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.

  • Maybach57

    This article is the second part of a 2-part series. While the first was strange in its assertions that India’s standing in the world had diminished after the 1998 nuclear tests, the points made were certainly debatable. This article, on the other hand, is shallow and sounds simply confused.

    1) A third of this article is devoted to nuclear safety issues, ironically in the west, and well before India’s nuclear weaponization program. Nobody denies that you need to safeguard these weapons. This also applies to chemical and biological weapons, smallpox virus reservoirs, civilian nuclear reactors, and plastic explosives.

    2) The statement “Yet nuclear weapons do not help to combat India’s real threats of Maoist insurgency, terrorism, pandemics, poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and corruption.” is repeated so often in so many contexts that this has become irrelevant. You could argue the same for the space program, the $11B that India will spend on its fighter aircraft, the $3B spent on a single 30-year old refurbished aircraft carrier, fuel subsidies, agricultural price protection…..you get the idea.

    Like any large nation, India has its priorities which means it makes a set of judicious choices that includes investments in every area it deems appropriate.

    3) Another statement, “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.” is equally meaningless. In fact, most wars are fought between non-nuclear states. You could argue that if neither India nor Pakistan had nuclear weapons, the Kargil war would have escalated with substantially more loss of life and property.

    4) After discussing nuclear weaponization, the author is mixing the issues of safety with civilian nuclear reactors by bringing up transparency or lack thereof. No country is transparent about its defense capabilities. As for civilian nuclear reactors, in the case of the most recent deployment at Kudamkulam, the Indian Supreme Court asked for a safety review from an independent technical commission before allowing the reactors to go critical.

    5) Soon after the 1998 tests, India developed a nuclear doctrine which among others states that it will develop a strong deterrent, stated a no-first-use policy and guaranteed non-use against non-nuclear states. While that doctrine was modified a little (to clarify the no-first use policy), it has been consistent – not “ad-hoc and episodic” as the author claims (without offering any proof to back up his words).

    6) As for the statement, “India still lacks effective deterrent capability against China.”, I wonder if (the common estimates of about) a 100 atomic devices combined with intermediate range missiles, an air-force with fourth generation fighters and a small growing submarine fleet is not “effective deterrent capability”. And if these are truly not deterrents, does the author think that India’s substantially inferior conventional forces will do the trick?

    7) The statement, “Nor can nuclear weapons help to solve any of the real problems of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition.” misses macro-economics as well. As the author points out, India’s nuclear weapons is a fraction of its overall defense budget which is smaller as a percentage of GDP than almost every other major country (in terms of per capita, it is even lower). So, the author should complain about the conventional arms budget, not the nuclear weapons budget. In any case, economic upliftment is dependent considerably more on other factors like infrastructure investment, manufacturing capability, tax policies, to name a few.

    By linking abolishing nuclear weapons with unrelated issues, the author is weakening his position as there are many other factors that cost a whole lot more.

    8) Finally, apart from a high-level critique of Indian nuclear weapons program, it is unclear what the author is suggesting. Unilateral nuclear disarmament? That’s unclear. If so, the author should discuss how Pakistan and China are going to react. And the author should address how “Maoist insurgency, terrorism, pandemics, poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and corruption” will be improved by the modest net savings (as some of the “saved” resources will doubtless have to be redirected to conventional defense budget).

  • Hell Boy

    India conducted five nuclear tests. Even if one were to concede the tests were understandable, the question arises: What did India gain? It’s hard to see any role for India’s nuclear armaments as instruments of defense. 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. The fact that India has nuclear weapons will add to international unease and worries rather than enhance its global stature and international prestige.

    • Avinash Tyagi

      Were China to invade India, they would be under the fear of a Nuclear Reprisal from India, especially if India believes its conventional forces were insufficient to drive China’s forces back.
      While China may have more Nukes than India, India has enough to turn China into a wasteland.
      As a result China is likely to look elsewhere for any territorial aspirations

  • Tooba mansoor

    The recent and speedy developments in the nuclear domain or defense sector on part of India actually make someone wonders that why India is so much obsessed about its nuclear credentials where it has put the lives of its people at stake. As long as it is trying to meeting the pitch of increasing defense credentials, it is making itself away from the very reality of safety concerns related to this dangerous technology. The question arises exactly what India actually have gained by making itself so much stuffed with nuclear material and power credentials while making its people to suffer.

    • Avinash Tyagi

      Have the people suffered as a result?
      By investing in technology and education needed to design these weapons, India has created jobs and pathways out of poverty for its citizens, in addition it has created stability as India’s often belligerent Neighbors, China and Pakistan are kept in check.
      There is a reason India is growing while Pakistan is stagnant and why India is likely to outlast China (who has a rapidly aging population)

  • Sumitha Gill

    After highlighted series of triumphs
    in Indian nuclear field, we come across with an accountable perspective of
    Indian nuclear risks and costs. On daily basis, Indian statesmen haunted with
    this that they can be attacked or invaded any time. This makes them to stuff Indian
    Territory with more and more nuclear weapons and other armaments. These lethal
    weapons if used can lead to a catastrophic devastation. So Indians are putting
    its capital in such a domain which remain nonproductive. It also emphasized on
    continuance building of latest advanced technologies which is a never ending
    phenomenon. It demands lots of capital consumption with least in return.

  • Florentina J.

    India is driving a nuclear and missiles arms race in one of the world’s most volatile and poorest regions, marked by persistent strategic hostility and a hot-cold war between India and Pakistan since 1947. There is very little clarity about India’s nuclear deterrence doctrine. This is likely to add to regional insecurity and instability.

  • Virat

    The author is an apologist idealogue. Therefore it is tough to take him and his views seriously. Putting 4B dollars into nukes according to him is stealing from poor. for a country of 1.25 billion it is not. It is a responsibility to provide security to a gradually but surely empowering economy. Pacifism can be argued in better terms . the authors challenges with being able to do deep analysis stand exposed.