India and the Nuclear Future

in Program

By Michael Krepon – In the 1950s, when the Soviet Union and the United States were
regularly conducting atmospheric nuclear tests and spreading
radioactive debris, India took the lead in seeking to end testing and
promote nuclear disarmament. New Delhi still talks about nuclear
disarmament, but India’s influence has waned on such topics because it
is caught betwixt and between: India still has the potential to command
moral authority, but this is very hard to do as an outlier from global
nuclear compacts.

Contemporary advocates of nuclear abolition
and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty owe a considerable debt to
Jawaharlal Nehru and Indian strategists who laid out these arguments
decades ago.  To those who argue that nuclear weapons cannot be
“disinvented,” K. Subrahmanyam has offered telling rejoinders of other
eternal verities that are no longer true:

“Concepts and
institutions which were considered inescapable and having no
alternatives have become totally unacceptable and discarded into the
dustbin of history. Slavery was a hoary institution… Monarchy and the
divine right of kings had their day… No one today will fight for a
king… The colour bar and discrimination based on it was prevalent
even a couple of decades ago, but is no longer defended as a way of
life… Colonialism is indefensible today – though in its heyday it was
hailed as a civilising mission… All that has changed within our

Subrahmanyam and other strong supporters of nuclear
disarmament in India were also convinced of the need for an Indian bomb
to deflect coercive diplomacy, gain international standing, and deter
nuclear-armed neighbors. But India makes momentous decisions slowly,
and by the time New Delhi conducted its first nuclear test, the
Nonproliferation Treaty was already in force.  Under its terms, India
could not join as a nuclear weapon state.  Decades later, when the
negotiating endgame for the CTBT was finally underway, India still had
not resumed testing, a reflection of its deep ambivalence about the
Bomb and its economic vulnerability to sanctions. And so New Delhi
divorced itself from its own progeny.  Two years after the CTBT gained
its first signatories, India carried out a series of underground tests.

India still finds itself “an intermediate caste” on nuclear matters, to
use M.C. Changla’s old characterization.  While New Delhi now prides
itself as being a responsible state with nuclear weapons, its sense of
exceptionalism, the absence of a domestic consensus, and perhaps less
than perfect nuclear test results make it hard for India to join decent
company by signing the CTBT.  And so India remains a fence sitter,
unable to take a leadership position on nuclear disarmament as long as
it remains apart on nuclear testing.

Subrahmanyam has always
been clear that H bombs are “essentially terror weapons,” and that
lower yields would suffice for instruments of such limited utility.
Another brilliant Indian strategic thinker, now deceased, K. Sundarji,
also wrote against the need for thermonuclear weapons:

large yields to compensate to some extent for the lack of accuracy are
also not required.  As to which zone in a city gets hit, this is not of
much consequence.  The yield need not be very high.  The weapons that
struck Nagasaki and Hiroshima were between 15 and 20 kt, and the world
knows the result.”

During the Cold War, thermonuclear weapons
became the calling cards of the P-5, but even their nuclear weapon
strategists acknowledged, when they stopped testing in the atmosphere,
that yields are militarily meaningless beyond a certain point.  By
signing the CTBT, New Delhi could, in effect, declare that larger
yields matter far, far less than the global cessation of nuclear
testing and the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Pakistan would then
surely sign the CTBT, removing one driver of the nuclear competition in
southern Asia.

No major power with nuclear weapons has been so
bold as to declare, in effect, that thermonuclear weapons are not
required for minimum, credible, nuclear deterrence. Doing so would be
the most exceptional act of Indian leadership on nuclear issues since
Jawaharlal Nehru led global efforts stop nuclear testing and abolish
the Bomb.


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