Questions about Nuclear Weapons

Non-Proliferation Ayatollahs are again chasing India

In a partisan and condescending editorial in early July 2014, New York Times wrote: “If India wants to be part of the nuclear suppliers group, it needs to sign the treaty that prohibits nuclear testing, stop producing fissile material, and begin talks with its rivals on nuclear weapons containment.” The newspaper is sharply critical of India’s efforts to acquire membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

It bases its criticism on a report by IHS Jane’s, a US-based research group, that India is in the process of enhancing its capacity to enrich uranium – ostensibly to power the nuclear reactors on the INS Arihant and future SSBNs, but much in excess of the requirement. This, the editorial says, is causing anxiety to the Pakistanis and has raised the spectre of an arms race in southern Asia.

It is obvious that the editorial writer understands neither the background to nor the present context of India’s nuclear deterrence. As stated in a letter written by the then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee to US President Bill Clinton after India’s nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998 (in an unfriendly act, the letter was leaked to the media by the White House), the primary reason for India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons was the existential threat posed by two nuclear-armed states on India’s borders, with both of which India had fought wars over territorial disputes.

The China- Pakistan nuclear and missile nexus, including the clandestine transfer of nuclear materials and technology from China to Pakistan, has irrevocably changed the strategic balance in southern Asia. It has enabled Pakistan to neutralise India’s superiority in conventional forces and wage a proxy war under the nuclear umbrella. Since then, the nuclear environment in southern Asia has been further destabilised. China’s ASAT test, BMD programme, efforts aimed at acquiring MIRV capability and ambiguity in its ‘no-first-use’ commitment, while simultaneously modernising the PLA and establishing a ‘string of pearls’ by way of ports in the Indian Ocean, are a cause for concern for India.

Similarly, Pakistan is engaged in the acquisition of ‘full spectrum’ nuclear capability, including a triad and battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons, which invariably lower the threshold of use. Pakistan has stockpiled a larger number of nuclear warheads (110 to 120) than India (90 to 100) and is continuing to add to the numbers as it has been given unsafeguarded nuclear reactors by China. Mujahideen attacks on Pakistan’s armed forces recently have led to the apprehension that some of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads could fall into Jihadi hands. Some statements made by IHS Jane’s in its report are factually incorrect.

The research group has assessed that the new Indian uranium enrichment facility at the Indian Rare Metals Plant near Mysore will enhance India’s ability to produce ‘weapons-grade’ uranium to twice the amount needed for its planned nuclear-powered SSBN fleet. The report does not say how the research group arrived at this deduction. Also, the nuclear power reactors of SSBNs require uranium to be enriched only up to 30 to 40 per cent.Weapons-grade uranium must be enriched to levels over 90 per cent. For the record, the Government of India has denied reports that it is ‘covertly’ expanding its nuclear arsenal.

An Indian official told The Hindu (Atul Aneja, “India trashes report on covert nuclear facility”, June 22, 2014) that the report was ‘mischievously timed’ as it came just before a meeting of the NSG. He said, “It is interesting that such reports questioning India’s nuclear credentials are planted at regular intervals.” The US Government also dismissed the report as ‘highly speculative’ (“US dismisses report on India covertly increasing nukes”, The Hindu, June 21, 2014).

The US State Department spokesperson said, “We remain fully committed to the terms of the 123 agreement and to enhancing our strategic relationship…” The 123 agreement signed after the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement of July 2005 gives an exemption to India’s nuclear weapons facilities and stockpiles of nuclear weapons fuel from inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). India has agreed to bring 14 nuclear power reactors under international safeguards.

Eight military facilities, including reactors, enrichment and reprocessing facilities, will remain out of the purview of IAEA safeguards. India is at liberty to set up additional military facilities using unsafeguarded materials if these are considered necessary. India has been a responsible nuclear power and has a positive record on non-proliferation. India has consistently supported total nuclear disarmament and is in favour of negotiations for the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).

For both technical and political reasons, it is important for India to keep its option to conduct further nuclear tests open; hence, it cannot sign the CTBT at present even though it has declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests. Non-proliferation ayatollahs should channel their efforts towards identifying and shaming the real proliferators. Influential newspapers like New York Times should review the progress made by the P-5 nuclear weapons states (NWS) on the implementation of the commitments made by them during the 2010 NPT Review Conference (RevCon) as RevCon 2015 is coming up.

The commitments made at the 2010 RevCon include progress in the implementation of the New Start Treaty; disposal of HEU extracted from nuclear warheads; steps towards early entry into force of the CTBT, monitoring and verification procedures and its universalisation; efforts to revitalise the Conference on Disarmament (CD) by ending the impasse in its working and, the immediate start of negotiations on a legally binding, verifiable international ban on the production of fissile material by way of the FMCT; and, measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.

In April 2009, in his first major foreign policy speech, popularly known as the ‘Prague Spring’ speech that won him the Nobel Peace prize, President Barack Obama had committed the US to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons in line with the growing bipartisan consensus expressed by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz,William Perry, and Sam Nunn, in their famous 2007 Wall Street Journal article. The New York Times should enquire how well that commitment is being fulfilled.

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