India's Global Nuclear Initiative

21 Nov, 1998    ·   157

P.R. Chari argues that India’s proposal at the UN for “global de-alerting, de-targeting and de-activating” of nuclear weapons is timely as these measures describe a continuum for proceeding towards eliminating nuclear weapons

India ’s proposal to the UN General Assembly on “Reducing Nuclear Danger” calls for steps “to reduce the risks of unintentional and accidental use of nuclear weapons”, since the “hair-trigger alert of nuclear weapons (sic)” carries this risk; and the goal of “nuclear disarmament and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons” requires this danger being removed.



This hair-trigger alert derives from a launch-on-warning posture being adopted by the nuclear weapons states to sustain their first-use doctrine (except for China ). This was highlighted by former Defence Minister Sharad Pawar in his address to the UN First Committee; hence the need for “global de-alerting, de-targeting and de-activating of nuclear weapons”.



No doubt the United States and Russia have reduced their tactical nuclear weapons by 90 %; they would cut their strategic arsenals by some 80%; and dismantle 18,000 nuclear weapons altogether. Still the warheads with the Nuclear Big Two remaining in weapons or in storage are unacceptably large. And UK , France and China have not even joined the dialogue to address these issues.



The risk from deploying nuclear weapons on high alert applies to all nuclear weapon states, including India and Pakistan . The 5000 nuclear weapons on high alert with the United States and Russia can be fired within one half hour. The land-based missiles would take 25 minutes to reach their targets; submarine-based missiles would take roughly half that time.



The danger of these missiles being unintentionally launched by the United States is not unthinkable despite the confidence reposed in its technically sophisticated C3I arrangements. No such confidence obtains regarding Russia ’s nuclear arsenal. Equipment controlling its nuclear weapons are mal-functioning; crews are not adequately trained; Strategic Rocket Forces’ personnel have low morale because their service conditions have deteriorated; relations between the political and military leaderships are strained; and so on. Still, the 5000 nuclear weapons on high alert are designed to deter a “bolt-from-the-blue” surprise attack. This danger is remote; but this does not convince the military mind, given its obsession with worst-case scenarios. Hence the danger of these weapons being used, not in anger, but accidentally, remains likely, preceding a nuclear Armageddon.



Consequently, India ’s proposal for  “global de-alerting, de-targeting and de-activating” of nuclear weapons is timely; these measures describe a continuum for proceeding towards eliminating nuclear weapons. “De-targeting” is largely a confidence-building measure since missiles can be quickly “re-targeted” against their original targets. “De-alerting” would be a more substantive step to increase the time required for launching an attack. For this purpose aircraft could be taken off continuous alert; the number of land-based missiles on hair-trigger alert decreased; the number of nuclear submarines and missiles equipping them also reduced; shrouds, guidance systems or other key component from missiles, that need time to be put back, removed; and so on. “De-activation” requires more radical measures being taken like keeping bombs/warheads in locations different from airbases/silos; placing removed warheads in bilateral or international custody; recovering the fissile material in warheads prior to their destruction; placing mounds of earth over missile silos; and so on.



The issue of verification is naturally vital. Reliance is currently being placed on national technical means or satellite intelligence. This could be supplemented by on-site inspections, as in other arms control agreements. On-site inspections could be undertaken by video cameras, environmental sensors and so on, without involving routine visits by technical personnel. No doubt problems would persist, like verifying the de-alerting of land-mobile missiles and submarine-borne missiles; this requires technical discussions between the Big Two.



India should include such technical discussions in its dialogue with the United States and other nuclear weapon powers rather than make macro-demands upon them to eliminate their nuclear inventories.  These issues have relevance to the Indian nuclear force. The conventional wisdom decrees that small nuclear forces must remain on a launch-on-warning posture to ensure their deterrent credibility; besides they could be lost in a surprise attack. A belief obtains in India that nuclear bombs/warheads could be held by the scientists and the delivery vehicles (aircraft and missiles) with the armed forces. The armed forces counter-argue that such a dispensation will not provide a credible deterrent. There is also nothing to assure that communications with the several sites where the warheads, aircraft and missiles are stored will remain unaffected in a conflict situation, making their use problematical. There is also the problem of physical safety of bombs/warheads in scattered locations.



In brief, the problem before all nuclear weapon powers, old and putative, is how to balance the needs of ensuring the safety of nuclear weapons from external attack and internal sabotage with the requirement to ensure early weaponization and deployment of nuclear weapons in emergencies. In other words, how could the imperatives of arms control and nuclear disarmament be reconciled against those of defence and deterrence. No glib answers are presently available; perhaps none are available. But India must grapple with this dilemma like other nuclear powers.