Pokhran II: India celebrates 20 years of nuclear expertise


New Delhi: India conducted five nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan in May 1998. Five nuclear explosions were conducted between 11 and 13 May, at the end of which the central government, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had declared India a nuclear state. Nuclear weapons, for ensuring national security, are a potent though expensive proposition. Higher than the cost of building a nuclear arsenal are those of deploying, targetting, controlling and defending the country against nuclear weapons of foreign powers.

The tests shocked the world, particularly because they were done with utmost secrecy and the India-U.S. ties hit rock bottom. For nearly two months, the U.S. refused to have any dialogue with India and implemented the Glenn Amendment for the first time. Newer sanctions were imposed, and at one point it looked that relations would never recover.

Doubts on the aspect of India’s abiding adherence to ‘no first use’ have often been expressed, with the former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar having asked, “Why should I bind myself (to no first use)?” As expressed by a military expert who wished to remain anonymous, “Credible minimum deterrence is when a minimum number of weapons are maintained that are adequate to cause unacceptable damage on an adversary who makes the first nuclear strike and the effectiveness of this principle is that capability to retaliate survives the first strike and that the retaliation itself is of an extent and magnitude that is unacceptable to the adversary,” emphasising the need not to underestimate the ferocity of the first strike. This first strike could vastly debilitate not just people, but the economy, communications, military and public infrastructure and also harm the nuclear arsenal itself.

An aspect that another expert, who also chose to remain anonymous, pointed out is that “the number of warheads necessary to hold and deploy has to be proportionate to accuracy,” emphasising that India would indeed need a very large force structure to ensure the required minimum deterrence.

The costs of building up and maintaining a nuclear arsenal, even to the extent required to adhere to its avowed principles, are very high, if not prohibitive. This will have an impact on the allocations to procure conventional weapons. Case in point: The army’s vice-chief spoke before the Parliamentary Defence Committee on the inadequacy of this year’s allocations for defence procurement.

Another major event that has shaken confidence in the value of nuclear power in India’s energy mix was the Fukushima disaster. It has changed the global nuclear power scenario beyond recognition, though India has maintained that it is “business as usual”. The government’s recent decision to build more indigenous reactors points to the fact that the dream of imported nuclear reactors dotting India has disappeared. India’s focus has rightly shifted to solar and other new sources of energy.

He added that scientific perspective could only be created if India went in for other tests. Also present at the event, Colonel (Retd) Vivek Chadha — who has been an IDSA scholar whose research areas are counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and terrorism finance — said, “If India were to do those tests, it will have to pay a cost in terms of its international standing. Therefore, the decision to carry out any further testing to enhance the credibility of weapons has to be balanced with the pursuit of other elements of India’s national interests.” He also sees a continuity in the Draft Nuclear Doctrine that was produced by the National Security Advisory Board in August 1999 but says there haven’t been any substantial shifts.

There is a cross-party acceptability of the doctrine and a general agreement on the basic tenets of the doctrine. However, he does specify that there is no specific number of nuclear assets which can quantify a perpetual state of credible deterrence. “If I say 100 devices are accurate today, that number can become larger or smaller depending on India’s threat perception. Therefore, while this number represents credibility, it is not a number which will remain fixed. So, it is not a limitation of the doctrine but a characteristic of the same,” explained Col Chadha, who has authored a book Indo-US Relations – Divergence to Convergence.

On India-US relations in the backdrop of nuclear advancement, Chadha said that the two countries came to a certain agreement when the India-US nuclear deal was initiated in 2005. “This was based on a degree of transparency that India agreed to and in return, India was for all practical purposes, given the benefits of a nuclear state. Here, the only factor that comes in is that India voluntarily accepted a nuclear moratorium that gave it benefits at the cost of not being able to further enhance the technological capacity through physical testing of nuclear devices now limited to experimental or lab-based analysis,” he said. He added that the scientific community within the government and top policy makers felt that the nuclear tests and the scientific simulations thereafter were adequate to address India’s requirements of a credible minimum deterrence.

Speaking to Firstpost, Bharat Karnad, member of the nuclear doctrine-drafting group in the First National Security Advisory Board, said that in terms of evolution of weapons themselves and the operational aspects of deterrence, no development has happened. “You can revise your doctrine but if you don’t have the hard power for your weapons, you’re not a thermal nuclear power,” he said. He also believes that the Indian government is still unsure about its non-proliferation thinking and describes the nuclear disarmed world as an impractical fantasy. “Pakistan is a very minor kind of nuisance when you have an actual military threat in China. Focus on the things that will end up blunting the Chinese military edge. A thermonuclear force costs a lot less than to secure a conventional military force,” Karnad said in an advice to the government.

On the issue of whether China is a bigger threat than Pakistan, Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia has a different opinion. He serves as the Director of Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, a military research think-tank in New Delhi. “Pakistan has used the nuclear boogie to carry out proxy war and terror attacks in India with impunity and claims to have the tactical nuclear weapons that it keeps threatening to use in case there’s unacceptable loss of territory or degradation of forces in the event of conventional war. However, this myth that India will never retaliate was broken during the surgical strikes of September 2016,” Gen Bhatia said, adding that the underlying fear is that of nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists within Pakistan.

Lt Gen Ajay Kumar Singh (Retd), former Lt Gov Andaman and Nicobar Islands, told Firstpostthat while India stands for universal nuclear disarmament, it also had to protect its national interests, keeping in view the nuclearised environment it was faced with. It is also pertinent that Pokhran II was an indigenous effort, thus asserting our right to take steps in keeping with our security requirements. “Post Pokaran II, India has been recognised as a responsible nuclear power, with a very transparent nuclear doctrine, whose cornerstone is that we will never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state, nor be the first to use it. But if subjected to any use of N, B or C, India will respond with all the might at its disposal,” he said. He also explained that India’s nuclear doctrine hasn’t changed in the last two decades and some experts have raised issues vis-a-vis the no first use policy and also suggested a policy of flexible response.

“Whilst status quo cannot be cast in stone, changes to our nuclear doctrine need great deliberation,” he said, explaining that it must be remembered that nuclear weapons are meant for deterrence and not really for war fighting. The current doctrine and nuclear readiness of India is also focused on deterring any possible nuclear capable adversary.

Col (Retd) Ali Ahmed, who had participated in counter-insurgency operations in India and Sri Lanka, wrote in his book India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (New Delhi: Routledge India, 2014) about the need to revisit the term ‘massive’ in terms of the envisaged retaliation within the nuclear doctrine. This, in his opinion, has a negative impact on the nuclear–conventional war interface. Instead, he suggests the term ‘flexible retaliation doctrine’ for better escalation control.

The nuclear draft is open to revisions and as an expert on nuclear technology Dr G Balachandran puts it, “prior to the nuclear draft, India was neither here nor there. Today, even 20 years after Pokhran II, it has direction.”

Thus, there is broad consensus on India’s nuclear doctrine. 20 years after the nuclear tests, the fundamental tenets of the doctrine are still applicable despite the evolving strategic environment.

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