Managing India's Nuclear Forces

by Verghese Koithara

India is now enmeshed in the deterrence game ?actively with its traditional adversary Pakistan, and potentially with China. At the same time it is finding easier access to fissile materials and strategic technologies. In order to deal with these developments safely and wisely, the nation needs a much more sophisticated and multidisciplinaryunderstanding of the strategic, technological, operational, and cost issues involved in nuclear matters.

In this important book, Indian strategic analyst Verghese Koithara explains and evaluates India's nuclear force management, encouraging a broad public conversation that may act as a catalyst for positive change before the subcontinent experiencesunthinkable carnage.

The defense management system of a nuclear power absolutely needs to be sound and thorough. In addition to the considerable demands of managing its nuclear forces, it also must control conventional forces in a manner that forestalls nuclear escalation of a conflict by either side. Expanding and upgrading nuclear forces without enhancing deterrence is dangerous and should be avoided. India's nuclear force management system is grafted onto a woefully inadequate overall system of defense management.

Koithara dissects all of these issues and suggests a way forward, drawing on recent developments in deterrence theory around the world.

Managing India's Nuclear Forces

Managing India's Nuclear Forces

By Verghese Koithara


Copyright © 2012 Verghese Koithara
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-2267-0


Chapter One

Strategic Considerations

A country like India, which is in a dynamic mutual deterrence relationship with one adversary and in a potential one with another, has to factor in a range of strategic considerations while developing its nuclear forces further. There are geopolitical factors, such as the future trajectory of relationships with Pakistan, China and the US, and the power equations with the first two. There is also the matter of changing global perceptions about nuclear weapons. Forecasting the strategic future is not easy in times like the present that are characterised by politico-economic flux and trend discontinuities. Yet, thinking about the future and trying to visualise possibilities and estimate likelihoods are important. Nuclear forces have very limited utility and so it is essential not to create them in excess of genuine need. Their avoidable expansion can also be strategically unwise as it can generate adversary responses that leave the country no more secure, and possibly less secure than it had been earlier. On the other hand, when a country does face potential nuclear threats, as a result of capability and hostility on the part of its adversaries, there is an unavoidable necessity to mitigate them through an adequate degree of capability of its own.

India and Pakistan

Pakistan's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, beginning 1972, were not taken seriously by India for about a decade. One reason for this was India's assumption that Pakistan did not have the S&T base to build nuclear weapons on its own. Another was the belief that the global non-proliferation drive, that began in 1974 with the Zangger committee's trigger list, will make it difficult for Pakistan to acquire the technologies and materials needed to make the bomb. Both assessments went awry because of the lucky break Pakistan got through A. Q. Khan in 1974, the truly exceptional drive that Pakistan brought to bear on its nuclear programme, and the easing of US pressure on the country in 1980 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. India failed to appreciate adequately the implications of the Kahuta centrifuge plant which was commissioned in 1979. This arose partly because of weak intelligence, and partly because the Indian scientific establishment, which interprets the nuclear intelligence that comes India's way, had an ingrained disdain for Pakistan's capabilities.

By the early 1980s, though, India began to worry about the progress Pakistan was making with enrichment at Kahuta, and the help it was getting from China with regard to bomb design. By 1986, Pakistan had achieved weapon grade enrichment in small quantities, and had also begun triggering assembly tests. For India, a nuclear Pakistan was a very different proposition from a nuclear China. Pakistan was an insecure, military ruled country with a record of becoming aggressive when it came under pressure or when it sensed an opportunity. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said, in December 1987, 'We co-existed with the Chinese bomb for 20 years, but a Pakistani bomb? I don't know and I cannot be sure that we will be able to co-exist with it' (Noorani 1988). Pakistan understood India's worries on this score, and this led to a nuclear dynamic with military possibilities getting infused into India—Pakistan relations from the early 1980s.

Since the uranium enrichment plant in Kahuta was central to its nuclear pursuit, there were fears in Pakistan that the plant might be attacked by India, possibly in conjunction with Israel. W. P. S. Sidhu and Bharat Karnad have written that India had prepared plans for air strikes on Kahuta and other critical nuclear facilities in Pakistan in early 1983, but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not give the go ahead. Karnad has also written that, in 1984, Israel had proposed striking Kahuta, staging its aircraft through India's Jamnagar airbase, but Indira Gandhi had vetoed the idea. It is not surprising that the Prime Minister did not approve these plans as they went against the country's non-aggressive ethos. There was also the likelihood that Pakistan will respond to a strike on Kahuta by attacking India's reactors and reprocessing plant in coastal Trombay, using its newly acquired F-16s, and the toxic plutonium leakage caused could hit next door Mumbai. Partly as a result of the 1983–84 tensions, Indian and Pakistani leaders agreed verbally, in December 1985, not to attack each other's nuclear facilities. This was converted into a signed agreement in December 1988 (after Brasstacks), and it entered into force in January 1991 (after the May 1990 tensions). The agreement was implemented by the exchange of lists of each other's nuclear installations beginning 1992.

The second India—Pakistan crisis with nuclear undertones was triggered during the operational phase of India's Brasstacks military exercise that began in December 1986. Exercise Brasstacks led to Pakistan launching Operation Sledgehammer the same month, and India in turn launching Operation Trident. Brasstacks was the largest military exercise India had ever staged—conducted at a time of serious tensions because of Pakistan's covert support to the Sikh militancy raging then in Punjab. Pakistan too was experiencing internal troubles (mainly Mohajir-Pathan clashes) at that time in Sind. Brasstacks was intended to try out India's new 'Sundarji doctrine', which amongst other objectives, was designed to exploit Indian army's improved armour and mechanised infantry prowess in conjunction with strengthened air force capabilities, and drive deep into Pakistan and break the country's critical Karachi—Punjab transportation links. Pakistan believed that Brasstacks was partly intended to pave the way for a war which will enable the destruction of its nuclear infrastructure, then on the verge of producing bombs. This view has received some authoritative corroboration in India.

The third crisis (and the first after the two countries had acquired deliverable nuclear weapons) occurred in early 1990, when militant violence in the Kashmir Valley and Pakistan's support for it had both intensified. Pakistan decided to carry out its largest ever military exercise, Zarb-e-Momin at this time, to test its strategy of offensive defence. This led to India moving troops close to the Line of Control (LoC) that divided the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), but both sides were careful to ensure that their actions did not lead to war. Whether there was any actual risk of a nuclear war during this crisis is disputed. There have been reports that General Aslam Beg, the Pakistan Army Chief, had given orders to assemble nuclear weapons (Hersh 1990: 67–68). Robert Gates, US Deputy National Security Advisor (NSA), who had led a mission to the two countries at this time, has said that the US was not predicting an immediate nuclear war but a series of clashes that would lead to a conventional war, which they believed would inevitably go nuclear (Andrew 1995: 516). The contrary view on this issue, viz. that Pakistan had not alerted its nuclear weapons on this occasion, however, has greater support. Indian, Pakistani and US officials have publicly stated that there was no danger of nuclear war. Several detailed studies of the crisis support this view (Chari et al. 2003; Krepon and Faruquee 1994; and Hagerty 1998: 133–70).

The fourth crisis occurred in the second half of May 1998, during the fortnight between India's nuclear tests and those of Pakistan. This crisis arose as a result of Pakistan's perception that India might attempt to take out its then precarious nuclear capability with the help of Israel. Indian and neutral foreign observers do not believe that India had any such intention. But from Pakistan's point of view, given the fact that it was only Pakistan's nuclear capability and nothing else that was enabling it to hold its own militarily with India, there was strategic logic in India wanting to de-nuclearise Pakistan. It was the same logic that had led to Pakistan's fears during Brasstacks, 1986–87. Moreover, during the 1990s India had become close to Israel, and given Israel's fear of an 'Islamic bomb' and its penchant for preventive strikes, there was reason for Pakistan to worry.

The fifth crisis arose during the Kargil War. This Limited War fought during May—July 1999, resulting in about 1200 fatalities, was the result of a brazen Pakistani effort to occupy high ground on the Indian side of the LoC clandestinely, taking advantage of winter conditions. Pakistan's action not only violated the Simla agreement of 1972, but also buried the spirit of the confidence building Lahore agreement of February 1999, which ironically had been arrived at while Pakistan was actually in the process of surreptitiously moving into Indian territory. Kargil was a clear effort on Pakistan's part to test the extent of the deterrence power of its newly unveiled nuclear weapons. It wanted to see if this capability could be exploited beyond insurgency promotion to gaining territory. The only historical parallel for two nuclear powers fighting one another is the short Sino-Soviet border skirmishes during March—August 1969. But the total fatalities in those clashes were less than a hundred, and there had been no fighting between the two countries before or since. In the India—Pakistan case, about 50,000 had been killed in insurgent, terrorist and conventional warfare during the decade 1990–2000.

The sixth crisis occurred in the second half of 2001, when some high profile Pakistani terrorist attacks, including one on India's parliament, made an enraged India threaten conventional war using the Limited War strategy it had been working on in the wake of the Kargil War. In December 2001 India confronted Pakistan in an unprecedented manner through Operation Parakram. During this 10-month long confrontation both sides went into full mobilisation, something that had not happened for 30 years. The threat of war was quite high, especially during January—February and May—June 2002. On 16 October, after successfully conducting the terrorism-threatened state elections in J&K, India announced the decision to withdraw from the international border, where Indian forces posed a greater threat than along the LoC. During the Parakram standoff, Pakistan indicated on 20 May 2002 that it had deployed its 750 km range nuclear capable Shaheen 1 missiles, and during 25–27 May it test fired three missiles including a 1300 km Ghauri. Because of the scale and duration of the mobilisation, Parakram was easily the most dangerous of the nuclear crises that have occurred between the two countries. But it was also a valuable learning experience for both sides—something akin to what the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC) was for the US and the USSR.

Most analysts do not consider that the 1990 and 1998 crises could have led to wars, since in both cases, contrary to Pakistan's fears, India had no plans to attack. The 1983–84 and the 1986–87 ones could have led to conventional strikes on nuclear installations but not to nuclear strikes for want of capability on both sides. During the Kargil War and, more so, during the 2001–2 Parakram crisis, there were certainly possibilities of nuclear strikes if India and Pakistan (and the US) had not managed de-escalations the way they did. Sumit Ganguly and Devin Hagerty have analysed these six crises—two before mutual weaponisation (1983–84 and 1986–87) and four after weaponisation (1990, 1998, 1999 and 2001–02). They examined their eventual defusing and concluded that it was the danger of nuclear escalation, and not intervention by the US or insufficient conventional superiority on India's part, that best explained how the two countries overcame these crises (Ganguly and Hagerty 2005: 7–10).

India's superior resources of fissile material and nuclear technologies give it quantitative and qualitative advantages in bomb making. This is particularly so after the nuclear agreements India has made with the US and other NSG countries in 2008. But today Pakistan too has the means to produce enough fissile material–both weapon grade uranium and plutonium. India's capabilities are greater in the area of larger-yield boosted fission bombs, but Pakistan's ability to produce yield-uncertain boosted fission bombs, in the range of 100–200 KT, cannot be confidently dismissed. The 50 MW Khushab-I heavy water reactor, completed in 1998, is capable of producing 6–12 kg of weapon grade plutonium in a year. Khushab-II, a similar reactor, is also operational now. These two reactors together can produce plutonium for three to six weapons a year. Two more similar reactors are currently under construction. Khushab III is likely to be ready by 2014, and Khushab-IV a couple of years later. A second reprocessing facility is being built at Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH). Pakistan's annual HEU production is currently estimated at 120–180 kg, sufficient for seven–15 warheads (Kristensen and Norris 2011). According to Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, well regarded authorities in the area, in the early part of 2010, Pakistan reportedly possessed 70 to 90 nuclear weapons, and fissile material to produce 90 more. India was estimated to have 60 to 80 weapons and fissile material for 60 to 105 more (Norris and Kristensen 2010). By May 2011, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) yearbook 2011, these arsenal estimates have gone up to 90–110 in the case of Pakistan and 80–110 in the case of India. These figures show an increase in the range of 20 to 30 weapons in the case of both countries during the past year.

Both India and Pakistan initiated their nuclear delivery capability using fighter/attack aircraft—India with Mirage 2000s and Pakistan with F-16As. Today India has far more nuclear capable aircraft (Mirage 2000s and Su-30s) than Pakistan, and also has much greater penetration capability through Phalcon/IL76, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, as well as superior electronic warfare, night operations and target acquisition systems. India's air defence is also much stronger than Pakistan's. India's newly gained access to combat and support systems from the US will widen these gaps further, in both penetrativity and air defence areas.

Pakistan has long been conscious of this reality and has, therefore, laid inordinate emphasis on ballistic missiles. The acquisition of liquid-fuelled Ghauri (Nodong) missile, of 1300–1500 km range from North Korea (facilitated by A. Q. Khan's nuclear help to that country), was possibly an interim measure taken in the late 1990s to gain urgent ability to strike deep inside India. Pakistan is now concentrating on the more operationally effective, solid fuel Shaheen-1 (in service since 2003) and Shaheen-2 (expected to enter service in 2012) missiles with ranges of 800 km and 2000 km respectively. These are manufactured within the country, with technology and material help from China. India's Agni-1 and Agni-2 missiles are comparable to the two Shaheens, but because of its superior air delivery capability, missiles are not as desperately needed by India as they are by Pakistan.

The quality of Pakistan's missile capability certainly surprised India (and others) in 1998–99. It was this prowess that led Ashley Tellis to write that

the advantages India currently enjoys in relative vulnerability over Pakistan will gradually decay over time ... (and) there will come a point where Pakistan, despite its relative disadvantage in size will be able to comprehensively target the Indian landmass and inflict such horrific levels of damage as to make any distinction in relative vulnerability more or less academic,

and that Pakistan's

growing strategic reach—coupled with the fact that a high degree of integration exists between the Pakistani armed services (the end users) and the civilianled but military-supervised nuclear and missile establishments (the producers)—bequeaths a certain coherence to Pakistani strategic planning that renders it significant as a nuclear adversary (Tellis 2001: 50).

George Perkovich has commented that India's robust separation between the uniformed military and the civilian nuclear establishment, its insular decision making with respect to the nuclear programme, and its lack of institutional mechanisms for managing nuclear strategy, places New Delhi at a disadvantage with respect to Islamabad (Perkovich 2000: 52). For the two main reasons, cited by him and other foreign analysts—Pakistan's serious MRBM capability, and its more militarily effective nuclear organisations—Pakistan has now become a formidable nuclear adversary.


Excerpted from Managing India's Nuclear Forces by Verghese Koithara Copyright © 2012 by Verghese Koithara. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Author: Verghese Koithara
Publisher: Brookings Inst Pr
Date Published: April 16, 2012
Copyright Year: 2012
Format: eBook, Blio
Feature: Text to Speech Enabled
Platform: XPS Enabled
Length: 294 pages
Language: English
ISBN: 0815722672 / 9780815722670
Categories: Politics & Government / International Relations / Diplomacy
Politics & Government / World / Asian
Audience: Scholarly/Undergraduate