05/10/2012 - 22:48

Flight from disarmament

M. V. Ramana

M. V. Ramana

A physicist, Ramana is currently appointed jointly with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and...

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Editor's note: This article is largely drawn from Ramana's featured piece in the report "Assuring Destruction Forever," edited by Ray Acheson and published in April 2012 byReaching Critical Will.

On April 19, India tested its three-stage Agni-5 missile, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a reach of 3,100 miles (5000 kilometers) and a payload capacity of about 3,300 pounds (1500 kilograms). Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony praised the launch as an "immaculate success." India's journalists and defense officials alike described the test as catapulting the country into an "elite club." In essence, the missile test means that India now has the capability to build an intercontinental ballistic missile, making it the sixth country in the world to have such a weapon.

The Agni-5 missile, which according to the government should ultimately be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead just about anywhere in China and much of Russia, represents the latest step in an ongoing process of modernization of the nuclear arsenal in India -- the main focus of which has been on increasing the diversity, range, and sophistication of ways of delivering weapons. It also symbolizes the degenerative logic of the belief in nuclear deterrence. Even though its proponents point out that the possession of nuclear weapons would eliminate the motivation for arms races, in just about every case, countries that acquire nuclear weapons also embark on boundless military weapons acquisitions.

India is by no means unique in this pursuit. As of May 2012, the nuclear weapon possessors -- China, North Korea, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- are estimated to possess approximately 19,000 nuclear weapons. And all nuclear weapon possessors are engaged in modernization activities, pouring nearly $100 billion, collectively, into their nuclear programs. At this rate, they will spend at least $1 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next decade. And yet, all these nations, with the possible exception of North Korea, will call for a world free of nuclear weapons or engage in some kind of arms control talks. India is guilty of the same: ramping up modernization while publicly expressing an interest in disarmament.

A look at India's nuclear forces. The Indian government is secretive about its military technologies -- especially when it comes to nuclear weapons. (The one exception is in the case of ballistic missiles, where every successful test launch is lauded as a mark of India's destructive prowess.) Based on the scanty available public information, in 2010, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Nuclear Notebook estimated that India has 60 to 80 assembled nuclear warheads, with only about 50 fully operational. Then in 2011, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that, as of January 2011, India had between 80 and 100 nuclear warheads.

India's nuclear weapons program first shot to prominence in 1974, when the country conducted a nuclear weapons test. After a 24-year hiatus, India conducted five more nuclear explosions in 1998. Much of what is known about the designs of India's nuclear weapons comes from statements immediately following these tests. According to an official press release from 1998, there were four different designs tested: regular fission; thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb); boosted fission, which causes the primary explosive to produce the radiation that then compresses the fusion part of the two-stage thermonuclear weapon; and a relatively low-explosive yield. Various heads of the Department of Atomic Energy maintain that the 1998 tests gave India "the capability to build fission and thermonuclear weapons" with yields of up to 200 kilotons. But it is probable that only one or two of these designs have been deployed.

The most likely design to have been weaponized is the fission explosive, which was a more sophisticated and lightweight version of the design tested in 1974. Indeed, in a subsequent public talk in New Delhi in 2000, India's then-Atomic Energy Commission Chairman R. Chidambaram said the fission weapon "had been in the stockpile for several years." He termed the others "weaponizable configurations" that had yet to be "converted into a weapon." There is no official confirmation of whether this conversion has subsequently occurred; though going by past history, it is likely that teams of scientists and engineers are working on it.

Since 1998, the primary focus of efforts to further India's nuclear arsenal has been on developing delivery vehicles for the weapons already tested and enhanced. In fact, because there is so little public discussion on the nuclear weapons themselves, the frequent testing of a diverse array of ballistic missiles of increasingly longer range is often the most visible reminder of India's growing nuclear capability. India has also developed or otherwise acquired components of an early warning system and an anti-ballistic-missile defense system.

India's official nuclear doctrine dating back to 2003 is terse, with little detail on what the nation envisions for its arsenal. However, back in 1999, India's National ecurity Advisory Board released a draft nuclear doctrine for India that is far more elaborate. It calls for India's nuclear forces to be deployed on a triad of delivery vehicles -- "aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets" -- that are structured for "punitive retaliation" so as to "inflict damage unacceptable to the aggressor." While this document was never formally adopted by the government, it's clear that the development of India's nuclear arsenal has followed the broad strokes laid out in the report.

Land. India's main land-based nuclear delivery system is the Agni series of missiles. Work on the Agni started in 1983, but this series of missiles has been substantially redesigned since the 1998 nuclear tests. Prior to the Agni-5 test in April, the 2,175-mile-range, two-stage Agni-4 missile was tested in 2011. And the Agni-1, -2, and -3 -- with ranges from 435 miles (700 kilometers) up to 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) -- have all been tested many times, including within the last two years. And then there is the smaller-range Prithvi missile series, which has also been tested extensively. The Prithvi-1, with a range of 93 miles (150 kilometers), is nuclear-capable. Defense officials and media commentators in India routinely describe the Prithvi-2 and Prithvi-3 missiles as nuclear-capable as well, but neither the Indian government nor the defense industry has clarified if these are really intended as nuclear-delivery vehicles.

So far, the Prithvi-1, Agni-1, and Agni-2 have been formally inducted into the military. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that the military possesses about 80 to 100 Agni-1 missiles, 20 to 25 Agni-2 missiles, and up to about 20 Prithvi-1 missiles. These numbers are much higher than the estimates for nuclear warheads, because all of these missiles are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear payloads.

Air. The Indian air force has made clear that it does have aircraft it can use in a nuclear strike mission, but there is some dispute over which aircraft that would be. The Bulletin's Nuclear Notebook lists the Mirage 2000-H, the Jaguar IS/IB, and possibly the MIG-27 as likely candidates. Some media commentators claim the Russian Sukhoi-30 MKI planes can be rigged to carry nuclear weapons, too. But other analysts argue that Russian airplanes are not well-suited to nuclear delivery and that the Jaguar and the Mirage 2000 are the most likely aircraft to be used to drop nuclear bombs.

Sea. India's navy, meanwhile, has been developing a nuclear submarine for more than three decades, reportedly with Russian help. The design for the reactor of this submarine was finalized in the late 1990s. The submarine itself, the Arihant, however, was not launched until 2009 and is not yet operational. In late 2010, the navy chief stated that the operationalization of the Arihant would begin in late 2011 or early 2012. However, in May 2012, the Indian Defense Minister announced, "The strategic indigenous submarine … would be inducted by the middle of next year." The submarine had yet to undergo crucial sea-acceptance or weapons trials. Additionally, reports now indicate that two more nuclear submarines are also under construction. The Arihant is likely to make the Sagarika missile -- also called the K-15 -- with a range of 435 miles (700 kilometers) its submarine-launched ballistic missile. The first four launches of the Sagarika were kept a secret; only the successful fifth test in 2008 was publicly announced.

In addition to India's domestic program, the navy has also leased a Nerpa-class nuclear submarine from Russia in order to gain experience operating such an intricate craft. The secretive contract on the 10-year lease is said to be worth more than $900 million. The submarine is equipped with 186-mile-range cruise missiles with conventional warheads, but navy officials say they will use the vessel only "to train its sailors in the complex art of operating nuclear submarines."

Infrastructure. India's acquisitions and manufacture of delivery vehicles are just part of the total picture; the country is also scaling up its nuclear infrastructure. The country's nuclear establishment is in the process of building a new complex, at a reported cost of $288 million, that will be far larger than the existing one. The new structure will host a plutonium production reactor that is scheduled to come online in the "2017-18 timeframe."

Meanwhile, India has also been enhancing its uranium enrichment capacity. In addition to the existing Rattehalli complex -- another facility undergoing an expansion -- there are also plans for a second uranium enrichment plant, a "Special Material Enrichment Facility." According to the Atomic Energy Commission chairman, this facility will not be safeguarded solely for weapons use, as India is "keeping the option open of using it for multiple roles." It is possible this is true -- that the new facility will indeed be used only to produce low-enriched uranium for power reactors. After all, India's existing enrichment capacity is already sufficient for the nuclear submarine fleet it is currently planning on building. Still, the facility makes up yet another part of India's burgeoning defense establishment.

Predictably, India's missile production complex is also undergoing expansion. The public-sector company that manufactures the Agni and Prithvi missiles, Bharat Dynamics Ltd., is reported to be planning to invest an estimated $800 million to open five new manufacturing plants. Throughout the two years of 2006 and 2007, Bharat managed to produce 15 Prithvi missiles. Today, the company is believed to produce 20 missiles every year. This increased production rate is in part a result of opening up elements of missile production to the private sector. "The private industry has emerged as a co-developer of the sub-systems of the missiles," says the head of the Defense Research and Development Organization, "which is helping us in cutting down development time."

Dissonance. All these nuclear arsenal modernization and expansion activities run counter to India's stated desire for global nuclear disarmament. Historically, India has supported numerous resolutions at the UN General Assembly calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. At the 2011 session of the General Assembly, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered "a concrete road map for achieving nuclear disarmament in a time-bound, universal, non-discriminatory, phased, and verifiable manner," for worldwide consideration.

What's missing from all these calls is any legal obligation to constrain its own arsenal. Even as India has made all the right noises about disarmament, it has never signed onto any international treaties that would place meaningful controls on its own nuclear efforts. And when the offer at the United Nations is followed seven months later by blasting the Agni-V into the sky -- a metaphorical beacon of the country's military modernization efforts -- proclamations about the desire for global nuclear abolition seem somewhat hypocritical, to say the least. One cannot call for nuclear disarmament while, in parallel, modernizing and enlarging nuclear arsenals and the means to make them. As Albert Einstein once wrote, "One cannot simultaneously prepare for peace and prepare for war."