Clarifying India's Nascent Nuclear Doctrine

An Interview With Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh

On August 17, 1999, India's National Security Advisory Board released its draft report on Indian nuclear doctrine. Though the report maintained that India would pursue a "minimum nuclear deterrent," many observers were disturbed by the doctrine's ambitious tone, especially its call for a "triad of aircraft, mobile land-based missiles and sea-based assets," a force structure suggesting an arsenal of several hundred nuclear weapons. (For news coverage and full text of the draft report, see ACT, July/August 1999.)

In an interview with The Hindu newspaper published November 29, 1999, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh discussed India's position on arms control issues and addressed the international concerns about its nuclear doctrine. Most notably, Singh downplayed the significance of the draft report, emphasizing that it is not an official policy document and that talk of an Indian nuclear triad is "premature." While Arms Control Today does not usually print previously published work, the editors felt that this interview was of sufficient interest to warrant an exception.


The Hindu: You have been engaged in extended talks with the United States since the nuclear tests last year. How would you assess the results so far?

Minister Jaswant Singh: First, by restating the objectives from our side. They are two-fold: in the first place, to reconcile the stated U.S. non-proliferation concerns with India's national security objectives; secondly, and in a broader context, to develop greater mutual understanding so that both countries are enabled to work together in tapping the real potential of a qualitatively new relationship, essential in this post-Cold War environment.

The results of my discussions with [Deputy Secretary of State] Strobe Talbott are encouraging. There is recognition that India shall maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent as determined by us. There is now no longer any talk of a "roll-back." The U.S. also accepts that India's security concerns are not geographically limited. Foreign policy tasks and challenges are a continuing process; therefore, we need to consolidate these understandings across all sections that make up the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The Hindu: Do you have a time frame for concluding this dialogue?

Singh: In the management of foreign policy, deadlines are both impractical and unrealistic. But if we manage through the objectives, then the first part is the restoration of our relationship to the pre-May 1998 position. As for the next, I would consider it attained when both India and the U.S. engage in regular dialogue on a range of issues covering bilateral, regional and global political and economic issues.

The Hindu: Can you define these issues?

Singh: Of course, I cannot draw up a total list. But, self-evidently, these would range from discussing cooperation in the field of energy, science and technology, environment, trade, taxation and economic development to global concerns such as terrorism, narcotics, non-proliferation, disarmament, reform of multilateral institutions, expansion of the UN Security Council and regional developments in Asia-Pacific, et cetera. Obviously, a multifaceted dialogue of this nature can simply not imply an agreement on all. It is the density and depth of engagement that is the criteria.

The Hindu: A principal item on the agenda is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and there seems to be considerable confusion about India's stand on this issue. Where exactly are we?

Singh: Our stand on the CTBT has been clear. In 1996, we decided that we could not accept the CTBT because it was not consistent with India's national security interest. Over the decades, successive governments took necessary steps to safeguard India's nuclear option. In 1996, it was clear to all that subscription to the CTBT at that time would have limited India's nuclear potential at an unacceptably low level. After conducting the nuclear tests of May 1998, to validate and update our technology, we have ensured the credibility of our nuclear deterrent into the foreseeable future; our scientists are now confident of conducting sub-critical tests, as also other non-explosive R&D [research and development] activity necessary for the purpose. That is why we declared a voluntary moratorium. This, in essence, meets the basic obligations of the CTBT. We also announced a willingness to convert this undertaking into a de jure obligation. Clearly, this could not be done in a political vacuum. A positive environment had to be created. In reaction, a number of countries decided to impose restrictive economic measures on India. We have conveyed our disappointment at these actions. That, however, does not mean that we do not value our bilateral relationships with these countries. Our endeavor has been to generate a better appreciation of India's security concerns. Obviously, this is possible only through a sustained, bilateral dialogue process. An understanding in this regard will restore our relationship to the pre-May 1998 position. I am also optimistic that this process of restoration will result in an acceptance of a secure, self-confident India, thus imparting a new momentum to these ties.

At the same time, there is no denying that the manner in which the CTBT was negotiated, particularly during the last stages, left a great deal to be desired. This led to resentment against the proposed treaty. Many in India see it as part of a discriminatory, nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The government's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation remains unchanged. The priority of our meeting the country's national security concerns having been addressed, the government believes that we now need to convey reassurance to the international community and, in this regard, desires to develop a national consensus. The need for a consensus in any democratic society is self-evident. I have explained this in the past to the U.S. administration, and they better understand this approach after their own difficulties on this issue in their Senate.

The Hindu: There appears to be lack of clarity about signing and ratification. Can you elaborate?

Singh: Three separate decisions are required of the government as part of adherence to any international treaty: signature, ratification and deposition of the instrument of ratification. These decisions are taken by the cabinet. Each of them is a separate decision. To recall a recent example, in January 1993, the cabinet decided that India will become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention [CWC]; the decision to ratify was taken in October 1995, followed by another decision to deposit the instrument of ratification in September 1996.

The Hindu: In your view, how far should India go in terms of its adherence to the CTBT at this stage, particularly in light of the uncertainty about the treaty's future created by the U.S. Senate vote?

Singh: As I have already clarified, the process of adherence to an international treaty is a step-by-step process. While India's decisions will be made by the Indian government, there is no denying that this negative vote by the U.S. Senate does have a bearing on the future of this treaty. I would, therefore, consider it natural for India to also disaggregate its decision.

The Hindu: Is India ready to join in a moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapon purposes?

Singh: We have, after the tests last year, announced our readiness to engage in multilateral negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament [CD] in Geneva for a non-discriminatory and verifiable treaty to ban future production of fissile materials for nuclear weapon purposes. This decision was taken after due consideration, which included an assessment of time frames for negotiations and entry into force of an FMCT [fissile material cutoff treaty]. At this stage, India cannot accept a voluntary moratorium on production of fissile materials. Let me add that FMCT negotiations are a complex exercise. It will be important, therefore, as we go along to constantly monitor the pace, direction and content of these negotiations.

The Hindu: Export controls is another element of dialogue with the United States. What are the prospects of an understanding in this area?

Singh: India has remained committed to non-proliferation and maintains a highly effective system of export controls on sensitive and dual-use technologies and equipment. We have conveyed our willingness to strengthen this further, where necessary. In this regard, an inter-ministerial expert group has been established. I must add that we do remain greatly concerned about the fact that certain civilian programs in high-technology areas, such as space, remain targeted. Our participation in ad hoc export control regimes, such as Nuclear Suppliers Group and MTCR [Missile Technology Control Regime] will be on the basis of equality. The U.S. does appreciate that India has a system of laws and an effective institutional mechanism to implement non-proliferation-related export controls, but we need to make further progress.

The Hindu: There is a perception in the international community that the document prepared by the National Security Advisory Board [NSAB] for the National Security Council is India's official nuclear doctrine. What is the status of this document?

Singh: Let me correct this perception. The National Security Advisory Board is a group of non-official strategic experts and analysts. It was tasked by the National Security Council to prepare a number of papers, including one on a possible "Indian Nuclear Doctrine." This it prepared and submitted to the national security adviser, also releasing it publicly for a larger debate. That debate is now under way. It is thus not a policy document of the government of India.

The Hindu: Would you like to elaborate on what then is the essence and thinking on India's doctrine?

Singh: The key elements of India's nuclear policy were spelt out by the prime minister in parliament last December. To recapitulate briefly:

(a) India shall maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent and shall undertake necessary measures to ensure its credibility.

(b) India has declared a moratorium on undertaking any further underground nuclear test explosions, but R&D activity, including computer simulation and sub-critical tests, will be conducted as necessary.

(c) Development work on an extended-range Agni missile is underway and a successful flight test was carried out earlier this year. Additional flight testing will be undertaken in a manner that is non-provocative, transparent and consistent with established international norms and practices.

(d) India has declared a no-first-use doctrine. This has implicit in it the principle that India shall not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.

(e) In order that our minimum deterrent be credible, we shall adopt and maintain a deployment posture that ensures survivability of assets. Such a posture, obviously, provides for greater safety and security.

(f) India will not engage in any arms race. We shall not, therefore, pursue an open-ended program.

(g) A civilian command and control system, with necessary safeguards, shall cater for all possible contingencies.

(h) India's commitment to global nuclear disarmament remains undiluted. We will continue to work with other like-minded countries and take initiatives for moving towards a nuclear- weapon-free world. We will also seek to negotiate CBMs [confidence-building measures], both in the conventional and nuclear fields, with the aim of reducing lack of trust in the region.

The Hindu: Many commentators find these elements inconsistent and believe that India has embarked on a program that will produce a nuclear arsenal larger than that of the U.K. or France. Do you have any comments?

Singh: I am aware of such apprehensions. These are born of the Cold War experiences, ideology, indeed, even the clichéd phrases of those sterile years. The U.S., Russia, the U.K., France and China developed their nuclear weapons as weapons for war. Most nuclear-weapon powers follow doctrines of first use, and all of them envisage tactical or sub-strategic roles for their nuclear weapons. The Indian thinking is different, principally because we have discarded the Cold War reference frame of nuclear warfighting. In our view, the principal role of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by an adversary. For this, India needs only that strategic minimum which is credible. With the policy of "retaliation only," survivability becomes critical to ensure credibility. This "minimum," however, cannot be a fixed physical quantification; it is a dynamic concept but firmly rooted in the strategic environment, technological imperatives and national security needs, and the actual size, components, deployment and employment of nuclear forces will be decided taking into account all these factors.

No other nuclear-weapon state has conceptualized its capabilities in such terms. India can, and has done so because it does not intend to engage in an arms race. Therefore, the question of an arsenal larger than that of country X or Y becomes a non-question. For India, the question is only one of adequacy that is credible and thus defines our "minimum."

The Hindu: How would you address concerns about India seeking a "triad?"

Singh: Let me address the issue of "triad," not because it is part of the NSAB paper, but because there may be genuine misperceptions. It is a known fact that today India has nuclear-capable aircraft and mobile land-based nuclear-capable missiles. We have an R&D program for a naval version of Prithvi that has been a part of the IGMDP [Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme] launched in 1983. It is also a fact that many analysts, particularly in Western countries, consider nuclear missiles on submarines to be the most survivable nuclear asset in the scenarios that they have thought of-first strike, second strike, war and so on. Our approach is different. It is, therefore, premature to talk of an Indian "triad." R&D programs will certainly continue, aimed at enhancing survivability and thus, credibility, but decisions on production, deployment and employment will be taken on the basis of factors that I have outlined earlier. In short, just as parity is not essential for deterrence, neither is a triad a prerequisite for credibility.

Let me suggest that you look at the Indian nuclear deterrent as a "triad" based on a different set of three dimensions-a deterrent that is minimum but credible because it is survivable and backed by effective civilian command and control to ensure retaliation.

The Hindu: You appear to be emphasizing survivability, but will this not affect retaliation?

Singh: No. Retaliation does not have to be instantaneous; it has to be effective and assured. I emphasize this because effective and assured retaliation enhance the credibility of deterrence. Mobility and dispersal improve survivability. Operating procedures will ensure the transition from peacetime deployment modes to a higher state of readiness when required. Our nuclear assets are limited and consistent with no-first-use; we have ensured that these procedures do not tempt an adversary to pre-emption but strengthen deterrence by underlining the political resolve for effective retaliation.

The Hindu: Would it be correct to deduce that India will follow different peacetime and wartime deployment/postures?

Singh: This would be a correct assessment. You know that we would like to convey a sense of assurance in our region [and] beyond so that our deployment posture is not perceived as destabilizing. We have rejected notions of "launch on warning postures" that lead to maintaining hair-trigger alerts, thus increasing the risks of an unauthorized launch. In fact, we have taken an initiative in the UN General Assembly last year, calling on all nuclear-weapon states to review such postures, and move to de-alert, thus reducing global nuclear danger.

The Hindu: How does this posture relate to tactical nuclear weapons?

Singh: Regarding tactical nuclear weapons, let me remind you that we do not see nuclear weapons as weapons of warfighting. In fact, India sees them only as strategic weapons, whose role is to deter their use by an adversary. Civilian command and control over decisions relating to deployment and alert levels are logical.

The Hindu: Is there any change in India's position on elimination of nuclear weapons or, let me say, in India's approach toward this objective?

Singh: I would like to emphasize that there is no dilution of India's commitment to the objective of achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world. We continue to call for negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would prohibit the production, development, deployment and use of all nuclear weapons and also provide for elimination of present stockpiles under international verification. India is the only nuclear-weapon state to do so. At the same time, we also understand that nuclear disarmament cannot be achieved overnight; it will be a step-by-step process. We approach this process in a practical sense from two directions. On one side, we need to strengthen the norm against nuclear weapons by multilaterally negotiated non-use and no-first-use agreements. From a technical standpoint, we need to move away from the present hair-trigger postures to a progressively de-alerted state that will reduce the risks of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. It will also act as a global CBM. In both these areas, India continues to take initiatives and our resolutions in the UN General Assembly have been adopted with widespread support.