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Up, up and frittered away

Ten years after Pokhran II, India’s rising profile is undercut by the lack of strategic vision, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: May 08, 2008 22:35 IST

As the country observes this Sunday the 10th anniversary of the nuclear tests that enabled it to gatecrash the nuclear-weapons club, India stands out as a reluctant and tentative nuclear power, still chanting the disarmament mantra while conspicuously lacking even a barely minimal deterrent capability against China. Given that May 11 also coincides with the 34th anniversary of Pokhran I, it is important to remember that no country has struggled longer to build a minimal deterrent or paid heavier international costs for its nuclear programme than India.

The history of India’s nuclear explosive programme is actually a record of how it helped mould multilateral technology controls. The 1974 detonation impelled the secret formation of the London suppliers’ club, the reshaping of the non-proliferation regime, and export bans on dual-use items. The test helped remake US policy, spurring major reforms in export policy, the passage of the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, the attachment of non-proliferation conditions to foreign assistance, and the emergence of the sanctions approach. India’s space programme helped give birth to the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Had India done a test in the mid-1960s when it acquired the nuclear explosive capability, it would have beaten the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) trap. Had Indira Gandhi pressed ahead with weaponisation after Pokhran I, India would not have faced a rising tide of technology sanctions. Had Atal Bihari Vajpayee dangled a test moratorium as a diplomatic carrot post-Pokhran II, instead of gifting it away gratuitously, the US would have hesitated to slap an array of new sanctions on India. And had Manmohan Singh sought to plug the yawning gaps in capability, instead of pushing a divisive deal with the US that offers dubious energy benefits to insidiously neuter India’s deterrent, a more-confident New Delhi today would not have had to propitiate China or any other power.

India has always been let down by its leaders. The more India got hit with technology controls, the more it sank into its proverbial indecision, instead of doggedly pressing ahead. Almost a quarter century passed between Pokhran I and II, as a stock-still India masochistically put up with punitive actions. A decade after Pokhran II, the present leadership is more interested in deal-making than deterrent-building. Exactly 25 years after the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) was launched, New Delhi has announced its mysterious closure — without a single Beijing-reachable missile in deployment, and even as Pakistan has conducted countless missile tests since last year.

While China ploughs 28 per cent of its mammoth, rapidly growing military spending into defence R&D, geared to modernising its deterrent, India’s total annual budget outlays for the nuclear deterrent make up less than one-tenth of the just-announced $11 billion quarterly profit of one US company, Exxon-Mobil. Yet, India does not shy away from squandering several billion dollars annually in importing questionable conventional weapons. Consider some recent examples.

The Indian Air Force barely inducts the first batch of the British Hawk jet trainer — an obsolescent system in which India invested $1.8 billion ostensibly to help minimise crashes — and a Hawk crashes. No sooner the US had sold India a 1971 vintage amphibious transport ship junked by its navy than a gas leak kills an Indian officer and five sailors on board. The Defence Minister now discloses, nine months after the delivery date has passed, that Russia wants $1.2 billion more and another three years to deliver a refurbished Soviet-era aircraft carrier that India had agreed to buy for $1.5 billion in early 2004, although it had been rusting since a mid-1990s boiler-room explosion.

Is India seeking to build a first-rate military with strategic reach and an independent deterrent, or a military that will remain irredeemably dependent on imports and serve as a money-spinning dumping ground for antiquated and junked weapons? The defence of India is becoming an unending scandal just when new threats are emerging and chinks in the Indian armour are obvious. Even CAG indictments make little difference.

In peacetime, China is stepping up military pressure along the Himalayas, intimidating India through intermittent cyberwarfare, and warning of another 1962-style invasion through one of its State-run institutes, which in a Mandarin commentary posted on http://www.chinaiiss.org/ has cautioned an “arrogant India” not “to be evil” or else Chinese forces in war “will not pull back 30 kilometres” like in 1962. If China actually sets out to “teach India a lesson”, as it did in 1962 by its own admission, to whom will New Delhi turn? In 1962, despite Jawaharlal Nehru’s two frantic letters to John F. Kennedy, US arms arrived after the Chinese aggression had ceased and a weakened India had been made to agree to open Kashmir talks with Pakistan.

Today, instead of investing in the rapid development of a credible and comprehensive deterrent, New Delhi acts peculiarly. In an action that ominously harks back to the 1991-95 period when Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister starved the nuclear programme of necessary funds for expansion, the government’s just-passed 2008-09 Budget slashes the Department of Atomic Energy’s funding by $529 million. No explanation has been offered to the nation.

Rather than aim for a technological leap through a crash ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) programme, India remains stuck in the IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) arena, where its frog-like paces have taken it — nearly two decades after the first Agni test — to Agni-III, a non-strategic missile in deterrence argot. Instead of securing India’s interests on planet Earth, the government has embarked on a $3.4 billion lunar dream, preparing excitedly to launch the first lunar orbiter. And although current international estimates of India’s weapons-grade fissile material stockpile put its quantity just marginally higher than Pakistan’s, the government has agreed to voluntarily shut down by 2010 one of the country’s two bomb-grade plutonium-production reactors, once the deal with the US goes through. Yet, pulling the wool over public eyes, it says “the deal has no bearing on the strategic programme”.

No nation can be a major power without three attributes: (i) a high level of autonomous and innovative technological capability; (ii) a capacity to meet basic defence needs indigenously; and (iii) a capability to project power far beyond its borders, especially through intercontinental-range weaponry. With its strategic vision deficit compounded by a leadership deficit, India’s deficiencies in all the three areas are no secret.

By disproving the prophets of doom and launching the country on a rising trajectory, Pokhran II was supposed to lift India from its subaltern mindset and help focus its energies on capability-building. Critics like Manmohan Singh had warned the tests would seriously impair the economy. But India’s foreign exchange reserves multiplied five times in seven years and its GDP growth accelerated sharply. Who looked at India as a rising power before 1998? Pokhran II thus was a watershed.

A decade later, however, India doesn’t have much to celebrate. Nuclear diffidence continues to hold it down. It still doesn’t have minimal, let alone, credible deterrence. Its military asymmetry with China has grown to the extent that many in its policymaking community seem to be losing faith in the country’s ability to defend itself with its own means. Tellingly, the government has no major celebration planned for the decadal anniversary.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.