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The nuclear club gets new member

May 06, 2022 11:45 PM IST

The Buddha is a recurring motif in India’s nuclear narrative and it may be recalled that when India carried out the Pokhran test on May 18, 1974 - the message conveyed to Mrs Indira Gandhi was that “the Buddha had smiled”.

India successfully carried out three underground nuclear tests on Monday, May 11, 1998, and the fact that it was carried out on Buddha Purnima — the day Gautama, the apostle of peace attained nirvana -- should not be seen as a contradiction in terms of the technological nature of this development.

India conducted five nuclear tests in May 1998 at the Pokhran range in Rajasthan.(HT archive)
India conducted five nuclear tests in May 1998 at the Pokhran range in Rajasthan.(HT archive)

The Buddha is a recurring motif in India’s nuclear narrative and it may be recalled that when India carried out the Pokhran test on May 18, 1974 - the message conveyed to Mrs Indira Gandhi was that “the Buddha had smiled”. In the intervening 24 years, India exercised unparalleled restraint in not weaponising its Pokhran expertise and remained committed to its policy of pacifism and pleaded for global disarmament. The nation stayed within the bandwidth of what was described as a non-weaponised, nuclear capable state. However, the scientific community kept abreast with global nuclear technological developments and in a way the May 11 tests testify to the steady enhancement of the capability acquired in 1974.

The three tests carried out on Monday include a normal fission test comparable to the first Pokhran test; a low-yield test; and finally, a thermonuclear test. In the absence of more technical details, one may infer that the normal fission test would have been greater than the 12KT yield in 1974. The more significant development is that of the low-yield and the thermonuclear tests, respectively. Die latter, also referred to as the hydrogen bomb when weaponised, is a fusion device — as opposed to the fission device or atom bomb.

Acquiring this thermonuclear capability that operates in the range of about 100KT and upwards is a significant advancement in nuclear technological capabilities and the strategic import of this will not be lost on the peer group at the global level. The low yield test on the other hand is a reflection of the ability to control and fine tune the fission process in a calibrated manner and is a commendable technological accomplishment more so when the Indian nuclear scientific and technological gene pool was operating in an adverse global environment with little or no access to global breakthroughs and developments.

However, it warrants reiteration that by carrying out these tests India has not transgressed’ in any manner — no international treaty or covenant has been breached — and India ‘s restraint and reluctance to weaponise its proven capability is unchanged. In short, the “option” is still open — it is being maintained and nurtured at a higher level of technological credibility.

This series of tests also demolishes an erroneous perception that India is a threshold state which has been the standard manner of packaging India in the global nuclear hierarchy. The nuclear ladder is described as 5 + 3 — five declared nuclear weapon powers — the US, Russia, China, France and Britain and three threshold states — India, Israel and Pakistan, with South Africa remaining blurred. However, this classification is misleading for India had demonstrated an above board credibility with Pokhran in 1974 and there was nothing furtive about it — a niche that the other states cannot claim, since their capabilities are either clandestine or shrouded in secrecy and doublespeak. To that extent the nuclear ladder of the world should read as 5 + 1 + 2.

The post-Cold War world is characterised by considerable uncertainty and all the major powers have made specific tech strategic choices and investments to protect their core national security and related interests. Despite the genuine attempts at reducing their nuclear arsenals, the US is compelled to still retain 3,500 strategic warheads for its security, while Russia will have to settle for 3,000 warheads. China will have about 300 warheads while France and Britain are constrained to retain independent nuclear weapon capability and stay within the US-led western nuclear alliance. All these nations are permanent members of the UN Security Council and have a political pedigree that lesser states lack. National security is a sacred covenant and interestingly, UNSC aspirants Germany and Japan despite their commitment to pacifism and nuclear disarmament are forced to seek the protection of the US nuclear umbrella.

Since technology cannot be restrained and has its own dynamic in the late 20th century, the global trend among all the major powers is to move towards a sea-based deterrent — the invulnerable SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile). All the major powers including China are investing in this area and it is estimated that the current modernisation programmes and related nuclear missilery will be relevant till about 2070 AD.

India will have to acquire a strategic response that will be deemed to be adequate, yet affordable against a backdrop of comprehensive national security in this complex environment. In the eyes of the world, India is a strategic unicorn for it is the only nation that has not weaponised a proven nuclear capability. This is a manifestation of India’s unique strategic culture that is wedded to global disarmament even while grappling with the dictates of realism and realpolitik in a vitiated regional environment. The current series of tests may elicit a wide range of responses from the global community but it will also remind the peer group of India’s ultimate goal of equitable global disarmament and the spirit of the Buddha.

Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies. This piece was published in HT’s edition of May 12, 1998.

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