Michael KreponK. Sundarji and India's Bomb

Very few military men figure prominently in the story of India’s Bomb. This is partly due to civilians who jealously guard their prerogative to make national security policy, and partly due to New Delhi’s practice of relying on seniority to fill the top-most military positions. Consequently, India’s Army Chiefs have been a varied lot. One who stands out is K. Sundarji, who was a highly influential shaper of Indian nuclear doctrine and force posture.

Let’s open the shoe box files to “Sundar,” a bold – some might say reckless – doer and strategic thinker. On professional matters, he was utterly sure of himself and exuded command authority, but he was outranked by his strong-willed wife when it came to social matters.

Sundarji went to his grave without clarifying what he had in mind in Operation Brasstacks, a year-long succession of military exercises in 1986-7 involving India’s strike forces, complete with live ammunition, along the Pakistan border. Some surmise that his intention was to spark a fourth war with Pakistan before nuclear deterrence would enter the equation.

On nuclear matters, Sundarji was completely clear about his preferences. He wrote for public consumption an important essay on Indian nuclear doctrine that was published in 1996 in a volume edited by Jorn Gjelstad and Olav Njolstad, Nuclear Rivalry and International Order. Why, you might well ask, was an essential essay on Indian nuclear policy published in London by two Scandinavians? Because India is different.

Here are key excerpts from Sundarji’s essay:

In war-fighting, whether conventional or nuclear, whilst calculating relative strengths, more is always better. But for deterrence, more is not better if less is adequate.

Dreams of ‘disarming first strikes’ leading to the temptation to ‘go first’ and the consequent instability of Small Nuclear Power equations are think-tank myths.

I strongly suspect that the genie has already escaped from the bottle, and proliferation has already occurred, making it too late to keep the area nuclear weapon-free. I believe that the emphasis must now shift to keeping the area nuclear weapon-safe.

If a minimum nuclear deterrent is in place, it will act as a stabilizing factor… Why all this fuss about India and Pakistan, while not much is heard about the Israeli nuclear arsenal?

Many arguments… are used to harangue India and Pakistan, pointing out that they are foolish (children) to believe that by going nuclear they are augmenting their national security, when by Western reckoning they are only increasing their vulnerability to nuclear chastisement (by the legitimately nuclear adults of the world, the USA, China, etc.). This kind of patronizing attitude is so infuriating…

For a sober, mature status quo power like India, a unilateral declaration of no first use should be axiomatic.

Possession of nuclear weapons would give Pakistan the confidence to face a larger neighbour with security and honor… This confidence on the part of Pakistan is to be welcomed as it is a positive asset for national sobriety and regional stability.

Why would the Chinese want to fire nuclear weapons at us – just because we are supposed to have deployed some nuclear weapons that have the range to reach China?

India has to maintain a minimum deterrence in respect of both China and Pakistan; the result of this might lead to some apparent imbalance in nuclear weapons and delivery means between Pakistan and India. The fears that this might engender in Pakistan are natural, and India must handle the issue sensibly and with sensitivity.

There’s more – including a proposed three-stage evolution of Indian nuclear forces – but these snippets provide the essence of the man and his mind. Two years after this essay was published, India conducted a series of nuclear tests. In 1999, shortly after Sundarji died, the Government of India released a “draft” nuclear doctrine it had commissioned from a group of nongovernmental experts. (Again, India is different.) Much of Sundarji’s proposals are reflected in this document, although the draft doctrine is more open-ended about nuclear weapon requirements than Sundarji was. Most Indian strategic commentators erred along with Sundarji about the stabilizing consequences of taking the Bomb out of the basement.

Comments

  1. MJ

    And how India plans to counter the huge number of nuclear warheads with yields for warheads range into 2-3 MT unlike Indian warheads that have yields of only 20 to 25 Kt. How they will be able to achieve deterrence against china. Their current arsenal is reasonable good enough to match Pakistani warheads but that’s it they need far more testing to do before that can be anywhere near achieving Chinese capability.
    India’s recent test of its only near operation medium missile Agni-II has failed and India is still relying only on airdropped nuclear bombs

  2. MJ (History)

    India’s recent test of its only near operation medium missile Agni-II has failed and India is still relying only on airdropped nuclear bombs And how India plans to counter the huge number of nuclear warheads with yields for warheads range into 2-3 MT unlike Indian warheads that have yields of only 20 to 25 Kt. How they will be able to achieve deterrence against china. Their current arsenal is reasonable good enough to match Pakistani warheads but that’s it they need far more testing to do before that can be anywhere near achieving Chinese capability.

  3. shaan (History)

    20 KT ought to be enough!

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