A step closer to N-triad deterrent

 In Energy, Nuclear Security, & Deterrence, G Parthasarathy, HomePageTopics, India, Indo-Pacific, National Security, Science, Technology. and Security Affairs

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PM Modi announced with justifiable national pride on November 6 that India’s first nuclear-propelled submarine, INS Arihant, commissioned in 2016, was now operational as an integral part of its nuclear deterrent. India earlier had the capabilities to launch nuclear weapons from the air, mounted largely on its Mirage 2000 and Jaguar, and by land-based missiles, ranging from Agni 1 (700-900 km) to Agni 5 missiles (5,500 km). Its aim has been to develop a ‘credible nuclear deterrent’, with capabilities to deliver nuclear weapons from multiple locations to strategic areas in its nuclear-armed neighbours, China and Pakistan.

Arihant provides India with a capability to hit either neighbour from 300 m under the sea. The sea-based missiles envisaged for this purpose are Sagarika (750 km range) and K-4 (3,500 km). While land-based missile sites can be destroyed, a submarine-based deterrent is virtually impregnable against a missile attack. India is the only country with a sea-based N-deterrent, which is not a Permanent Member of the UNSC. India will soon operationalise a second nuclear submarine (Arighat), and is expected to have a fleet of four by 2022.

According to US Federation of Nuclear Scientists, India currently possesses 130-140 nuclear weapons, while Pakistan has 140-150 and China 280. While India tested its first nuclear weapons in 1998, Pakistan’s first test was in 1990, on Chinese soil.

In a recent book, Thomas Reed, a US nuclear weapons designer and former Secretary of the US air force, stated that China’s ‘Pakistan nuclear connection’ can be explained in the following words: ‘India was China’s enemy and Pakistan was India’s enemy. The Chinese did a massive training of Pakistani scientists, brought them to China for lectures, even gave them the design of the CHIC-4 device, which was a weapon that was easy to build — a model for export.’ Gary Milhollin, another expert, remarked: ‘Without China’s help, Pakistan’s bomb would not exist.’ China has also provided Pakistan the designs of its nuclear weapons, upgraded its ‘inverters’ for producing enriched uranium in Kahuta and provided it with plutonium reactors to build tactical nuclear weapons in Khushab and Fatehjang. Pakistan’s ballistic and cruise missiles are replicas of Chinese missiles.

India’s N-doctrine stated that its weapons would only be used in retaliation against a major attack on Indian territory, or on its forces anywhere, in which nuclear, chemical or biological weapons are used. But Pakistan does not have a formal doctrine. The long time head of its Nuclear Command Authority, Lt Gen Khalid Kidwai, however, said over a decade ago that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were ‘aimed solely at India’ and Pakistan would use nuclear weapons if India conquered a large part of Pakistan’s territory, or destroyed a large part of its land and air forces. He also held out the possibility of the use of weapons if India tried to ‘economically strangle’ it, or pushed it to political destabilisation. Pakistan’s statements in recent years have, however, indicated that it would not be averse to using tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict with India.

China, like India, also had proclaimed that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. But it has been ambiguous if this applied to India. China has maintained a measure of ambiguity on its ‘no-first-use’ pledge. This became evident when China’s foreign ministry spokesman (in 2004) rejected a suggestion from External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh that both countries should adopt a ‘common’ nuclear doctrine. Subsequent discussions between Indian and Chinese experts have suggested that China maintains deliberate ambiguity on its doctrine when it comes to dealing with India. Many ask if this is meant to signal to Pakistan that China will come to its aid in any nuclear exchange Pakistan may have with India, even if initiated by Pakistan. This ambiguity adds to India’s determination to strengthen its ‘triad’ of land, air and sea-based nuclear weapons. Agni 5 missiles can target China’s populous east coast. Within the next four years, we would have an adequate sea-based deterrent to deter China from holding out credible nuclear assurances to Pakistan that it would intervene should India choose to respond to use, or threats of use, of tactical weapons by Pakistan.

While India has a streamlined nuclear command structure headed by the PM and Cabinet Committee on Security, it needs to revamp the archaic structure of its Ministry of Defence (MoD). The key military figure in the command structure is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, who generally holds office for less than a year; hardly enough time for him to become familiar with the complexities of the command. Repeated proposals, including from defence committees and task forces, recommending the appointment of a full-time Chief or Defence Staff, or Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, who will hold charge of the command and report to the political authority, have gathered dust in the offices of the MoD bureaucracy.

The MoD needs to be reorganised. Recommendations for such change, even from the Parliament Standing Committee of Defence, lie unimplemented. We recently acquired our desperately needed first batch of artillery guns after the ’80s’ Bofors controversy. This happened even as detailed designs for 155 mm Howitzers provided by Sweden were gathering dust for two decades. There is also surely something wrong if it takes over a decade to acquire fighter aircraft, even as the IAF is facing a shortage of around 30 per cent in the sanctioned strength.

Ambassador G Parthasarathy  IFS (Retd) is the former High Commissioner to Pakistan and is a trustee of TPF. 

This Op-Ed was published earlier in ‘The Tribune’ on November 15th.

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