India’s nuclear risks and costs

by Ramesh Thakur

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

A nuclear catastrophe was averted during the Cold War as much owing to good luck as wise management. The number of times that we have come frighteningly close to nuclear holocaust is simply staggering.

According to one study by a U.S. nuclear weapon laboratory in 1970, more than 1,200 nuclear weapons were involved in accidents from 1950 to 1968 because of security breaches, lost weapons, failed safety mechanisms or accidents resulting from weapons being dropped or crushed in lifts, etc.

In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, U.S. strategy was based on intelligence that indicated there were no nuclear warheads in Cuba. In fact there were 162 warheads already stationed there and the local Soviet commander had taken them out of storage to deployed positions for use against an American invasion. Intelligence agencies are necessary even in democratic societies to protect us against quotidian threats, for example wannabe terrorists who will discuss targets and tactics on open international phone lines. But it’s amazing how often they fail to forewarn us of the big picture like the erection and fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, 9/11, etc.

Recently declassified documents show there was another near-miss in November 1983, when strategic arsenals were far more lethal on both sides. In response to NATO war games exercise Able Archer, which Moscow mistook to be real, the Soviets came close to launching a full-scale nuclear attack against the West under the misapprehension that a NATO nuclear attack was imminent. And the West was blissfully unaware of this at the time.

On Jan. 21, 1961, a 4-megaton bomb (260 times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast) was one ordinary switch away from detonating over North Carolina; the effects would have covered Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and even New York. Days after President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, a B-52 bomber on a routine flight went into an uncontrolled spin. Two hydrogen bombs fell loose over Goldsboro, North Carolina. One, assuming it had been deliberately released over an enemy target, began the detonation process. Three of four fail-safe mechanisms failed and only the final, a simple dynamo-technology low-voltage switch, averted what would have been the greatest disaster in U.S. history with millions of lives at risk.

In addition to close calls based on miscalculations and misperceptions and accidental near misses, the nuclear age has left a trail of grave environmental damage. There is also a significant economic cost. Nuclear weapons have not permitted any of the states that have them to buy defense on the cheap.

In terms of opportunity costs, heavy military expenditure amounts to stealing from the poor. India’s core expenditure on nuclear weapons are around $4 billion, and the full nuclear costs amount to $5 billion. Yet nuclear weapons do not help to combat India’s real threats of Maoist insurgency, terrorism, pandemics, poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and corruption.

As demonstrated in the 1999 Kargil war, the possession of nuclear weapons by both sides in a conflict does not rule out either an initial military incursion across a disputed border or a conventional military retaliation. But it did dampen a full-scale conventional attack by India in order to avoid escalating to the nuclear threshold. If India is to retain the option of being able to respond to provocations (border skirmishes, incursions and state-sponsored terrorist attacks) with calibrated use of conventional military power, it must invest still more heavily in conventional military capability than would have been required in the absence of a nuclear overhang in the subcontinent.

In a convergence of Indian military-nuclear thinking with international norms, India’s military doctrine has begun to emphasize prompt offensive action with division-sized battle groups upon provocation. India’s maritime strategy also increasingly emphasizes offensive action with power-projection capability both to the east and west across the Indian Ocean. Indian weapons scientists are working on a successor Agni-VI missile with a 10,000-km range (that is, covering all of China) with a projected test flight date of 2017.

In the absence of an official strategic defense or nuclear posture review, it is hard to discern how India will ensure that a capability meant to deter does not in fact provoke, including additional Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. There is the added risk of proliferation to extremist elements through leakage, theft, state collapse and state capture.

Domestically, meanwhile, a nuclear program encourages excessive centralization of political control and obsessive secrecy. Nuclear weapons can lead to the creation of a national security state with a premium on governmental secretiveness, reduced public accountability and increased distance between citizens and government.

Relying on secrecy and obfuscation, a nuclear program undermines democratic accountability and contributes instead to a culture of lies and evasions. Shielding the program from public scrutiny hides the inefficiency, malpractice, mismanagement and dangers — and nuclear technology is unforgiving when things go wrong with grave safety and environmental concerns. Just ask the former residents of Fukushima.

In other words, India is caught in an escalating cycle of increased nuclear and conventional military expenditures with no net gain in defense capability against the most likely threat contingencies. Internationally India has shifted from being a disarmament champion to a nuclear-armed state. While the former was informed by a strategic vision, the latter has been ad hoc and episodic.

As a disarmament crusader, India was the foremost critic of the Non-Proliferation Treaty-centered “nuclear apartheid” regime. As a non-NPT nuclear-armed state, India has been gradually integrating with the global nuclear orders while hypocritically preaching nuclear abstinence to others like North Korea and Iran. Nuclear weapons confer neither power, prestige nor influence. South Asia’s insecurity dilemma has intensified since May 1998.

India still lacks effective deterrent capability against China. History and geography make the India-Pakistan nuclear equation less stable than Cold War U.S.-Soviet deterrence. Nuclear weapons failed to deter Pakistani infiltration and Indian retaliation and escalation in the two-month Kargil war in 1999, and a year-long full military mobilization by both in 2002. Nuclear weapons are not going to help India combat internal insurgency, cross-border terrorism or parasitical corruption.

Nor can nuclear weapons help to solve any of the real problems of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition. And they are irrelevant to India’s security needs against any other country.

While not advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, such a conclusion should at least encourage India to be a champion of phased, regulated and verifiable global nuclear disarmament governed by a nondiscriminatory nuclear weapons convention.

This would be in keeping with: the legacy of Indian initiatives on nuclear arms control and disarmament, including the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988; the fact that India was the most reluctant nuclear weapons possessor of all the nine nuclear-armed states; and its official nuclear doctrine that lists global nuclear disarmament as a national security objective.

With more than 90 percent of the global nuclear weapons arsenal, the U.S. and Russia bear primary and heaviest responsibility for nuclear disarmament. That is no reason for the other nuclear powers to abdicate their responsibility commensurate with their status as nuclear weapons possessor states.

This article is based on Ramesh Thakur’s publication, “The Inconsequential Gains and Lasting Insecurities of India’s Nuclear Weaponization,” International Affairs 90:5 (September 2014), pp. 1101-24.