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India Nuclearized South Asia and It’s Not Stopping

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“Indian military planners foolishly believe they can engage in and win a limited conventional conflict without triggering a nuclear exchange”

Daryl G. Kimball

The story of how South Asia became a de facto nuclearized region dates back to 1944, when Dr. Homi Bhabha established the Indian nuclear research and weapons program. Both programs were covertly operated side by side. The research reactor CIRUS given by Canada in 1956 and the heavy water supplied by the United States, were being misused by India. It was secretly snipping plutonium from the reactor and assembling the material for a nuclear bomb. In 1974, India tested the first fission-based nuclear weapon under an operation code named ‘Smiling Buddha’. It continued its nuclear weapons program because it wanted to develop both fission-based and fusion-based nuclear weapons. Fusion-based weapons produce high yield energy blast and have more destructive ability than fission.

There are several arguments regarding the purpose of having nuclear weapons and their role in politics. One argument is to keep nuclear weapons as a threat to force a weaker state to submit to the stronger state’s policies. The other argument is that nuclear weapons play an important role in ensuring security for the state. Both arguments are backed by historical security contexts and realist perspectives. Indian decision makers traditionally argued that nuclear weapons would serve as a step toward achieving great-power status. However, the Pakistani leadership urged for the need to get nuclear weapons capability even if the nation had to eat grass, to serve as a deterrent against Indian ambitions.

Now the contemporary strategic situation of South Asia reaffirms that Pakistan’s reaction was right. Indian ambitions were never peaceful, and the Hindu nationalist ideology wanted to achieve hegemonic regional power status. It became clearer when the former Indian PM Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), during his national election campaign in February 1998, said that with nukes he will “take back that part of Kashmir that is under Pakistan’s occupation.” Later, in May 1998, India conducted five nuclear tests, among which one device was a fusion-based thermonuclear bomb. Although it was successful, Indian and Western scientists analyze the test as having ‘fizzled or being a dud’ because the efficiency of the melting device had not generated the desired results.

It was not only Pakistan which sensed Indian military intentions; the latter’s experts also termed the nuclear bomb as a ‘Hindu bomb.’ For instance, the former General Secretary of the Communists Party India Vinod Rai said in June 1998 that “the slogan of Ram Mandir was targeted against Muslims and that of the atom (Hindu) bomb is being directed against Pakistan.” To acquire thermonuclear weapons technology, India is covertly working on perfecting the fusion method. Experts have also shown fears that India is developing a top-secret nuclear city to stockpile reactor fuel in order to create a more powerful nuclear bomb.

India has assigned two classified agencies to secure this project and experts have identified this facility as a nuclear complex entirely for military purposes, i.e. to manufacture centrifuges for weapons and engines. This is exactly why India is evading the signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), because it needs to test more thermonuclear devices. The Indian government has granted authority to the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to expand the missile force for thermonuclear arsenal. The DRDO has adopted advanced technology and has enough funds to conduct nuclear weapons tests on short notice.

Reports show that India has extended its nuclear power plants facilities to stockpile enough material for weapons-grade and potential military modernization. Indian defense ministry sources say that the country has the capacity to make 300-400 nuclear bombs through stockpiled material, ready to be used at any time. As a result, India has purposely never retained a large part of its civil nuclear program under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) protections and safeguards.

India seeks to restart nuclear tests with sufficient stocks of fissile material, so as to achieve the required thermonuclear weapons yield. Therefore, it has also deliberately kept its fast breeding reactors out of IAEA supervision. It will try to generate several more nuclear warheads in order to implement the nuclear triad program. Pakistan and China doubt the Indian unilateral commitment on non-testing as India may reverse its decision at any moment. The DRDO is rapidly working on the Agni series missiles, which are designated as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and can carry fusion-based high yield warheads. An ICBM on a nuclear submarine will bring all major powers as a target within the range of India.

Indian military ambitions are evolving dangerously, from nuclear to thermonuclear weapons that can carry hundreds of kilotons. In order to achieve those ambitions, India is pushing hard for inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) because then it will get uninterrupted supply of international nuclear material. It will be free to use extra stockpiles of domestic enriched uranium and tritium fuel reserves to be spent in thermonuclear/hydrogen bombs. Pakistan needs to carefully shape its security policy because India’s acquisition of the fusion bomb will not only negatively impact regional security, but also global security. The international community must bring India’s nuclear weapons program under scrutiny to strengthen the global nonproliferation regimes.