India’s security environment

Deepa Ollapally

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HISTORICALLY, nuclear weapons have ostensibly been for the purpose of increasing security. But gaining prestige has been a near equal, if unstated, preference. How else can one explain the continued nuclear weapons arsenals of Great Britain and France? In India’s case, both concerns about security and frustrations about international equity and status seem plausible motivations. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle them and marshal evidence one way or the other. In any event, security is too elusive a concept to abstractly define or concretely procure.

India’s nuclear tests of May 1998 were clearly conducted with an eye to the current as well as future environment, particularly the rise of China. They also seem to have been carried out to ensure that at a minimum, India’s place at the regional table of great powers in Asia in the future would not be in question. Given that important Asia-Pacific groupings such as APEC do not include India yet, and that Asia in the western imagination tends to stop at Southeast Asia’s border, it is not surprising if a level of angst exists in New Delhi over India’s post independence role.

In South Asia, India is by far predominant – in terms of population, size, market and industry. Yet in politico-strategic terms, India has been frustrated and thwarted by the Indo-Pakistan conflict, wherein Pakistan has managed to ‘borrow power’ from external actors, notably the U.S. and China, to offset India’s power. Such an outcome, however, was predicated upon the existence of the Cold War and Pakistan’s centrality to American containment of the erstwhile Soviet Union, culminating with the Afghan war. With the end of the Cold War, there continue to be unfolding shifts of strategic preferences for India, the U.S. and others which could have more favourable, deeper and longer term implications for Indian security.

The twin economic and strategic crises of 1991, when India’s foreign exchange reserves hit a low of barely a fortnight worth of imports and the basic contours of Indian foreign policy was challenged by the collapse of the Soviet Union, were two important bellwethers that could be seen as pushing India over the edge toward a more rapid economic liberalization policy and a reconsideration of strategic policy. The latter included both activism and openness vis-à-vis Southeast Asia as well as a more nuanced understanding of the cross-cutting cleavages of the international system in general in a post Cold War world in which rigid ideologies and shrill rhetoric hardly struck any chords or were counterproductive. In response to the changes India has initiated, the country has been on everyone’s list of ‘big emerging markets’ for much of this decade and, at least in the economic realm, the major international actors, for their own self-interests, would like to see India emerge a winner.

This backdrop needs to be kept in mind when Indian security in the current period is considered, post nuclear and post Kargil. It would be a mistake to look at the current situation in isolation from the broader schema of global and regional contexts.



For states with constrained resources such as India, the tradeoff between military and economic priorities is unavoidable. In many ways, India’s long-held nuclear ambiguity had managed to accomplish this trade-off in a relatively economic yet fairly convincing way militarily. Whether India’s nuclear ‘option’ remained entirely credible after 24 years of seeming inaction is of course open to question. But that it was a cost effective response to security compulsions and international pressures is difficult to argue against. Nuclear ambiguity also had the virtue of being a posture which was developed for the unique domestic and international circumstances faced by India, the handiwork of a complex civilization with numerous cross-currents which could easily tolerate and accommodate ‘ambiguity’ in contrast to the western predisposition.

Having conducted the tests and released a draft nuclear doctrine, India’s current nuclear stance seems to be one designed to leave little doubt that the country is serious about developing its nuclear weapons. The clear message is that India’s decision to go nuclear is irrevocable and not open to negotiation. The rather explicitly belaboured draft doctrine seems to be a near antithesis of the prior position whose hallmark was ambiguity. Yet, while the document is unambiguous on strategic intentions, it is much less specific on the size and design of the so-called minimum deterrent. The time horizon for developing the deterrent appears to be long term – up to 30 years according to some of the doctrine’s architects. Thus, the elements of ambiguity have not entirely evaporated, though from the perspective of the domestic military-economic trade-off as well as the diplomatic front, the persistence of a certain degree of ambiguity could be seen as welcome.



After the May 1998 tests, analysts, particularly in the West, had pointed to the lack of articulated strategic doctrines and command and control capabilities to accompany India’s and Pakistan’s weapons programme as dangerous and unstable. In the talks between Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, one of the main topics related to India’s nuclear posture, prodding India to be more transparent. Meanwhile, Indian officials and experts had been putting forth the proposition that a full-blown doctrine was not needed given India’s limited objectives. One important analyst has pointed to differences between the grand deterrence strategy of the U.S. and the minimum deterrence India will practice, emphasizing that while the U.S. philosophy is complex and designed to achieve a large number of variable objectives, the Indian deterrent is required ‘purely as a defensive instrument to ensure that no outside power is tempted to coerce the country.’1 Another well-placed expert has suggested that, ‘We don’t fall into the standard pattern of declared doctrines, specific weapons, delivery capabilities or force postures,’ adding that minimum deterrence would make it credible that ‘aggressive acts’ would result in a response even without the doctrinal apparatus.2



While a number of factors could have motivated the new Indian draft doctrine, the American attempt to draw out India was one likely catalyst. Clearly, the U.S. was attempting to pressure India toward a posture which would be as restrained and muted as possible. But nuclear doctrines themselves tend to take on a life and logic of their own. It is not entirely surprising if the Indian draft looks very much like such doctrines elsewhere, and not some unique Indian version. The ‘no first use’ and ‘no use against non nuclear weapon states’ declarations are important features of the new draft doctrine. The American presumption that outside pressure would produce something different was obviously misplaced, but in a way predictable. One lesson is that the acceptance of the cautious ambiguity projected by India even after the tests may have been the best of all possible outcomes for India as well as its detractors if we consider the security-economic tradeoffs.

The exact costs of a triad based nuclear force and India’s ability to absorb the costs remain matters of contention, in part based on differing assumptions regarding the size of the nuclear force, projected economic growth rates and the time horizon. The debate regarding the level of weaponization continues, and may be expected to pick up steam once the discussion is taken up in Parliament. The two levels most often discussed are in the low range of 60-130 weapons depending on the source, versus a high of 300-400 warheads which approximates the Chinese, British and French minimum deterrents.



According to figures quoted by Bharat Karnad, a member of the National Security Advisory Board, the cost of the larger triadic arsenal over a 30 year period is estimated at approximately Rs 700 billion. He goes on to note that if the Indian economy grew at a rate of 7% a year, then in 2030, the total cost would be 0.7% of India’s GNP. Currently, India reportedly spends 2.3% of its GDP on defence, as compared to Pakistan’s 5%. Pakistan’s expenditure on its nuclear programme has traditionally been less transparent than India’s.

Pakistan can ill-afford a major nuclear buildup, with the post-testing sanctions causing a near default on its external debt. Approximately two-thirds of Pakistan’s budgetary expenses for 1999-2000 are devoted to defence and debt servicing, while the total expenditure on development is to be less than one half of that of debt servicing. This structure of budgetary expenditure is neither sustainable nor consistent with economic growth.3

In contrast, the Indian economy was only marginally affected by the sanctions, and India has received high marks from the International Monetary Fund for avoiding the worst of the Asian financial crisis, with growth rates being maintained at a level close to the average seen over the past decade. While Pakistan’s economy is far weaker than India’s, it would be extremely risky for the Indian leadership to take comfort in this fact. An unstable and unpredictable Pakistan reeling under economic pressures could confront India with the type of volatility that can only be counterproductive. Meanwhile, India has to face the unfavourable position that China has an economy three times its size and has a 30 year lead in nuclear and missile development.



The issue of military-economic tradeoffs then is closely related to how minimum the ‘minimum deterrent’ will be. Two different kinds of examples are at hand in this connection. In the case of the U.S., as early as 1964, Defence Secretary Robert McNamara had concluded that the existing arsenal of approximately 400 nuclear weapons amounted to a credible deterrent. The mindless growth and overkill of U.S. weapons to over 70,000 and the staggering costs of more than five trillion dollars stand as the worst possible case the world has seen. Likewise, the Soviet Union’s collapse under the weight of its military expenditure.

If the second tier nuclear powers are taken into account however, it would appear that the learning curve is quite steep with a fairly steady equilibrium, particularly for France and Britain. In other words, neither country would appear to have careened out of control in its weapons acquisitions. How India will ultimately resolve the security-economic tradeoff is unclear. Security is a highly elastic concept which is open to wide interpretation. But if past Indian behaviour is any guide, the dominant tendency will be to craft a persuasive but economically viable posture.

At this juncture, there are two developments which make it unlikely that India could define security in a highly elastic fashion, with the nuclear accoutrements to support it. Should India move seriously in the direction of signing the CTBT and participate in a prospective FMCT, together these treaties would impose qualitative as well as quantitative limitations on India’s nuclear development. In light of the nuclear weapon states already having conducted more than 2,000 tests, and with the U.S. and Russia awash in plutonium and highly enriched uranium, an agreement by India to keep its arsenal at a much lower level of capability needs to be seen as a historic step. For all practical purposes, India would then be locked into a position of genuine ‘minimum deterrence’, and essentially guarantee that the blind build up by the current purveyors of nonproliferation would not be emulated, indeed, could not be emulated. These treaties would of course have the likely effect of freezing the status quo which, in relative terms, would give India an advantage over Pakistan, China an advantage over India, and the U.S. and Russia an advantage over China.



India cannot achieve real security by itself; the policies of China and Pakistan have to be taken into account. So far, China has taken the position that it will discuss nuclear arms control and threat reduction only with other P-5 countries. It has refused to allow discussion of its nuclear arms with others. Given India’s new status, the Chinese stand is increasingly untenable and at some point soon, some flexibility on their part will become necessary, whether they like it or not. At the moment at least, Sino-Indian relations appear stable and even predictable. The Indo-Pakistan relationship, on the other hand, has gone off track with no immediate indication of how it may be salvaged. Most importantly, Pakistan appears to be a country without clear direction which introduces a level of uncertainty that is disquieting.



Deterrence optimists with reference to a nuclear subcontinent had placed their belief in the Indian and Pakistani leadership playing by the so-called rules of the game. The presumption was that the worst fears of the ‘spiral’ theorists would be more than moderated by a rational commitment to make deterrence work. In the months immediately following the tests, both Prime Minister Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif showed serious signs that they were committed to avoiding the ‘spiral’ path. In the wake of Kargil, it would seem that such faith may have been misplaced in the case of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s willingness to engage in such high risk taking and adventurism as seen in Kargil under the nuclear shadow, begs the question of just how the nuclear equation is being interpreted by Islamabad. That the Kargil intervention was launched just as the nuclear fear was being dampened through diplomacy such as the Lahore summit, is particularly sobering. If Pakistan’s assessment is that the nuclear status of South Asia will now allow it greater freedom to stoke and perpetuate low intensity war against India in the confidence that India will not retaliate with strategic strikes given possible consequences, instability in the subcontinent could reach a new high.

In this connection, the effect of the American and even Chinese reaction to Pakistan regarding Kargil has no doubt been to deflate Pakistani expectations about what might be accomplished behind the nuclear curtain. There appears to be an increasing international consensus that the borders in the subcontinent cannot be changed by force particularly given the nuclear backdrop, and to that extent the new environment would hem in Pakistani ambitions in Kashmir. India’s challenge will be to not overreact and wittingly or unwittingly play into Pakistan’s hands.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the idea of regional cooperation, especially through trade, has gained increasing legitimacy. Indeed, regional economics appears to be the wave of the future. South Asia has lagged behind in this regard with the South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement (SAPTA) not having taken off since its inception in 1995. India has accorded most favoured nation status to Pakistan which has not been reciprocated. The proposal for India to buy surplus power from Pakistan which had gained momentum after the Lahore meeting makes economic sense for both countries and could have served as a successful example. Given the way in which the electric power grid system is organized, it appeared to be more cost-effective for Pakistan to sell power to India for use in Punjab than to other further removed locations in Pakistan.



From time to time, there have been proposals about considering the building of a gas pipeline from Central Asia to India through Pakistan. Of course, whatever seems economically beneficial would have to be politically feasible as well, but India may need to be bold and imaginative. Unfortunately, while the West has been a strong champion of regional economic cooperation, the most recent U.S. efforts to secure a gas pipeline from the Caucuses in the future, which will completely bypass Iran and Russia, suggests that power politics is a hard habit to break. The reality may be that geopolitics will reign over economics, but in the case of India and Pakistan, there may be ways in which reliability of energy supply can be ensured if for example, the enterprise involves an international consortium of companies with strong stakes in its continuing viability.

The groundwork for a more secure South Asian environment could come through building greater economic interaction. The idea of cooperative security in which one country has a stake in the well-being of its adversary may be a long way off from taking hold in the subcontinent, but the post nuclear situation is that each country’s security and welfare more than ever depends on the stability and cooperation of the other country.



In what Robert Jervis has called the ‘illogic’ of the nuclear revolution, a government is no longer confidently able to protect the state’s inhabitants under conditions of deterrence and mutually assured destruction. There is no ‘defence’ available against nuclear weapons as such, and the active ‘cooperation’ of the adversary would be needed to try and guarantee against any catastrophe. It then becomes critically important to pull back from a highly competitive security stance.

In this connection, it is worth noting that the one area of relatively stable cooperation between India and Pakistan despite the vicissitudes of their relations, has been in the nuclear arena. For example, the agreement to not attack each other’s nuclear installations, and the commitment to exchange a list of such installations periodically has held, despite the ups and downs. The need for confidence building measures in this sphere is accepted by both parties and there is no reason why this interaction cannot be deepened. Despite the tests and the draft doctrine, there is still room for nuclear restraint and there appears to be a serious search by experts for ways to reduce the danger from an overt nuclear position.

Some Indian analysts have proposed demating, i.e., keeping warheads separated from their delivery vehicles. Accidental or precipitous use of nuclear weapons would be inhibited by this posture which stops short of full readiness. One of the world’s foremost scholars on nuclear safety at the Brookings Institution concludes that if this route is taken by India, it could and should become a ‘model’ for other nuclear states.4 Another expert notes that India and even Pakistan in the past, may have followed a ‘deliberate policy to maintain a de-alerted status’ and delayed launch procedure strategy to minimize accidents, which if continued in some fashion would address some of the most critical command and control problems.5



How far the nuclear tests and weaponization implies a break with India’s past tendency to fashion security policies which were persuasive but economic is still an open question. In other words, the issue is whether the centrist and accommodative inclinations of the Indian polity will prevail and militate against the more extreme positions. In making its choice India, as in the past, is much more likely to be responsive to domestic compulsions and elite conceptions of security interests than to outside pressure. In this context, expressions of American dismay at India’s nuclear doctrine is not likely to be heeded, in part because it has never been easy to square U.S. nuclear profligacy with appeals for nuclear abstinence and restraint in the developing world.

India’s party politics have historically pushed policies toward the centre, and with the onset of serious coalition politics, this aspect will get even stronger. The coalitions are increasingly being made up of smaller, regional parties with interests that are driven by local interests. These parties will be forced to carefully consider the economic-military tradeoffs and their impact on votes. For example, as it turned out, the substantial popular support the BJP government received in the aftermath of the nuclear tests did not immunize the ruling coalition against the strong negative reaction of the public to the price of onions going up. Clearly there is a limit to the transferability of goodwill from one policy sector to another.



Practically all the political parties are in agreement regarding the need to continue the liberalization programme begun in 1991. Since at least the mid 1980s, there is a growing global consensus that the winning strategy in international relations lies with successful economics. As a military giant but an economic midget, the Soviet Union’s collapse remains an object lesson for others. The biggest challenge facing India will be to not stretch its resources such that genuine balanced development is subverted and its economic experiment thrown off course. In the post independence period, India missed a place at the high table of regional powers in part because of its economic weakness. It now has an opportunity to redress that outcome, but will have to be extremely watchful regarding the manner in which the inevitable military economic tradeoffs are made.




* The views expressed are strictly the author’s own.

1. Vijay K. Nair, ‘The Structure of an Indian Nuclear Deterrent’, in Amitabh Mattoo (ed.), India’s Nuclear Deterrent: Pokhran II and Beyond, Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi, 1998, p. 83.

2. S. Rajagopal, The Times of India, 11 February 1999.

3. ‘Pakistan: A Fragile Economy’, South Asia Monitor 11, 1 July 1999.

4. Bruce Blair, Cooperation on Nuclear Weapons Safety, lecture delivered at a seminar on Preventive Diplomacy: Reflections on Overcoming Enmity Through Contacts, U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C., 9 April 1999.

5. W.P.S. Sidhu, ‘India’s Security and Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures’, in W.P.S. Sidhu, Brian Cloughley, John Hawes and Teresita Schaffer, Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures in Southern Asia, Henry L. Stimson Center, Report No. 26, November 1998, pp. 36-37.