India and the Bomb

India and the Bomb

Three years after India and Pakistan shocked the world with their nuclear tests, it is worth revisiting their arguments for nuclear weapons. Many in the West have already accepted those arguments and grown used to the idea that both countries will remain nuclear powers. Other Westerners argue that nuclear weapons will bring about military stability in the region. Still others justify Indian and Pakistani nuclearization in relation to the unwillingness of the five established nuclear powers to eliminate their own arsenals. These reactions are understandable enough. The Indian and Pakistani case for nuclear weapons is, however, deeply flawed, as I hope to show. I will focus on the Indian case. But an equally strong refutation can be mounted against Pakistani claims—and also against the claims of all the other declared or aspiring nuclear powers.

The promise of nuclear weapons in a strictly military sense is deterrence. According to the governments of India and Pakistan, the nuclear tests of May 1998 were for “defensive” purposes, that is, for deterrence. Both governments stand committed to going beyond the tests to construct a so-called “minimum deterrence.” The Indian government has said that its minimum deterrence is aimed at Pakistan and China. New Delhi’s pronouncements suggest that China is the more important threat. By contrast, India’s day-to-day diplomatic and strategic moves indicate that Pakistan is a co-equal if not greater threat.

Beyond this, some Indian strategic commentators have argued that the United States is also a military presence to worry India. A number of factors are cited to bolster the argument about an American nuclear threat. These include the use of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, to “coerce” India in the Bangladesh war in 1971; U.S. counter-proliferation policy, which, at minimum, could translate into military strikes against nascent nuclear programs, including perhaps India’s; and U.S. geo-strategy, which is hostile to rising powers such as India who could one day be global rivals and who, in any case, are seen as regional spoilers.

As things stand, the U.S. threat is usually portrayed as subsidiary and remote, one that it is politically incorrect to talk about openly. Nevertheless, with time, as India’s missile and submarine programs go forward, we should expect to see far more open references to the American threat. With long-range missile capability, it will be technically feasible to mount a retaliatory strike against the continental United States. If it becomes technically possible to do so, there will undoubtedly be those who will push to make it operationally viable.

At this point, though, the Indian government has identified Pakistan and China as the reasons for its tests and for the need to build a nuclear arsenal. Is its case justified? Do the nuclear capabilities of Pakistan and China warrant India’s nuclearization? Is there no other recourse?