Published in Emirates News newspaper, Op-Ed Page (June 21, 1998)
The Indian nuclear explosions last month were not just a new kind of populist device triggered off by the nationalist BJP party to upset the political applecart of its many coalition partners and the Opposition. The fact is that such programs involve long and sustained preparations and could not have been initiated during the brief tenure of the new government.
The Indian nuclear program has been facing a serious crisis for some time now, as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty (FMCT) are threatening its survival. India has to sign the CTBT by September 24, 1999, without which the treat cannot come into force. This could give India not only a worse label than the ‘spoiler’ it earned from the nuclear powers in 1996, but as per Article XIV of the draft treaty, a conference may decide what measures are to be taken to facilitate the early ‘entry into force’ (EIF) of the treaty.
If India signs the CTBT then it will not be able to conduct (according to Article 1 of the Treaty) “any nuclear test explosion or any other nuclear explosion,” and on the basis of the negotiating record this is understood to include all nuclear explosions with yields above zero, in accordance with US President Bill Clinton’s August 1995 proposals.
Article IV of the verification protocol provides for a tough verification regime which will rest on an International Monitoring System and on-site inspections.
The draft treaty exempts the nuclear powers from conducting sub-critical tests, developing and refining their nuclear weapons through computer simulations and so forth, a technology the threshold nuclear states can develop only after conducting many test explosions.
According to M.R. Srinivasan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, the CTBT would lead to “freezing technology levels at current capabilities, with additional support base of analysis, theory, computer modeling and so forth.”
So if India wants to be a signatory to the CTBT without becoming a nuclear imbecile, it may have to conduct more tests before September 1999, just as China and France did in 1996. The recent statements by Gauhar Ayub Khan that India may be considering more nuclear experiments and a statement by Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman on June 18 that its moratorium on nuclear tests could be lifted if it was in the national interest to do so suggest that any further nuclear tests in the subcontinent cannot be ruled out.
In a post-Cold War world, neither India nor Pakistan can depend on their erstwhile allies on issues related to defense and therefore will find it very difficult to compromise with their respective nuclear programs.
The parameters of mutual assured destruction (MAD) have undergone a change over the years. The big and cumbersome atomic bombs, capable of destroying large civilian populations, are surviving merely as deterrents. The smaller tritium backed thermonuclear devices, easy to load on to ballistic missiles, capable of hitting strategic military and nuclear sites with limited and effective destructive capability and pinpoint accuracy, will have the edge now in any war-like scenario.
In the words of retired Rear Admiral Raja Menon there is a difference between counter value and counter force nuclear weapons. “The former are inaccurate and have large kilo tonnage, since they can only destroy population centers. The latter are accurate, smaller and target hostile nuclear weapons sites.” But to develop the counter force technology one needs to achieve “non-explosive testing, so that the nuclear arsenal can be upgraded … as the US is doing.”
The Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty (FMCT), negotiations for which will begin soon in Geneva, is meant to prohibit all further production of fissile material (enriched uranium and plutonium) for weapons purposes, or outside safeguards in all countries.
India objects to this draft treaty as it claims “it would in effect disarm the threshold states’” while leaving nuclear weapons on states with huge stocks of weapons grade fissile material. The FMCT, Indian experts states, can prove even worse for the Indian nuclear program. In the words of strategic affairs analyst Savita Dutt, the FMCT could serve the purpose of “capping, rolling back and eventually eliminating” India’s nuclear weapons capability, while leaving huge stockpiles of the nuclear weapons states in place.
Therefore, both the CTBT and the FMCT could hold India back from rising to the level of conducting sub-critical tests and building sufficient data for computer simulation soon and may relegate it to be a minor nuclear power with only a few crude atomic bombs.
The date of ratification for the CTBT may literally become the deadline for its nuclear program. The question is whether India has the requisite technology and more importantly the political will to go for an ambitious nuclear program? Will it be able to weather the adverse consequences at the international levels? Can it keep the Buddha smiling, even if public opinion changes and the demand for nuclear-backed power increases.