Indian nuclear tests threaten stepped-up arms race

Issue 

By Jim Green

On May 11 and May 13, five nuclear weapons tests were carried out in India's Rajasthan desert, the site of India's only previous nuclear weapons test, in 1974. The Indian government says the planned series of tests is now complete.

The tests were ordered by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, from the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads a 17-party coalition government.

In response to the tests, the USA, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Australia imposed economic sanctions. Britain, France and Russia expressed opposition but will not impose sanctions.

It is highly unlikely that sanctions will force the Indian government to stop further development of its arsenal.

The tests follow a history of protracted tension between India and Pakistan (three wars since 1947) and India and China (a border war in 1962). China tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964.

It is likely that India has sufficient material for 60-80 nuclear weapons; the estimate is 10-25 for Pakistan.

The 1974 Indian test illustrated the pervasive connections between civil and military applications of nuclear technologies, and the sharp contradiction between commercial and non-proliferation objectives in the nuclear industry.

The 1974 test used plutonium produced in a research reactor supplied by Canada. Another research reactor, as well as nuclear power reactors, is believed to have been used for plutonium production over the years. The US later admitted supplying heavy-water reactor moderator without restrictions on its use. Russia and other countries have also supplied nuclear materials to India.

After the 1974 explosion, the US tightened its nuclear export policies somewhat, and encouraged other states to do the same. While this was modestly successful, it also encouraged India and several countries to pursue a greater nuclear self-reliance.

Vicious spiral

The situation between India and Pakistan has become increasingly dangerous. It is reported that in 1990, as a result of friction over Kashmir, both India and Pakistan rolled out aircraft with nuclear bombs attached.

In 1995, India appeared to be preparing for a test but backed off, largely because of US pressure. India and Pakistan have been engaged in a missile-based arms race, both testing nuclear-capable missiles in the past six weeks.

Transfer of nuclear know-how and materials from China to Pakistan is an important part of the equation. On the eve of a visit from the chief of China's People's Liberation Army, the Indian defence minister said China is India's "potential number one threat" and accused China of assisting Pakistan with missile development.

Have the weapons tests strengthened India's "national security"? It was an open secret before the tests that India could build and deliver nuclear bombs; it makes little difference to the military balance of forces that it has demonstrated this capacity and has a little more practical expertise. India is still far behind China, and far ahead of Pakistan, in nuclear capability and overall military strength.

Pakistan may test a nuclear weapon in the near future; it almost certainly has the capacity to explode some sort of nuclear device. There is even some evidence that Pakistan wanted India to test a bomb: Pakistan could then prove that it has a credible nuclear "deterrent" while minimising the political costs.

India's science and technology minister has threatened to arm India's missiles with nuclear warheads if Pakistan conducts nuclear tests. Pakistan might do the same. China could respond by targeting missiles at India (if it has not already done so) or by stepping up its support of Pakistan's nuclear program.

It is possible that the US may persuade Pakistan not to test. This persuasion will involve both carrot and stick.

The argument that India and Pakistan might both come out of the nuclear closet and then achieve some sort of equilibrium ignores the potential for a spiralling arms race, which would undermine the security of both countries (and others). An arms race would also drain vast resources away from socially useful projects, with international sanctions inflicting further damage.

Nuclear hawks the world over have been given a boost by the Indian tests. Even in the USA, right-wing politicians are already arguing for increased funding for nuclear weapons to counter the "Indian threat".

Thermonuclear test

The Indian government says the five tests comprised a fission bomb, a thermonuclear bomb, a low-yield device, and two "sub-kilotonne" devices. The thermonuclear bomb — an extremely powerful and complex device involving chemical, fission and fusion explosions — was probably more a show of bravado and technical expertise than a practical initiative.

The thermonuclear test may also have signalled a desire to demonstrate that India's weapons capability is qualitatively superior to the other threshold states. The hope would be that this would give India greater leverage in international fora. As the Indian high commissioner to Australia put it, one aim of the tests was to put India "on equal terms" with the five declared nuclear weapons states.

Some of the other tests will have assisted in the development of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons; these are much easier to build and to deliver and have a much greater likelihood of being used in war.

In addition, some of the tests have facilitated computer simulations, which will enable further development of India's arsenal without the need for field testing.

Hypocrisy

Indian politicians and diplomats have repeatedly commented on the hypocrisy of protesting governments, most of which either have nuclear weapons or rely on the US nuclear "umbrella". As a spokesperson for the Medical Association for the Prevention of War said, it is no wonder that other countries want to join the nuclear club when the declared weapons states have 36,000 weapons between them.

The hypocrisy of the US is particularly striking. The US has carried out more than 1000 nuclear weapons tests; it has about 12,000 nuclear weapons; it has been conducting subcritical tests in the past 12 months (exploiting a loophole in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty); and it is developing its nuclear weapons program through the use, purchase or development of super-lasers, supercomputers, bombers, submarines, an anti-missile defence system (related to Star Wars) and in many other ways.

India has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, claiming (accurately) that they entrench the position of the declared nuclear weapons states while leaving the nuclear have-nots at a disadvantage.

The Indian high commissioner mentioned the Australian government's hypocrisy, pointing to the bipartisan policy of reliance on the "extended nuclear deterrence" provided by the US.

Ron Gray, from the Australian Peace Committee, says: "The federal government can, of course, adopt a 'holier than thou' attitude over the Indian government's decision, as we have signed the NPT and have not considered developing nuclear weapons. We don't need to, however, as by hosting the United States bases we shelter under the US nuclear umbrella and, indeed, are part of the US nuclear war fighting machine. Hooray for hypocrisy."

The federal government has suspended military ties with India, and stopped all non-humanitarian aid (reported to be worth about $4 million).

We should demand much more of the Australian government:

First, stop all nuclear collaboration with India, such as that which occurs through the International Atomic Energy Agency's Regional Cooperative Agreement for Asia and the Pacific.

Second, oppose all nuclear weapons programs. Above all, this means closing the US bases in Australia, and prohibiting further visits from nuclear-armed or powered warships. It will also include pushing for non-proliferation treaties that bind the eight nuclear weapons states to complete nuclear disarmament within a specified time.

Third, recognising the pervasive connections between the civil and military applications of nuclear technologies, the government should close the Lucas Heights nuclear research reactor without replacement. This should be tied to the development of alternative, non-reactor, technologies for medical and scientific applications, and efforts to encourage other countries to switch from research reactors to non-reactor technologies.

Fourth, recognising that the International Atomic Energy Agency's safeguards/inspection system is flawed on numerous counts, and the many other social and environmental problems with nuclear power, the government should stop the mining and export of uranium immediately. This should be tied to the development of renewable energy sources and efforts to encourage other countries to switch from nuclear power to renewable sources.