A sucker’s payoff
India’s nuclear policy before the May 1998 Tests of ‘No bomb, no export, no blackmail’ fetched the country, according to some, a ‘sucker’s payoff’ – no rewards, just penalties. This is an outcome that may again obtain as a result of the deal presently under consideration.
The earlier impression of the ‘security dialogue’ as going nowhere is giving way to a view of a fatal Indian compromise in the offing, which was strengthened by Minister for External Affairs Jaswant Singh’s lengthy interview to The Hindu (29 November 1999). In it, he made the case for India’s signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) soon, notwithstanding its rejection by the US Senate and its non-ratification by the other major nuclear weapons states, Russia and China.
The haste in signing this wretched treaty is foolhardy in the extreme. Three beneficial things will, however, happen were the Government of India (GOI) to not sign this treaty. It will buy the country time and the legal space to test further, should that become necessary, in order to realise a more survivable deterrent with greater lethality, continue levelling the strategic playing field, and afford New Delhi the leverage derived from the promise of eventual adherence to the treaty to more substantively establish India’s geopolitical role and global interests in the coming century.
These are enormous advantages not to be frittered or gifted away in return for something as evanescent as Washington’s goodwill and offers of loosened controls on credit and technology flows which, as will be argued here, will follow provided the GOI keeps unwaveringly to its economic reforms script. It would be gratuitous to expend India’s substantial bargaining power on something that is in the US’ trade and commercial interest to affect and which no administration in Washington will be able to resist doing anyway.
The CTBT is positively harmful to Indian national security interests for a whole host of reasons, a few of which will be elucidated in this article. Owing to India’s signing the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) prohibiting atmospheric tests, underground testing is the only medium left to India for validating existing and future advanced weapons designs. But configuring a nuclear weapon is, in a sense, a binary process: the explosion physics has to be just right and tests are needed to prove that the assumptions inherent in a particular weapon design are correct.
Thus, for example, another test is an absolute imperative to test a reworked thermonuclear weapon design. The one tested in May 1998, many scientists even here believe, fizzled out. The doubt is about whether or not the shock wave set off the ‘secondary’ (meaning, the store of thermonuclear fuel). Reading into the test data, the dissenting scientists who, incidentally, are in a majority, are convinced that most of the yield was due to the boosted fission trigger (or the ‘primary’) and that there was virtually no thermonuclear burn.
In other words, based on a new set of assumptions this design of the hydrogen bomb at least will have to be modified and tested again. Another series of fullscale thermonuclear tests is hence essential if the country and especially the armed forces have to be reassured that the thermonuclear weapons in the inventory will actually perform as they are supposed to.
Along with the certification of the explosion physics, nuclear tests also provide evidence of the various components constituting a thermo-nuclear or hydrogen bomb as having worked or not. According to Richard Garwin, an eminent American weapons designer, there are over 4,000 components, each of which has to work just so for the H-weapon assembly, for instance, to explode. Garwin’s figure is an exaggeration, but the underlying premise that the array of components in each type of weapon has to be seen to work, is sound. Only this can inspire confidence in the end-user.
Given the indifferent track record of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DR&DO) in the conventional military field, its involvement in weaponising the nuclear devices has raised doubts in the military’s mind about the performance of these weapons. It is only natural that the armed services would want to be absolutely sure that the nuclear weapons they employ will deliver. To reassure them on this score was one of the principal motivations for the ’98 tests. Unfortunately, not all the designs tested did, in fact, work.
The basic problem of DR&DO’s credibility was compounded in the wake of the N-tests with the GOI’s announcement of a moratorium on testing and its policy of relying henceforth on computer simulation to design and verify the performance of newer nuclear weapons designs. The very mention of computer simulated test results puts the military on its guard because it feels that DR&DO has for the last thirty odd years been selling it promises not actual performance. And that it puts no great store by weapons produced purely on the basis of computer simulation.
The distinction between explosion physics and testing a weapons assembly is crucial to understanding the grave doubts many have, including past leaders of the nuclear establishment, like P.K. Iyengar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who has spoken out against the tall claims about the ’98 tests and even more about the government’s seeming inclination to sign the CTBT. If the best and the brightest in the country’s nuclear and defence establishments, many of whom share Iyengar’s apprehensions, have not gone public, it is out of fear of being sidelined.
That the limitations of computer simulation, even with sophisticated software, to certify extant weapons and new design configurations are severe and can in no way replace testing, is known to our weaponeers. But studying physical performance data and thereupon engineering the appropriate modifications into the weapons assemblies and explosion physics premises is only possible with repeated testing. This is why the US conducted over 1,000 odd tests in the Nevada desert. And why the Indian government’s position that a handful of tests is sufficient to construct a reliable and credible deterrent is met with disbelief in professional circles.
More specifically, the weakness in the official line is evident from the information in the public realm: The 1974 ‘implosion’ involved a big cumbersome device weighing a couple of tons. Of the five tests triggered on the 11th and 13th of May 1998, only one, by the way, involved a deployable nuclear weapon. The other four did not test full weapons assemblies. There is still considerable disquiet in the science and technology community about the cancellation of the sixth test, which fact has been ballyhooed by the government as a show of Indian restraint. Who advised this course of action and why are still matters of some speculation. Had this extra test got underway, according to a senior Defence Ministry official who spoke at a recent seminar held under ‘Chatham House rules’ (meaning, no attribution), India would have had additional weapons design options.
A scientific source at this same seminar stated somewhat optimistically that, after various permutations and combinations of known and tested variables and design particularities, the country has a dozen proven weapons configurations to choose from in structuring a nuclear deterrent. Even assuming all these designs, other than the one tested, work as advertised – and that is a big ‘if’ for the reasons alluded to above – the question is: Is that enough? And, bear in mind that the most decisive potential weapon, namely, the thermonuclear or fusion device, may have failed in the one-off test.
The still greater danger is elsewhere. Physical testing is the surest method of finding out which weapon design works, and which does not and why. Subcritical tests, which R. Chidambaram, the current chairman AEC, is convinced is within this country’s competence, are by any reckoning a poor substitute. Not the least because sustained subcritical testing requires very expensive high technology facilities. An outlay of six billion dollars has been set aside by Washington to build its National Ignition Facility, where extremely high powered lasers able to recreate temperatures for thermonuclear burn, will help in perfecting newer genus of fusion armaments. But the design parameters will, however, be derived from the extensive test database the Americans have collected over almost fifty years.
Now consider the Indian situation. Just one of the five Indian May ’98 tests pertained to a thermonuclear device and that too is now suspect. Nevertheless, the information on innumerable performance variables available from just this one doubtful explosive test is deemed adequate by way of a database for sub-critical testing to facilitate production of newer, more advanced, thermonuclear weaponry! This level of self-confidence verging on scientific and technological hubris could be ignored were it not that it directly endangers the nuclear deterrent and national security in the long run by increasing the chances that any new and advanced weapons designs that might eventuate from Indian sub-criticals in the future will, in the absence of actual tests, run the risk of failing. And, in the larger context, that India may end up having an inventory full of supposedly ‘decisive’ nuclear weapons that do not work. Proof of performance of the weapons systems in the deterrent force will then be available only in time of war. By when it will be too late to matter one way or the other.
This is an alarming prospect: the country, after having invested a whole lot of scarce resources, finds only a chancy deterrent to defend it, absent the mandated regime of tests for new weapons. Indate nuclear arms are as central to keeping the nuclear deterrent credible as modern conventional military forces are to deter conventional threats. It is this natural process of technology and performance upgradation that will be imperilled by signing the CTBT.
Pakistan, for instance, has no such problems. Its forte has been engineering competence. China has given it detailed weapons designs and will continue to do so in the future. All that A.Q. Khan and his cohorts do is machine the plutonium core of the bomb and otherwise cobble together the weapon, component by component, Meccano-like. Because the Chinese have done all the testing and have built up a large database, the designs that have accrued as a result and passed on to the Pakistanis will be certified ones. So, Pakistan does not really need to test at all. Lacking the nuclear weapons supplier relationship with any country of the kind Islamabad has cultivated with Beijing over the years, India will be unable to bank upon an arsenal of proven and tested nuclear weapons. What to talk of the five nuclear weapons states (P-5 – US, Russia, China, UK and France), the Indian nuclear forces may not even match the reliability of its Pakistani counterpart.
The US Government has made no bones about the fact that tests are meant to ‘lock in’ countries like India, ‘in a technological status quo’ highly favourable to the P-5. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote in a recent column in Time magazine: ‘We do not need more tests to protect our security. Would-be proliferators or modernizers, however, must test if they are to develop the kind of advanced, compact nuclear weapons that are most threatening.’
In this context, the American motivation for accepting India’s claims of having reached an acceptable stage of sub-critical testing – insofar as it persuades New Delhi to sign CTBT, is clear enough. But what is the excuse for Indians pushing for this country’s signature? It turns out that they are seeking American ‘goodwill’ which, Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr. who has led the US team in various arms control negotiations candidly told a Delhi audience a few months before the 1998 tests, is all India can expect by way of returns for signing this treaty!
Indeed, never has the collaborationist intent to realise American policy objectives been made clearer. Consider the writings of the group, including a number of leading columnists and retired foreign secretaries, which is giving the lead in drumming up ‘domestic consensus’ on this issue. This fictive consensus is expected to enable the government expeditiously to put its John Hancock on the treaty. C. Raja Mohan, one of this tribe, rails against the opposition parties for their stance against the CTBT (The Hindu, 9 December 1999); on the one hand lambasting the Left for rejecting ‘the one instrument which would restrain India from further developing its nuclear weapons’ and otherwise limit its Indian nuclear programme’ and, on the other hand, chiding the Congress party for departing from the Nehruvian legacy.
It is another matter that such analysts have not given much thought to the technical aspects of tests. But even their historical narrative is faulty, especially in recalling Nehru’s alleged enthusiasm for such accords. Jawaharlal professed the desire for disarmament, yes, but less so for arms control agreements like CTBT, which in effect legitimize nuclear weapons. His support for the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) prohibiting atmospheric tests and so on, has to be juxtaposed against his strong nurturing of the country’s nuclear weapons program, something brought out in a recent book – India’s Nuclear Bomb – an authoritative account of the Indian nuclear bomb program by George Perkovich, a strong American anti-proliferationist. This last puts an entirely different spin on events, buttressing what I have been saying for several years now based on my own research findings, that the first Indian prime minister cleverly used the disarmament issue in the fifties as an instrument of moralpolitik to blunt the latent threat posed by nuclear weapons to countries like India lacking similar protection.
But it is not so much the pro-CTBT wallahs’ self-serving reading of history and their foolish attempts at demonising certain sections of society (in this case, the ‘extreme Right’), which is worrisome. Rather, it is their confusing the tactical, short term, gains for the country for its enduring national interests, a tendency severely deleterious of national security.
Let us for the nonce leave out considering the option of rejecting CTBT outright and instead address the issue of immediately signing the treaty. A list of pluses and minuses if dispassionately put together will reveal almost no pluses.
The argument is that India should sign the treaty but not ratify it just yet; that this limited action will fetch the country disproportionate returns – the immediate lifting of G-8 economic sanctions and a freer flow of western technology. Considering India’s present economic conditions and confronted by, what an economic adviser to the government has called the ‘fiscal deterrent’, a resources-wise strapped government, it is said, has few alternatives other than to rely on incoming international capital and technology to spur the country’s economic and industrial growth.
MEA is of the view that, while the ability of President Clinton to deliver on his commitments is no doubt declining, an early Indian signature on the treaty will help him loosen the US Government’s controls on credit (from the World Bank and IMF) and on technology transfers. That delaying signing the CTBT will mean that the ostensibly unhelpful status quo will persist until a new administration takes office in January 2001 and settles down and that the coming three years or so are too many to lose by way of lack of access to much needed American funds, technology, and so on.
Framing the solution in this way points to weaknesses in apprehending the situation and is contrafactual. For one, India has not only withstood the effects of economic sanctions, but has succeeded in driving a wedge between the US and its trans-Atlantic allies and between the US Government and American companies. With China fading as an investment destination, India’s ‘big emerging market’ is the lure for western countries and corporations with a yen for profit. The incentive to American companies was put this way by Congressman Sam Gejdensen, Member of the House International Relations Committee: ‘India is the fifth largest economy in the world, and the country is expected to have 500 million middle class consumers within the next eight years. The demand for consumer and industrial products and services has been expanding rapidly and the removal of some of the trade barriers has given new momentum to this growth.’
India’s democratically functioning government, the rule of law and the English language as official lingua franca are other virtues which get translated into business opportunities. No First World country wishes to lag behind in the race for a share of the Indian market. The classic rivalry this has engendered is reflected in the clash between the American Boeing Company and the French Airbus Industries to sell long and medium range passenger aircraft to Air India and Indian Airlines – a market for some three billion dollars worth of aircraft. Boeing, assisted by high-flying firms like General Electric, is lobbying extremely hard with the US Government to go easy on India. These companies fear that continued American official politico-economic pressure on New Delhi will convert directly into lost business for them, and that the gainers will be European and Far Eastern companies.
The Boeing-Airbus head butting to India’s benefit can be endlessly replicated in every other sphere. What is required is for the government to concentrate on liberalising the economy at a faster pace and, as a long term policy, to integrate the hard currency spending plans of all ministries, and when it comes to making capital purchases or awarding infrastructure contracts, for instance, to pit American, European and Far Eastern multinational companies against each other before carefully choosing the company for maximum political effect. The losing firms should be advised of future tendering opportunities and warned that their chances are bleak if their governments continue to abide by restrictive policies and regimes. What is recommended is the jijutsu principle: use the strength of the adversary to work for you. This is the method China has adopted with much to show for it.
So whether or not India signs CTBT, the regime of sanctions will be progressively diluted and in time become irrelevant simply because surplus or investible international capital has to find productive employment somewhere. And it will find it in India, if only the milieu is made conducive for such investment. The Indian government will then need to do nothing more than stand aside and watch an opened up Indian economy lay waste any US or other G-8-inspired regime of economic and technology sanctions, even as foreign exchange reserves increase and the balance of trade rights itself.
In regard to technology, it is not certain what has been promised. It is obvious though that Washington has not approved of India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) – which would have allowed less hindered access to sensitive ‘dual use’ technologies – as quid pro quo for Delhi’s signing CTBT – a bargain the MEA has reportedly mooted. In the event, what kind of advanced technology can India look forward to obtaining from the US? New fangled techniques to fry potato chips? Is the technology available to India, as a result of signing the CTBT, going to be of markedly higher levels than what is accessed by India right now? The evolving MEA stance is animated by a curious mix of complacency and over-confidence last seen in the period before the war with China in 1962. The trouble is the situation we find ourselves in today is far more onerous and alarming.
GOI would be well-advised against falling into the trap of the kind Russia walked into by precipitately dismantling the socialist state, on American advice, only to have the US remove the economic safety net of investment and other help in the economic transition period. The grand strategic Cold War aim was fulfilled: the USSR self-destructed. One can only hope India does not take a similar bait and compromise its sovereign prerogative and strategic independence by signing on the dotted line.
Then again, even if President Clinton moves to ease technology controls, the most he can do is propose changes in the extant system of laws; it is the American legislature which will dispose. The US Congress, controlled by the opposition Republican Party, is unlikely to approve any such initiative if for no other reason than cussedness as was evidenced in the case of the US policy of transfers of technology to China.
It is the same Republican Party majority in the US Senate which refused to ratify the CTBT, claiming it would grievously hurt the American nuclear deterrent. This development is pertinent to our own concerns about the treaty. The Republicans are expected to retain their majority in the Senate and capture the White House as well. The two leading Republican Presidential hopefuls, Governor George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, have come out strongly against it. Any which way one ponders its prospects, the chances of its ratification in the foreseeable future, say the next eight to ten years, by the US is slim to non-existent and the treaty is, for all intents and purposes, dead. (Why 8-10 years? Add a year or so remaining in the Clinton era to two terms, or eight years, for either of the Republican Party frontrunners for the presidency.)
The 8-10 year time span in which a CTBT is most unlikely is significant when set alongside of what the senior scientist at the aforementioned seminar stated about the testing imperative. The ’98 series of nuclear tests did not mean, he said, that no tests were needed any time in the future, but that no testing is required only in the ‘next five to ten years.’ (This scientist is among those central to the Shakti tests and has a vested interest in supporting what Doctors Chidambaram and Kalam have publicly maintained, that India did not need any more tests to install a deterrent. Even so he did not want to sully his professional reputation by hewing completely to this official line. As to why his learned seniors took this position in the first place may not bear scrutiny.)
In essence, what it means is that the nuclear deterrent capabilities India possesses today will be dated by the end of the first decade. Taken together with the other military implications of signing the CTBT detailed earlier, namely, the possibility that India may end up having an arsenal stocked entirely with dud weapons, and the dangers become manifest.
But there is still another source of danger looming before this country. The US is determined to resurrect two major advanced technology programs. One is the so-called Star Wars program consisting of space and satellite-based weapons able to launch nuclear ordnance at targets on earth, and to kill other satellites in orbit and ‘hostile’ missiles in the boost phase. The other are the NMD (National Missile Defence) and TMD (Theatre Missile Defence) systems geared specifically to neutralise the threat ostensibly posed to the United States by long range Third World, including Indian, ballistic and cruise missiles.
The military cost of signing the CTBT is not only that it will prevent India from fielding effective nuclear weapons and stop it from updating them as required but increasingly render even the existing Indian deterrent vulnerable to space-based shoot-down systems or anti-missile missiles.
In trying to portray India’s signature on CTBT as of little consequence, its champions here have erred on several other counts as well. First of all, by separating the signing, ratifying and depositing the treaty instruments stages of treaty acquiescence, they have made spurious distinctions, as former pm Inder Kumar Gujral has stated. In the Indian system of governance, constitutional experts attest, the prime minister is all that matters. Depending on his standing, he can railroad treaty acceptance through the cabinet, ratify and commit the country to any piece of paper without any Parliamentary sanction in one fell swoop.
All this guff about how time consuming and elaborate the process of cabinet approval for treaty ratification is, still does not obviate the fact that there is no institutional mechanism like in the US where a treaty has to be ratified by two-thirds majority in the Senate for it to come into force. In any case, signature, even without ratification, obliges the signatory countries to conform to its terms and conditions. A powerful country like the US may be able to transgress treaty obligations, but once India signs ctbt it cedes the only strong bargaining chip it does possess.
There is an even more dangerous element – the Trojan Horse – within the provisions of ctbt dealing with verification inspections so intrusive as to impinge on national sovereignty. Any P-5 country, able to muster a majority in the verification council, can ask for and get an on-site inspection mandated under UN aegis of any facility or suspect installation in a signatory country. There is no protection against such deliberate harassment and policing measures. Go ask the Iraqis about the UN inspection teams searching for supposedly clandestine factories researching, developing and producing weapons of mass destruction!
Ambassador Arundhati Ghose, whose ringing phrase ‘not now, not ever’ represented the high point of the Indian resolve to resist western machinations in producing a hugely unbalanced draft CTBT in Geneva, has repeatedly warned that signing it would amount to letting the strictures of the 1968 Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, which India has not signed, in through the back door and that this treaty is not a web India should care to get enmeshed in even if this treaty had no other negatives.
So, the end-game lines up like this: India, without a proven nuclear arsenal, signs CTBT and in so doing revives Clinton’s foreign policy record and the extant iniquitous international order, even as it buries its longstanding demand that the major nuclear weapons states commit themselves to a time-bound framework for eliminating nuclear weapons. The result is the P-5 sit secure behind their strong nuclear barricades , India gets stiffed and disarmament recedes further into the background.
Considering what India stands to lose by ‘merely’ signing this treaty, the question that pro-CTBT-ers ask – ‘What will India lose by signing the treaty now?’ ought, in fact, to be turned on them: ‘What, in God’s name, will we gain by doing so?’
As perilous as the security ramifications of signing CTBT are for the country, the likely domestic political fallout is bound to be devastating for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His reputation as a proud and unbending nationalist will be mud. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, moreover, will find it impossible to refute the charge of a sellout that will inevitably be flung at it. More damaging still will be the accusation of assisting the Americans to gut the Indian nuclear deterrent, and all for a few dollars and some technology, the equivalent of Judas’ ‘pieces of silver’.
The prime minister, buffeted by coalitional pulls and pressures and, immanently, the OBC backwash from Kalyan Singh’s ouster as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, is hardly in a position politically to withstand a far stronger wave of resentment mixed with disappointment and sense of betrayal that will follow his decision to kowtow to Washington and sign the CTBT. Many of Vajpayee’s well-wishers anticipate that the day he signs this treaty will be the endpoint of an illustrious career which was at its apogee when he ordered the nuclear tests. Inevitably, the US will lose interest and a nuclear de-natured India will lose its leverage and fall back disgruntedly into the familiar mode, of begging, Oliver Twist-fashion, ‘for more’.