Minimum deterrence and the India-US nuclear deal


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K. Subrahmanyam is an iconic figure in India’s strategic milieu. Until his emergence on the scene over forty years ago as an insightful commentator, establishment insider and, as member of innumerable government committees and commissions influencing defence policy, the nation at-large seemed to care little and understand even less about grand strategy, strategy and, in particular, nuclear deterrence.

The pity, however, is – and this will remain a void in Indian strategic literature – Subrahmanyam never got down to doing other than ‘entertainment’ (to use Graham Greene’s phrase differentiating his writing at the popular level from what he considered serious literature) and so no books containing comprehensive, sustained and scholarly treatment of the evolution of the Indian nuclear policy and security policy generally, which he was well equipped to write, ensued from his pen. However, collections of his mainly newspaper articles, chapters, and the like, are periodically published. (KS’ son, Sanjay, has elsewhere explained his father’s lack of serious ‘scholarship’ by juxtaposing it against his popular writing. Subrahmanyam, he says, did not want to give up the latter and thus lose ‘a larger audience of people who want things explained in plain language.’ But, given his undoubted intellectual skills, there is no reason why Subrahmanyam could not have done both.)

Subrahmanyam’s most notable contribution has been in shaping the Indian strategic nuclear policy. He began as an ardent champion in the 1970s of the nuclear weapons option for the country – arguably his golden years, when he was at his combative best and took on all comers, particularly western nonproliferation experts counselling moderation and non-nuclear armament for India, became the chief theoretician and propagandist for the minimum deterrence concept in the Indian context in the following two decades, to now when he is reduced to an apologist for the entrenched nuclear minimalism. More shocking still, he has been in the forefront of those championing the deal with the US for ‘civilian nuclear cooperation’ requiring India to acquiesce in the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty regime he once derided as unfair, unequal and deleterious to the national interest. He advises India to embrace the United States and to benefit from such favours (like being allowed access to high technology) as Washington may wish, from time to time, to bestow on this country.


That the deal, prohibiting any resumption of nuclear testing, will qualitatively ‘cap and freeze’ the Indian nuclear forces in their current technological state at a time when all the advanced nuclear weapon states are enhancing their nuclear punch, seems to bother him not at all. Subrahmanyam’s technology blindness, motivated by his belief in minimum deterrence and the efficacy of a small-sized force of simple fission weapons, mirrors the complacency of lesser historical figures. Like Julius Frontinus, chief military engineer to the Roman Emperor Vespasian in 70 AD, who publicly declared that he would ‘ignore all ideas for new works and engines of war, the invention of which has reached its limits and for whose improvement I see no further hope!’


Section II of his latest collection of articles – Shedding Shibboleths: India’s Evolving Strategic Outlook (Delhi, Wordsmiths, 2005) carries Subrahmanyam’s by now signature arguments for a minimum deterrent policy and posture. But here he constructs his case circuitously, combining bits and pieces of the standard history of the development of nuclear weapons in the US and of strategic deterrence during the Cold War, and short individual country studies (France, China, Israel, etc.) coupled with riffs on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the controversial ‘No First Use’ principle. Referring to the South African experience, which apparently resonates with his own views, Subrahmanyam says, for instance, that a small nuclear force is more than adequate for deterrence purposes because ‘nuclear weapons are not costly [and] nuclear deterrence can be exercised at very minimum level and… need not result in a costly arms race …and [that] above all, uncertainty plays a crucial role in projecting deterrence.’ While he is right about a few things, like the cost – an ‘x’ sum of monies will buy a bigger nuclear bang than it will conventional military capability – he is wrong on almost every other count.

At the centre of his take on nuclear deterrence is his mistaken belief that disparity in the nuclear forces of any two adversarial nuclear-armed countries does not matter – a view pioneering deterrence theorists, like Bernard Brodie in the US, first popularized in the end-1940s but a decade later modified in the light of the Soviet nuclear build-up – because, he argues, the promised retaliatory destruction by even a small number of low yield atomic weapons will be perceived as ‘disproportionate’ and that this would generate ‘uncertainty’ in the aggressor’s mind, thereby countering his ‘rational’ expectations of gain from using his bigger, more advanced, nuclear arsenal. Subrahmanyam thus concludes that a country equipped with even basic atomic bombs can effectively deter a state armed with more advanced and more numerous nuclear armaments.


Overlooking for the nonce the difficulty of getting a practical policy handle on an abstract concept like rationality in the nuclear deterrence context, Subrahmanyam’s analysis, enmeshed in a Brodiesque time warp, has innumerable problems. For one, his historical slant is a beneficiary of 20/20 hindsight! The main reasons deterrence stability accrued during the Cold war is because the United States and the Soviet Union allowed no ‘gap’ to develop between their strategic arms inventories and because their respective arsenals, always on alert status, gave credence to their threats. To look back on this time and suggest that the Americans and the Russians could have done with far fewer nuclear weapons and delivery systems is to ignore the deterrence dynamic of the early- to mid-Cold War years. And to suggest, as he does, that this ‘lesson’ is applicable to India’s strategic situation in the first decade of the 21st Century is to make the still graver mistake of analysis by misanalogy.

The question to ask is: if this were such a universal and obvious lesson from the Cold War, why is China – India’s most immediate strategic competitor and rival – embarked on its most ambitious programme of strategic build-up? And why are the United States and Russia making haste so slowly in reducing their nuclear inventories from the 35,000 level to the 1,700 threshold by 2007 as per the agreement hammered out in the George W. Bush-Vladimir Putin Summit in 2002, as to nullify that accord? (The United States and Russia, each still has nuclear armaments numbering in excess of 10,000, with Washington, helping Russia disarm but shifting the bulk of its own nuclear devices to the ‘reserve’ category under the so-called ‘stewardship programme, enabling them to be made operational in next to no time.) If the United Kingdom and France have de-mobilized some of their nuclear weapons and are contemplating other ‘disarmament’ measures, it is primarily because they continue to enjoy the security of the overarching US nuclear umbrella.


Some sixty odd years into the nuclear age, Subrahmanyam pooh-poohs the idea that qualitatively superior nuclear and thermonuclear weaponry have political value in international relations or count in the rank ordering of states. This merely reveals how distanced he is from the reality of international power politics. And, further, to ceaselessly argue, as Subrahmanyam has done over the years, that deterrence occurs, somewhat magically, owing simply to the existence of nuclear weapons with a country is to disregard the factual basis for the phenomenon, namely, that a bellicose state is deterred primarily by the level of preparedness for nuclear war and the alert conditions of the strategic forces he sees in a potential target state. It leads the aggressive-minded country to surmise, reasonably, that retaliatory punishment is certain should it start an affray, and hence that it is prudent to desist from doing so.


On the other hand, a manifestly under-prepared India, which merely threatens retaliation without any of the basic wherewithal in place, will merely induce an aggressor state to call India’s bluff. KS’ ideas in this respect derive from McGeorge Bundy’s concept of ‘existential deterrence’. But when Bundy, national security assistant to US President John F. Kennedy, articulated this concept, he did so on the basis that no preemption technologies of the precision strike-kind slaved to satellite and other platform-based sensors were available, as is the case today.

To confuse issues further, Subrahmanyam juxtaposes the use of nuclear weapons exclusively for deterrence purposes, which he thinks is the right thing to do, against their use in war-fighting, which he considers dangerous and redolent of the ‘Cold War mindset’. Subrahmanyam alights on a whimsical and dangerous distinction in their roles and end-uses, which, alas, the Indian government and Armed Forces have swallowed whole. In the event, with the view that a few unassembled nuclear weapons lying around can suffice as deterrent, there has been no urgency in official circles to set up the necessary nuclear command and control infrastructure and redundant systems or to flesh out the Strategic Forces Command, which years after being constituted remains a hollow shell with more pretence than substance.

This means that in a nuclear crisis or contingency, the country will have to rely more on prayers than on deterrence provided by its small, vulnerable, and – quality and quantity-wise – inconsequential deterrent for its safety. Indeed, the situation is so alarming that even a marginal nuclear weapon state like Pakistan, which has operationalized its deterrent and integrated its nuclear assets into its military command links and force structure, can trump India with impunity.


As mentioned earlier, Subrahmanyam’s ideas ignore, for example, the continuously improving sensor and precision strike-on-mobile-target technologies, which China is set to obtain some time in 2007, that make preemption and counter-force strategies feasible. This means that a ‘de-alerted’ force of Indian fission bombs and short range nuclear war-headed missiles can be wiped out in a surprise conventional attack, what to talk of the extreme vulnerability of the multiple target sets provided by the Indian strategic forces arrayed in a ‘de-mated’ manner on a rail-mobile mode. Not having thought through such a contingency, he has not assessed the aftermath of deterrence breakdown. Would India consider the attack on its nuclear strike capability by conventional means a provocation for a nuclear counter-attack? And, if not, what kind of meaningful response could be sustained in these conditions of war? And, in any case, will there be any residual forces left for the promised nuclear retaliation?

The Indian government’s adherence to the No First Use-principle, again, owes much to Subrahmanyam’s advocacy over the years. NFU may be useful as political rhetoric and make for stability in situations short of war. But as a serious war-planning predicate, it is a liability. NFU is not in the least credible, because it requires India to first absorb a nuclear attack before responding in kind. The trouble is not the theory, but what will happen in practice. Decisions to retaliate, with what force, and against what targets, will have to be made in circumstances where little of the infrastructure for such decision-making may survive the first attack(s). Considering that the country and all levels of government are annually immobilized by the onset of the monsoons and the government’s crisis management is typically non-existent, it is a bit far-fetched to imagine that the government will or can act effectively after suffering nuclear hits and, even less, that it can do so under nuclear fire.


Nuclear deterrence has complex dynamics, which cannot be reduced to simplistic mantras of minimum deterrence. However, paradoxically, ownership of ready megaton-yield thermonuclear forces with intercontinental ballistic missile reach can in fact simplify matters a whole lot, as this analyst has been urging, by seeding real fears of vast thermonuclear destruction in the minds of potential adversaries, including the most powerful and belligerent states. Successfully generating irrepressible fear is the key to nuclear deterrence. And nothing inspires as much dread as do megaton yield hydrogen bombs that, frighteningly, can vapourize large cities in a blink of an eye and therefore, induce extreme caution during nuclear crises in adversary nuclear weapon states.Subrahmanyam’s case for the nuclear deal is even more incomprehensible. He backed the shaky energy rationale, saying the deal would help bridge the electricity deficit in the country. But this thesis was undermined in a Planning Commission study by one of its members, Kirit Parikh. It concluded that even with 20 imported reactors, nuclear power plants would produce no more than 5%-6% of the total energy produced in India in 2035. Plainly, this is not incentive enough – except perhaps to Subrahmanyam, Manmohan Singh and their ilk! – to stifle India’s legitimate nuclear military growth.


But the girding for Subrahmanyam’s cheerleader role seems to be something else. It is the statement emanating from Washington about the US intention to help India become a major world power and a hefty counter-weight to China in Asia, which the Indian establishment has taken to heart. It is, of course, a ridiculously contrafactual premise, history-wise, for policy orientation. A big country may partner another big state to contain a third power – this is the stuff of geopolitics. But it is another matter to conceive of a big state helping a middling state become strong just so it can add to the already stiff strategic competition.

Subrahmanyam’s advocacy also depends on his reading of the post-Cold War world. He believes that the international system has changed radically with the US as the predominant, but beneficent, power, whom India needs to accommodate (on the nuclear deal, for example) and cultivate. That in the shade of this quasi-patron-client relationship, India can strengthen itself economically to, in time, emerge as one of the poles in the international system. And, he counsels New Delhi to emulate Beijing’s ‘prudence’ without considering that unlike China, India is not an NPT-recognized nuclear weapon state and any give with respect to the development of its strategic nuclear forces, will end up consigning India to permanent inferiority vis-a-vis China. Unless, Subrahmanyam has in mind India accepting US nuclear protection against China.

This, as is evident, is a deeply flawed vision because the political and military cost of the deal is unbearably high. The so-called ‘123’ agreement that India will negotiate with Washington cannot disregard Congressional strictures contained in the enabling US Public Law – the Henry J. Hyde United States and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006. The so-called ‘non-binding’ clauses in it will require India unavoidably to hew to the parameters of the Act. The nonproliferation intention of this US law being manifest, signing any agreement will be tantamount to formalizing India’s acquiescence in the norms and restrictions embedded in the 1967 Non-Proliferation Treaty and the nearly defunct Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (that the US has stopped short of ratifying) without this country being signatory to either! It will solidify India’s status as a ‘non-nuclear weapon state’ under the NPT. The United States will finally achieve the one non-proliferation goal that had so far escaped it. And this mind you when all the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states and even Pakistan will be completely free to continually modernize their nuclear arsenals.


At the heart of the deal is India’s undertaking that, for all intents and purposes, it will never test again, thereby capping the Indian nuclear weapons technology – something the US has always wanted. As Clinton’s Acting Under Secretary of Defence Jack Holum revealed in Congressional testimony in the wake of the 1998 tests, India’s never testing again will ensure that it will remain stranded at the low end of the ‘learning curve’. The former Atomic Energy Commission chairman R. Chidambaram’s claim, supported by Subrahmanyam, that India can do without further testing because of its advanced computational competence is fantastical nonsense.


Sophisticated software simulating nuclear and thermonuclear explosions cannot be developed on the basis of just a few tests – and only one each in the case of ‘boosted fission’ and the thermonuclear designs. In fact, despite building up expensive and advanced facilities for subcritical and hydronuclear testing and very high speed computing wherewithal, the French and American weapons establishments are becoming vociferous in their demand for further testing because of the shortcomings in simulation techniques as a means of fabricating ever more advanced weapons. And surely, even a ‘political scientist’ like Chidambaram (meaning a scientist willing to cut deals with the political leaders at the expense of the Indian nuclear programme’s weapons capability), cannot claim that the quality of India’s simulation and computational base exceeds that of France and the United States. Incidentally, the Hyde Act expressly bars India from conducting subcritical and hydronuclear tests!

The fact is the decisive thermonuclear test in 1998 was a fizzle, and various fusion and boosted fission weapon designs on the shelf need to undergo a series of iterative tests – something Anil Kakodkar, Chidambaram’s successor, reportedly concedes but only in private. Any embargoes that may be slapped on India, as a result of New Delhi ordering a new series of tests, will be quickly removed by the lure of the large Indian market and the economic logic of the marketplace and the desire of the advanced countries to profit from such access.

But testing is now made virtually impossible by the deal because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is inclined to think, as Subrahmanyam does, mounting evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that the alleged benefits from technology and other cooperation with the United States far outweigh the gains from India’s continually upgrading its arsenal and retaining its strategic independence. Besides, as the Hyde Act clarifies, that civilian nuclear cooperation will not entail transfer of cutting-edge plutonium reprocessing, uranium enrichment and heavy water production technologies. Nor is there any assurance, outside of selling nuclear reactors that, other than the promise of consideration on a case-by case basis, India will have its requests for non-nuclear dual-use technologies met, unless India and its Armed Services expect to remain content with military technology from the 1970s, like the F-16 or F-18 fighter aircraft. There is little doubt that India will, in the years to come, end up paying the price for the government’s strategic myopia and its stubbornness in pursuing a course that will result in the strategic reduction of the country to a technology dependency, a nuclear client state and generally, to use Subramaniam Swamy’s phrase, a junior partner of the United States .


Subrahmanyam has been hailed as the Bhishmapitamah by the Indian strategic community, a title he apparently takes seriously – his book jacket features a line drawing of the elderly Mahabharata hero lying impaled on a bed of arrows. But he may wish to remember that for all his strategic wisdom and sagacity, Bhishma ultimately found himself with the Kauravas and on the wrong side of history, as Subrahmanyam does now when siding with the nuclear minimalists and against the country’s sovereignty and national interests.


* Author of Nuclear Weapons and India’s Security, Macmillan, 2004.