India’s illusory nuclear gains

by Ramesh Thakur

This is the first of a two-part series on India’s nuclear weaponization.

In May 1998, India conducted five nuclear tests. Even if one were to concede the tests were understandable, the question arises: What did India gain? The short answer, contrary to facile claims of strategic, military or political utility, and cost-effectiveness is: not much.

Unilateral nuclear disarmament is unlikely by any of the nuclear-armed states, including India, and is thus unrealistic as a policy goal. However, a denuclearized world that includes the destruction of India’s nuclear stockpile would favorably affect the balance of India’s security and other interests like development and social welfare, national and international interests, and material interests and value goals.

Although prospects for nuclear disarmament look dim, especially after the Ukraine crisis, the goal of an eventually denuclearized world is both necessary and feasible. For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time.

For nuclear Armageddon, deterrence or fail-safe mechanisms need to break down only once. This is not a comforting equation. As long as any one country has nuclear weapons, others will want them. As long as nuclear weapons exist, they will be used again someday by design, miscalculation, rogue launch, human error or system malfunction. And any nuclear war fought by any set of nuclear-armed states could be catastrophic for the whole world.

Nuclear weapons may be sought for (1) compellence, (2) defense, (3) deterrence and/or (4) status.

“Compellence” means the use of coercion to force an adversary to stop or reverse something already being done, or to do something he would not otherwise do. There is no demonstrable instance of a nonnuclear state having been cowed into changing its behavior by the threat of being bombed with nuclear weapons. Indian doctrine, backed by deployment patterns, explicitly eschews any intent to use nuclear weapons as tools of coercion.

It is hard to see any role for India’s nuclear armaments as instruments of defense. India’s no-first-use doctrine disavows use of nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks. Nuclear weapons cannot be used for defense by nuclear-armed rivals whose mutual vulnerability to second-strike retaliatory capability guarantees that any escalation through the nuclear threshold would be mutual national suicide.

India’s nuclear arsenal offers no defense against a major conventional attack by China, Russia or the U.S. — the only three countries with the capability to do so. As for intent, Russia is a diplomatic ally and friend of long standing. Relations with the U.S. have warmed to a remarkable degree, including a just concluded high-profile visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which was remarkable for the fact that a person denied a U.S. visa from 2005 until May 2014 was hosted to a state dinner by President Barack Obama.

Deepening and broadening bilateral Sino-Indian relations, and cooperation on several major international issues based on converging interests in forums like the group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), provide considerable substance, texture and ballast to that relationship today. During his recent visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed agreements to invest $20 billion to upgrade India’s woeful infrastructure.

With nuclear weapons being unusable for defense, their sole operational purpose and role is mutual deterrence. Deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being always in office on all sides: a shaky precondition. It depends equally critically on there being no rogue launch, human error or system malfunction: an impossibly high bar. Nuclear weapons have failed to stop wars between nuclear and nonnuclear rivals (Korea, Afghanistan, Falklands, Vietnam, 1991 Persian Gulf War).

To believe in deterrence is to argue that Iran should be encouraged, indeed facilitated in getting the bomb in order to contribute to the peace and stability of the Middle East where presently Israel is the only nuclear-armed state. Good luck and good night.

The subcontinent’s history since 1998 gives the lie to the then-hopes and expectations, on both sides of the border, that nuclearization would prove to be a largely stabilizing factor.

Powerful domestic constituencies have grown in both countries to identify multiple threats that justify a matching expansion of a highly elastic nuclear posture. The low-cost, low-risk covert war in the shadow of the subcontinent’s nuclearization had three attractions for Pakistan: It would weaken India by raising the human and economic costs of Kashmir’s occupation; the fear of nuclear escalation would raise the threshold for cross-border Indian retaliatory raids; and it would help internationalize the Kashmir dispute by highlighting the risk of nuclear escalation.

Pakistan has invested in terrorist groups as part of its unconventional inventory against India. In responding to a terrorist attack, any deliberate escalation by India through the nuclear threshold would be extremely high-risk. The development of tactical missiles and battlefield nuclear weapons by the two sides, whose utility is contingent on proximity to battlefields, multiply the risks. India must also live with the nightmare possibility of jihadists getting their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. While obviously more acute for Pakistan, the threat is grave for India also.

Just what is a “credible minimum deterrent” — India’s official doctrine — that would dissuade nuclear blackmail and coercion and permit second-strike nuclear retaliation? China and Pakistan are incommensurate in their national power, strategic frames and military capabilities. The requirements of numbers, reach, deployment patterns and locations, and the distribution between land-based, air-launched and sea-borne platforms, are as mutually incompatible between them. That which is credible toward China cannot be the minimum toward Pakistan, and vice versa.

Few analysts would take issue with the claim that currently nonnuclear-armed Germany has a higher status, weight and clout in Europe and the world than nuclear-armed Britain and France. Nuclear brinkmanship earns North Korea neither prestige, power nor friends; nonnuclear-armed South Korea fares better on all three counts.

India does have a higher international profile today than in 1998. This is despite, not because of, nuclear weapons, and rests in its economic performance and information technology credentials.

No serious Indian analyst is likely to claim that Pakistan’s profile has risen alongside India’s since 1998, despite Islamabad’s more focused efforts on expanding, deepening and broadening its nuclear weapons capability.

If India’s economy stutters, its social pathologies intensify and multiply and its political system proves incapable of making and implementing hard decisions. The fact that India has nuclear weapons will add to international unease and worries rather than enhance its global stature and international prestige.

If India’s economic future is mortgaged to bad governance rooted in populist politics pursued by corrupt politicians, other countries will return India to the basket of benign neglect while offering ritual but empty praise for its rich civilization and culture. Prime Minister Modi at least seems to get this.

This article is based on Ramesh Thakur’s recent publication “The Inconsequential Gains and Lasting Insecurities of India’s Nuclear Weaponization,” International Affairs 90:5 (September 2014).

  • Davidake

    A great article.

  • Maybach57

    This article is curious and the thrust of the claims very questionable.

    1) The statement, “India does have a higher international profile today than in 1998.” is quite simply wrong. India has a substantially higher profile and this is at least in part to the nuclear tests.

    Strobe Talbott in his book “Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and The Bomb” specifically says that the US did not pay India as much attention as it deserved till the 1998 tests. Then began a long series of talks with Jaswant Singh about a number of issues.

    2) One side-effect of the talks between Talbott & Singh was that the heads of the 2 nations will have annual summits. These summits effectively force the 2 government bureaucracies to make forward progress with policy issues.

    3) Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all visited India. Bush Sr, Reagan did not.

    4) It is almost certain that any expansion of the UN Security Council will include India.

    5) The tests essentially called Pakistan’s bluff about not having a weapons program. However, it did have the downside of giving Pakistan an excuse to test its weapons.

    7) You could argue that the NSG waiver and the possibility of getting full NSG membership would not have happened without the tests. It is unlikely that the US-led nuclear deal would have happened without the tests.

    8) Among the 1998 tests were a thermonuclear bomb (which India had previously not tested and which by most reports was a failure) as a well as low yield tactical nukes. Again, these tests allowed India to test multiple weapon configurations.

    9) There was only a brief period of limited sanctions by a handful of countries and no lasting impact.

    10) If you are a game theorist, you could argue that by forcing Pakistan’s hand in the open, letting Pakistan spend huge amounts of money that it can ill afford on a largely unusable nuclear arsenal and raising the international community’s awareness of the precarious security around these Pakistani nukes, Pakistan is actually weakened.

    11) It could also be a signal to China that India does not sufficient WMD technology to deter a war.

    12)The author states, “Unilateral nuclear disarmament is unlikely by any of the nuclear-armed states, including India, and is thus unrealistic as a policy goal.” If this is truly unrealistic, then the subsequent discussion is largely moot.

    13)The author also states, “Nuclear weapons have failed to stop wars between nuclear and nonnuclear rivals”. If the non-nuclear rivals had nuclear weapons, then the countries with nukes would have given much pause to their actions.

  • arun1

    The writer is deluded. Does he seriously think that Pakistan will give up its nuclear arsenal if India does.
    Of course India’s nukes are a deterrence to China. Even if China destroyed all Indian cities , it knows that a few surviving Indian submarines or mobile missile launchers would inflict horrendous damage to big Chinese cities.
    What India must do is to detonate 3 megaton H bombs so China and Pakistan are no doubt that India has thermonuclear weapons.

  • Mera Desh

    Below statements shows that Author has no knowledge of Indian strategic assets – Agni 5 ( More then 5000km), Nuclear Submarines, Cruise missiles, Su32 fighters and Aircraft carriers.

    –India’s nuclear arsenal offers no defense against a major
    conventional attack by China, Russia or the U.S. — the only three countries with the capability to do so.

    We haven’t developed a ICBM missile due to just diplomatic reasons as we don’t show US as our enemy. India has capability to produce a ICBM (more then 10000km) in few months if required as we have all technology to produce one.

  • This article seems to have been written perhaps a decade back,updated recently and perhaps not by Ramesh Thakur – a writer with in depth understand of international politics. !

    To begin with, the nuclear test in May 1998 was of more of a political act rather than military because India had already carried out successful nuclear test in 1974 and was deemed as nuclear-capable though not recognized as one. May 1998 tests were officially declared leading to sanctions being imposed but eventually it led to recognition of India and Pakistan as nuclear powers. The very idea of nuclear-deal wouldn’t have arisen without the 1998 tests. Is it not a gain ?

    “To believe in deterrence is to argue that Iran should be encouraged”
    India wasn’t encouraged or helped substantially, since even Russia wasn’t fully supporting India, no more than it is doing Iran now. As for deterrence the Cuban missile crisis it was nuclear deterrence and prospect of MAD (mutually assured destruction ) that averted the catastrophe.
    In India’s case, during its 1966 war with Pakistan, China coerced India to withdraw from Pakistan leading India to step up its nuclear program. In the 71′ war with Pakistan, India was a threshold nuclear power, although the US and China attempted to coerce India, China did not take the same aggressive stand even if East Pakistan broke off to become Bangladesh and 90,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered. More recently, during the Kargil War, the nuclear deterrence did work and according to RAND corporation, it helped keeping the “limited war” becoming an all out war.

    The article does not mention NPT but the precepts appear in tandem with the treaty’s pillars, especially disarmament. India’s initial refusal to sign NPT was because it preferred disarmament as opposed to discriminatory arrangement. However, disarmament is no longer an option since no nation-state can trust others having destroyed their entire stockpile and consequently,not destroy its own arsenal. The writer’s reference to North Korea is an excellent example why NPT is no longer relevant. Further, nuclear capability of Israel, China-Pakistan nuclear deal following a similar one between US and India indicates that the original 5 nuclear powers don’t consider non-proliferation as important as countries like Japan and Australia do.

    Finally, I concur with the writer that India’s current international standing has little to do with its nuclear weapons and everything to do with technological development and growing economy but he does not explain how India’s growing population,increasing hunger for energy sources and inability to meet energy requirement in the next decade can be met without nuclear energy sources if a relatively smaller and developed country like Japan cannot do without. If civil nuclear deals are reached wouldn’t that be an outcome of India’s nuclear program of nearly 4 decades and an important gain to ensure a better future for Indian economy and the country’s global stature.