by Admiral L. Ramdas (ret.) Former Chief of the Indian Navy
Press Briefing at the National Press Club, Washington, DC
May 8, 2000
If you will permit me, I will give a very brief background of the nuclear establishments as they grew both in India and Pakistan. I can speak with a little more confidence about India. The atomic energy establishment in India was conceptualized in the early 1940s and came into being very soon after our independence. The concept grew around 1946-1947. In 1948, our Atomic Energy Commission came into being and Dr. Homi Bhaba, the founding father of this department, was its first chairman. The thought process at the time was mainly focused on the fact that India got left behind during the Industrial Revolution and they did not want a repetition of it in the Nuclear Age. This new nuclear age was going to be the elixir for all ills and would thus put India on the fast track of development, industrialization, etc. There was therefore some kind of perceived legitimacy at the time. Clearly there was no intention of weaponization.
It was also well known that Bhaba had very intimate and personal friendships with the top atomic scientists the world over: Neils Bohr, Oppenheimer, Einstein, Enrico Fermi. They were all his friends; they had been at Cambridge together; they had exchanged notes as scientists. In his own memoirs and his biography, it comes out that, at the time, they were in conversation and dialogue with him quite regularly and then suddenly all dialoguing came to an end. He suspected they were obviously involved in some kind of a new project. This was the Manhattan Project. He shared these fears with his friend Jawaharlal Nehru (later to become Prime Minister of India), that some sort of a nuclear weapon was on its way. As we know, this was indeed the outcome that manifested itself in the horrible tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So the atomic establishment in India is almost as old as our independent existence as a country. Jawaharlal Nehru was the most vocal advocate of disarmament. The Government of India tried very hard indeed to bring about total nuclear disarmament. You may recall that the partial test ban treaty that was brought into force was in fact the brainchild of Nehru and Bhaba. Even the current CTBT was an initiative of India. Whilst all this was happening in India, things were really quiet in Pakistan, although there was some interest in atomic energy. Pakistan’s atomic energy program came into its own in the 1970s – which I shall explain in a minute.
In 1971, we had the Indian-Pakistan War. This was the third round between our two countries. (Frankly one tends to lose count, as we have had so many of them.) This was the time when East Pakistan became the new country, Bangladesh. I’m not going to go into the merits or demerits of what happened or what didn’t happen by this war, but suffice it to say that Pakistan, which was comprised of the eastern and western wings, ceased to exist as such and the eastern wing became a new country – namely Bangladesh.
During the war of 1971, I was commanding a frigate deployed in the Eastern sector. We had thrown a gauntlet around East Pakistan with a complete naval blockade. Things on the ground were also moving so fast for the Indian army that we knew it was only a matter of days before the Pakistani war machine would capitulate. Just then I got a signal from my fleet commander to say information had been received that a U.S. squadron headed by the U.S.S. Enterprise was about to enter the Bay of Bengal and was likely to intervene with India’s operations. I was told, as the Lone Ranger, to please go down south and investigate. You can imagine, I’m steaming down south to investigate the U.S.S. Enterprise, which is just a small aircraft carrier – about 85,000 tons, with a huge number of aircraft and fitted with nuclear weapons. We were all well aware that the U.S. fleet operated in the Pacific. This was a squadron released from the Pacific Fleet to enter the Bay of Bengal for this purpose. In any event, I’m happy to say the Enterprise reversed its course – perhaps it was the determination we displayed that caused this to happen! But that’s not really true – they went back for other reasons. The war was over. The Indian army had finished the job rather quickly. The Americans came, I think, with the aim to blackmail Indian forces and also possibly to evacuate some U.S. and other citizens who were in Bangladesh or in East Pakistan at time.
Be it as it may, this event was like a watershed in India’s strategic thinking. The intervention by the United States squadron fitted with nuclear weapons in 1971 posed a daunting challenge to India’s security concerns. This event acted as a trigger for India’s subsequent nuclear program. Within a couple of years, in May 1974, just two years and five months after the U.S.S. Enterprise event, we conducted what we called a “peaceful nuclear explosion” at Pokhran. I can’t see any explosion being peaceful, but anyway it was claimed to be “peaceful.” At that point in time, there were still lingering hopes that this kind of explosive device could be used for digging tunnels, canals, mines and so on. In the 1950s, similar views were held by both the Soviet Union and the United States. So there was, I believe, this twin aim (a) to not be left behind in the nuclear era and (b) to demonstrate to the world that India had acquired the capability to detonate a bomb.
Other factors that triggered India’s strategic thinking were the border war with China in 1962 and China’s nuclear explosion in 1964. These two events, namely the Enterprise intervention and the China Factor, looked at in conjunction, will give you an idea as to why India did go the way it did at that time. But, it was still very clear that the political decision was one that maintained that India would not weaponize. And that was genuinely true, although the scientific community was told to go ahead with the advances to be made in technology, etc.
After India’s explosion in 1974, predictably Pakistan also energized its atomic energy establishments. By 1987, Pakistan had also acquired the capability to detonate the bomb, although they had not carried out any tests within their own country. So that was the kind of scene from 1971-74 to the mid-1980s. Neither India nor Pakistan had openly or overtly stated that they wanted to weaponize until 1998. Two years ago, on May 11,1998 the Indian government, which was and still is headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), decided to conduct these tests in Pokhran. They were successful on May 11 and 13 with a total of five explosions. Predictably, Pakistan returned the compliment on May 28 and 30.
After the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war and the conclusion of the Simla Agreement in 1972, South Asia had witnessed a state of equilibrium and relative stability. The nuclear explosions of May 1998 by both India and Pakistan disturbed this situation and created a whole new geo-strategic environment. Whereas the present BJP government in India had declared in its election manifesto that it would go for nuclear weaponization, it had anchored this decision on conducting a Strategic Defense Review in the first instance. This however did not happen. All previous governments in India had retained the so-called “nuclear option.” By this, it maintained an ambiguous position. This really meant that they could weaponize if they chose to, and the decision would depend on the responses of the P-5 states to nuclear disarmament. Past experience in respect of global nuclear disarmament has been anything but satisfactory. This provided therefore a good excuse for the present Indian government to further its domestic political ambitions and resulted in the nuclear tests of 1998. It had nothing to do with the prevailing security environment as claimed by the government at the time.
The government had what I call foot and mouth disease. They said one thing, contradicted it, said something else, and then something else. This went on three or four times. First, it was a letter addressed to Mr. Clinton from our Prime Minister. Mr. Clinton knew the reasons for India going nuclear before our own people did. Before the tests, our Defense Minister identified China as “the enemy number one.” In the ultimate analysis, it was clearly a political desire to demonstrate manhood or masculinity, whatever you like to call it. So that’s how we came to the weaponization program.
It is quite unfortunate that Pakistan also followed suit. We now have a situation in the subcontinent where we have two countries that still have innumerable problems yet to be resolved, both armed with nuclear weapons. It’s one thing to do a nuclear explosion, but it is something else to weaponize, and yet something else to deploy, and yet something more to be able to command and control and operate the whole system. The total systems concept, I think, in both our countries are still at a level that cannot be immediately rated as front-line. We have a long way to go in this regard. When these infrastructures are not there, it makes the whole system that much more sensitive, accident-prone, and therefore dangerous.
As far back as 1950 or 1951, the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (the RSS) – an extreme right wing militant group closely linked to the existing BJP – said that India must acquire the atomic bomb. This was long before either China or anybody else, with the exception of the USA, had exploded a nuclear bomb. The RSS still have a tremendous amount of influence with our government machinery because many of the senior people in the BJP are also members of the RSS. So that briefly explains to you the reasons why we arrived where we did.
To the credit of this present government it must be said that in spite of the tests and attendant recriminations and reasons given, the leaders in India and in Pakistan realized that there would be much to be gained if we were to start talking and not have a nuclear face-off. This resulted in the Lahore Declaration of February 1999. The Kargil War took place in April 1999, barely two and a half months after the signing of the Lahore Declaration. This was yet another a pious declaration of good intent to settle all disputes by peaceful means through negotiations.
Around July-August 1999, the government in India fell in a no-confidence motion by a single vote. The country went through yet another general election in a matter of two years, and the BJP came back to power. Meanwhile, Pakistan also witnessed a change of government when General Musharraf staged a bloodless coup and took over as Pakistan’s Chief Executive on October 12, 1999. By a strange coincidence, it was also on the same date that Prime Minister Vajpayee of the BJP resumed office in the newly elected Indian Parliament.
The Kargil War has left a very deep sense of betrayal in the minds of the Indian leadership. I’m not here to say how India allowed it to happen – many people are asking this question. There is an official booklet about the Kargil War by a government committee headed by Mr. K. Subramaniam, assisted by Lt. General K.K. Hazari (retd) and Mr. B.G. Verghese, a former editor and noted journalist. The report only tells us what happened and what went wrong, but it does not tell us who was responsible or why it went wrong. In other words, the report tries to protect the people who were responsible. This includes the whole system – I don’t want to point fingers at anybody – but clearly the system failed. Just because you sign a Declaration does not mean that you lower your guard. I think some people failed in their duty and became complacent and soft. Otherwise, Kargil should have come to light long before even the signing of the Lahore Declaration. But Kargil did happen, and this has estranged the two countries to such an extent that the Indian leadership views Pakistan, especially General Musharraf, in poor light. They believe, and it is true, that he was the one who was behind Kargil. This is why it is now very difficult for India to get back into a dialogue with Pakistan, although Pakistan has been asking repeatedly over these past few months for a dialogue, especially after President Clinton’s visit. Mr. Clinton spoke quite frankly when he was visiting Pakistan, advising them to find other methods to resolve ongoing border issues.
Well, this is the kind of impasse that we are at now. What can we see as the likely political and military equations, particularly in the nuclear context?
First, let me say that both countries have a capability to set off nuclear weapons. Second, the yield of the kind of weapons systems may be roughly 3 to 4 times more than that of the Hiroshima-type. Third, both countries have demonstrated and actually fired medium-range missiles. Both countries have also carried out tests of intermediate range missiles. So you have a situation now where there is a delivery system, there is a weapon, and there are aircraft that can carry this weapon and drop it. How many weapons does each country have? I do not know, but we can all make intelligent guesses based on the fissile material like plutonium or enriched uranium that has been produced over these years. India may have between 60 to 80 warheads. Pakistan has used a different technology, but basically I think most analysts have estimated that Pakistan might have between 12 to 20 such warheads.
But do we have any command and control systems in these countries? I would like to say, yes, we have some basic systems available. But really, they are by no means of any depth or sophistication as you would expect in more advanced countries like the United States or even Russia. Even in these two countries with these very advanced systems and technologies, we all know how many times both the US and the USSR came close to deploying nuclear weapons, either due to misinterpretation of detections obtained on their scans or misreading of intent. The near disasters were averted at the last minute in spite of very advanced technologies, in spite of so-called “very high quality” training, in spite of the many failsafe systems integrated into the overall system, etc. So when you look at it in that light and compare this with where both India and Pakistan are now, we have a long way to go to bridge this gap. In short, it would be true to say that we are nowhere near the kind of safety requirements that one needs in this weaponized environment. You can imagine the kind of challenge that this poses.
India’s position is different from that of Pakistan as far as nuclear doctrines go. India came out with a nuclear doctrine in August 1999. It was called the Draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine. It is still a draft – and has not been agreed on or accepted by the Government of India. It has not been promulgated as such, but it has been pushed out to get public reactions. Predictably, there have been a lot of reactions to that doctrine.
The doctrine states that “the fundamental purpose of the Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use, and the threat of use of Nuclear Weapons by any state or entity against India and its forces. India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail. India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against states that do not possess nuclear weapons or are not aligned with nuclear weapons powers.”
The Draft Doctrine also talks about minimum nuclear deterrent. The draft is a compilation of various doctrines already in force or in existence, as advocated by other weapons states, that India has collated to suit its own requirement. The old traditional phrases were resurrected by Indian strategic thinkers and pieced together and this doctrine emerged.
India has offered the non-first use to Pakistan. Pakistan has said no to it so far. They have said that they require these weapons to counterbalance the overwhelming conventional superiority India has over Pakistan. Should Pakistan be under threat or in a defensive position and cornered, they would then use these weapons. That is their strategy and they think it will work on that basis. Yet they fought this war in Kargil, in spite of both countries having demonstrated their nuclear weapons capability. You will be surprised to learn that twelve different people from both sides in fairly responsible positions advocated the use of the nuclear weapon during that Kargil war. You can just imagine the madness of it all, but it was advocated. It is to the credit of the more mature thinkers at the top that they were not swayed by these kinds of arguments. It was the first time two nuclear states were engaged a boundary war since China and the former Soviet Union fought their war over the Usuri River. It is interesting to conjecture that I may not have been here to share these thoughts today had the Indian and Pakistani leadership got carried away by their nuclear capability.
How does India fit into the nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament regime? Let’s first talk about the NPT itself. As you know, India, Pakistan and Israel (and also Cuba) have not signed the NPT, mainly because (a) they felt it was an unequal treaty; (b) it gave some special status to the P-5 countries as opposed to the rest of the nations of the world; and (c) while it dissuaded other nations from horizontal proliferation, it had no restrictions on the vertical proliferation for those who already had these weapons. In effect, we all know this actually happened during the Cold War because the total arsenal of nuclear warheads in 1970 was of the order of about 34,000 or 35,000, but it peaked to something like 87,000 in 1988-1989. Now the total number of warheads all over the world is down to roughly about 36,000. So these are the stated apprehensions and reasons why India didn’t sign the NPT. India didn’t sign, so therefore Pakistan didn’t sign.
Israel, of course, is very unique because it has never carried out a test, has never said what it is, but yet the whole world knows that it has nuclear weapons. Until very recently, when it came out in the open during a debate in the Knesset, they never admitted that they have one. Nobody yet knows how many. Estimates range from 120 to 300.
As far as the NPT is concerned, India was against its indefinite extension in 1995, because it said, in the past 25 years, none of the weapon states have shown even the slightest desire to act on Article VI of the treaty, which calls for total nuclear disarmament and total conventional disarmament. It has been interpreted by these countries to suit their own line of argument. In 1995, when it was given this indefinite extension, India saw that we have given these countries an indefinite extension to possess nuclear weapons forever and ever.
I had the good fortune to talk to the delegates on behalf of the NGO community at the recent Non-Proliferation Treaty review meeting at the United Nations in New York. We had to impress upon them the importance and need for total nuclear disarmament, some kind of program by which they can reach destination zero. It is not just non-proliferation. Nuclear disarmament has been diverted to mean non-proliferation. What does non-proliferation mean? Do not increase. Do not proliferate. It doesn’t mean reducing what you have. Reducing, going to zero, disarm. It all has been converted to “do not proliferate.” Everybody asks me whether India will ever join the NPT. I say, what do they gain by joining? So it is unlikely.
As for the CTBT, it is very unfortunate that the US Senate refused to ratify the treaty. This has its intended impact on decision-makers in South Asia, certainly in India. It has permitted them to go slow on signing the CTBT, although they were very keen to do so before the Senate’s actual reaction. There is talk about the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). Both India and Pakistan have said, yes, we would like to join that treaty, but let us discuss the modalities. I think that they will participate in this if and when the date gets fixed for that to happen.
Finally, what can we do to make our region, as well as others, safe? Should we not take some simple commonsense actions to prevent a catastrophe? First, a non-first use policy. Second, de-alert all nuclear weapons. De-alerting of weapons means separation of the warhead from the delivery systems. It also implies a very deliberate decision to arm a weapons system and imposes some time safeguards. It also prevents weapons from being kept on hair-trigger alert, as they are at present. The beauty about de-alerting is that it is non-discriminatory, and applies equally to all. To re-alert from a de-alerted position has to be a very deliberate decision. The weapon cannot be deployed by accident or because somebody has not taken all factors into account. These are some of the basics I think we need to impress upon our decision-makers in all nuclear weapons capable states. If non- first use and de-alerting were brought into force globally, and say peace reigned for five years without problems, this could then be extended for additional five year periods. Then after ten years, they may say, well, why do we need these darn things at all, they are costing us a lot of money to just keep and maintain them.
As far as South Asia is concerned, we need to bring about a nuclear protocol, at least between India, Pakistan and China. China is an important factor in India’s strategic thinking. China believes in non-first-use and I think China can be persuaded to de-alert. However China has a problem with the United States which must also be borne in mind. I believe that a certain amount of this kind of attitudinal change and change of mindset in all nuclear weapons states would help in bringing about a more peaceful and less hostile environment.
I’ll conclude here. Thank you.
Questions and Answers
Question: You are asking for something that is not likely because, out of the 5 permanent members of the Security Council, four of them have said that they need first-use. And the United States doctrine is that for the indefinite future they need nuclear deterrent. De-alerting and all this appears to be dead letter. And similarly, is it likely that China will come in because China has said that if the United States, as now appears likely, is going to set up national missile defense that they would increase their number of nuclear weapons. Isn’t what you are saying wishful thinking?
Adm. Ramdas: Very good question. First, unless we have such wishful thinking, nothing will emerge. If you were just to sit silently and let people hijack the whole planet, as indeed has been happening, I think we are asking for serious trouble. I’m not for a moment denying any of what you’ve said. This is unfortunately the situation. Even the CTBT is a hoax in many ways, because the Stockpile Stewardship Program is only a euphemism for continued high tech research for the next generation of weapon systems. We are all aware of that. This is precisely the point. It is because of these kinds of developments and also because of this desire for the national missile defense systems against some unknown rogue state or nation, which may or may not be able to fire one missile at you six, seven, eight years down the road. It’s absolutely crazy. $60-70 billion is going to be spent on this idea. So people of this country, people all over the world, must raise their voices and say don’t be so daft. It’s unacceptable. You’re making this planet that much more susceptible to more accidents and therefore we won’t have it.
Second, as for China, everybody’s logic is very simple. Look at the proliferation so far: after the P-5, India, Pakistan, Israel. Tomorrow it may be Country X, Country Y, or Country Z. Otherwise, why do you think in the CTBT, they want nearly 43 or 44 nuclear capable countries to come on board before the treaty can enter into force? Any country with a nuclear power reactor is a potential nuclear weapons producer – and therefore nuclear capable. That is why this is to be looked at in this light. I’m not for a moment suggesting that it’s going to be easy, but we have to keep at it.
Arjun Makhijani: I agree with Admiral Ramdas that existing policies of governments don’t give us much room for hope. That’s why we have to rely more on the people. In the United States, we have started what we call the Back from the Brink campaign, a grassroots campaign to persuade the United States and other nuclear weapons states around the world to de-alert their nuclear weapons. We launched this campaign late last year. We’re getting into gear, and people are going to hear from us.
Regarding National Missile Defenses, I’d just like to amplify one point. In the briefing papers that were handed to Mr. Ivanoff, the Russian Foreign Minister, by the United States government, the U.S. government has essentially invited Russia to keep 1,500 nuclear warheads on permanent hair-trigger alert. This is like inviting somebody who has a gun to your head, which is recognized to be not in a very safe condition, to keep that gun on hair-trigger alert for the indefinite future because somebody else, who doesn’t have a gun today, may acquire a gun in the future. This doesn’t seem very sensible because it is not going to reduce nuclear dangers in the net. We believe that somebody should put all the nuclear dangers in the same basket in the same study – Russian and U.S. hair-trigger alert, emerging states with missile programs, other nuclear weapons states – and try to figure out how the balance of nuclear terror might be reduced and not increased, for everyone and not unilaterally.
Question: As an extension on wishful thinking, could you give us a perspective of the thinking that is going on in India, in terms of doubt like yours? Even Jasjit Singh is being considered a doubter now. As a consequence to the tests and after Kargil it is going to be very difficult for disarmament people like you and so-called doubters to convince others that we have to de-escalate and we have to disarm.
Adm. Ramdas: First, I think the pity is we all gave up even before we got started. In golf, we say, never up, never in. If you don’t hit the shot long enough to the hole, the ball won’t go in. If you are always hitting it short, it will never go in. You have to have the commitment and the courage to see and highlight the technical nonsense of this entire business of strategic nuclear missilery. We asked, as soon as they created this, why do you think all previous governments held it in restraint? You mean to say all previous governments in India were mad? That they hadn’t gone genuinely, overtly nuclear, because they felt this is really nuts? Everybody knows, militarily, nuclear weapons are absolutely the most inefficient device ever invented. Nuclear weapons can never be used. Although they talk about tactical nuclear weapons, etc., basically there is no way to confine a nuclear exchange, and confine it to only certain levels. It’s bound to escalate. Therefore, this business of nuclear weapons as military weapons is absolutely a non-starter.
Second, the concept of deterrence. We all know nuclear weapons don’t deter anybody. Just imagine, the United States is getting so worried about one possible so-called rogue state. What happened to the 33,000 weapons that the U.S. has today? These weapons would not deter that one so-called rogue state from using a nuclear weapon, so they have to set up a whole shield. Deterrence doesn’t work. for the simple reason that it is more economic power, economic well-being and general health of a country that goes to measure power or strength or respect. You can’t demand respect, you have to earn it. So these are some of the things that we have to look at in the overall context. I would say that that is why Jasjit Singh and others are now thinking that we might have been foolish.
Question: Do you think that there will be another Kargil between India and Pakistan? We have heard that General Musharraf is getting ready. Do you see a real war between the two countries in the near future or soon? I’ve heard that you said that you are going to Pakistan . Are you going to meet General Musharraf or anybody in the military government?
Adm. Ramdas: I’m going to meet my friends, who are from the Pakistani chapter of this Forum to which we belong. As far as whether another Kargil is going to happen, clearly right now there is tremendous amount of hostility being exchanged by both sides. However, I see a little light at the end of the tunnel, because there have been some pleasant sounds coming. General Musharraf has now decided that he will try and restrain some of these groups who are going into Kashmir. He has also said that he’s going to re-organize the Madrassas (Islamic religious schools), but he is meeting opposition from within. So one cannot say. This is what I call the uncertain and daunting future. But one hopes that we shall not enter into yet another round, because the next round I am afraid will not be a very pleasant one. And that would be an understatement.
Question: What is your response to Pakistan’s request for resumption of talks?
Adm. Ramdas: When 250 Pakistanis came to India for our joint convention that we held in Bangalore from April 6-10 this year, the Indian government gave all of them visas and many of them had asked for two months stay, because they wanted to go to 8 or 10 different cities. By this gesture I think the Indian government is saying “we are keen for people to people contact, but will you please put an end to the support being provided to cross border militancy.” And General Musharraf has indicated that he is going to try and restrain these militants. That’s why I said that I see a small light at the end of the tunnel. You know, diplomacy is a game of saying “yes” when you mean “no” and when you say “no” you mean “yes,” and certain things are said in public and something else is said in private. So I would say at this point in time that there is no option but to go towards a dialog. As long as you’re talking across a table – even if you are hurling abuses at each other – there is no risk of going to war. For that to happen, violence in the Kashmir valley must stop. Violence across the board – whether it’s the terrorists, the security forces, whoever. The people have had a very bad bashing there for over ten years.
Related information on this site
- IEER Conference: Nuclear Disarmament, the NPT, and the Rule of Law (April 2000)
- Nuclear Weapons and the Rule of Law (Science for Democratic Action vol. 8 no. 2, February 2000)