India Reflects U.S. Nuclear Policy
By Elizabeth Shafer


On January 4, 2003, the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security expanded India’s nuclear use options by announcing that "in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons". The statement was made less than a month after the Bush administration announced that the United States "reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force—including through use of all of our options —to the use of [weapons of mass destruction]". Nuclear weapons were specifically cited as one of the options.

In this significant respect, India has dropped its policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons. Unlike U.S. policy, the Cabinet Committee did appear to foreclose the use of nuclear weapons for a preemptive strike against enemy nuclear forces, stating ambiguously that " a posture of ‘no first use’ will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere". But the new doctrine is contradictory in retaining its former policy of a "Credible Minimum Deterrent" while also stating that "nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage".

The doctrine also stated India’s retention of its policy of non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states – now limited, though, by the option of nuclear retaliation against a biological or chemical attack. Here the Indian policy is similar to U.S. policy, except that the latter does not rule out preemptive nuclear use against biological or chemical threats. There is no indication that India has adopted the U.S. option of nuclear use against an overwhelming conventional attack.

U.S. Influence on Indian Policy

Indian adoption of U.S. nuclear doctrines reflects a negative pattern of U.S. influence on Indian policy. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all nuclear explosions, was signed in 1996 by U.S. President Clinton only on condition of the continuance of the huge "Stockpile Stewardship" program of expanded nuclear weapons laboratory experimental and computing capabilities. This includes the National Ignition Facility, a mammoth laser-driven machine intended to produce thermonuclear explosions reaching ten or more pounds of TNT equivalent, a result facially prohibited by the treaty. In 1999, the U.S. Senate failed to approve ratification of the CTBT. This rejection of the treaty, along with the undermining of its goals inherent in the "Stockpile Stewardship" program, factored significantly in India’s decision not to sign it, despite international censure for its nuclear testing in May 1998, and its decades-long history of supporting the test ban and nuclear disarmament.

Also, in 2001 India approved U.S. missile defense plans and U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Partly in return, the United States lifted economic sanctions on India for its 1998 nuclear testing. This may contribute to arms racing, as the United States sells and transfers arms and dual-use technology to India.

"Strategic Rationality"?

Deterrence theory is the lens through which the United States views Indian nuclear policy. M. V. Ramana, a physicist and policy analyst at Princeton University, warns that this framework is fundamentally flawed and dangerous. In a February 6 article in the Daily Times (Lahore, Pakistan), Ramana critiques India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture by Rand analyst Ashley Tellis, whose current role, as senior advisor to the U.S. ambassador to India, makes his views particularly germane in understanding U.S. policy. According to Ramana, Tellis recommends that the U.S. should press for an Indian nuclear arsenal that is "small but safe, survivable and ‘reasonably effective’, stealthy and surreptitious, and not rapidly useable". Ramana thinks Tellis’ outlook is blurred by a "realist brand of strategic analysis" which "forces him to look for strategic rationality where there is none". Ramana concludes that "more dangerous than Tellis’ flawed analysis is the faith in nuclear deterrence that underlies the thinking of the nuclear elites. That is a profoundly dangerous belief, the failure of which will have catastrophic consequences."

The nuclear crisis implicit in the tense military stand-off between India and Pakistan that lasted eighteen months—with troops massed along the Line of Control dividing Jammu and Kashmir, following a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001—has now abated somewhat. Violent incidents continue, however, as long-standing and deep-rooted ethnic, religious, and political divisions remain. If the United States invades Iraq, the violence likely will escalate.

As the new Indian doctrine illustrates, U.S. nuclear policies are exacerbating nuclear dangers in South Asia. Further, U.S. prescriptions for nuclear "restraint" in the Tellis mode will ring hollow until the United States changes its own policies. What is needed is a rejection of "deterrence" as a basis for South Asia security. To credibly advocate that course, and to address the Chinese nuclear arsenal that partly motivates Indian policy, the United States will have to renounce its own adherence to nuclear deterrence, and work towards immediate global de-alerting of nuclear forces and their rapid, verifiable reduction and elimination.

Elizabeth Shafer is an attorney in New York City and a member of the LCNP board of directors.


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