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Nuclear Deterrence Policy Gathering Steam in India

By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE (IDN) – “Though India is a reluctant nuclear power, nuclear deterrence will continue to play a crucial role in India’s national security strategy over the next few decades,” says Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal, Distinguished Fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

In his recent book ‘Sharpening the Arsenal: India’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrence Policy’, he explains the reason: “Only when India’s adversaries are convinced that India has both the necessary political and military will and the hardware to respond to a nuclear strike with punitive retaliation that will inflict unacceptable loss of human life and unprecedented material damage, will they be deterred.”

It is against the backdrop of this perception that on January 18 India conducted a successful test-flight of Agni-V, a nuclear-capable, long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

“This was the fifth test of the missile and the third consecutive one from a canister on a road mobile launcher. All the five missions have been successful,” India’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) said in a statement, adding that this further confirmed the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrence.

While the shorter-range Agni-I and II were developed with Pakistan in mind, Agni-V is expected to “provide India with much-needed dissuasive deterrence against China.” Agni-V has a strike range of over 5,000 km and can deliver a nuclear warhead to almost all of China.

Its repeatedly proven success suggests that Agni-5 will be incorporated into India’s Strategic Forces Command soon.

It will be “another step in India’s efforts to modernize its nuclear missile capability,” a senior official in the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) told IDN, adding that India has “reinforced yet again its belief in nuclear deterrence as the bedrock of its national security.”

The roots of such commitment, underlining India’s decades old stated commitment to global nuclear disarmament, can be traced back to 1945. When the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mahatma Gandhi condemned its use as “the most diabolical use of science.” Independent India’s commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons was influenced by the perception of nuclear weapons as immoral.

Tracing the evolution of India’s disarmament policy through four broad phases, M. V Ramana, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, and author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India told IDN that during the first phase i.e. the period when Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister (1947-64) India’s commitment to nuclear disarmament was strongest.

Nehru was “genuinely interested in doing what he could to further global nuclear disarmament” and contributed to initiatives that “have had long-term significance for nuclear disarmament,” he said. Importantly, India under Nehru refrained from developing nuclear weapons.

This changed during the second phase (1964-74). Following its defeat in the 1962 border war with China and the Chinese nuclear test at Lop Nor in 1964, India began developing nuclear weapons and carried out a ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion’ in 1974. Simultaneously, India pushed for global nuclear disarmament in this period but these were “weak attempts” that “didn’t amount to much,” Ramana said.

The third phase of India’s disarmament policy (1974-1998) began and ended with nuclear tests at Pokhran. India’s nuclear weapons program “was slowly evolving” now, especially the development of the Prithvi and Agni missiles. But “there were self-imposed constraints on its nuclear weapons program,” Ramana pointed out.

Simultaneously, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, worked for global nuclear disarmament. In a speech at the UN General Assembly in 1988, Rajiv Gandhi proposed a time-bound ‘Action Plan for Ushering in a Nuclear-Weapon Free and Non-Violent World Order’.

Unlike the first three phases, the fourth phase of India’s nuclear disarmament policy, which began in 1998, has seen India making “no significant effort towards nuclear disarmament,” Ramana said. Importantly, India has avoided supporting treaties that would restrain its own weapons programs.

For instance, India stayed away from the negotiations that led to the United Nations adopting the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in July 2017.

The “little talk of disarmament that has happened is largely hypocritical,” argues Ramana, as it has been accompanied by building up of its nuclear arsenal.

Manpreet Sethi, Senior Fellow and head of the National Security project at the New Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), disagrees. India’s desire for disarmament “is not a sham,” she told IDN.

“India’s commitment to disarmament and its efforts at building credible deterrence, which includes operationalizing Agni-5, are two prongs of its security imperative,” Sethi said.

Given its “nuclearized neighborhood”, India doesn’t have the luxury of abandoning deterrence in the present context. Consequently, India has to maintain nuclear deterrence in the short-term but in the long run, it realizes that its security is best served in a world free of nuclear weapons. There is no dichotomy between the two, she declared.

According to Sethi, till the world reaches a multilaterally negotiated, universal and verifiable disarmament agreement, India’s pursuit of deterrence is the prudent way of achieving security – particularly as the importance of nuclear weapons in the strategies of five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, France, Russia, China and the U.S.) has grown remarkably.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review reveals that the U.S. is more willing than ever before to use nuclear weapons, including in response to “extreme circumstances,” even non-nuclear attacks on infrastructure and civilians.

This has sent out “a bad signal to countries like India and China,” Ramana said. If a country like the U.S. with a massive conventional weapon capability has to invest in more usable nuclear weapons, it would make military planners in India and China more inclined to similar ideas.

In India, calls to modernize its nuclear warheads and delivery systems are growing louder.

There are growing signs too that India could abandon its long-held ‘no-first use’ policy. This would make India more willing to use nuclear weapons against Pakistan before the latter does, so as to completely disarm it to ensure that Indian cities would not be exposed to Pakistani nuclear strikes. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 March 2018]

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