United States President Barack Obama, perhaps, to justify his winning the Nobel Peace Prize for just one peroration in Prague in April 2009 initiated the so-called nuclear security summits. Ironically, in the speech, he did not promise any progress towards a “world without nuclear weapons”, but mentioned the need for nuclear governance measures within the confines of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to protect “vulnerable nuclear material”. It is something these summits have pondered, and the last of which — Obama’s diplomatic swan song is scheduled in Washington appropriately for Fool’s Day (March 31-April 1). Except, measures to keep nukes away from terrorists and madmen only underline the iniquitous nuclear status quo and, where disarmament is concerned, amounts to putting the cart before the horse.
New Delhi’s enthusiasm for these summits is incomprehensible. Animated less by national interest than a desire to join the causes dear to the US, Indian prime ministers have been imprudent, ignoring the wisdom of staying aloof from such international conferences that invariably end up eroding India’s freedom of strategic action and room for foreign policy manoeuvre. Responsible for negotiating the deleterious nuclear deal with the US, which stymied the country’s development of thermonuclear weapons fetched India nothing in return — neither the rights and privileges of a nuclear weapons state nor the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, as assured by the July 18, 2005 joint statement signed between then US President George W Bush and then prime minister Manmohan Singh. Singh, however, attended the first two of these summits.
As if to prove he is no laggard in conceding sovereign nuclear policy ground, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has prepared for the Washington conference by formally committing to join the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC). This gesture, while doubtless pleasing to the US government and Western nuclear industry leaders, who can expect to sell India nuclear power plants worth tens of billions of dollars, violates the 2010 Nuclear Liability Act. This made foreign vendors accountable for accidents sourced to deficient or flawed nuclear reactors and related technologies they supply, and does not limit their compensation to victims, as the CSC does to $300 million. Modi’s flouting the Act means the Indian taxpayer not only pays through his nose for technologically faulty imported nuclear reactors but, in the case of nuclear accidents, also for compensatory payouts in excess of the CSC cap, which could potentially run into billions of dollars.
Nuclear governance presumes a stable nuclear order. But the extant regime has always been roiled by the ongoing strategic force modernisation and augmentation programmes of the five NPT-recognised nuclear weapons states (P5). It has destroyed Article VI of the NPT requiring disarmament negotiations in good faith by the P5 and hence the treaty itself.
The US is investing $1 trillion to rebuild its strategic triad over 30 years or $35 billion annually, including the upgrading of the B61 Mod 12 tactical nuclear bomb, designing new “tailored yield” thermonuclear warheads, developing next generation strategic bomber and nuclear-powered submarines in order to achieve, what deputy secretary of defence Bob Work called “technological overmatch” against Russia and China. Russia is spending some $16 billion a year in sharpening its nuclear attack capability, stressing the centrality of its modernised arsenal in future wars and as means of compensating for its conventional military inferiority (thereby neatly reversing its thrust of the Cold War when it enjoyed a massive conventional military edge). Moscow has embarked on a new strategic bomber (Tu-PAK DA) project, and deployed the advanced Borei-class ballistic nuclear missile firing nuclear submarine (SSBN), and the Topol-M Inter-Continental range Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that President Vladimir Putin has deemed “indefensible”.
China with an annual expenditure in excess of $10 billion on its newly named Strategic Rocket Forces is the only P5 state increasing the size of its nuclear arms inventory besides fielding new fusion warheads on DF-21A and DF-31 missiles, and the JL-2 submarine-launched missile from the new Jin-class SSBN. Meanwhile, Britain and France, each with yearly budgets for strategic forces of around $7 billion, are seeking to modernise their thermonuclear warheads by sharing in fusion weapons advancement infrastructure (Teutates programme), such as the multi-axes hydrographic-radiographic testing EPURE facility at Valduc with second and third laser streams becoming operational by 2019 and 2022, respectively, and the inertial confinement fusion facility in Bordeaux. The British nuclear weapons establishment at Aldermaston has just improved the W76-1Mk-4 hydrogen warhead for hardened targets, and installed the Orion laser that is a thousand times more powerful than the Helen system it replaced.
The militant tilt of the P5 aside, China continues to undermine India’s nuclear security by transferring to Pakistan design expertise to configure new missiles and miniaturise its fission warheads. The Modi government, much like its predecessor, has reacted to the skewing of the international and regional nuclear military “correlation of forces” by actually strengthening the decrepit NPT system that has victimised India by, among other things, reiterating the testing moratorium. Disowning a treaty it is not signatory to, resuming open-ended testing to extend the country’s thermonuclear muscle and reach, and responding, however belatedly, to China’s proliferation excesses with tit-for-tat transfer of critical nuclear missile technologies to countries such as Vietnam, on the Chinese periphery, is the way to go. But New Delhi seems content only with occasionally tom-tomming India’s ICBM and thermonuclear punch when, in fact, absence of evidence indicates evidence of absence of any such capabilities.
It is time Modi departed from the traditional script and spoke candidly at the Washington summit about the irreparable NPT regime and hinted at India’s options. He may win himself and the country leverage and respect by speaking the truth.
Bharat Karnad is professor of National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research
The views expresses are personal