It’s Time to Tweak the Nuclear Policy

Published in Hindustan Times on May 15, 2023

India’s nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998, stunned the world. This was not the first; in 1974, India had tested but called it a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE). This time, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared that India was now a nuclear-weapon-state. Addressing parliament on the subject on May 27, he also placed a paper – “Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy” – that provided the rationale for the tests and spelt out the elements of India’s doctrine that defined India as a reluctant but responsible nuclear power.

When India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, its “nuclear option” was born. In subsequent decades, preserving the option became the primary political and diplomatic objective. Through more than three decades of domestic political changes, policy continuity was sustained.

Meanwhile, Pakistan pushed ahead with its programme and by early 1980s, it was enriching uranium at Kahuta and by late 1980s, had weaponised its deterrent with Chinese help. As the frontline state in the United States’ covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Pakistan managed to make the U.S. turn a blind eye to its nuclear developments.

There was a growing realisation that given technological advances since the 1974 PNE, the “nuclear option” could no longer remain viable and needed to be exercised. Post Cold War global developments with tightening dual-use export controls were also squeezing the Indian option. In 1995, the NPT was extended into perpetuity, freezing a nuclear order that India had long considered arbitrary and discriminatory. Negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) began in 1994 with the Clinton administration pushing to complete it in 1996.

In 1995, France and China were still undertaking tests to validate designs and acquire data that would help sustain their capabilities with ‘zero-yield’ tests in their laboratories. Prime Minister Narsimha Rao gave the green light for tests and preparatory work began at Pokhran. In early December, days before the tests were scheduled, U.S. satellites picked up imagery of activity at Pokhran. The tests were postponed till after the general elections and meanwhile, Indian stand on the CTBT negotiations hardened.

Prime Minister Vajpayee toyed with the idea of the tests in 1996 but decided against it as his tenure was a mere 13 days. The next opportunity arose when he became PM again in 1998, and the die was cast.

The 1998 declaration of India as a nuclear-weapon-state marked a decisive break. It generated its own challenges, both domestic and external. A new kind of policy continuity was crafted. Domestically, it related to the nuclear doctrine and the configuration of the nuclear arsenal into the defence and decision-making structures. Externally, it was to gain acceptance as a responsible nuclear power and second, to stabilise deterrence relations with India’s adversaries.

After 25 years, the domestic challenge is still a work in progress. To maintain a credible minimum deterrent, a nuclear triad was considered necessary. The land-based missile force has now inducted Agni IV with an estimated range of 3500 kms. Agni V and Agni VI are expected to extend the ranges to beyond 6000 kms. The nuclear submarine programme has made slow progress with Arihant having undertaken its firs patrol last year. However, it currently carries K-15 (Sagarika) missile that has a limited range of 700 kms. Longer range missiles are under development.

Though India has no intention of embarking on a nuclear arms race with any other country, it must factor in technological developments that can have an impact on the credibility of its deterrent. Increasing use of dual use systems like hypersonics and cruise missiles, conventional precision global strike weapons blur the dividing line between nuclear and conventional systems. Digitisation renders both early warning systems and command and control systems vulnerable to counter-space and offensive cyber action.

These developments have led to questions as to how to define the ‘minimum’ and whether the no-first-use policy needs review. Some critics point to Kargil in 1999 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008 as evidence of failure of nuclear deterrence and would advocate a more robust posture. However, such criticism is ill founded. Indian doctrine is intended to deter threat and use of nuclear weapons. Dealing with Kargil-type attacks or terrorist strikes requires building conventional and intelligence capabilities that can offer a range of response options.

The external diplomatic challenge of gaining acceptance as a responsible nuclear power has been achieved in great measure. The Vajpayee government was proactive in reaching out to key countries, particularly the U.S. since it had taken the lead in condemning the tests and calling for sanctions.

The dialogue between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh between 1998 and 2000 remains the most intense phase of bilateral engagement with 18 rounds of talks in 24 months. It remained inconclusive in not meeting either side’s stated objectives; yet, it was immensely productive in clearing the path towards the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership and eventually the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement following the exceptional waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 – another milestone that completes 15 years in 2023. The NSG waiver legitimised India’s civilian nuclear trade and has enabled over a dozen cooperation agreements to be concluded.

This has been possible because the post-1998 policy too has been marked by a similar continuity that characterised it in its early years. Today, changing geopolitics has revived rivalries among major nuclear powers even as the geopolitical centre of gravity has shifted from Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Navigating these challenges may need policy adjustments that will be strengthened by consensus and continuity.


Piecing Together the History of India’s Nuclear Journey

(Review: Ploughshares and Swords by Jayita Sarkar)

Published in The Wire on April 16, 2023

India’s nuclear programme has received a fair amount of scholarship in the last two decades. Yet, the majority of it suffers from a common weakness – the attempt to fit it into a Western narrative, perhaps to make it more easily understandable to Western audiences or even to Indian scholars who are reared on a diet of western IR theories. A key reason is that there is little written by the central actors themselves, the dilemmas and challenges they faced, as well as the economic and political compulsions under which they had to address the challenges and resolve the dilemmas. 

Dr. Jayita Sarkar’s Ploughshares and Swords is a welcome addition that mines a rich seam of information, especially the linkages between the nuclear and space programmes during the late 1960s and early 1970s, not hitherto explored, though it also suffers from the same weakness when it seeks to impose a structural framework on the sequence of events.

The title – Ploughshares and Swords, is a good window into Dr Sarkar’s approach by emphasising the dual use character of both nuclear and space technologies. However, this duality dilemma was not new for the Indian scientists. Indian scientists like Homi Bhabha, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, K. S. Krishnan and Vikram Sarabhai had studied abroad and rubbed shoulders with the global scientific elite.

In fact, it was present even for the scientists involved with the Manhattan project. The destructive character of the nuclear weapons coupled with the seductive promise of understanding the nature and structure of the world was apparent to the scientists as they wrestled with their political choices, determined in no small manner by how close they remained to Los Alamos and the corridors of power.

The secrecy surrounding the Manhattan project also led to the first betrayals. In the early 1940s, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was a U.S. ally and partner. Yet, ideological rivalries prevented sharing of information. Klaus Fuchs was an unlikely spy. A German refugee who fled to U.K. and then to the U.S. passed on key design elements of the Fat Man (the implosion type plutonium device dropped over Nagasaki) because he felt that the U.S. and the U.K. were treating their ally unfairly. There were others too – Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Ted Hall, David Greenglass, Morris Cohen, and their inputs helped the Soviet programme catch up with the U.S. in both, the fission and fusion devices. As they stated during their trials, their betrayal was not for financial reasons; it was their way of resolving the nuclear dilemma in their moral universe. Ideological rivalry however was not the only driving force.

Controlling access to nuclear science and technology became a key U.S. objective and in 1946, the U.S. passed the Atomic Energy (McMohan) Act restricting access to nuclear information and handing over security at nuclear facilities to the FBI. Even the British scientists found themselves excluded. They proceeded to set up their own nuclear reactor and reprocessing unit to produce plutonium. Since the U.S. test site was unavailable and Canada seen as too risky, the islands in northwest Australia was the site chosen for their first test in 1952.

Yet, the U.S. also came up with the Atoms for Peace initiative in 1953 where the dilemma was sought to be resolved by transforming this threat to mankind by turning it into a beneficial technology, accessible to all. In 1957, this initiative led to the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as a vehicle to promote international cooperation for peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. It took a decade when its role was transformed into becoming the verification arm of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

While political leaders enjoy agency, it is always constrained, partly by domestic politics and partly by prevailing global events and tides. It is therefore difficult to look at specific decisions and label them as examples of ‘ploughshares’ or ‘swords’ and that analyse personalities accordingly. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refrained from openly going down the weapons route but strongly supported the creation of the infrastructure that eventually made it possible. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi undertook an underground test in 1974 but remained content with describing it as a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE). Yet, in public perception, the two are seen very differently. This is what makes the Indian nuclear story so different and unique.

Attempts to fit decisions into categories – “the leaders of the nuclear program saw in nuclear fission the possibility to augment geopolitical goals of the territorial state as well as the technopolitical goals of the developmentalist state, leading to a larger dual-use enterprise simultaneously serving military and civilian ends,” are inherently problematic and always ex-post facto. It can enable Dr Sarkar to question which decisions are ‘ploughshares’ and which decisions are ‘swords’; the question is merely rhetorical because reality seldom comes in black and white, mostly it is in shades of grey. To describe the struggles of India’s nuclear and space programmes as ‘an embodiment of the notion of a revisionist post-colonial modernity through a “logic of self-differentiation” and improvisation’ (Dr Sarkar quoting Sudipta Kaviraj) only sounds glib.

The strength of Dr Sarkar’s book lies in exploring the diplomacy undertaken by India with the U.S., France, and the USSR during the decade of 1950s and 1960s, before the two nuclear superpowers found common cause in promoting the goal of non-proliferation. The close links between the scientists and diplomats as they engaged with their counterparts in Washington, Moscow, Paris, and Geneva is a lesson that was lost sight of in following decades and only got revived after 1998. During the 1970s and 1980s as the Cold War came to India’s doorstep, first with the 1971 crisis that led to the creation of Bangla Desh and the war with Pakistan and then the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the gap between diplomatic rhetoric and national security interests grew. This is an issue that deserves greater academic scrutiny.

The linkages between the nascent space programme and the Department of Atomic Energy have never been written about in such detail. Dr Sarkar also dispels the idea that Dr Vikram Sarabhai was not as supportive of an underground test explosion as his predecessor Dr Bhabha had been. The impact of the Chinese nuclear test in 1964, both in India and in the U.S. and its impact on nuclear diplomacy provides political insights without the distraction of frameworks.

There are interesting questions that remains unexplored – if India’s plutonium reprocessing had begun in 1964, why did India not test before 1967 given that India was an active participant in the negotiations in Geneva on the NPT where the date of 1 January 1967 was being presented as the NPT’s cut-off date between the nuclear-weapon-states and the non-nuclear-weapon-states. Given that Indian scientists and diplomats had foreseen the political ramifications of safeguards and opposed it, why did the thought of testing not get explored? Were the limitations technical or political or both?

Another interesting question that could do with more study is Mrs Gandhi’s decision to test in 1974. Dr Sarkar does well to dispel the myth that the decision was a distraction from her domestic political troubles, by pointing out that the decision was taken in 1972 when she enjoyed peak popularity. What is not adequately explored is the decision to call it a PNE. In hindsight, it is clear that it only kept India in limbo, safeguarding its nuclear option. Though this is also something that makes India’s nuclear odyssey sui-generis.

This bridge was crossed in 1998 when two announcements were made, one relating to having conducted the nuclear weapon states and the second that India was a nuclear-weapon-state.

The Indian nuclear jigsaw puzzle is still incomplete but Dr Sarkar has successfully added many small and necessary pieces to provide greater content and give it greater shape.


A New Model of Nuclear Arms Control is Needed

Published in Hindustan Times on March 1, 2023

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered the State-of-the-Nation address last week. Coming two days before the first anniversary of the Ukraine war, Kremlin watchers expected to hear about a new war strategy. Instead, Putin shocked everyone by announcing that Russia was suspending its participation in the US-Russia New START (a 2010 agreement for further reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms). Putin’s announcement made it clear that the 20th century model of nuclear arms control was dead. 

New START limited each country to 1550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 launchers (heavy bombers and long-range missiles). In reality, each has more than three times as many warheads, categorised as reserves and those awaiting dismantlement. In addition, Russia is estimated to have over 2000 tactical nuclear weapons and the US, a few hundred. These two still account for over 90 percent of global nuclear arsenals.

New START, the sole bilateral nuclear arms control agreement in force, was to expire in February 2026. It would have lapsed in 2021 because Donald Trump was determined to bring China into the negotiations, a suggestion Beijing rejected. President Joe Biden’s election enabled the five-year extension but discussions on a follow-up treaty have proved elusive.

On-site inspections (each state is allowed 18 annually) under the treaty had been suspended since 2020, initially due to COVID-19 and then the Ukraine war. Last November, Russia postponed the scheduled meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission.

Putin claimed that his decision was a result of the US wanting to inflict ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia and under the circumstances, the idea of nuclear inspections was ‘a theatre of the absurd’. He blamed Ukraine for mounting drone attacks against Russian airbases that host nuclear capable strategic bombers, aided by NATO intelligence. At least three such strikes have taken place in December 2022 at Engels and Dyagilevo bases, though no significant damage was reported. Putin also hinted that the US was preparing to resume nuclear testing and declared that Russia would soon follow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has stated that Russia will continue to abide by the (numerical) restrictions. This has quelled apprehensions that Putin was triggering a new nuclear arms race with the US. However, since compliance mechanisms stand suspended and trust is at an all-time low, both states will now be willing to believe the worst about the other. Both are engaged in extensive nuclear modernisation programmes exploring hypersonic missiles, glide vehicles, and low yield warheads. Offensive cyber capabilities and AI developments create new risks for the integrity of nuclear command and control systems.

So far, China had been content with a minimum nuclear deterrent of approx. 300 warheads. In recent years, it is shifting to a more robust deterrent. Satellite imagery has revealed the existence of four new missile silo sites. It has tested hypersonic glide vehicles and a ‘fractional orbital bombardment system’, indicating that it now seeks to manage nuclear escalation in order to blunt US’ nuclear coercive edge. In 2021, Pentagon concluded that Chinese arsenal will cross 1000 warheads by 2030, now a widely accepted view. The expectation is that as China enhances its early-warning satellite capabilities, it will transition from its current no-first-use posture to a launch-on-warning mode.

Last year, North Korea accelerated its missile programme, undertaking nearly 90 launches, unveiling the Hwasong-17, with an estimated range of 15000 kms. Activity at the testing site has led to speculation that North Korea may be planning to undertake a seventh nuclear test. Meanwhile, media reports indicate that in Iran, IAEA inspectors have discovered traces of uranium enriched up to 84 percent that is just short of the 90 percent level used to produce a nuclear bomb. Iran has denied enrichment beyond 60 percent and blamed IAEA for media leaks and unprofessional conduct.

New START is not the first casualty. In 2002, the US unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with USSR which limited deployment of ABM systems thereby ensuring mutual vulnerability, a key ingredient of deterrence stability in the bipolar era. In 2019, the US accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and declared its withdrawal.

Today’s political disconnect is also evident in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the most successful example of multilateral arms control that has become a victim of its success.  It succeeded in delegitimizing nuclear proliferation but not nuclear weapons. This is why NPT Review Conferences in recent years have become increasingly contentious and fail to reach any consensus. Another multilaterally negotiated agreement, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was concluded in 1996 but has failed to enter into force even after a quarter century.

Major power rivalry is not new but the difference is that it is no longer a bipolar world and the old model of nuclear arms control established during the Cold War, shaped by the bipolar politics of two nuclear superpowers is untenable in the 21st century nuclear multipolar world. There are multiple nuclear equations – US-Russia, US-China, US-North Korea, India-Pakistan, India-China, but not strictly stand-alone. Further, nuclear rhetoric is on the rise raising the spectre of growing nuclear risks.

During the bipolar era, there was a perception that with the advent of nuclear weapons, wars between major powers were disincentivised. The real problem is that nuclear weapons did not create any incentives for conflict resolution. Putin’s speech is merely a reflection of this reality.


Managing the China, India and Pakistan Nuclear Trilemma: Ensuring Nuclear Stability in the New Nuclear Age

At one level, the existing nuclear order has been a success – the nuclear taboo has held for over 75 years; nuclear weapon stockpiles have come down from 70000 weapons in the early 1980s to 15000 today; and only four countries are outside the NPT. And yet, there is a chorus of concern that nuclear risks are rising. Why?

A paper published by the Journal for Peace and Disarmament that will appear later in 2023 as a chapter in a forthcoming title

Harmonising the NPT and Ban Treaty in Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures

Nuclear risk has always cast a shadow over the world since the beginning of the nuclear age. Since the 1960s, the NPT was seen as the only near universal treaty but today, many NPT member states are so disappointed with it that they have helped negotiate the Ban Treaty, as the decisive step to delegitimise nuclear weapons and reduce nuclear risks. Can this be a step in the right direction? Can it help redefine a new global nuclear order?

I have contributed a chapter in the book – The Nuclear Ban Treaty