Sunday, September 25, 2005

Playing God... The Nuclear Way!

This Article was written by me and Akshay Raut

“With great power comes great responsibility.” All Spiderman fans are well aware of this statement. This statement is significant when one talks about the nuclear power dynamics of south Asia.

India went nuclear on May 11th, 1998. However, it is popularly believed that India had its first functional tactical fissile device in operational mode since 1976. Pakistan on the other hand, went nuclear in 1998. Since then, the nuclear balance in the subcontinent has been swinging dangerously; primarily due to the lack of any nuclear command and control structure in both the countries. The lack of such strategic control mechanisms gives rise to a potentially volatile, high risk situation in case of any sort of military stand-off between the two countries like the one which happened in December 2001 after Pakistan-backed terrorists stormed the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. Although the use of tactical/strategic nuclear weapons is never even considered in such stand-offs, the preparedness is there. In fact, the preparedness is always there. India has seemed to recognize the problem and there is apparently a nuclear command and control structure is already in place. But this does not solve the problem. There needs to be a well-defined nuclear policy in place, which can be applicable in any sort of scenario. Making public claims of a “no first use policy” does not help.

There is many a lesson to be learnt from the Cold War. Both, the USSR and the USA had stringent measures in place to avoid any accidental firing of missiles, which would trigger off a nuclear war. Spy satellites and radar stations were constantly scanning each other’s missile sites to detect even the minor signs of activity. If there was any “reason to believe” that the other had launched an attack, missiles would be launched immediately to decapitate any second wave of strikes. This mechanism rested on a strong intelligence and communication network. Such networks were specifically designed to cater to the national nuclear command and were completely independent of the other military and civilian networks. The actual order of launching a nuclear strike was at the disposal of the President and his second and third in command. No order could be issued unless everybody concurred, not orally but electronically. So no renegade general or distraught soldier could fire the missile in the country’s name and spark off a chain of mutual annihilation. Although, during the Cold War, America’s nuclear programme was completely and solely aimed at the erstwhile USSR, it matured into a non country-centric system, meaning that it did not aim at any particular country. This happened due to the enormous geographical distance between the two powers.

As opposed to this, India’s programme seems to be wholly and solely aimed at Pakistan or at the most China. This is highly unfavourable in today’s fast changing global political scenario. A foe today could be a friend tomorrow. Hence there is an urgent need on India’s part to make its programme non country-centric. But it has to be done in a less explicit and in a gradual manner. This means that the government should not come out one fine day saying that it has 400 nuclear tipped ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) aiming at different parts of the world, as this obviously would seem hostile. There are claims that India sanctioned a programme to develop an ICBM called ‘Surya’ in 1990 and that it might be a variant of ISRO's successful Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). It is alleged that it has a massive range of about 12000 km. If true, then this just about solves India’s problems when it comes to missile-based delivery systems. But India still doesn’t have submarines to launch nuclear missiles from underwater. Silent, mobile, virtually unlimited in range, and with 70% of the world’s surface to prowl in, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are by far the most powerful launch platforms for nuclear tipped ballistic missiles. Consider this: the massive Soviet/Russian Typhoon-class SSBN is armed with 20 RSM-52 (SS-N-20 "Sturgeon") ballistic missiles with a range of 8,300 km, each carrying up to 10 nuclear warheads. India has been working since 1985 to develop an indigenously constructed nuclear-powered submarine, known as the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV), one that is based on the Soviet Charlie II-class or Akula II-class design. In January 1988 the Soviets leased a Charlie-I nuclear powered submarine to India, where she served until January 1991 as the “Chakra” and the submarine was manned by a Russian crew training Indian seamen to operate it. Though Indian engineers hoped to reverse-engineer its reactor, the Russians would not let them anywhere near it. Although India has the capability of building the hull and developing or acquiring the necessary sensors, its industry has been stymied by several system integration and fabrication problems in trying to downsize a 190 MW pressurized water reactor (PWR) to fit into the space available within the submarine's hull. Once completed, the ATV will probably be armed with the Sagarika cruise missile (still under development) with a range of 1500-2000 km, or a land attack version of the BrahMos.

If India one day hopes to become a superpower with the ability to project on a global scale, it will have to develop SSBNs and the concomitant nuclear tipped ballistic missiles. Not just that, but it would also need an well-defined nuclear policy capable of dealing with any nuclear scenario, and the political will to carry out nuclear strikes (first strikes, if necessary) to neutralise an enemy before he has the chance to attack. This issue has to be dealt with in a strategically sound manner, because the very existence of the people of this planet is at stake when countries try to play God, the nuclear way.