New Challenges in the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction: One Year After the South Asian Nuclear Tests

C. Uday Bhaskar, Dy. Director, IDSA


At the outset I would like to thank Professor Paolo Cotta Ramusino and the Italian Union of Scientists for inviting me to this conference and allowing me to share my thoughts on what is indeed a very urgent and complex issue-the new post-Cold War challenges in the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Before I proceed any further, let me add in the same breath that there could not be a more striking contrast in the almost idyllic beauty and tranquillity of the Tuscany coast, on the one hand, and the troubled and contested nature of the subject of our conference, on the other. Paolo is an astute scientist and I daresay there is a deeper purpose for his choice of Castiglioncello as a venue and this may become evident in the next few days.

The reason I draw your attention to the contrast in our surroundings and the subject is because of the inherently turbulent and discordant nature of the latter. Some of you here may recall that only a few months ago we were in Como, engaged in animated discussion about Kosovo-which was just a hundred miles afar-and the dominant perception was that if the Serbs had acquired a single nuke, the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces would not have dared to launch the offensive they did. I do not propose to discuss the validity of this assertion now-there is a separate session on Kosovo later-but I merely wish to highlight the intensity of the perceptions that have accrued about WMD and it is evident that the perch one occupies in this debate is crucial in determining what one's position may be.

It is in this context that I wish to suggest that while it is natural and compelling to approach the whole issue of WMD from a "national" perspective, it may be useful to put these hats aside briefly-and look at the WMD issue as scientists of different hues. We are represented here in equal measure by eminent physicists and mathematicians, along with political and social scientists-and a certain degree of objectivity may be gleaned if we just proceed as empirically as is possible from the facts or the reality that envelops WMD and the debate which obtains in the post-Cold War years.

It has been my personal view that while WMD is used as an umbrella term to subsume the nuclear, biological and chemical weapons-I would like to retain the exclusivity of the nuclear dimension and keep my observations confined to this core of WMD-the nuclear. Thus, if the term WMD is used, it will be to denote the nuclear weapon.

As you are well aware, the nuclear issue can be approached from many perspectives and in a way it is akin to the elephant and the blind men who grope at it to arrive at some kind of comprehension about the nature of the "beast". I would like to suggest a framework to locate the nuclear issue and proceed from there to outline what I perceive to be the new challenges about WMD. In the first instance, the contrast between the enormity of the certitude that accompanies prevailing nuclear discourse and the slim data base from which we extrapolate the inferences, nay tenets, is of great relevance. The nuclear weapon as we know it has been with us for 54 years since Hiroshima and the entire body of knowledge that has mushroomed since then is based on the atomic explosions of 1945. As far back as 1957, Henry Kissinger then a budding academic cautioned: "Except for the two explosions of now obsolete weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nuclear weapons have ever been set off in wartime; there exists, therefore, no body of experience on which to draw. To a considerable extent, the impact of the new weapons on strategy, on policy, indeed on survival, depends on our interpretation of their significance".1

In the intervening Cold War decades, the number of nuclear weapons went up to a dizzying 55,000 plus-which level incidentally was interpreted as being co-terminus with "security" as part of the MAD (mutually assured destruction). The only other tangible nuclear experience, if you will, to add to the data-base is the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the near-miss whose details are still emerging as more Cold War memoirs see the light of day. Hence, the first proposition I submit for your consideration is that nuclear weapons must be referred against their interpretative background-and that this interpretative index is further dependent on the cognitive perception of the ruling or strategic elite of the state in question-an aspect I will dwell on a little later.

The second proposition I wish to make is that security for a state in the post-Cold War has become inclusive; and that it comprises three primary determinants-the political, economic and military; and that this primary content is complemented by the three other determinants of collective endeavour-societal, technological and environmental. To my mind, the nuclear weapon straddles all these security determinants and this may be identified as the Y axis of the grid I am outlining. Leavened in this is the second level or tier of space-in effect, the relevance of the nuclear weapon at the domestic, regional and global levels-to be identified as the Z axis. Finally, we have the tertiary level of time-and I aver that the nuclear weapon has a relevance that moves from troubled contemporaniety to the near future in the next century, and, finally, the next millennium-given the scale of the half life periods of the elements that constitute the fissile material of the weapon. The temporal division must perforce straddle the X axis and thus we have an XYZ grid and I take this belaboured route to suggest that the nuclear weapon has a multiple relevance of determinant-space-time and must be so contextualised if we are to have a reasonably accurate sense of the new challenges we are trying to first, identify, and then manage, with some prudence.

I am aware that this session is devoted to the 1998 nuclear tests in the Indian subcontinent, which in turn have been "interpreted" in a certain manner as far as the dominant nuclear (WMD) discourse of the day is concerned. The most significant collective indictment of the events of May 1998 is contained in UN Security Council Resolution 1172 of June 6, 1998, which in its preamble recalls an earlier statement as follows:

Reiterating the statement of its President of January 31, 1992, which stated, inter alia, that the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction constitutes a threat to international peace and security, (emphasis added)

Gravely concerned at the challenge that the nuclear tests conducted by India and then by Pakistan constitute to international efforts aimed at strengthening the global regime of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and also gravely concerned at the danger to peace and stability in the region.2

We are being told in effect that the events of May 1998 are a grave threat at both the regional and global level and while this may be the perception of the five P-5 members-also the five nuclear weapon states (NWS) as per the classification of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-the reality or the facts of the case as it were merit recall. On the one hand, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) gravely notes that the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction constitutes a threat to global peace and security and yet as of 1999, the five NWS are unable to arrive at a consensus on their own proliferation proclivities in the nuclear dimension.

Notwithstanding the vertical proliferation engaged in by the NWS and the steady stream of reports that point to an unwavering determination by these states to upgrade and modernise their respective nuclear arsenals-the Cox Report is just one of many such instances that testify to such a trend among the NWS and I will not go into further details-there is yet another aspect about the region that merits mention here. I am afraid the perception about the Southern Asian region, that includes China also-and not just the South Asian region that excludes China-is rather muddied as far as nuclear weapons and related delivery vehicles are concerned. It is the consensus in India that some of the NWS either encouraged or turned a convenient Nelson's eye to a pattern of WMD proliferation through transfers in the region that were detrimental to India's interests and heightened the insecurity axiomatically generated when these capabilities were acquired by a perennial adversary.

There is a familiar litany of events about the Indian subcontinent that are complex and whose ontological roots induce a sense of fatigue even in the most diligent scholars. I will not force that on you. What is germane is that if we talk about the challenges of WMD for the future-the theme of this conference-we have to take a holistic view and not look at the India-Pakistan matrix in a limited, water-tight manner. Such an approach may even lead to erroneous conclusions akin to the quip about a logician who loses his keys in a dark alley and is found frantically searching for them under a street-lamp. When queried as to why he is under the street-lamp and not looking for the keys in the place he lost them, he replies that this is the only place where there is light!

Ladies and gentlemen, extending this analogy, I would submit for your consideration-albeit tentatively-that while the global spotlight is on the sub-continent and particularly on India which is seen as the "original sinner", the keys are elsewhere. I say this with some regret, since the non-proliferation zealotry that has accompanied the condemnation of India over May 1998 has been tinged both with a degree of certitude and an ecclesiastical severity that is daunting and, on occasion, absurd. I have had the experience of some ardent critics who through esoteric de-construction of the nuclear narrative actually arrive at a conclusion that blames India's actions of May 1998 for the events over Hiroshima in 1945. Perhaps we should take the light focussed on India into the dark nuclear alley and find the keys to managing the new WMD challenge that have been lost in that Cold War labyrinth.

What are the challenges that need to be noted when we examine the existing WMD contours and their extrapolation into the future? I will put my head on the block by arguing that the nuclear issue is a top-down driven phenomenon and that the "high table" sets the pace and the agenda for the rest of the global comity. Within this framework, the NPT is held up as the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation effort and this treaty, extended indefinitely-can one use the word eternally?-and unconditionally is coming up for review in April 2000-that is six months away. We in India have been sceptical of this treaty for its inherently discriminatory nature-again, that is old hat for all of you and we have remained steadfastly outside the NPT architecture. Like some others, we were disappointed when the NPT was extended in 1995-with no strings attached-since this action did not help the global disarmament effort. I know that when we interpret this extension as a means of legitimising nuclear apartheid and allowing the NWS to retain the privileges of acquiring and retaining apocalyptic nuclear weapon arsenals without binding legal commitments towards Article 6 of the treaty-the one about disarmament-we are seen as being shrill, moralistic, impractical and at one level the party poopers when everyone is cheering for the NPT and its purported messianic nature.

The global challenge to WMD, to my mind, lies embedded in how we interpret the NPT itself. Again without getting bogged down in detail, the fundamental contradiction is in how we as a global community see the reality of the nuclear weapon in the post-Cold War world. Is it right that a group of nations-and their military allies-ensure their security by relying on this weapon, and deny the same to those who are living with identical or even more heightened insecurities? Furthermore, is it a tenable proposition that the NWS demonstrate little of the "good-faith" expected of them towards realising Article VI and expect that the rest of the world will not be dismayed? And, finally, can we take the dominant discourse that glosses over such contradictions as the gospel that will lead us-a fractious global community-towards consensual WMD management in this inherently inequitable and asymmetric manner?

I am afraid the answer must be in the negative-and this was more than evident at the third Preparatory committee (Prepconm) of the NPT held in New York in May 1999. The many fissures and fault-lines between the NWS and the non-NWS surfaced in ample measure and if there was convergence, it was on minor procedural issues with the more substantive aspects eluding any degree of meaningful consensus. Again, I will not list any of the details to this audience since I am aware that many of you either attended the Prepcom personally, or have contributed to the commentary and analysis both in print and on the Web.3

The basic contradictions-that must now be seen as challenges to WMD management in the future are as follows: (a) the reluctance of the USA and Russia to devalue the nuclear weapon in their security doctrines-both states are reported to be embarked on modernising their arsenals and the Russians are alleged to be seriously considering resurrecting tactical nukes in their arsenal; (b) the penchant by the NWS excluding China, to enlarge the scope of the nuclear weapon from its original core mission-to deter another nuclear weapon only-to encompass non-nuclear exigencies including chemical and biological weapons; (c) the inability of the major NWS-the USA, Russia and China-to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) even while exhorting the rest of the world to do so; (d) the US nuclear stockpile stewardship programme and the claims that this will allow the USA to enhance its weapon design capabilities in a manner that would be even better than that achieved during the Cold War decades.

More specific to Russia and China are some correspondences in their anxiety and insecurity vis-a-vis the US WMD profile. The Russian Duma is unlikely to ratify the CTBT in a hurry and the reasons for this go-slow include the ire over NATO expansion towards Russian strategic space, the recent Kosovo military operations, and related bombing from the air, and finally the unease over the US intent to tinker with the ABM (anti-ballistic missile) treaty and install ballistic missile defences at both the national and theatre levels-the well-known NMDs and TMDs.

My proposition is that unless these issues are addressed honestly, without pushing intractable perceptions under the carpet, there cannot be a consensual approach as to how the challenges that WMD pose in the next century are to be met. Earlier I had referred to multiple relevances about the nuclear issue-the political, economic and military strands complemented by the societal, technological and environmental determinants. The politico-military salience of the nuclear weapon needs to be thrashed out among the states that are nuclear weapon-capable-that is 5+3-five NWS and the three SNWs-states with nuclear weapons-India, Pakistan and Israel-in a manner that their interests are accommodated and sensitivities respected. At the societal level, there are many cues to be noted in the prevailing nuclear debate in terms of the specificity of individual states. It merits notice that the most trenchant criticism about the US double-speak on nuclear weapons at the New York Prepcom came from US non-governmental organisation (NGO) groups who pilloried their government by a compelling marshalling of facts and figures that revealed numerous inconsistencies. This is democracy and transparency at its most effective and one hopes that the other NWS will follow suit in critiquing their own governments in an objective manner so that the ultimate commitment towards nuclear disarmament is realised.

If one were to look at the uneasy post-Cold War years and WMD conceptually, it may be posited that we are trying to get a grip on three complex, occasionally intangible but inter-linked issues. The first is security as a concept that has already been highlighted. The WMD relevance is that if nuclear weapons denoted security in the Cold War, now the same capability-missile included-induces deep insecurity, right from the lone superpower the USA, to the smallest of states in the nuclear hierarchy. This is the equivalent of the first shift in the interpretation/comprehension of security and the nuclear weapon. The second is the entity of the state. Recent international relations (IR) theory opines that most states in the world can be classified in three discrete categories-the post colonial/post Cold War state that is still trying to cohere as a viable national unit and examples include Somalia and Kyrgyzstan among others; the traditional Westphalian state with a clear sense of identity, aspiration and a clutch of anxieties in the WMD field and examples include China, India and Iran amongst others; and finally the post-modern states and the great organiser-those who have surrendered their strategic sovereignty in the pursuit of a collective identity and related goal to the great organiser-in this case the West European states/Canada/Japan/Australia et al who have accepted the equivalent of strategic subalternity vis-a-vis the USA.

If for purposes of brevity due to the paucity of time one were to denote the nuclear weapon/missile as a very special kind of military "strategic" capability, then I would further argue that having taken the specificity of a state as an entity, and the transmutation of security as a concept into account, the picture becomes a little more clear when we also factor in the third element-the quality of strategic culture. This is broadly defined as the manner in which the ruling elite of a state/society relates to military force-both in terms of using it in the furtherance of politico-diplomatic objectives as also in terms of the response to the application of such force by an adversary. My proposition now, after this meander through state, security et al is that strategic capabilities-such as the nuclear weapon and the missile it is lashed to-acquire their relevance only when filtered through the prism of strategic culture. In short, there cannot be a one-rule-fits-all syndrome about nuclear weapons and it is necessary to recognise the inter-linkages between the nature of a state, its WMD (in) security perception and the manner in which the ruling elite/people reflect their strategic culture.

The last aspect is slippery terrain and takes us into the realm of cognitive theory and decision-making among domestic leadership-political and military-and the kind of rationality or lack of it that they bring to bear in the management of WMD capability as and when they acquire it. But my cocktail for scrutiny is that the challenges for managing (nuclear) WMD issues in the near future must not only account for or factor in the multiple-relevance grid that I had mentioned at the outset, but also cater for the state/strategic-culture inputs. I am deliberately not pushing the technology bit at this stage since the kind of technology we need to make a Hiroshima type of weapon that is lethal, nay apocalyptic is also of 45 years vintage. The deeper challenge of techno-strategic imperatives in the WMD arena will be more in the nature of the ABM/NMD/TMD deliberations and the cascading down-stream effect of the first "tinker" by the USA on Russia, then China and later Japan, India et al. Ken Waltz's nth state syndrome will be resurrected in a very unintended manner.

Now perhaps it is time for me to get back to the South Asian context, which is what Paolo had in mind when he asked me to be part of this session. But the backdrop I have outlined may be useful to locate the entire India-Pakistan developments, on the one hand, and the China factor, on the other, when we review WMD in the Southern Asian region. The really visible nuclear elements of the recent past are the tests of May 1998, the Kargil military operations of May-July 1999 and the subsequent release of the Indian nuclear doctrine. Let me weave a pattern that will link these events with the conceptual grid I have outlined earlier-may be belaboured the point would be more apt? The Kargil episode itself will be dealt with in much greater detail by the next speaker.

First of all, let me state that both India and Pakistan and their nuclear evolution can be interpreted in the context of state-security-strategic culture. While the Pakistani rationale is easily comprehensible, being fixated on India, to the extent that even if India had hypothetically agreed to a non-nuclear weapon status as per the NPT, it is my contention that Islamabad after the genocide and trauma of 1971 (the state was dismembered and the eastern part became Bangladesh) would have still taken recourse to the acquisition of nuclear weapons in a clandestine manner to assuage the deep insecurity perceived vis-a-vis India. India's rationale is more complex, ranging as it does from a commitment to disarmament and a rejection of discriminatory and unequal regimes on a matter of principle, to the more core security asymmetry with a contiguous nuclear weapon state in China, which in turn has a strategic partnership with Pakistan. In that sense, India's WMD insecurity is more palpable and vitiated, and has perhaps no parallel in the post-Cold War world.

Added to this reality-India as a state with nuclear weapon neighbours-is the linkage between nuclear weapons and state sponsored terrorism/low intensity conflict (LIC). It is my contention that Kargil-which has entered the lexicon of the subcontinent to mean many things-can also be interpreted as a NASTI (nuclear armed sponsor of terrorism and intervention) phenomenon-the acronym as many of you will see is a case of inadvertent Freudian alliteration! I would argue that Islamabad used its nuclear/missile perch to create greater manoeuvrability for itself in embarking upon a high-stakes LIC terrorist-Mujahideen-irregular intervention ruse, using its regular troops-and let me reiterate that I am not using this forum to get into any Paki-bashing or making value judgments about the Kargil episode. My colleague on the panel from Pakistan is here to present the view from that end-my primary aim is to offer a conceptual model or some kind of general principle for understanding the nuclear developments in the subcontinent and the extrapolations we can make for the near future.

If Kargil can be interpreted as a manifestation of Pakistan abetted NASTI, then I would argue that this poses a major challenge to the global community. The US has often imagined worst case scenarios wherein "rogue" states such as North Korea, Libya, or Iraq would acquire WMD capability and engage in such activity. Kargil represents this as a reality. Thus, we have a classical linkage between the macro and the micro dimensions of military related security-and to do a quick recap-military security for a state may be addressed at three discrete levels: (i) the macro, pertaining to strategic, trans-border military capabilities such as nuclear weapons/missiles et al; (ii) the traditional edifice of the armed forces and their relation to the state; (iii) the micro encompassing fundamentalism, terrorism, narcotics, small arms-light weapons-including Stingers-and demographic drift/penetration.

Kargil is a unique first in many ways, where to my mind there is a complex inter-relatedness and overlap between all three levels of state military capability. The nature of the involvement of the Pakistani military in the Kargil operation, which ranged from initial denials to an elaborate deceptive stratagem-as revealed in transcripts of taped conversations-(the first publicised information coup?), the uneasy interface between the Pakistani prime minister and army chief over Kargil and more, point to the conscious and planned involvement of a regular military edifice under the guise of Mujahideen/irregular covert action. This to my mind is a very significant shift in the traditional role ascribed to the military of a state and has disturbing implications for the future about the interpretation of state, security and status of the military. One may also make a case that the nuclear capability on either side of the fiercely contested Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil acted as a fire-wall, and deterrence in a rudimentary, Indo-Pak-specific form prevailed-notwithstanding the intemperate pronouncements from some Pakistani leaders.

My proposition after this elliptical survey is that unless these contours are so recognised-or refuted in a persuasive manner-the challenge of pre-empting future Kargils, and managing them prudently if they do occur cannot be ignored. Till now, there was an unwritten code that a nuclear weapon state-whether in the NPT or outside it-would act in a certain "responsible" manner-and not brandish this macro military capability for seemingly lesser purpose. Pakistan in this case has demonstrated that under certain characteristics of strategic culture, the behaviour of a state with nuclear weapons cannot be predicted with certitude. Rules will have to be evolved as we go along.

Mr. Chairman, may I seek your indulgence for a few minutes to dwell briefly on the Indian nuclear doctrine? The document itself has already been circulated to the participants. This document-released to stimulate debate in the finest traditions of democracy and transparency-has been roundly criticised-in India, in Pakistan, within the region and abroad. This is not surprising, since the Indian attempt to rationalise its nuclear initiatives is a case of going against the dominant discourse of the day. I am not trying to defend the doctrine here. What I wish to highlight is that this doctrine is a case of sailing in uncharted waters-to use a sailor's phrase. It attempts to come up with a response to the WMD challenge that the global community has to deal with-however reluctantly.

This doctrine attempts to harmonise the inescapable requirements of deterrence with the imperatives of disarmament, though what kind of a flexibility in response can be envisaged between two nuclear weapon capable states that are contiguous and who have to deal with intractable questions of territoriality that have been inherited since their very birth, on the one hand, and the NASTI kind of phenomenon, on the other, remains very complex at this stage. But the Indian doctrine is a sincere attempt to recognise the reality of the nuclear weapon-warts and all-and should not be rejected the way it has been, but critiqued as a response to the challenges of WMD in the future.

To conclude, let me state the obvious. The interpretation of the relevance of nuclear weapons for state security or that of a collective, and having this interpretative model accepted in a consensual, almost Gramscian manner4 by the global comity remains the biggest challenge for us in the last stages of this century. The NPT as it has been interpreted and adhered to till now has proved to be inadequate to accommodate the reality of the nuclear issue. Yet it is deified as the only instrumentality and packaged as the panacea to all WMD exigencies. We have to question the received wisdom of the day and encourage fresh thinking-in a way do the heretical: critique the dominant narrative.

This is particularly problematic in the nuclear field, since nowhere else is the Foucaultian imbrication of knowledge and power more palpable and intense. I am a reluctant realist myself-and not for a moment am I suggesting some impractical, morality macarena wherein one imagines a cuckoo-land where all nations live in perfect harmony with each other. The hierarchy of power between states cannot be wished away and the asymmetries will remain for the long-term future. What we need in the WMD/nuclear realm is a determined attempt to keep the Holy Grail of disarmament constantly in view, even while trying to stabilise the balance of power compulsions, with a commitment to accommodation of competing national interests and an abiding respect for heightened sensitivities. Tough cocktail to make but we have little choice.

If ethics is defined as a case of enlightened self-interest, then we may have no choice but to hang together in managing and rising to the new challenges of nuclear weapons. And as I had said at the very outset, as a group of concerned scientists, we must begin by recognising the reality that envelops the nuclear weapon and proceed from there to ask the relevant questions before we can even grope for answers and solutions. To deify existing shibboleths may doom us to years of sullen arms control strictures and coercive counter-proliferation measures. The essential WMD challenge is to avoid taking that route.



1. Henry A. Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, abridged ed. (London: WW Norton, 1957, rpt 1969, p. 4.

2. UNSC 1172 taken from BITS (Berlin Information Centre for Transatlantic Security), Research Report 99.2, September 1999, p. 57.

3. A considerable amount of comment and analysis on the NPT and the PrepCom is available on the web at different sites. In the print media, see "Divisions and Doubts at the Third NPT PrepCom" by Rebecca Johnson in Arms Control Today, April-May 1999, vol. 29, n. 30, p. 10-16.

4. C. Uday Bhaskar, 'Nuclear Tests and Post-Cold War World', Jasjit Singh ed., Nuclear India, (New Delhi: Knowledge World, 1998) p. 249-265, see fn 15 p. 259.