Menon: Ever since India and Pakistan began weaponizing following the nuclear tests in 1998, there has been this fear of a spiraling nuclear arms race in the subcontinent. That's why I've been arguing for a start to arms limitation negotiations with Pakistan. But apparently any talk with Pakistan at the moment is not in India's national interest. My feeling is that all other negotiations can be postponed, but the nuclear dialogue has got to begin. What in some ways is more frightening [than the absence of talks] is that some people have been saying that, 'No, there can never be an arms race on the subcontinent, because we're culturally different from the West.' This is a dangerous idea. Nuclear weaponization has a dynamic of its own, and if it is to be controlled, some positive efforts have to be made. Culture doesn't come into it. Neither India nor Pakistan is economically well-off, so it makes a lot of sense for both countries to limit their nuclear arsenals.
TIME: Pakistan appears willing to talk about arms control, independent of the Kashmir issue.
Menon: Definitely. They are very much in favor of a dialogue.
TIME: What sort of risks do we face in the absence of a dialogue on arms control?
Menon: The risk is that the arsenals of both sides grow and grow. If neither side has an idea of what the other side is planning, both would plan for the worst.
TIME: You're involved in informal discussions between retired Indian and Pakistani military officers on the nuclear arms issue. How is that progressing?
Menon: People have not been very clear about what they're addressing--are they addressing risk reduction between countries, which is really a political-diplomatic effort? Or are they talking about risk reduction of arsenals, which is a highly complicated technical subject? For instance, in the 1999 Lahore agreement, there is a clause that says, 'Both sides will attempt to strengthen command and control systems.' The objective is to ensure strong control over the nuclear arsenals so that accidental releases, or deliberate release by rogue elements, do not take place. Politicians and diplomats can state this in an agreement, but nothing happens on the ground until technical people from both sides get together and list how this can be achieved. And that is not happening.
TIME: Has there been any visible progress in creating command and control structures?
Menon: Pakistan has defined its command and control apparatus in a more lucid manner than anything New Delhi has done. Pakistan has also named the individuals on its national command authority, which consists of a strategic planning group and committees for nuclear use and nuclear development. India could be a little more transparent on this. Deterrence requires a great deal of transparency. These are weapons that are not meant to be used, therefore their capability should be fully advertised. The strength of the command and control over those weapons should also be advertised.
TIME: What kind of nuclear stockpiles do both sides have today?
Menon: Neither side has signed the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty [a proposed ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices], so fissile material is still being produced. Pakistan already has around 500kg of fissile material, indicating it probably has around 60 warheads. Estimates on India vary greatly, but a good guess would be around 150 warheads.
TIME: What type of minimum nuclear deterrence should India be aiming for?
Menon: Minimum deterrence today would mean the capability to launch a second strike [after being targeted by a nuclear attack]. For this you've got to have a submarine-based arsenal. All non-submarine based arsenals can be detected through satellite surveillance in about seven to eight years. If the arsenals have been discovered, you have to assume they're targeted. Therefore, to retain a second strike capability, you need sea-based arsenals. Unfortunately, India's nuclear submarine project has produced nothing so far, even though it was first announced by Indira Gandhi in 1968.
Menon: The extreme pressures that the armies exert on both sides of the border in another factor clouding the issue. To put it bluntly, armies have no role in nuclear deterrence, since this involves strategic weapons that have never been given to the army. Land-based nuclear weapons are invariably in the hands of the air force, and sea-based ones are with the navy. But in the subcontinent, it is going to be difficult to keep the army out of the nuclear arsenal loop on both sides of the border. In Pakistan, the weapons are already with the army. In India, if the civilian hierarchy decides that the army should have no role, it can be kept out. But the Indian Army's size and the pressure it can exert would make that touch and go.
TIME: In the book 'Dragon Fire,' Humphrey Hawksley's fictional account of nuclear war in South Asia in 2007, it is China that launches a successful nuclear attack on India.
Menon: Unless India develops long-range missile capability and a submarine-based strike force, it does not stand a chance against China in the event of a nuclear conflict.
TIME: So despite going nuclear, the picture is gloomy for India as far as China is concerned.
Menon: We've lost too much time on the nuclear submarine project. But the project can certainly be given impetus. The technological capability is there--the problem has been poor management. Given the will, we can catch up in 10 to 15 years. Until then, we could manage with a mobile land-based system.
TIME: Should India sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) now?
Memon: Definitely not. I don't think we have the ability to make sufficiently small yield-to-weight warheads that could be carried by Indian rockets--even with the technology that the 1998 tests provided.
TIME: So you're saying India needs to conduct more tests?
Menon: More tests make sense because then the nuclear arsenal that India produces would be stable, and we won't have to fiddle with it for 30 to 40 years. An arsenal produced now would be cheap, fragile and subject to change.
TIME: Does a poor country like India have the resources to conduct more tests and develop more sophisticated weapons?
Menon: If you create one arsenal that lasts 40 years, it would be cheaper than creating a poor arsenal that has to be changed after 15 years.
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