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Looking Beyond Nuclear Weapons

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 15, 2008

    The year 2008 started with oil prices touching a historic high of US $100 a barrel. This is partly a reflection of the high demand for energy. Today, many countries are factoring ‘energy’ into their planning, be it hydrocarbons or other forms of energy. But in the case of India it appears that its energy future would be decided more by politics than actual energy needs. In the first week of 2008, an Indian delegation has completed the third round of negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) on India-specific nuclear safeguards. It is expected that these talks with the Vienna based nuclear watchdog are likely to conclude by the end of this month. After this the fate of the Indo-US nuclear deal will entirely depend on the position taken by the left parties.

    Interestingly, over the last few months both the pro- and anti-nuclear deal lobbies have expressed their views on the fate of India’s nuclear weapons programme in the backdrop of this deal. But nobody has questioned the efficacy of nuclear weapons in the 21st century. This is mainly because everyone believes that nuclear weapons ensure security through their deterrence potential. Also, since nuclear weapons have acquired a larger than life image, it becomes unfashionable to challenge the efficacy of these ‘aged’ weapons. In fact, some analysts are propagating the bizarre idea that India needs more and more numbers of nuclear weapons to protect its interests.

    Of course, it cannot be denied that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were instrumental in bringing the Second World War to a speedy end. Also, the devastation caused by nuclear weapons created much fear in the minds of many and, as a result, even today nuclear weapons are seen as ultimate weapons. But the big question is whether in the 21st century, when military technology has progressed exponentially, it is worthwhile to depend on this rudimentary technology of the 1940s?

    Even today many nuclear weapons in the arsenals of states are essentially based on designs evolved during the Cold War. They had specific relevance in a specific era. India has already declared a moratorium on nuclear testing and is unlikely to test in the near future. If this is indeed the reality, it is not clear of what use is romanticising our existing nuclear stockpile which is based on very limited testing? If proliferation politics is not permitting us to produce state-of-the-art nuclear weapons, then how long are we going to contend that our existing stockpile is providing us a psychological sense of security?

    If this is the case, it is further not clear why we are holding our nuclear energy requirements a hostage to nuclear weapon policies? Luckily, modern day technology offers India viable alternative solutions. There is a need for the Indian polity and the security establishment to look beyond nuclear weapons. The Indian state has to move beyond the view that only nuclear weapons can assure deterrence. There is a need to look for more viable options which could offer more military strength and deterrence potential.

    In the 21st century it is not essential to do nuclear testing only to showcase military might. This can be done by non-nuclear means as well. By doing this, a state could even display its ‘power of deterrence’ without breaking the so-called global nuclear pretence. During the second week of September 2007, Russia tested the world's most powerful vacuum bomb, which unleashed a destructive shockwave with the power of a nuclear blast. Russians have dubbed this weapon the "father of all bombs". It is said that the explosion was the biggest non-nuclear explosion in the world.

    Before the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the United States had carried out the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB, which, incidentally, is also known as the mother of all bombs. It has been reported that the bomb carries 18,000 pounds of tritonal explosives, which have an indefinite shelf life. Such weapons are essentially conceived as psychological weapons, just like nuclear weapons. Apart from this, there are microwave bombs like E-bombs that emit powerful pulses of energy capable of destroying enemy electronics, disable communications, and block vehicle ignitions.

    India could also invest in Directed Energy Weapons like high energy lasers, particle beam and high power microwave weapons, which, designed properly, could give nuclear weapons a run for the money. Also, the recent anti-satellite test carried out by China implies that deterrence need not remain restricted to nuclear weapons only. A state’s deterrence potential could be shown by other means as well.

    This is not to argue that India should give up its nuclear weapons. Given that nuclear weapons are already in its arsenal, India needs to invest more in modern military technologies that could offer more deterrence value than nuclear weapons. Ultimately, deterrence lies more in the mind than in military laboratories. There is a need to start a rigorous debate on identifying non-nuclear means of deterrence. More importantly, the time has come to ensure that India’s energy needs do not remain subservient to its security needs.