Michael KreponExceptional India

K. Subrahmanyam may be the most exceptional strategic thinker that Western Wonks have never read. During the 1990s, we disagreed intensely about so many things that a mutual friend arranged for a cooling off session over lunch at the India International Centre in Delhi. After an awkward silence, my dining companion asked, “So what shall we talk about, the weather?” Our conversations then became far easier.

For those unfamiliar with the Subrahmanyam oeuvre, I would recommend starting with India and the Nuclear Challenge, an edited volume published in 1986. Back then, Indian strategic analysts spoke with feeling about the immorality of the Bomb. Here are some excerpts that contemporary nuclear abolitionists can relate to:

The doctrine of nuclear deterrence is not an eternal verity but is largely based on a belief system… If one were to accept the simplistic argument that nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented and hence nuclear deterrence will have to continue, that argument can be stretched to other means of perpetrating genocide. What prevents the other means from being used or threatened to be used as weapons of mass destruction is certain in-built restraints and norms of behaviour and values. A victor ten or fifteen centuries ago put to death all men in the conquered land… Today…it is not done because of the changes that have come about in our values and attitudes.

This has happened in a number of areas in our own lifetime. Concepts and institutions which were considered inescapable and having no alternatives have become totally unacceptable and discarded into the dustbin of history. Slavery was a hoary institution… Monarchy and the divine right of kings had their day… No one today will fight for a king… The colour bar and discrimination based on it was prevalent even a couple of decades ago, but is no longer defended as a way of life… Colonialism is indefensible today – though in its heyday it was hailed as a civilising mission… All that has changed within our lifetime.

It is now clear even to the followers of the cult of nuclear deterrence that nuclear wars cannot be fought and won… The sensible way out is to delegitimize and outlaw nuclear weapons as instruments of war.”

So why would Subrahmanyam, the most eminent living Indian strategist, lobby tenaciously for an Indian bomb? Because of coercive diplomacy, international standing and, yes, deterrence:

The nuclear challenge is not just the one posed by the Pakistani efforts to acquire nuclear weapons or even the Chinese challenge. [Writing elsewhere, Subrahmanyam estimated that Pakistan acquired a usable nuclear device three years before India.] It is a challenge arising out of the global strategic environment in which nuclear weapons have been accepted as the currency of power, nuclear capability has transformed the game of power to coercive diplomacy and the subcontinent is surrounded on all sides by nuclear weapons…

It is imperative to… devise a strategy which will enable India to have access to the currency of international power … even while this country struggles to replace it with a more benign one. If India is to succeed in this struggle, it must first survive as a cohesive nation state, become an increasingly influential factor in the international system and develop power to induce changes in the global order.”

Professor Raj Krishna made the same point in the April-June 1965 issue of India Quarterly after India suffered a humiliating defeat in a border war with China:

It is an illusion to suppose that military weakness rather than military power makes a nation more influential in pressing for disarmament…. Virtue is respected only when it is backed by power; power without virtue is disastrous; but virtue without power is helpless. The fate of the merely virtuous is often decided in the assemblies of the powerful without reference to and at the expense of the virtuous.

Today, India still finds itself betwixt and between on nuclear matters – “an intermediate caste” – to use M.C. Changla’s old characterization. While New Delhi now prides itself as being a responsible state with nuclear weapons, its sense of exceptionalism, the absence of a domestic consensus, and perhaps less than perfect nuclear test results make it hard for India to join decent company by signing the CTBT. And so India remains a fence sitter, unable to take a leadership position on nuclear disarmament while remaining apart on nuclear testing.

Subrahmanyam was clear then and now that H bombs are “essentially terror weapons,” and that lower yields would suffice for instruments of such limited utility. Another brilliant Indian strategic thinker, now deceased, K. Sundarji, also wrote against the need for thermonuclear weapons:

Very large yields to compensate to some extent for the lack of accuracy are also not required. As to which zone in a city gets hit, this is not of much consequence. The yield need not be very high. The weapons that struck Nagasaki and Hiroshima were between 15 and 20 kt, and the world knows the result.

During the Cold War, thermonuclear weapons became the calling cards of the P-5, but even their nuclear weapon strategists acknowledged, when they stopped testing in the atmosphere, that yields are militarily meaningless beyond a certain point. By signing the CTBT, New Delhi could, in effect, declare that larger yields matter far, far less than the global cessation of nuclear testing and the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Pakistan would then surely sign the CTBT, removing one driver of the nuclear competition in southern Asia.

No major power with nuclear weapons has been so bold as to declare, in effect, that thermonuclear weapons are not required for minimum, credible, nuclear deterrence. Doing so would be the most exceptional act of Indian leadership on nuclear issues since Jawaharlal Nehru led global efforts stop nuclear testing and abolish the Bomb.


  1. Greg R. Lawson (History)

    This quote is spot on,

    “It is an illusion to suppose that military weakness rather than military power makes a nation more influential in pressing for disarmament…. Virtue is respected only when it is backed by power; power without virtue is disastrous; but virtue without power is helpless. The fate of the merely virtuous is often decided in the assemblies of the powerful without reference to and at the expense of the virtuous.”

    So I inquire: Does this blog support the eventual, even if extraordinarily longterm, notion of “Global Zero?”

    Have not nuclear weapons kept a lid of the Great Power conflicts of previous eras? In a paradoxical sense, could it not be argued, and argued persuasively, that nuclear weapons helped usher in our now taken for granted expansion of worldwide economic imprvement through globalization? How could globalization have become so potent in an environment of consistent large scale, inter-state wars of the type it appears nuclear weapons have largely banished?

    I understand all of the problems with nuclear weapons. I also admit that I find the concept of their abolition as being an example of utopianism. However, I also think that it is rarely asked whether they have prevented cataclysmic conventional wars from erupting. That is a farily important issue to wrestle with rather than always jumping the gun and embracing the all nukes=evil meme.

  2. FSB

    “No major power with nuclear weapons has been so bold as to declare, in effect, that thermonuclear weapons are not required for minimum, credible, nuclear deterrence. Doing so would be the most exceptional act of Indian leadership on nuclear issues since Jawaharlal Nehru led global efforts stop nuclear testing and abolish the Bomb.”

    I agree, but why doesn’t the USA and Russia declare this?

    Why look to India for leadership on minimum deterrence?

  3. Scott Monje (History)


    You make it sound like Obama promised to throw all the nukes in the compactor in time for trash pickup on Tuesday. Nothing is going to happen all that soon. There will be plenty of time to think through the implications. And it’s not likely that actual “zero” will happen at all (barring catastrophic accidents). But there’s still room to reduce.

  4. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    H-bombs are not terror weapons in the classical sense, if there can be thing called a classical terror weapon. The terror is to be had in their non use. When they are used there are very few people left of consequence left to be terrorized. And they do terrorize some very special people, the NCA, the conventional military, and they also act as a very stark check on the rabble. take note that India and Pakistan have not entered into major conflict since India tested its first bomb. Indeed, Buddha smiled. Also take note of the decline in the intellectual qualities of the American political right with the fall of the Soviet Union. Lacking a peer power to keep it in check the American right has run amok around the world, and lowered IQ’s here at home. Now that folks don’t have to worry about Jr being vaporized on the planes West of Fulda followed by their own vaporization a few weeks later, people seem to feel free to be intellectually lazy with no consequence. The real trick to nuclear arms abolishment is dealing with the world that comes after. I’ve heard nothing from the arms control community about what happens in a world where losing a conventional war has real consequence again, or how to deal with the race to re-arm during a conventional war.

  5. Magoo (History)

    While you have drawn attention to General Sundarjee having rubbished a thermonuclear requirement, you should have followed his thought process in the last four yeard of his life.

    The General and I were fellow students when we researched our doctrate thesies. Initially he had advocated that India’s ‘deterrent’ requirement could be met by fielding roughly 60 nuclear warheads and that this could be achieved by abjuring thermonuclear capabilities.

    However, in the last few years of his life we met regularly – over a bottle of good Indian whiskey – and had long discussions on India’s strategic deterrence compulsions. We analysed who has to be deterred, what would deter the leadership of that entity, the target analysis and levels of punishment that those leaders would believe Indian Strategic Forces could mete out, etc. etc.

    It is interesting to note that General Sundarjee had had revised his opinion on quantity and quality of the Indian nuclear arsenal. He concluded that India required approximately 135 warheads – which he published in an op-ed piece in the Indian Express. In our discussions he had also concluded that India required a certain number of 150 KT – 200 KT warheads!!

    – Magoo

  6. RAJ47

    This article seems to be making a case for India to sign CTBT through its strategic thinkers – probably dangling some kind of carrots in front of them. I am sure Mr K Subrahmanyam is more matured than what others perceive him to be.
    India has a clearly declared policy of “No First Use”. India has an undeclared self imposed moratorium on nuclear tests. Why can’t the rest of world including US follow it? Why can’t Pakistan have any such policy? Pakistan has always followed the policy of maximum nuclear deterrence, no matter policies India pursues. Pakistan is increasing its uranium and plutonium production day by day. It has increased nuclear facilities at PINSTEC, Chasma, Kushab etc manyfold. Their delivery systems are becoming more and more sophisticated. Almost all Pakistani PMs and Presidents have threatened India by the first use of nuclear arsenal. Imagine how haunting it must be for all Indians to be under constant nuclear threat (just two minutes missile flight time) from the highly “jihadi” Pakistani armed forces willing to launch for Allah at the smallest possible religious stimulus. Let me remind you all, Pakistani armed forces has only two kinds of officers – the religious jehadis and the nationalist jihadis – and both have only one goal – to destroy India.
    I don’t know in what context Gen Sunderji made such a statement but it is indeed preferable to have more low yield weapons rather than less high yield ones. The accuracy is inconsequential whether it is 1m or 300m (except when it comes to HDBTs) because the effect of a strategic nuke at 1m or 300m is likely to be the same.
    Well, India is a fully grown and mature democracy where issues are debated with enthusiasm in Parliament. That in no way suggests the absence of a domestic consensus.
    Yes, India has been extremely bold in stating a policy of “No First Use”. But India can’t be, will not be and should not be fooled into signing any treaty that will be unfair to gaining its rightful place in the world order.

  7. MarkoB

    That’s a very interesting and most important collection of quotes, especially the last set. That goes against Sollinger’s thesis in “Nuclear Logics”.

    India formally proliferated when the Hindu nationalist BJP were in power, but the BJP were also neoliberal reformers seeking to integrate Delhi more into the global economy. Sollinger draws a connection between autarky and proliferation.

    Both China and India suffered from the “imperialism of free trade.” These comments suggest to me that India feels it must develop economically under an umbrella of power provided by nuclear deterrence. Perhaps China also feels that nuclear deterrence gives it breathing room to pursue economic modernisation free of external attempts to upset the apple cart.

  8. MK (History)

    I wasn’t aware of the Indian Express piece — thanks for bringing it forward.
    I can picture you two in my mind’s eye, sitting together, straightening out India’s nuclear posture.
    All the best,

  9. Dovin (History)

    I’d like at least one Non Proliferation ‘expert’ to go hammer and tongs at US or UK to de-nuclearize. That will give some credibility to people who live and prosper under the security provided by the heavily armed military of their own countries while preaching to the mis-guided Indians.

    Or, own up that Non-proliferation as it stands today is a western initiative to protect their power and prosperity and use it as a proper negotiating point – instead of preaching morality while partying with the devil.

  10. mark hibbs

    I can confirm that Magoo’s choice of whiskies to accompany strategic nuclear dialogues is impeccable.

  11. Shaurya (History)

    Sir, Please do not take offense. Can Mr. Magoo identify himself. For a search of the express site, does not yield anything on the article, mentioned by “Magoo”. Thanks.

  12. MK (History)

    If I understood Magoo correctly, the author of this piece was Gen. Sundarji. If you or anyone else can find it on the Indian Express website, I’d be grateful if it could be posted.

  13. Adil (History)

    Micheal surely knows that if any tangible gains towards nonproliferation have to be achieved in the region, it must start from India.
    The debate above once again exposes that china does not figure in Indian strategic calculus, what it wants others to believe, but its threat perception is ‘only’ Pakistan specific.

  14. Shaurya (History)

    “(109)Lt. General K. Sundarji recently wrote that “For emplacing a minimum deterrent posture against China, it would be necessary for India to deploy land based IRBM’s with fusion warheads or boosted yield fission warheads, partly in soft overground sites and partly rail-mobile, along with some SLBM capabilities…”


Pin It on Pinterest