Did General Kapoor really call for a review of NFU?

Mistaken nuclear strategy or mistaken media management?

It might well be that General Deepak Kapoor’s remarks on Pakistan’s fast-expanding nuclear arsenal were blown out of proportion by the media. A Times News Network (TNN) headline in the Times of India yesterday said that India “(may) have to revisit nuclear no-first use policy: Army chief” but the accompanying report did not quote him as having said that. The report says that “Kapoor’s implied suggestion that India could have to revisit its no-first use policy in case the strength of Pakistan’s nuclear was close to what had been claimed, will challenge a long held position.” But since it does not carry his words verbatim, the reader must rely on the reporter’s opinion on what the army chief might have implied.

Other reports, including in the Economic Times, TOI’s sister publication, and Indian Express do quote General Kapoor. He said:

There is a difference between having a degree of deterrence, which is required for one’s own protection, and going beyond that. If news reports of them having 70-90 atomic bombs are correct then, I think, they are going well beyond the so-called requirement of deterrence and that is something which is of concern to all of us.” [ET]

Unless there are other reports it does appear that the general fell victim to some irresponsible sensationalisation and media malpractice. General Kapoor’s comment that Pakistan’s nuclear expansion is “of concern” is reasonable, although this blog has argued that it is more of a concern to the international community than to India. But from what can be gathered from other reports, he did not specifically mention or imply that India should review its no-first-use nuclear doctrine. Perhaps he should have been more careful in choosing his words and fully account for the possibility that sections of the Indian media would think nothing of putting words into his mouth merely to create a sensation.

In the event that General Kapoor did say or imply that an increase in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal warrants a review of the no-first-use doctrine, he would not only be wrong, but irresponsible (which, in this context, might be worse than being merely wrong). As K Subrahmanyam points out in a magesterial op-ed in the Indian Express today:

If today an increase in the Pakistani nuclear stockpile and the development of Babar cruise missile cause concern about a decapitating first strike, then the logical remedy is not to abandon our NFU but to provide for credible, visible succession for both political and military command, and to streamline the chain of command. [IE]

If General Kapoor was misquoted, the army headquarters would do well to issue a clarification. To the extent that the episode draws attention to the need for better governance of India’s strategic arsenal, some good might yet come of it. (See my article on the lines of nuclear succession)

But the big one fizzled

The Department of Atomic Energy should not have bluffed about the H-Bomb in 1998

In a press conference on May 17, 1998—days after the Pokhran-II nuclear tests—R Chidambaram, head of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Atomic Energy said that one of the devices tested a two-state thermonuclear bomb with a yield of 45 kT. “The range can go quite high” he said, “but we were limited in the total yield by the damage it may cause to habitations nearby.” One of those present at that press conference was K Santhanam, who was then a senior official at DRDO and who played a leading role in conducting the tests. Those who followed the technical debate in the international nuclear weapons community at that time will recall that foreign analysts had challenged India’s claims and argued, based on seismographic studies, that the yield of the thermonuclear device was in the region of 12-25kT.

In a television interview yesterday, Dr Santhanam accepted that the foreign analysts were right: “Based upon the seismic measurements and expert opinion from world over, it is clear that the yield in the thermonuclear device test was much lower than what was claimed.” He cited this as the reason why India needs to conduct more nuclear tests, and why it should not be ‘railroaded’ into signing a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Dr Santhanam’s revelation does not alter India’s nuclear deterrence relationships: can an adversary rest any easier knowing that it’s not, after all, a 45kT thermonuclear bomb that they are likely to receive in retaliation, but merely a 20kT fission bomb? The differential in megatonnage does not change strategic picture all that much.

But the admission raises a serious question: were the scientists bluffing then or is Dr Santhanam lying now? More importantly, did they only mislead the public or did they also mislead the political leadership?

The strategic impact of Pokhran-II would not have changed if the scientists had actually admitted then that the thermonuclear bomb had fizzled, and more testing was necessary to fix the design. No one had gotten it right the first time anyway. But claiming to have a strategic weapon that they didn’t—and which the world knew they didn’t—at best fooled no one and at worst fooled the political leaders who had a finger on the button.

In the public mind, the nuclear scientist carries more credibility than the politician—due to reasons of information asymmetry, regard for intellectual accomplishment and the belief that they are non-partisan. If indeed it was a false claim—as it almost certainly is—it was unnecessary. It has dented the credibility of the individuals and the organisations that made it. The coming discourse over CTBT and FMCT has become all the more treacherous.

Regarding terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites

When to worry a little and when to worry a lot

In an article for West Point’s CTC Sentinel (pdf) Bradford University’s Shaun Gregory draws attention to a serious matter—the terrorist threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. (linkthanks Swami Iyer)

Before we discuss the controversial part, let’s look at his conclusion.

The risk of the transfer of nuclear weapons, weapons components or nuclear expertise to terrorists in Pakistan is genuine. Moreover, knowledge that such a transfer has occurred may not become evident until the aftermath of a nuclear 9/11 in Pakistan or elsewhere in the world. It remains imperative that Pakistan is pressured and supported, above all by the United States, to continue to improve the safety and security of its nuclear weapons and to ensure the fidelity of those civilian and military personnel with access to, or knowledge of, nuclear weapons. The challenge to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from Pakistani Taliban groups and from al-Qa`ida constitutes a real and present danger, and the recent assaults by the Pakistan Army on some of these groups in FATA and in the NWFP is a welcome development. Nevertheless, more steps must be taken before the threat is neutralized and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons no longer pose an existential danger to the rest of the world. [Shaun Gregory/CTC Sentinel]

Despite reassurances by the heads of governments of Pakistan, the United States and India, this is a conclusion that few serious analysts can find fault with. Unless you are the editorial board of the New York Times you will use every opportunity available to mitigate the risk that terrorism and nuclear proliferation will come together from and/or in Pakistan. Prof Gregory does well to bring this important issue into public discussion.

The controversial part of Prof Gregory’s article was his assertion that “Pakistan’s nuclear facilities have already been attacked at least thrice by its home-grown extremists and terrorists over the last two years.” Unless he has more evidence than he reveals in the article, this argument is tenuous.

Pakistan observers have known about jihadi attacks on military and nuclear complexes and personnel, but there is little evidence in the public domain to suggest that these attacks involved an agenda to take control of nuclear weapons or radioactive material. There are a number of other possible motives: opportunism, signaling, publicity and probing.

In other words, it is possible that these targets were attacked because it was possible to attack them; they were attacked as a way of scaring Pakistanis and international donors; they were attacked because this would gain them a lot more publicity; or they were attacked to find out how well-secured the nuclear weapons complex is. Only the last is connected to nuclear terrorism, but it is still at the lower end of the scale at the other extreme of which lies an attack specifically intended to snatch or damage a nuclear weapons site. As one US official told a NYT blogger, these are large complexes (and therefore present easy targets) and an attack at the front gate cannot immediately be assumed to be the worst case scenario.

Indeed, the leadership of the military-jihadi complex might want you to believe the worst-case scenario, especially when that means you will open up your wallet to prevent it from happening. So while Prof Gregory is not wrong any analysis of terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites must not ignore the possibility of nuclear blackmail: the use of deliberate, calibrated insecurity to rustle up some no-strings-attached foreign aid.

Like many other analyses of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Prof Gregory neglects the opacity with respect to how the weapons are secured: do they use permissive-action links (PALs) or are they kept in a physically de-mated state? The two methods are likely to be mutually exclusive. As discussed in earlier posts, the answer to this question opens up a very little studied—at least in the public domain—area of risk. If there is an secret arsenal-within-an-arsenal then we should all be much more worried than we already are.

Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal

Three big steps against nuclear weapons—and one big one towards removing the poison in the India-US strategic relationship

Here are two ironies: First, that the political establishment around the US Democratic Party should think (via Atanu Dey’s blog) that the Obama administration ought to deliver ‘a tough message’ to India on nuclear weapons. Ironic, because India is perhaps the only nuclear weapons state where nuclear disarmament is state policy. It is perhaps the only country whose strongest proponents of nuclear weapons are also signed-up members of the Global Zero initiative.

Second, that for a president who came to power with promises on new approaches to everything from climate change to Iran, President Barack Obama’s chose the dogmatic dead-end of non-proliferation & arms control to move towards his idealistic vision of a nuclear weapons-free world. Ironic, because all the energy spent on flogging the dead mule could have been invested in a new path that would in the short-term minimise nuclear risks, boost international security and in the long-term, if future generations so wish, actually rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear non-proliferation does not have a future. It does help a lot of people—and there are many in Washington DC—who have invested their intellectual, professional and public lives in negotiating through the arcane world of non-proliferation treaties (the alphabet soup) make a living. The Democrats in government (like the Republicans who came before them) believe that they can resume from where they left off the last time they were in power. Strobe Talbott’s ‘tough message’ being a case in point. What they refuse to see is that the world has changed profoundly since then: Iran and North Korea have shown how easy it is to sign-out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, develop and test nuclear weapons, and live in the knowledge that the United States can now only blow hot air at them…from a safe distance. If the United States could not prevent this—notwithstanding the NPT—at the apex of its power in the two decades after the Cold War ended, what chance does it have now, when China intends to challenge its supremacy?

If President Obama is sincere about his vision and serious about securing US interests in the emerging geopolitical configuration, he would do well to face down the non-proliferation community and let a new disarmament community take its place. If he does so, he’ll find an a partner in India. But what would a real global nuclear disarmament plan (as opposed to non-proliferation/test-ban/fissile material cutoff treaty plans) look like? Continue reading “Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal”

Reprocessing arguments

The G-8 statement on non-proliferation does not take away the core benefits of the India-US nuclear deal

Don’t blame yourself if you have difficulty in navigating through the jargon, subtext and the writers’ agenda in the return this week of the India-US nuclear deal into the media limelight. But before you subscribe to any of the conclusions that reporter-commentators, opposition leaders and incumbent ministers want you to, take a step back and consider what the deal is about. (See A good deal, but bad politics, from August 2007)

The deal—which itself comprises of the bilateral agreements between India and the US; US domestic law in the form of the Hyde Act; and the multilateral “clean waiver” at the Nuclear Suppliers Group—allows India to import foreign reactors and nuclear fuel for generating electricity. These reactors and fuel supplies will be under an international inspection regime (called ‘safeguards’) under the International Atomic Energy Agency, which ensure that they are not used for producing weapons.

This means two things: first, provided the domestic regulatory environment is liberalised, it will be much easier for India to address the huge energy shortage by exploiting nuclear power. And second, it will free up domestic and foreign non-NSG sources of nuclear fuel for use in the weapons programme.

There is nothing in what the G-8 leaders said earlier this week that will change this. But wait, didn’t they, as Siddharth Varadarajan argues,—at the behest of the Obama administration—call for a ban on the transfer of enrichment & reprocessing (ENR) technology to India, even to safeguarded civilian facilities? Yes, but it doesn’t really matter.

It only means eight of the 45 countries of the NSG have agreed to implement a draft of a text that the NSG has not yet agreed to. The NSG is a cartel, not a treaty, and its agreements are non-binding on its members. The G-8 is a loose group, not even a cartel, less a treaty, and its agreements are non-binding on its members. France and Russia are aware that the United States disadvantaged itself as a nuclear supplier to India by hobbling itself with the Hyde Act. Are they likely to sign away a long-term competitive commercial advantage for the sake of a lofty principle? Unlikely—the prisoners’ dilemma is in India’s favour. But what if they do?

Well, it means that the fuel for civilian nuclear reactors will have to be sent back to reprocessing facilities abroad. While this might change the price of the fuel—and affect the competitiveness of the supplier of that fuel—it does not disturb the security of fuel supply.

Since India has its own indigenous reprocessing technology, the ‘ban’ on ENR exports to India, were it ever to materialise, does not affect the ability to produce fissile material for the nuclear arsenal. Even Mr Varadarajan admits that India is “technologically self-sufficient in reprocessing and enrichment technology” and its inclusion in the India-US nuclear deal was “matter of principle, positioning and ‘paisa’.” (Actually, the real problem with respect to reprocessing is not the G-8 or NSG rules, but rather, the Indian government’s lackadaisical attitude towards investing in new reprocessing facilities.)

So it turns out that even in the worst case—if the G-8 countries decide to overturn bilateral agreements, voluntarily give up their competitive advantages and prevent others from doing so—India’s energy security and nuclear programme will remain substantially unaffected.

Why the outcry then? Mr Varadarajan is right on two counts: the US government will do what it must to protect its interests, and the Indian government can’t afford to be complacent.

But unless you’ve been living in a cave you would have guessed by now that Barack Obama does not have the same view on India as his predecessor did. You will also know that Mr Obama intends to take the old arms control and non-proliferation route to nuclear disarmament. This means that the old alphabet soup of CTBT, FMCT and NPT is back on the table, and the G-8 decision is an early sign of that. Disagreements and differences of opinion are on the cards, but India is in a much better position to deal with these because of the nuclear deal, than it would have been without it.

Iran, shaken and stirred

India should do business with whoever is in power

Why, many readers ask, has this blog been silent on the extraordinary events in Iran. Vacations and workloads aside, shouldn’t we be discussing the biggest stirring in Iran in three decades?

Yes we should. For whatever might be the immediate political outcome of the May-June 2009 presidential election and its aftermath the nature of Iranian politics has already changed, perhaps profoundly so. The Grand Ayatollah is no longer untouchable. The balance-of-power within the Iranian regime has shifted and has become more broadbased. The distribution of political power from the one to the few, and from the few to the many is good for Iranians. It is also good for most of the rest of the world, including for India. This is true regardless of who becomes president and who political prisoner No 1.

Don’t expect major changes in Iranian government policy—especially foreign affairs. Iran is an old civilisation, has a strong society and a distinct nation-state. Its interests are unlikely to change just because a new political leader or faction comes to power. That might have happened if the upheaval is on the scale of the 1979 Islamic revolution—in 2009, Rafsanjani-Mousavi are ideologically indistinguishable from Khamenei-Ahmedinejad. Salil Tripathi, hardly a hard-nosed realist, writes:

Many have felt tempted to cast the rivalry of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi as one between darkness and light, falsehood and truth, fundamentalism and pragmatism, orthodoxy and reform, evil and good. Such Manichean distinctions are pointless. If a week is a long time in politics, three decades make an eternity. Given his bombastic rhetoric, it is easy to see Ahmadinejad as the villain, or the ruler of the land of chup and Mousavi as the hero, or the leader of the gupwalas, to borrow from the sharp distinction Rushdie made in his first post-fatwa novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. But they are cut from the same cloth. Mousavi is hardly the harbinger of light. As Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989, not only was he (and remains) a supporter of Khomeini’s brand of Islamic revolution, but he also presided over a country where teenage boys were sent to the battlefront against Iraq with plastic keys, and told that those keys would open the doors of heaven once they attained martyrdom, as Marjane Satrapi’s stark graphic novel and film, Persepolis, reminds us. [Mint]

Leave aside Mr Mousavi’s past as a conservative and a supporter of nuclearisation, people can change their minds (political leaders more so). There is little that Mr Mousavi has said before and after the elections to mark him out to be a deliverer of profound change. While his cause might have galvanised long-suppressed political emotions into a popular movement, it is unlikely to even lead to his ascent to political power. (Yes, it’s too early to tell, so this estimate is a hazardous one)

What should India do? The government of India shouldn’t take sides in this business, it’s for the Iranians to settle. Once the dust settles, business continues with whoever is the winner. Here’s an old cheat sheet to provide further guidance.

That does not mean that Indian citizens or civil society groups should follow suit: one advantage of being a democracy is that different parts of the political spectrum can engage different actors independent of the government. (Of course, all those parts of the political spectrum might be apathetic, which is yet another failing of India’s foreign affairs community.)

My op-ed in Mint: Pakistan’s nuclear expansion

A less self-centred perspective

In today’s Mint I argue that at the margin, more warheads do not provide more security for Pakistan vis-à-vis India. So, an analysis of Pakistan’s motives must consider alternative explanations.

Bruce Riedel, who chaired US President Barack Obama’s policy review for Afghanistan-Pakistan, points out in a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal that there have been “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal, “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb”.

British journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, citing former senior US and Pakistani officials, write that the Saudis wanted the “finished product, to stash away in an emergency, and Pakistan agreed to supply it in return for many hundreds of millions of dollars”. Pakistan also brokered the transfer of the nuclear-capable CSS-2 missiles from China to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s.

As Iran gets closer to building a nuclear arsenal, Saudi Arabia—the Iranian Shia theocracy’s geopolitical and ideological rival—is likely to seek a nuclear balance across the Persian Gulf. Using Pakistan to hold its arsenal in trust allows Saudi Arabia to stay clear of violating its non-proliferation commitments.

Now, even if Pakistan’s own insecurities with respect to its eastern neighbour are kept out of the calculation, Iran’s nuclearization suggests that Pakistan will have to build additional capacity for its Saudi Arabian partner. In other words, Pakistan is in a nuclear arms race all right—but it’s probably a West Asian one. [Mint]

Sunday Levity(?): Making rubble bounce

It’s not funny, actually

Richard Rhodes writes in Arsenals of Folly—The making of the nuclear arms race:

…during years of the high Cold War, there was always political capital to be earned from exaggerating the dangers or benefits of any particular nuclear strategy or weapons system. But even for those within the two governments with the best of intentions, trying to find security among the shifting and partly obscured maps of both sides’ evolving force structures led to convoluted and sometimes absurd conclusions.

Robert McNamara, for example, visited the Omaha offices of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff for a briefing about the US nuclear target list in February 1961, shortly after he became secretary of defense. McNamara was curious to compare the targeting-system criteria to a target known to have been destroyed, Hiroshima, burned out by a mass fire after a fifteen kiloton bomb, Little Boy, exploded 1,900 feet above the city center on 6 August 1945. This dialogue ensued:

Q.—McNamara—Have you applied your procedures to Hiroshima?
A.—Smith—Yes. 3 DGZs of 8o KT each.

That is, were Hiroshima still a target, the JSTPS would have identified three designated ground zeros (DGZs) within the city and would have assigned three nuclear weapons, each equivalent to eighty kilotons of TNT, to destroy them. Such overkill gives meaning to Winston Churchill’s notorious 1954 comment, “If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.” In the real world, one bomb of fifteen kilotons had been more than sufficient.[Arsenals of Folly]

Nuclear umbrellas in East Asia and the Middle East

China must act forcefully to stop North Korea and Pakistan from expanding their nuclear arsenals

The Obama administration tasted its first—and crunching—diplomatic defeat at the hands of the North Korean regime last week. After threatening to interdict North Korean ships, just about the only action the US government will take in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests is that the US navy will effectively merely tail those ships around, not stop, board or seize them.

Washington might be helpless in stopping North Korea from expanding its nuclear arsenal or periodically threaten its neighbours, but it can protect South Korea (and quite likely Japan) under the US nuclear umbrella. Yesterday, Mr Obama signaled just that. According to Yonsei University’s Chung Min Lee “This sent a strong signal to North Korea. The move should also allay concerns in some quarters that South Korea and Japan may need to pursue their own nuclear options.” Unfortunately, even this is insufficient to create a stable nuclear balance based on mutual deterrence.

The missing factor is China. Continue reading “Nuclear umbrellas in East Asia and the Middle East”

Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear weapons capacity?

Rather, who is it cranking up for?

Consider the following:

—There have been, as Bruce Riedel points out in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb.”

—After 9/11, the United States took steps to ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which included transfer of technology to prevent their unauthorised use. The Acorn has previously argued that this suggests that Pakistan is likely to protect its nuclear autonomy by creating a second, more secret, and perhaps less secure arsenal. In a recent Times of India report, Chidanand Rajghatta points to a briefing document by the US Congressional Research Service which says that Pakistan has developed a “second strike capability”, and infers implications for the India-Pakistan nuclear balance. While the inferences are debatable, it supports the second arsenal hypothesis.

—A country in the middle of a long political and economic crisis, financial bankruptcy, several insurgencies and a war within its own borders, and clearly dependent on the international community for life support, is not only increasing its stockpile of fissile material for nuclear weapons, but also expanding its capacity to produce more. And until November 26th, 2008, Pakistan was still engaged in a ‘peace process’ with India.

—Given the subcontinental nuclear equation, it doesn’t matter to India if Pakistan has 60 warheads or 120, and whether or not it has a “second strike capacity”. Why has India built no new plutonium reprocessing plants—relatively simple projects that don’t need a lot of money and for which competent indigenous technology exists—in the last decade? The Pakistanis are not entirely oblivious to this, and recognise that the marginal utility of the additional capacity to produce nuclear weapons is very low. In other words, there’s little additional security to be had vis-a-vis India for the kind of investments they are making.

So why is Pakistan adding capacity?

Here’s a hypothesis: the additional capacity is partly meant for Saudi Arabia’s proxy arsenal that Pakistan manages in trust. It is linked to a Saudi-Iran nuclear balance and linked to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons capacity. The additional capacity is also meant to strengthen the “second arsenal”, because Pakistan fears that the first one is compromised either by US supervision, snatch plans or both.

What does this imply?

First, that there is a new nuclear arms race—not in the subcontinent, but between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan acting as the latter’s bomb factory.

Second, that because the US has been unable to fully ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, it has caused Pakistan to build more warheads/capacity that has increased nuclear risks to yet unquantified levels.