In 2015, there is little space for doubt about the ‘fundamentally unstable’ future of nuclear South Asia. Though not generally counted among major threats to strategic stability in the region, India’s current nuclear-weapons trajectory is creating insecurity for surrounding states, thus activating a security dilemma.
The dangers that emanate from India’s growing nuclear weapons programme, including its unnecessary focus on the submarine-based leg of nuclear triad and desperate attempts to catch up with the strength of Chinese military power, cannot be ignored due to an explosive mixture of terrorism and unresolved territorial disputes in the region.
South Asia is an emerging source of future nuclear terrorism, thanks to India’s unchecked nuclear ambitions. Totally unaware of the enormity of its actions, New Delhi is all set to increase its nuclear stockpiles exponentially in the coming years. But the United States and the rest of the international community remain silent spectators to this continuing proliferation.
According to a recently published report, the Indian government is building a top-secret nuclear city in southern Karnataka to produce hydrogen weapons. The stated goals of building a huge nuclear complex in Challakere are, among others, to produce fuel for nuclear reactors and maintain a robust naval presence in the region. Once completed in 2017, the project would emerge as the largest complex of weapons and aircraft testing facilities, nuclear-research laboratories, and gas centrifuges.
The alarming fact about this project is that in addition to using the facility to produce huge stockpiles of uranium for thermonuclear bombs, India’s nuclear establishment also plans to modernise its nuclear warheads in existing military stockpiles. India is one of only three countries in the world that continue to produce fissile material for nuclear warheads.
This must be stopped forthwith. India’s fast-evolving force posture is in completion violation of the global non-proliferation norms. Similar concerns were raised last year too in a number of media reports that said that New Delhi could covertly use its uranium enrichment facility at the Indian Rare Metals Plants near Mysore to produce much more weapons-grade uranium than it needed to fuel its ballistic missile submarine in the future.
However, the reason such media reports always fail to raise alarm in Western policymaking circles is that New Delhi, unlike Pakistan, is helping the US counter China’s emerging power and military role in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. It is hoped India will shape Asia’s balance of power in America’s favour. This is why the Obama administration has consistently turned a blind eye to India’s dangerous nuclear ambitions. This is not, of course, the first time the international community has sacrificed its non-proliferation objectives to immediate geopolitical goals.
The development of thermonuclear weapons, also referred to as hydrogen bombs, in South Asia is such a dangerous step that it would destroy strategic stability in the region. Thermonuclear weapons are considered to be one of the most powerful nuclear weapons and have much greater explosive power. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, thermonuclear weapons “derive their explosive energy from the combined power of nuclear fission and fusion. An initial fission reaction generates the high temperatures needed to trigger a secondary- and much more powerful- fusion reaction.”
Serious apprehensions have rightly been expressed in subsequent media reports that India’s provocative decision to further expand its offensive nuclear capabilities could unsettle neighbouring countries. It is also widely expected that China and Pakistan will respond by increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals at a fast pace or by further lowering their nuclear red line.
According to estimates based on open literature, India already possesses about 100 nuclear weapons – more than enough to achieve credible deterrence. But it is still producing more enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons than is required for its submarine programme.
A report published by the Center for Public Integrity, an American non-profit investigative journalism organisation, has also pointed towards the prevalence of absolute secrecy surrounding the nuclear sector in India. It says that, “New Delhi has never published a detailed account of its nuclear arsenal, which it first developed in 1974… the government has said little about it and made no public promise about how the highly enriched uranium to be produced there will be used. As a military facility, it is not open to international inspection.”
Many other experts agree that India’s failure to be transparent about its nuclear ambitions could cause broader destabilising military effects in the region. A rapidly growing nuclear programme without enough security would definitely provide the necessary incentives to terrorist organisations to steal nuclear weapons or fissionable materials. Lack of precise information in India regarding the exact number of nuclear weapons and quantity of fissile material further increases the likelihood of nuclear terrorism.
Over the past decade, the issue regarding the level of nuclear secrecy has become a serious subject matter in deliberations by the General Assembly’s First Committee at the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conferences (RevCon). Some ‘recognised nuclear-weapon states’ voluntarily submit reports on their nuclear activities but there is absolutely no transparency in the non-NPT states.
New Delhi is oblivious to the fact that, in its desire to emerge as a major military power, it is playing with fire. It has become almost impossible for all nuclear states to ensure the absolute security of their arsenals. India’s sensitive nuclear materials are highly vulnerable to theft, given a large number of unguarded nuclear facilities. If media reports are to be believed, nuclear weapons are stored in more than six states and incidents of attempted theft of low- or semi-enriched uranium have been reports multiple times since the early 1990s.
The global community needs to refocus its attention on the need to improve transparency regarding exact quantities of fissile materials and their production history. The growth of India’s nuclear programme is not related to its security needs; we must stop pretending otherwise.