt to do something to boost the country's morale. Bureaucratic momentum was also instrumental in the decision to test in 1974, since the device had been lowered into the shaft excavated for this purpose

  • Post-1974, however, global criticism and sanctions completely unnerved Mrs. Gandhi; subsequently, the nuclear programme went into limbo. Besides, her successor, Morarji Desai had complete antipathy to the military nuclear programme

  • The nuclear programme was revived in 1980 after Indira Gandhi's return to power. However, she hesitated to test, despite the shafts being ready

  • When Rajiv Gandhi came to power, despite initial doubts, he gave the go-ahead in 1989 for assembling nuclear devices

  • The primary reason given by the Vajpayee government for testing in 1998 was 'security' concerns, especially with regard to China and Pakistan. Equally important, however, were the ideological considerations, for the BJP had always maintained that if it came to power, it would go ahead with the tests. Bureaucratic momentum was also applying, since the AEC had been given the go-ahead on so many occasions, including in 1996

  • The 1998 tests, therefore, marked the end of a serendipitous journey. There was no clear-cut strategic objective apart from a general belief that the nuclear option must not be closed, and that Pakistan and China must be deterred. Confusion also existed in reconciling nuclear security with the rhetorical goal of nuclear disarmament

Security Environment in the Last Ten Years

NS Sisodia

Some objectives of India's weaponization have been achieved. Apart from addressing India's security concerns, the 1998 tests did much to boost the country's self-esteem; India began to be recognized as a responsible nuclear state; alongside other important factors including India's impressive economic growth and rising knowledge industry, the tests catapulted India on to the global high table. There are indications that India's technological apartheid will ultimately come to an end. We have also gained substantially in geo strategic terms - we are now closer to the major players, particularly the US, than ever before.

Nuclear weapons, however, are just one of the several elements in the security environment of a nation, which needs to be considered holistically. These can be outlined as under:

  • India-Pakistan relations have territorial, ideological, and political dimensions which have not been affected by the weaponization of either state. An abiding factor which has vitiated bilateral relations in the past is the Pak Army-ISI combine. The Army's stranglehold over Pakistan's politics is likely to remain, despite the country's recent moves towards democracy

  • Other countries in India's neighbourhood are moving towards democracy, but they remain fragile. Their fragility has implications for India's security. It will take time for them to stabilize and recover from years of mal-governance and intra-state conflicts

  • There is continued uncertainty about China's motivations and intent with respect to India, despite positive advances in our bilateral relations. Certain issues like the border dispute continue to remain unresolved. China's missile capability, delivery systems, and nuclear arsenal are regarded as superior to those of India. To this extent, the nuclear balance between India and China will continue to remain asymmetrical. What complicates matters even more is China's strategic-military relationship with Pakistan which has not changed. In addition, China enjoys substantive and strong relations with Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and these relations have not been affected by India's acquisition of nuclear weapons

  • The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the rise and spread of religious fundamentalism and its intimate relationship with terrorism are other factors in India's security environment that will not be affected by the acquisition of nuclear weapons

  • Transnational terrorism is rampant in the region, and its character has not undergone any change

  • Some of India's problems are internal rather than external

  • Unfortunately, nuclear deterrence has no effect on the above elements of India's security scenario

The nuclear weapons may have achieved 'deterrence' against full fledged conventional warfare but they have not been able to deter sub-conventional warfare with its attendant risks of escalation. In this context, intensive work is needed to negotiate CBMs, intensify security dialogue, and diplomatic activity, particularly between India and Pakistan to mitigate real risks and ensure greater security and stability.

International Nuclear Regime: The Last Ten Years

Rajesh Rajagopalan

The state of today's nuclear non-proliferation regime is worse than it was ten years ago. It has not collapsed, but has developed obvious weaknesses. Even though India's 1998 nuclear tests cannot be held directly responsible, it does share responsibility for its weakening. There is clearly a breakdown in the consensus on the non-proliferation regime, particularly due to America's unilateralism in recent years.

There are two ways of viewing the international non-proliferation regime. The first is that they are built on universal values that are beneficial for everyone. The other way is that they are created by powerful states to manufacture and manage a consensus and build the regime around values that these big powers adopt. Manufacturing consensus, however, involves a substantial degree of arm-twisting. While the US has played an important role in manufacturing this consensus in the past, the attitude of the Bush administration towards the non-proliferation regime (that the US has no obligations to disarm), has led to its significant weakening.

The Indo-US nuclear deal is an indication of the unilateral altering of rules by the US. It has created separate rules for India, which run contrary to the spirit of the non-proliferation regime. Thus, the consensus in this regime is breaking down, primarily due to the unilateralism of the US and the fact that it is not as dominant as it was in the period following the Cold War; consequently, the creation of spaces for countries like Iran and North Korea will encourage them to go their own way.

India's position has consistently been to support efforts towards non-proliferation. It refused to join the NPT, not because it was opposed to non-proliferation in principle, but because it saw the NPT as an unfair hierarchy of nuclear powers. There is an increasing recognition even within the US that it needs to build and work on the basis of international consensus on issues of global importance including non-proliferation.

India-Pakistan Nuclear Strategies

Raja Menon

In 1998, Pakistan genuinely wanted a minimum credible deterrence, just like India. Each establishment expected the other to work towards their respective versions, but obviously the Pakistani establishment ran faster than India. Pakistan succeeded in establishing its Strategic Planning Directorate (SPD), an institution that thinks for the country but is separated from the technology aspects, and has had greater success in putting intellectual and strategic content into its nuclear staff.

In the nuclear field, technological innovation often leads a country to create strategies. For example, 'First Strike' became the strategy after Pakistan acquired two missile systems, one long range, and the other, a cruise system. This technique worked so well that Pakistan decided to acquire a counterforce strike strategy since a counterforce capability fell into their laps.

By 2004, Pakistan had acquired a minimum credible deterrent with relevant delivery systems. Thereafter, Pakistani nuclear policy became aggressive and changed to escalation dominance. This change was registered first when they fired Shaheen-II, and later with the cruise missile firing in August 2005.

The causes for this ominous watershed can be found in the Indian nuclear response, which has been so weak as to lead to the establishment of a missile gap in Pakistan's favor - a gap exploited by Pakistan. Second, both countries claimed that Operation Parakram worked for them. Pakistan insisted that it deterred India because it had nuclear weapons and because it had a lower conventional capability. Pakistan began to feel superior in terms of nuclear capability, a position it tends to exploit politically and diplomatically. Therefore, this has led to the advent of the first strike option, which could be the starting point of an Arms Race in the region.

The Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) has become a main focus of the global nuclear agenda, mainly to prevent India and Pakistan from acquiring enough fissile material for large arsenals. The five NWS (P-5) and Israel have acquired fissile materials, and possess a sufficient stockpile. China, however, has removed the FMCT from its discussions at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. This should be seen in the light of the cooperation between China and Pakistan. Pakistan is the only country to have developed uranium bombs. Now with the help given by China to convert its uranium bombs to the smaller and more efficient plutonium bombs, Pakistan is going full speed in building a plutonium producing reactor. After that help has been exploited, China will vacate its objections in the CD and try to cap India.

India, therefore, can accept the nuclear deal, acquire fissile material fast, and join the FMCT, so that it can derive its minimum credible deterrent. Finally, India lacks nuclear staff to help it to derive a coordinated strategy.

International Nuclear Regime: The Next 10 years

Arundhati Ghose

To anticipate the future of the international nuclear regime is difficult, as it depends on a wide range of aspects. India can focus only on short-term explanations until 2010, the year when the NPT will be reviewed. Before 2010, there will be an important change on the international scene, with the election of a new president in the US; China, however, will remain the wild card.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

The CTBT, whose framework was discussed in 1996, has been signed by the five NWS. But, the US and China have not yet ratified the treaty. Until the US ratifies the treaty, China will never do so on its own. In the US, even under the new President, there will still be a need for two-thirds of the Senate votes to ratify this treaty. Even if the non-proliferation lobby is very strong in the US, the reaction to it is also powerful, pushing the political sphere not to ratify the treaty. Defence lobbies and others feel they need more testing before joining the CTBT. Around 2010, international pressure is likely to build up on the US and China to ratify. After this, the pressure will focus on India and Pakistan, especially after 2010 and the Review Conference, which will be exploited by non-proliferation and anti-nuclear lobbies.

For India, the moratorium announced after the 1998 tests is more binding than the CTBT, for while it is possible to unilaterally withdraw from the CTBT, further testing for India can take place only if another country decides to test.

Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty

China has already opposed the FMCT in the CD, but it had also objected to the preparatory meeting for the Review Conference. China, Pakistan and Iran have objected to these negotiations, but there will probably be an agreement between China and the other nuclear powers to start negotiations next year. Afterwards, to conclude an FMCT, the negotiations, supposed to last two-and-a-half years, will probably take five or six years to succeed. In this context, Russia will play a crucial role because it is a major supporter of non-proliferation, and the sanctions it has adopted against Iran prove that Russia are not different from the US. The FMCT, therefore, will be adopted mainly to counter India and Pakistan, and prevent them from acquiring enough fissile material to derive a credible deterrence.

Indo-US Nuclear Deal

If the nuclear deal goes through, it will have a double impact on the non-proliferation regime: a positive one, because India will enter the regime; and a negative one, viz. a modification of the rules after the exception offered to India. If the nuclear deal does not succeed, restrictions will increase, especially on recent accords to obtain enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Efforts will also be done to bring India into compliance with the Non-Proliferation Regime.

By 2010, some effort will be undertaken to strengthen the NPT: non-proliferation will be the highest priority, but disarmament will remain incoherent. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that a consensus would be found on non-proliferation issues. It would be difficult for India to influence the global path, because India has chosen the path of exceptionalism.


Peaceful Nuclear Explosion

  • The basic answer to why India did not immediately follow through after the Chinese test in 1964 is based on scientific grounds; India did not have enough plutonium. India also feared possible sanctions. It, therefore, waited until 1974 to conduct its PNE, which was, in fact, more a nuclear explosion than a "peaceful" device

  • In 1974, the PNE was discussed internationally; it was on the agenda of the IAEA. It is also permitted by the NPT. That was at the time when India staunchly pursued disarmament. That was also the period when India led the NAM. When India started failing at leading the NAM, it took the other route

Relevance and effectiveness of deterrence

  • In a practical way, nuclear weapons do not prevent/stop conventional war; it is not an important aspect of the strategy of a conventional war. So why are nuclear weapons there? Because the countries in the world cannot accept asymmetry, and if there is proliferation, it will be because of this asymmetry. The discussion on nuclear disarmament will probably increase

  • Is the Indian nuclear deterrent really credible? Actually, India has not tested its missiles adequately, compared to Pakistan, which is more advanced in missile technology. The Indian government is not serious about the nuclear deterrent. Delivery systems against China are inadequate; they will not ensure a credible deterrent

Cost of deterrence

  • With a no-first-use policy in place, a missile defence system would be useful for India. It is, however, a very complicated system, each of which will cost at least US$1.2billion. This might be a serious underestimation of its total costs

  • Deterrence is not based on scientific evidence; it is based more on human behavior. It is, therefore, not possible to define what exactly is a minimum credible nuclear deterrent. Nuclear policy should take into account the political realities in the country, rather than trying to meet the strategic and technical need to have nuclear weapons

Prospects of nuclear disarmament

  • India should try to update the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988. Regarding the Quartet Initiative for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, there is lack of communication; they have failed to create a movement to support them

Nuclear/Missile capabilities of India and Pakistan

  • Pakistan is superior to India in the nuclear field, because its exercise is controlled by the Army; there is a National Security Council; Pakistani decision-making is straightforward; and much greater attention is accorded because Pakistan considers India to be the great threat. Pakistan's systems are much more sophisticated and their missile capability is superior to India

What should India do?

  • In this context, it is very important that confidence be provided to people at large, to inform them that India has a strong command and control system, without compromising security

  • In India, there is an essential need to improve the "quality of the mind" that will be controlling the weapons

  • Now that India and Pakistan are overtly weaponized, India needs to establish a group to think constantly about the nuclear question