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The Quantum Leap
I do not see this as the fifth anniversary of Shakti '98. The year 2003 ought to be viewed as a retrospective of the continuum formed 48 years after the nuclear attacks on Japan, 39 years after the Chinese nuclear test of 1964, 29 years after our test (peaceful nuclear explosion) in 1974 and 28 years after Sino-Pak nuclear weapon collaboration commenced.
The Indian nuclear option (whether or not to develop nuclear weapons) had been around, a bit, after China's first test in 1964. But development imperatives in a fledgling democracy with a "deficit" economy inevitably led us to adopt the comfortable policy of "not now, later" in the earlier decades. It was sound politics to merely think the unthinkable in a democracy weighed down by the "moral" burden of non-violence while being vulnerable to external pressures and fanciful figures of 'cost' and 'pain'. There was, of course, the questionable assumption that the services 'don't need nuclear weapons'. (One also wonders what the economic conditions were, say, in China and France when they chose to go nuclear.)
The Indian nuclear capability would appear to have been achieved despite the fact that the high priority authoritarian regimes accord to such programmes was missing here. Our nuclear research mode was, at best, 'reluctant'. Yet, credit is overdue to all governments before 1998, barring Morarji Desai's short spell, as they all quietly nurtured the nuclear option.
Meanwhile, our neighbourhood was getting rough, in the nuclear sense. There were failed attempts to curb Pakistan's programmes by the international community, especially the US. The US imposed sanctions on Pakistan under the Symington Amendment in April 1978; and waived them eight months later, in December 1978, when the then ussr invaded Afghanistan. Since January 1, 1975, the nuclear weapons collaboration between Pakistan and China began in right earnest. It surprised seasoned China-watchers in India who had bet their last dollar or renmenbi that such a collaboration was inconceivable.
Fast forward to 1995: the year witnessed the extension for eternity of the flawed Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, attempts to shanghai India to be ctbt-compliant and the US' Hank Brown Amendment, which allowed for resumption of military aid to Pakistan. It was a crowded year. Reports that the then Congress prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was very close to issuing an authorisation in late 1995-96 for tests may need to be viewed against this background.
I think India is much better off after May 1998. First, Pakistan's weapons have been forced out of the closet. Our option, which had been on oxygen since 1974 (if not earlier), came out of the icu. Our status is no longer 'ambiguous' and the people of India feel relieved that national security interests are protected. Secondly, the asymmetry with respect to China stands largely removed and it is worth emphasising that deterrence is not just about numbers alone. In an evolutionary way, when India's longer-range missiles—through flight tests, manufacture and induction—reach maturity in the coming years, China's policy towards India may well go through some accommodating revisions. Also, China's nuclear and missile support to Pakistan could decline in the years ahead.
Thirdly, a clear doctrine with the full participation of the armed forces in the command structure has been issued. We do not have to say in Parliament that "the nuclear situation is under constant review. If necessary, our scientists and engineers will rise to the occasion". Clearly, scientists can't press the button and deliver nuclear weapons on targets.
Fourthly, the economic 'pain' of crossing the nuclear lakshmanrekha has not been high at all, contrary to the predictions of many economists.The India-US interlocution process has proceeded apace and led to resumption of defence cooperation as well as drastic pruning of the "entities" under sanctions. There is a grudging acceptance of our nuclear status. And, despite sensational stories about the South Asian 'nuclear flashpoint', the sober Indian position is better understood. But we will have to watch Sino-Pak relations in the overall context of Sino-India relations, both strategic and non-strategic, while engaging China and Pakistan in the bilateral mode. Fifthly, low intensity conflicts will, of course, continue despite our nuclear arsenal; but we are no longer susceptible to nuclear blackmail.
After Iraq, will Pakistan be targeted next by the US as a "difficult" wmd state? Very unlikely. But the US needs to press Pakistan to ensure that it doesn't extend nuclear support (official or unofficial) to terrorist groups. There was cause for such a concern in late 2001. In this context, we must ignore those who claim that the Pak nuclear arsenal is already under US control.
Would the US take out North Korea? Unlikely, though tough negotiations have commenced. If these don't lead to quick nuclear disarmament of North Korea with the doling out of sweeteners, a nightmare situation could see Japan and South Korea go nuclear overnight. The US may also keep its eye on Pakistan after having placed the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories, Kahuta, under sanctions for suspected supply of uranium enrichment technology to North Korea as a partial quid pro quo for the No Dong/Ghauri missiles contracted in 1995.
(The author is director, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and was involved in weaponising the nuclear option. He was also campaign coordinator for the Shakti '98 series of nuclear tests.)