Revisiting the folly of India’s nuclear tests

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Ontario — Three recent events reopen the debate on the wisdom of India’s nuclear tests in 1998, as judged from within the narrow framework of its own interests. Or rather, they confirm the folly of the tests:

• K. Santhanam, director of the 1998 test site preparations, has claimed that the hydrogen bomb tests yielded less than half the amount of projected destructive energy: 15 to 20kt, not 45kt. His claims have been rejected by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former President Abdul Kalam, the then scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defense, and Brajesh Mishra, the BJP Government’s national security adviser.

The claims have been backed by some influential heavyweights, including P.K. Iyengar, former chief of the Atomic Energy Commission, and they are broadly in accordance with the conclusions of most disinterested international observers who analyzed the test data at the time. The reason for his revelation may be to put pressure on the government to conduct further tests for validating the design of India’s hydrogen bomb, before the window is closed if the Obama administration ratifies the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and pressures remaining holdouts to follow.

• Second, India recently began sea trials of a new nuclear-powered submarine with underwater ballistic launch capability. It plans to acquire a fleet of five, although even the first will not be operational for combat duty for some years yet.

• Third, Pakistan has been publicly perturbed at the prospect of more nuclear tests by India, nuclear-powered submarines and the civil nuclear cooperation deal with the United States.

In an article in the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen argue that Pakistan is enhancing its nuclear weapon capabilities across the board. It has been developing and deploying new nuclear- capable missiles and expanding its capacity to produce fissile materials for use in weapons. Their article adds weight to calculated leaks from the U.S. intelligence community expressing unease at Pakistan’s nuclear programs.

In other words, the critics of the 1998 tests have been vindicated. Nuclearization has bought India neither strategic gains nor defense on the cheap. It still lacks an effective deterrent capability against China, let alone parity with the U.S. Doubts have now been sown in the public mind in India and in official policy circles in China and Pakistan about the reliability, robustness and resilience of India’s nuclear power status. These cannot be removed without further tests that are unambiguously successful in delivering the projected yields.

Yet any such tests would bring down the wrath of the international community and wreck the hard-fought nuclear deal with the U.S. At a time when President Barack Obama has recommitted to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and entered into fresh agreements with Russia for dramatic further steps in denuclearizing the world, India would be marching to a tune that everyone else finds harshly discordant. And it would launch a fresh round in the endless cycle of arms races in the subcontinent, with blame falling largely, perhaps even solely, on India.

In the meantime, during and after the decade since nuclearization, India continues to suffer serial terror attacks originating, by its own account, from across the border in Pakistan; continues to confront the prospect of a war with Pakistan that would be ruinous for both; and therefore continues to invest heavily in conventional defense at the cost of social welfare programs like health and education, which would boost economic productivity instead of draining the public coffers. Indians in huge numbers are among the poorest, unhealthiest and least literate peoples of the world.

Nuclear weapons in Indian hands did not stop Pakistan from occupying the forbidding Kargil heights on the Indian side of the Line of Control in 1999. The effort to retake it cost over a thousand lives in the end. The two countries came perilously close to a full-blown war in 2002, after the terrorist attack on India’s parliament in December 2001.

Nuclear weapons have caused a triple damage to India vis-a-vis Pakistan. They have encouraged Pakistani provocations, be it in the form of incursions or cover for terrorist attacks as in Mumbai in November last year. They bring sobriety to Indian debates on how best to respond for fear of stepping on the ladder of escalation from which it would be difficult to step off because the process cannot be controlled. And the fear of a nuclear war has brought far greater international interest and involvement, something that suits Pakistan but agitates India.

Absent nuclearization, India could retaliate more easily and have much better assurance of inflicting military defeat. With nuclearization, India has found its policy options for dealing with a nettlesome neighbor far more sharply curtailed. The BJP, the nationalist party in power in 1998, should have been a tad more careful in what it wished for.

There is no chance of India or Pakistan renouncing nuclear weapons unilaterally. But the costs, risks and complications offer compelling reasons for India, ahead of the five-year review of the Nonproliferation Treaty next year, to line up solidly behind recently reinvigorated efforts to achieve global nuclear disarmament.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.