THE TELEGRAPH, CALCUTTA, 16 MAY 1998
What caused India to test five nuclear devices and why at this time? The government and its spokesmen have made three claims. One, that the nuclear environment around the country is danerous. Two, that valuable scintific data for the future will be generated. Three, that India will achieve greater leverage in global nuclear politics. All three claims are exaggerated, if not specious.
First of all, the nuclear environment around India is the same as it has been for some years now. Indeed, it may be more benign than in the past. The Chinese have some 300 nuclear weapons and Pakistan is reputed to be capable of putting together a dozen crude devices. However, this has been the situation since about the late 80s or early 90s. Nothing much has changed in the past four or five years.
George Fernandes has announced there are missiles in Tibet pointed at India. This is a story that has been around for over a decade. In any case, it is far more likely the missiles there are pointed at Russia and other targets, that India is not the worry. The fact is no one knows much about the missiles in Tibet and, in any case, it is not a new development.
It is also being suggested that the test of the Ghauri misile by Pakistan, about one month ago, pushed India into testing. That this merits a nuclear test is hard to understand. India has its own missiles, the Prithvi and Agni. It has aircraft which could deliver nuclear weapons. If the Ghauri was such a threat, a stepping up of the missile programme would have been a sufficient response. That Islamabad would get something like the Ghauri could not have been a surprise anyway. Pakistan has always made it quite clear it will beg, steal or borrow to keep up with India in the nuclear and missile race.
On the other hand, there have been developments which have made the nuclear environment more benign. The reducion of the United States-Russian nuclear arsenals has lowered nuclear danger globally. While both states have a long way to go in disarmament, they have reduced their weapon stocks. The comprehensive test ban treaty was another positive step, even if India did not find it possible to join. In particular, the treaty stops the Chinese from conducting any further tests, which is welcome to India. The recent agreement between China and the US to limit Chinese exports of missile and nuclear exports is also a potentially good development from India´s point of view.
The security environment in India´s vicinity more generally has improved too. Since 1981, with China we have been enaged in a series of negotiations: over the border delimitation and confidence building measures. As a result, India has reduced its forces along the border by two divisions and redeployed those forces in Kashmir and the northeast. India´s trade with China has grown from a few hundred millions to nearly two billion dollars in a period of five years or so. With Pakistan things are not so rosy, but even here we have seen the institution of foreign secretary level talks. On assuming office, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government made a series of friendly and moderate statements. Relations with Pakistan may not be greatly improved, but they are no worse.
The government has also claimed the tests will generate valuable scientific data, data for a programme of subcritical, hydronuclear or computer simulated tests. These tests have the advantage of not being conrary to the CTBT which bans nuclear explosive testing. They could be the basis of a weapons design system which does not contravene the treaty. This claim is credible up to a point: any test must generate a certain amount of information which would be valuable for future weapons design.
However, the question is are the 11 May and 13 May tests enough for weapons design and serial production? Probably not. First, India tested three different types of nuclear weapons: three low yield devices, a fission device that was possibly bigger than the 1974 one, and a thermonuclear device. These presumably will yield three quite different, not cumulative types of data.
Second, the key challenge ahead is to get enough miniatursation of the weapon so that it can be mounted on top of various delivery vehicles, particularly missiles. This usually involves several tests. If so, we are looking at further testing down the road. Conceivably, India will get enough information from the tests to carry on a programme of subcritical, hydronuclear and computer tests which will solve the miniaturisation problem. But this will not be known until the data are thoroughly scanned and analyzed. Until then, India is unlikely to promise to sign the ctbt or give any other commitment on testing.
The third claim is that the tests will level the playing field in global nuclear politics. India will be a recognised nuclear power, and the nuclear rules of the game will have to change to accommodate it. In return, New Delhi sees itself as joining parts of an international nuclear order such as the ctbt and the fisile materials cutoff treaty (FMCT). The government has suggested it may adhere to “some of the undertakings in the CTBT,” would put its weight behind the fmct negotiations in progress and even respect article one of the nuclear nonprolifera-tion treaty which enjoins states not to transfer nuclear technology, materials and devices to other countries. The fmct negotiations are stalled for a variety of reasons. And, anyway,India has always abided by article one. The immediate point of interest therefore is the CTBT.
In 1988, India objected to the CTBT on two grounds. One, that it did not call for a timetable for complete disarmament. Two, that it permitted subcritical, hydronuclear and computer testing. Have the tests helped in this respect? In spite of the five tests, it is highly unlikely the nuclear weapons states will give up their weapons. Also, given that India has conducted its own low yield tests, it will not want a ban on those instruments. Thus the Pokhran blasts will have little or no effect on the CTBT rules.
Apart from this, India´s interest in a limited accession to the treaty makes little sense. The CTBT basically has only two obligations – not to conduct nuclear test explosions and not to encourage or abet others in doing so. It is far from clear what adherence to some part of the treaty would mean. Clearly, India would have to accept the basic undertaking not to test or encourage testing. What New Delhi will probably resist is intrusive, on-site inspection of its facilities. The question is would India´s rejection of the verification measures be acceptable to the other parties to the treaty? This is extremely doubtful since verification is vital to the success of a test ban.
The government´s case for conducting the tests is poorly explained at best and dubious at worst. Ironically, the result could be greater insecurity, not security. In one go, India has worsened relations with China, Pakistan and the US. They could retaliate in a number of ways. Pakistan could increase its support to the Kashmiri militants. China could resume aid to the northeastern insurgencies and solidify its relations with Pakistan which were under pressure. The US could not only impose sanctions but also give a more sympathetic hearing to Kashmiri separatists. All this may reignite the Kashmir violence which we have just brought under control.
Indians have been too easily carried away by the celebrations over the tests. In a democracy, the government´s claims, whatever they are, deserve close scrutiny. Unfortunately, in this matter they have been applauded uncritically, most of all by the press. This ill serves the nation´s security or its democracy