Nuclear confidence building and risk reduction in Southern Asia

ARTRAC Journal | Aug 4, 2001

EXISTING NUCLEAR CBMS IN SOUTHERN ASIA. While discussing nuclear CBMs, most diplomats and analysts tend to focus on India and Pakistan only, due to their misperceptions that Southern Asia is a nuclear flashpoint. Nuclear safety, security, confidence building and risk reduction are issues that need urgent attention, not only in southern Asia but also internationally, particularly among the N-5 or P-5.

Lessons of the Cold War

A strategically autonomous and self-assured nuclear-armed India, economically and militarily strong, will be a major force for peace and stability in Asia and the rest of the world in the 21st Century. For the time being, there appears to be ‘no alternative to nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles if… (India is) to live in security and with honour’. India’s nuclear weapons are a reality that the world can no longer Ignore, much less a wish away. However, India is still in the process of developing a language for nuclear deterrence and a grammar for that language, which is readily understood by those inimical to India s national security interests. Those interests will be better served by moving quickly to put in place a strong nuclear force structure with a viable command and control system. At the same time, attention must be devoted to minimising the risk of unintended and accidental use of nuclear weapons. India and its nuclear-armed neighbours must confidence in each other’s ability to ensure that deterrence will not fail. The risk of such failure must be reduced to almost zero, If it cannot be eliminated altogether.

Nuclear weapons have a destabilising impact of their own that is quite distinctive and goes well beyond the worst conventional crisis situations. Paul Bracken has written: ‘These situations (crises bordering on conventional war) are often worsened by cheap talk. With atom bombs to back them up, governments nave a tendency to say things that aggravate a crisis. The same thing happened early on in the Cold War; for example, when Khrushchev threatened to ‘bury the United states.’ But the dangers of such explosive rhetoric soon became apparent. By the end of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were using only the most restrained diplomatic language, even when their military moves were much more aggressive… in Asian crises, this lesson hasn’t yet been learnt… The shaky control of Asian nuclear forces increases the danger of accidental or unintended war…unique conditions in Asia heighten the dangers… the level of mistrust is extreme to the point of pathology… the world has reasons to worry about whose fingers are on the nuclear triggers in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and North Korea… A strategy of restraint needs to be communicated in advance, if it is to evoke limitation in attack for fear of the Despite Bracken convincing logic, it is apparent that the

Asian nuclear powers are passing through the same phase that characterised the early years of nuclear deterrence between the two superpowers during the Cold War. However, it would not be prudent to ignore the lessons of the instability and risks engendered by the first 50 years of nuclear weapons – lessons like those from the Cuban missile crisis. Asia’s nuclear-armed adversaries must heed the lessons of the past and take all steps necessary to ensure deterrence stability.

Since it is now clearly recognised that nuclear wars cannot be won and therefore ought not be fought, each adversary must develop confidence in the sincerity of the other to ensure that the unthinkable will not be attempted or allowed to occur, due to laxity in safety and security measures and procedures. Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) must clearly spell out their nuclear doctrine and strategy, develop confidence in their adversaries that they will abide by their declared stance and should give credible evidence that adequate checks and balances have been built into their nuclear decision-making process and nuclear weapons handling procedures. It is also necessary to convince the adversary that nuclear weapons are firmly under civilian control and that such control will not be delegated to military authorities, except under the most extreme circumstances such as the decapitation of the civilian leadership comprising the National Command Authority.

Michael Krepon mentions nine key elements put together by the US and the Soviet Union to prevent the use of nuclear weapons:-

• A formal agreement not to militarily change the status quo in sensitive areas

• Tacit agreements between the US and Soviet leaders to avoid brinkmanship in each other’s backyard or along particularly sensitive Cold War fault lines – divided Germany and Korea.

• An agreement to minimise dangerous military practices, with a potential for escalation or accidents.

• Special reassurance measures for ballistic missiles and nuclear weapon systems, including prior notification of missile launches and transparency In the deployment and dismantling of nuclear forces.

• Trust in the faithful implementation of treaty obligations and confidence building measures through unilateral or reciprocal actions.

• Reliance for verification on one’s own monitoring capabilities – Known euphemistically as ‘national technical means’.

• The establishment of reliable lines of communications across borders both for political and military leaders. The first ‘hotline’ was established after the Cuban missile crisis.

• Risk reduction through reliable and redundant command and control systems as well as exceptional intelligence gathering capabilities regarding the disposition of opposing nuclear forces. Though this entailed considerable expense, it was well worth it

• Ongoing efforts to upgrade and strengthen existing nuclear risk reduction measures as mutual trust gradually built up. These have included improved hotlines, shared early warning arrangements and intrusive onsite Inspections.

The aim of instituting confidence building measures (CBMs) is to ‘avoid tension arising from mistrust misperception and accidents’. K. Subrahmanyam has written that the most effective CBM between India and its nuclear adversaries would be to mutually agree that neither a nuclear nor a conventional war (under the nuclear umbrella) could be won. Therefore, these should not be initiated. Neither India and Pakistan nor India and China can have such high stakes in a conventional war that they can be prepared to risk nuclear exchanges. Once this realisation dawns, it will be but a short step forward to working out a mutually acceptable no first use treaty – the ultimate CBM. However, it will be a long while, before either China or Pakistan agrees to sign a no first use treaty with India. China still does not recognise India’s status as a nuclear power and refuses to change its rigid stand on the full implementation of the UN Security Council

Existing nuclear CBM’s in Southern Asia

While discussing nuclear CBMs, most diplomats and analysts tend to focus on India and Pakistan only, due to their misperceptions that Southern Asia is a nuclear flashpoint. Nuclear safety, security, confidence building and risk reduction are issues that need urgent attention, not only in southern Asia but also internationally, particularly among the N-5 (the five original NWS) or P-5. They must also be extended to the N-5, so that the rest of the world also gains confidence in the ability of the N-5 to ensure that Armageddon will not be thrust on it. The most supreme risk reduction and confidence building measure would, of course, be the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

In the context of nuclear CBMs and nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRMs) between India and Pakistan, the first agreement was the ‘Agreement on the Non-Attack of Nuclear Facilities between India and Pakistan’ signed in 1988. This agreement has survived intact so far. The Lahore Declaration signed by Prime Minister Vajpayee and Pakistan’s deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in February 1999 was a landmark event for building trust and mutual confidence between the two Suspicious neighbours. However, Pakistan Army s insidious infiltration to occupy unheld nigh altitude mountain tops on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) in the Kargil district of J&K, just two months after the Lahore Declaration was signed, undid the positive spirit and the diplomatic achievements of Lahore. In fact, the Pakistan Army had already commenced its logistics efforts to extend roads and tracks and build helipads for the planned infiltration, even as the Indian Prime Minister was in the process of undertaking his politically courageous but risky venture to ride a bus to Lahore for initiating a political dialogue, aimed at establishing peace with Pakistan. The Pakistan army’s pernicious trans-LC blunder was bound to be viewed by the Indian public as a deliberate stab in the back and fostered the feeling that the Pakistan military brass could not be trusted. When the same generals usurped power in a military coup a few months later, the already vitiated atmosphere was worse confounded.

However, both the sides maintained Track Il contacts and worked towards negotiating mutually acceptable CBMs. Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in India, who offered to discuss a restraints regime in both conventional and nuclear fields in January 1999 said in an interview – “Recognising the inherent risks of having acquired nuclear capability, there is a need to address these issues within the context of regimes of restraint, both conventional and strategic… within which, an arms race can be avoided and accidents minimised”. Only about a month later, the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers signed the Lahore Declaration. The salient highlights of the nuclear-related CBMs negotiated at Lahore are as under :-

• To exchange documents on nuclear doctrines and security concepts.

• A memorandum of understanding (MOU) to give advance notification on ballistic missile tests.

• A MOU that requires both sides to inform the other of unexplained nuclear incidents or accidents.

• An agreement by both sides to work towards improving control over their own nuclear arsenals.

• Establishing a new ‘hot line’ in addition to the existing hot line between the two Directors General of Military Operations.

In addition to the above issues, the two sides also agreed to abide by their unilateral moratorium on conducting nuclear tests, unless either side decided that ‘extraordinary’ events have jeopardised ‘supreme interests’. The basic pre-requisite for ensuring that the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan is stabilised at levels where the risk is low, is to develop a mature political relationship. Pakistan’s frequent relapse into military rule and its military establishment’s unduly firm and overriding control over the country’s foreign and nuclear policies (particularly its policy towards India and Kashmir), even during the short interludes when a duly elected civilian government is in power, is a major stumbling block in the development of stable political relations between the two countries.

With China, India signed an ‘Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border Areas’ in 1993. Later, in 1996, both the countries accepted limited military CBMs in the ‘Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas’. The CBMs agreement stipulates that military measures will not be resorted lo for solving the territorial and boundary dispute and Article III calls for a reduction In the number of surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) to a level ‘mutually agreed upon’. However, despite several rounds of meetings of the Joint Working Group and the Experts Group, progress has been tardy. In fact, even the LAC is yet to be demarcated physically on the ground and delineated mutually on the map. It is difficult to maintain peace and tranquillity on a LAC, which itself is not well defined. Only recently, maps have at last been exchanged of a 500 plus km stretch of the LAC in the ‘middle sector’ that is the least disputed.

Also, China is Known to have deployed a large number of short-range ballistic missiles in Tibet. Since it has signed a nuclear de-targeting agreement with Russia, it is hard to accept that those missiles can possibly have targets anywhere else, except in India. For long, china had refused to discuss nuclear issues with India on the grounds that India was not a NWS. Even now, China continues to spurn India’s offer of a mutual no first use agreement, despite the fact that it professes a policy of no first use against other nuclear-armed states. These are sensitive issues that defy easy resolution. Unless China first accepts India as a de facto NWS, or a state with nuclear weapons, rather than continuing to chant the ‘cap, reduce, and eliminate’ mantra, the chances of instituting substantive India China nuclear CBMs and NRRMs will remain slim.

Possible NRRMs

A number of practical bilateral and multilateral measures could be considered, for reducing the risk of nuclear exchanges between nuclear-armed neighbours and building confidence in each other’s ability to prevent deterrence breakdown. In addition to the NRRMs mutually agreed between the US and Russia listed above, some of the following could be considered for implementation by the Southern Asian nuclear weapons States in a graduated manner :-

• Agreement on storing nuclear weapons in a disassembled form, i.e..keeping the nuclear core and the conventional HE bomb casing, including the trigger mechanism, separate.

• Agreement on the non-use of shortage ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to carry nuclear warheads. SRBMs like India s Prithvi (SS-150) and Pakistan’s Hatf series of missiles which are derivatives of China’s M-11s (range less than 300 km), are extremely destabilising due to their greater mobility, ability to quickly come into and out of action and the short time of flight that gives virtually no reaction time, before the missile impacts. India, China and Pakistan would do well to exclude this class of missile completely from their nuclear arsenals. However, it Is something that can only be done by mutual agreement. No single nation can take a unilateral decision, as it would be detrimental to its own national security interests.

• Agreement on non-deployment of ballistic missile units and their logistics support elements in hides close to their launch pads. This would be applicable more to road-mobile missiles than rail-mobile ones, because the former can move between 200 to 300 km in one night without detection as India, China and Pakistan do not have the satellite surveillance capability to continuously track each suspected ballistic missile storage site and the numerous highways and roads on which the TELs can branch off.

• Prior notification of flight tests of ballistic missiles to all nuclear-armed neighbours and the UN Secretary General.

• Agree on making a distinction between missiles inducted but not deployed. Such an agreement would be a pre-cursor for a de-targeting agreement.

• Subsequently, when the basic warhead and delivery system technology has been mastered to a satisfactory level of assurance, the respective deterrents are credible enough to achieve deterrence stability. And as the world draws closer to total nuclear disarmament, nuclear CBMs and NRRMs could be upgraded to include measures that appear fanciful today — regional and global missile flight test ban, verifiable deployment limitations, missile-free geographical zones and restrictions on the total number of missiles that each of the three countries may have in its arsenal.

Some analysts nave recommended even unilateral advance notification of impending missile flight tests, information about the movement of nuclear-capable air force squadrons shifting bases and identification and notification of training areas for nuclear units to distinguish them from deployment areas. Such measures have several disadvantages and could prove difficult to implement because of their negative impact on operational flexibility. However, since the issue at stake is one that is critical for national security, the negative aspects could be overcome with concerted effort. The de-alerted status that India maintains should go a long way towards reassuring its nuclear-armed neighbours of India’s lack of hostile intentions. India’s no first use doctrine and retaliatory policy without a time-bound linkage are also measures that should inspire confidence, while simultaneously reducing the risks of accidental or inadvertent launch of nuclear weapons. India’s neighbours must also respond positively to take the process forward.

Nuclear CBMs and NRRMs would require strong verification regimes to be effective. Verification could involve intrusive techniques such as over-flights up to an agreed depth inside each other’s territory, for example, to physically confirm that missiles have not been moved into the area. In the initial stages of seeking agreement on nuclear CBMs and NRRMs, it would be advisable to desist from insisting on foolproof verification regimes. In fact, the best way forward would be to begin with verbal assurances. Gradually, as confidence levels and the political climate improves, stringent verification regimes can be progressively incorporated into the agreed CBMs and NRRMs. The first short step forward for India, China and Pakistan is to accept the need for nuclear CBMs and NRRMs as an inescapable national security responsibility. It is imperative that the governments concerned view this responsibility, not only as a short-term necessity but also as their bequest to posterity.

Perhaps the best way forward would be to learn from the example of the US-Soviet Helsinki dialogue. Each country could begin by articulating its own nuclear capability and then getting down to accepting the adversary’s stated capability. ‘Wissen ist macht’, (Knowledge is power), says the old German proverb. Knowledge about each others capabilities, doctrines and procedures will generate its own momentum for confidence building. K. Subrahmanyam had written a week before India’s second nuclear tests: “The most constructive way of building confidence… is to follow the example of the US-Soviet dialogue at Helsinki in which both sides spoke frankly about their respective capabilities. That led to a whole series of arms control negotiations. If Knowledgeable teams from India and Pakistan meet and have a free and intellectually honest discussion, they will find many points of convergence… It is easier to build a confidence on the basis of mutual acceptance of harsh ground realities, than on the basis of unverifiable declarations. Between the two Superpowers and in Europe, arms reductions and detente began only when both sides came to a common understanding on the state of mutual deterrence…”

These analytical observations are even more valid today; over two years after both India and Pakistan raised the nuclear stakes in Southern Asia, then they were when the bombs were in the basement. The governments of all three nuclear armed neighbours in Southern Asia owe it to their people as well to posterity, to rise above other political differences and sincerely negotiate viable mutual as well as multi-lateral nuclear confidence building and risk-reduction measures. There is a Chinese saying that “Every long journey begins with one step”. The time has come to embark on the road leading to nuclear CBMs and NRRMs. The sooner the first step is taken, the better off the world will be.