Strategic Defence Review

15 Sep, 1998    ·   141

Report of the seventh IPCS Seminar on the Implications of Nuclear Testing in South Asia

A meeting of the Friday Group was held on August 21 to discuss the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) envisaged by the BJP’s Election Manifesto and its National Agenda of Governance in the light of the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan. The discussions were initiated by P.R.Chari, Co-Director, IPCS. He began by reading out relevant portions of the Election Manifesto/ and the National Agenda of Governance, and informed that it was generally believed that a decision to exercise the nuclear option/conduct the nuclear tests would be taken after the Task Force’s Report was obtained, a National Security Council (NSC) was constituted and the NSC undertook the Strategic Defence Review (SDR). The conduct of the nuclear tests before these exercises were completed has encouraged beliefs that they were only part of an elaborate deception exercise. Establishing the NSC and conducting the SDR might have allowed greater analysis and justification for conducting these nuclear tests. He drew a comparison between Pokharan I in 1974 and Pokharan II in their secretiveness, influence of the scientific bureaucracy on decision-making, their hope of resolving internal political difficulties, and the mix-of-motives presaging the ultimate decision. Proceeding further he speculated on what a SDR might have revealed about the military, scientific, political and economic implications of the nuclear tests, had this exercise being conducted before undertaking them. (a) The military implication was that Pakistan would be driven to test its own devices. This was essential for Pakistan’s nuclear establishment because several Indian high personages, including former Chairmen of the Atomic Energy Commission, had cast serious doubts on Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, and it thus became necessary for them to prove their nuclear prowess. It could also have been surmised that China’s reaction would be muted, since they had assured India on many occasions that exercising the nuclear option was basically its own decision. China’s present hostile reaction to these tests was largely in reaction to India’s identification of China as the main adversary. The SDR would probably have suggested delaying the nuclear tests until India could deploy an extended-range Agni, which was unavoidable for India to possess a credible deterrent against China. (b) A consideration of the scientific implications would, therefore, have revealed that a further missile test series was needed if Agni II and other extended-range missiles were to be deployed. It is not yet clear if aircraft modifications have been carried out to permit the carriage of nuclear weapons, and whether further tests would be required to miniaturize the bombs that could be carried under their wings or in an under-slung mode. Further tests were, most certainly, required to mate the warhead with the Prithvi or Agni missiles. The statements made by the scientists in the DRDO and AEC after the nuclear tests are vague whether further tests are needed before India could proceed to weaponize and deploy its nuclear devices. Assuming that India could deliver its nuclear devices against Pakistan by even transport aircraft, this could certainly establish a deterrent pattern against it; but nuclear warhead equipped intermediate-range and longer missiles are definitely required to achieve a mutual deterrent relationship against China. This requires further missile testing. In his view counter-force was a false doctrine; nuclear deterrence was ultimately premised on MAD and counter-city attack. (c) Coming to the political repercussions, the SDR could have war-gamed an assessment on how Pakistan, China, United States, apart from the P-5 and G-8 nations would have reacted to the nuclear tests. This would have revealed that Indo-Pak relations, which were bad but with some hope of improvement under the new BJP Government, were bound to plummet. More seriously, Pakistan was bound to test its devices and this would firmly equate India and Pakistan as a nuclear duo in South Asia. Global fears of a nuclear conflict in South Asia deriving from the continuing impasse in Kashmir would also get revived. It could have been further assessed that Sino-Indian relations, which were improving slowly after the bilateral 1993 and 1996 agreements between the two countries, might deteriorate, especially if the Agni-II and longer-range missiles were tested thereafter. In these circumstances, the initiative for further normalising the bilateral relationship would assuredly pass into China’s hands. It could also have been estimated that Indo-US relations would deteriorate and, given its non-proliferation predilections, the US would mobilize the P-5 and G-8 against India. Whether Russia and France would support India, given their own linkages/dependence on the US, could have been realistically assessed. (d) On the economic front the SDR would have cautioned against the inevitability of sanctions being imposed. This could stoke inflationary pressures within the economy due to the uncontrolled budgetary deficits over the last several years; accentuated by the phenomenon of falling exports and imports. This could reinforce the recessionary trends that were likely to spread into India from East Asia and Southeast Asia. Besides, India could not have isolated itself from the world economy in the midst of its efforts to liberalise and globalise its economy. Harsh decisions would be required by India if it was to choose the go-it-alone, self-reliance and self-sufficiency option, like cutting subsidies that would offend powerful sectoral interests; or reducing the bloated bureaucracy, and so on; this would prove difficult for a weak, coalition government. In conclusion, he said that India was now presented with a Hobson’s choice. It could go ahead with more nuclear and missile tests to perfect its Agni series, and proceed thereafter to weaponization and deployment of nuclear weapons. This would have to be proceeded with in the teeth of international scrutiny and opposition. The other option is to negotiate their charter of demands with the P-5 and G-8 countries, which prominently insist that India should enter the CTBT. Both choices are onerous, but it is difficult to envisage a satisfactory third way out of India’s current dilemma. Still the establishment of a NSC and evolving a SDR, even at this late stage, may allow optimal choices being made. This presentation led to a long discussion. Much of it unfortunately did not focus on the main issue under debate, but on several peripheral and unrelated issues. There was some speculation whether India had sought a nuclear umbrella in the early eighties from the US and L.K.Jha had gone to negotiate this with Washington. It was informed by one of the participants, who was serving in the Indian embassy at that time, that the main purpose of Jha’s visit was to seek a thaw in Indo-US relations, and that it was not concerned with any nuclear umbrella. In fact, Mrs. Gandhi’s visit to the United States was planned at that time. Similarly, much time was taken up in speculating on the contents of the Task Force Report and why it had not been acted upon. A participant informed that it was a short 9-page report; so the delay in acting upon it was unconscionable. It was reportedly "under consideration" which, in Indian bureaucratese, really meant that nothing further was being done with it. It was felt that the NSC, whenever established, must draw on outside talent, as neither the Cabinet nor the Committee of Secretaries had the requisite expertise. More presciently, the perceptions of other countries about India and how they would pursue their national interests in their bilateral relations with us should be borne in mind whilst conducting a SDR. For instance, China’s permanent interests required it to confine India within the geo-strategic limits of South Asia; indeed, George Fernandes might be right in giving emphasis to the Sino-Pak collusion in the nuclear and missile areas as they vitally affected Indian security. Moreover the current nuclear stalemate would work to Pakistan’s advantage by encouraging the proxy war in Kashmir. In regard to the SDR it was speculated that the BJP government had made up its mind to conduct the nuclear tests irrespective of the establishment of the NSC or the completion of the SDR. This was clear from a close reading of the relevant provisions in the National Agenda of Governance. Whenever the SDR is prepared it must clearly identify the threat; undertake a holistic exercise; not neglect the naval dimension; and be adequately publicized as a public document. But caution should be exercised not to perceive threats everywhere. Speculation on the size and shape of the armed forces and the role of nuclear weapons to assure the national security was essential. An intense debate was needed for this purpose. It should be appreciated that nuclear weapons did not ensure the absence of conflict, which could take other forms including brush fire wars. Finally, a conspiratorial view was expressed that the SDR and NSC would probably not be proceeded with now, because it had served its essential purpose of providing a deception plan to cover the nuclear tests!