Michael KreponThe Next Civ-Nuke Deal?

If you liked the 2005 U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, you’ll love providing U.S. technology or hardware to India for ballistic missile defenses.

The deal between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, affirmed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Indian Parliament in 2008, was characterized as a boon for U.S.-India relations and a grave threat to Pakistan’s national security. It was widely heralded by U.S. advocates as opening the Indian market to American-designed power plants, combat aircraft, retail goods, and insurance companies. The deal was also supposed to usher in a new era of strategic cooperation, as Washington assisted New Delhi to become a counterweight to China. In Pakistan, the deal was seen as the harbinger of a steep build-up in Indian nuclear forces.

Wildly optimistic and pessimistic assessments of the deal have been unwarranted. So far, the deal has mostly been a damp squib. Seven years after its announcement, Indian policies continue to make it very hard for U.S. firms to invest and to sell their goods and services. U.S. military cooperation and arms sales have certainly increased – which would have been the case with or without the deal – but New Delhi remains as vigilant as ever in protecting its strategic autonomy. Indian leaders will continue to resist choosing between Washington and Beijing – unless Beijing becomes belligerent. Over time, increased U.S. market share in some sectors are likely to be realized, but for now, the dividends are far below expectations. (For particulars, see my posts, “Six Years Later, I & II,” on 6/27/11 and 6/30/11.)

The only true believers in the civil-nuclear deal, besides its U.S. boosters, were the stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. After the deal was struck, Pakistan’s requirements for credible deterrence, which were set high to begin with, appear to have grown higher still. Three related developments seem especially noteworthy: the start-up of construction on a fourth plutonium production reactor to increase Pakistan’s inventory of nuclear weapons, the imposition of a veto against negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty, and the explicit requirement for battlefield, or tactical, nuclear weapons. The first two appear to have been a direct consequence of the deal; the third was a consequence of the Indian military’s adoption of a “pro-active” defense doctrine (known as “Cold Start” in some circles) and a growing disparity in Indian and Pakistani conventional capabilities, as well as the deal.

The civ-nuke deal added insult to injury in Pakistan, where it was perceived as providing an international escort for India to sit at the high table of states possessing nuclear weapons, while leaving Pakistan out in the cold. The deal was characterized as a threat to national security because it permitted a significant influx of foreign-origin nuclear power plants and fuel; because Indian authorities stated their intention to build eight new, unsafeguarded domestic power plants; and because India’s breeder-reactor program would produce a flood of new fissile material.

These worst-case planning factors have not panned out. True, India has purchased uranium from abroad for its power plants, freeing up domestic material for bomb-making, but the Indian Parliament continues to resist liability limits for foreign companies, which stands in the way of power-plant construction for the United States and other sellers. Domestic construction of power plants also remains in the doldrums, and the ambitious plans of India’s Department of Atomic Energy for breeder reactors are as suspect as those of the Defense Research and Development Organization for the development of tanks, planes, and missiles. [For a withering critique of the DAE and DRDO, see Verghese Koithara’s outstanding new book, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (2012).]

DRDO’s promises have become even more wildly optimistic under the leadership of Dr. V.K. Saraswat, who is now promoting effective, near-term ballistic missile defenses for Delhi and Mumbai. Just as few in the Pakistani media question their military’s nuclear requirements, few in the Indian media question the claims of DRDO and DAE. Instead, they serve as a transmission belt and lobbying arm for these enclaves. A case in point is this unsigned article in the June 24th issue of the Indian Express:

Delhi and Mumbai, the two most vital metros of India, have been chosen for DRDO’s Ballistic Missile Defence system that can be put in place at short notice.

The detailed proposal is being prepared for final clearance from the Cabinet Committee on Security.

The strategic planning has already begun to install the BMD system in the two cities and the final proposal will be put before the government after detailed analysis of the entire project, sources said here…

To ensure maximum protection against air-borne threats, DRDO will put a mix of counter-attack missiles which will be able to shoot down enemy missiles both within earth’s atmosphere (endo-atmospheric) and outside it (exo-atmospheric).

The BMD system will require minimum human intervention due to the complete automation of tracking devices and counter-measures. Human intervention will be required only to abort the mission, the sources said.

After successful implementation in Delhi and Mumbai, the system will be used to cover other major cities in the country, they added.

India appears to have flight tested six BMD interceptors – two of which were liquid-fueled. The United States, in contrast has flight-tested 67 interceptors since 2001, 53 of which have very generously been labeled as successes. Even so, U.S. BMD programs face severe challenges. If Dr. Saraswat is to be believed, India will not need U.S. assistance for ballistic missile defense deployments. Far more likely, significant U.S. assistance would be required – if BMD deployments are a higher priority for New Delhi than new ships, planes, and improved equipment for ground forces, and if the necessary funding can be found.

All of these premises are dubious, but this need not foreclose Indian requests to Washington for ballistic missile technology transfers. As readers of these posts know, I favor limited U.S. BMD deployments and technology transfers in tense regions where U.S. allies and friends are threatened by the nuclear and missile programs of outlier states. In my view, Washington has a responsibility to protect partners and to demonstrably shore up non-nuclear weapon states in this way, among others. In these cases, BMD deployments have symbolic value, while shoring up the Nonproliferation Treaty and offering the possibility to counter rudimentary missile threats. These arguments don’t apply to the subcontinent, where Pakistan and India have significant missile inventories and growing nuclear arsenals, outside the purview of the NPT.

The civil-nuclear deal and DRDO’s record of poor performance suggest that it would be wise to avoid unduly optimistic and pessimistic assessments about Indian missile defenses. Nonetheless, U.S. technology transfers for BMD, like the civ-nuke deal, would have little up-side potential and considerable down-side risk. These transfers would not help India produce an effective missile-defense system, nor change New Delhi’s embrace of strategic autonomy. They would, however, add further impetus to a three-cornered nuclear arms competition in southern Asia. President Obama has not endorsed BMD transfers, but President Romney might.


  1. krepon (History)

    Note to readers:

    A shorter version of this essay appeared in Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, on July 24th.


  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    Does it matter that I thought the title was “Mangeling India’s Nuclear Forces” until I clicked the internet link?

  3. Andrea (History)

    Wouldn’t such transfers contravene the MTCR?

  4. InsiderThreat (History)


    Your dig at Romney is rather partisan. In an attempt to be bipartisan, in respect of blame, let me point out that it was Obama who welcomed Indian membership in the MTCR–whereas Bush and Singh just got their pictures taken.

    US-Israeli BMD cooperation has had to conform to both US law and practice, and is considered consistent with the MTCR since Israel is an adherent as defined in US law (22 USC 2797c, given below for your use). I suppose we have to contend with the view that, presuming India also became an adherent, it would not hurt American security to cooperate on BMD more in India than it does in Israel. And it would be truly bipartisan for the US, within the next few years, assuming India becomes a true adherent to the MTCR, to do so, regardless of who is the next president, and it apparently will happen.

    An “MTCR Adherent” is a specially defined status section 74 of the Arms Export Control Act (also referred to as the missile sanctions law). An “MTCR Adherent,” as defined, is a country that “participates” in the MTCR or that, “pursuant to an international understanding to which the United States is a party, controls MTCR equipment and technology in accordance with the criteria and standards set forth in the MTCR.” India’s unilateral adherence to the MTCR, in the Bush-Singh Joint Statement did not meet this requirement.

    For a stunningly “bipartisan” appraisal of US-India missile cooperation success in providing export control relief to India’s space program, see Heritage’s Lisa Curtis, http://blog.heritage.org/2011/01/27/u-s-demonstrates-india-a-partner-not-a-target-in-curbing-global-proliferation/.

  5. Anjaan (History)

    The author has alluded to “India seeking strategic autonomy” more than once in this article.

    At the heart of US-India engagement is the fundamental issue of the future of the post ww-II global order established by the Anglo-American powers. The global order is clearly eroding, giving way to a new order that is in the process of being crystalized.

    There is a growing realization that India is likely to be the deciding factor in the power shift to Asia. Therefore there is this urgency to rope in India in favour of the existing order, for which India giving up its strategic autonomy is the pre-requisite.

    However, it would be suicidal for India to even contemplate “giving up its strategic autonomy” at the altar of the US-India partnership, because the lessons of the East India Company eventually colonizing India for two hundred years is still relevant.

  6. Peacemaker (History)

    Credibility of nuclear deterrence should be any nuclear-armed state’s ultimate goal. The word ‘minimum’ is a fad and probably good for earning brownies only. I think the contention that the fourth plutonium reactor was a reaction to the Indian Proactive Defense Strategy needs revision. Nuclear plants take 6 to 10 years to become critical. Working backwards, the fourth reactor would have started long before Indians contemplated what few call the Cold Start Doctrine.
    If seen retrospectively, the U.S. has probably entered a Faustian bargain with India by entering a strategic partnership and by offering a not-so-civil nuclear deal. The deal was done in violation of all non-prolferation norms and even domestic American laws. Let’s see if the partnership bears the fruits that American military industry dreamt off. How many nuclear power plants has the U.S. sold to India since the signing of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement? India dumped U.S. technology for European fighter jets! Likewise, who has placed the burden of liability of any likely nuclear accidents on the cooperating parties? If Sanger is a White House insider – see his latest book Confront and Conceal – President Obama prefers to term China as a partner rather than tailing Bush’s idea of promoting India as a strategic counter weight to China. Beijing is Washington’s banker. As per secretary Clinton, “How tough can one get with his banker?” On India’s value as a strategic counter weight, one may ask that can New Delhi do a job that Washington cannot do for itself?
    The steep buildup in Indian conventional military and nuclear capability has started affecting other continents. Agni V was tested at a shorter range due to European pressure…they’ll soon have to take the friendly missile capability into their defense calculus.
    Likewise, one may also reflect on yesterday’s Times of India report that India has quietly gate-crashed into SLBM club. After some time Islamabad would not be the only India-centric capital in the world.
    The Indian BMD capability has several issues. It will divide their 1.2 billion in to haves and have-nots. Only two cities would be protected. The capability may also give New Delhi a false sense of security and encourage preemptive tendency. If India’s shield integrates with U.S. led global system, it would become effective but Russian’s may see India as an adversary. Russia seeks legal guarantees from the U.S. that the BMD System is not aimed at them. They also want to become part of the globally networked system. If Russians are out, all those in would be their adversaries.

    • Anjaan (History)

      1. India’s strategic capabilities are already factored in the calculus of the western powers, you may rest assured.
      2. If the world can live with the Chinese SLBMs and ICBMs, there is no reason why the Indian ones would give them sleepless nights.
      3. You are right, the “Faustian bargain” is perhaps the insurance for an unpredictable world fifty years down the road, and certainly not for the short term.

  7. mantej (History)

    I don’t know what’s the fuss about indian capability, they are still in very early stages. strategic atonomy is at the heart of Indian foriegn policy. evey country should decide on its own as to what it wants to do. India should have the same right. India never promised to give U.S any nuclear reactor contracts for the nuclear deal. it is the recongnition of India being responsible power. India wants to play by the rules and also be a contributer to the rule making process, nothing more nothing less. I’m not sure if china wants to play by the rules.