Armed, dangerous but supporting disarmament?

Armed, dangerous but supporting disarmament?
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First Published: Tue, Sep 22 2009. 10 47 PM IST

Updated: Tue, Sep 22 2009. 10 47 PM IST
As the country that claims to have given the world the concept of “zero”, India has a particular affinity towards this number. However, when it comes to the issue of nuclear zero, this affinity is found wanting. Indeed, today India professes to support the concept of nuclear zero without having zero nuclear weapons. Yet, New Delhi has unabashedly proposed a seven-step disarmament plan, which includes a call to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons; measures to reduce nuclear dangers; and a renewed commitment to a complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
This plan has many parallels with the so-called Rajiv Gandhi Plan for nuclear disarmament, which was first unveiled in 1988. One similarity is the hypocrisy, in that the Rajiv Gandhi plan was launched around the same time that his government was undertaking the covert weaponization of India’s nuclear capability. The Manmohan Singh government, too, launched the latest avatar of the Gandhi plan at a time when the country has started modernizing, upgrading and integrating its nuclear arsenal in the Armed Forces.
This two-faced behaviour is not unique to India, even though the country has always claimed to be different from other nuclear weapon states. Several other nuclear weapon countries, such as China and the UK, have also called for nuclear disarmament while embarking on major modernization and upgrades of their nuclear weapons.
Another parallel between the Singh and Gandhi proposals is that while both are high on rhetoric and grandstanding (having a “goal of a non-violent world order free of nuclear weapons”), they are remarkably short on the complex details that such a plan would require to be effective. For instance, the plan does not spell out how a world order free of nuclear weapons but awash with sophisticated conventional ones (some of which can be as destructive as nuclear devices) can remain “non-violent”, especially if one country (the US) has a predominant technological edge in conventional weapons.
Equally troubling, while the plan ambitiously calls for a nuclear weapons convention “prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons” followed by the “verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons with a specified time frame”, it does not take note of the practical and financial hurdles that such a plan would entail.
For instance, the disarmament of Iraq’s nascent nuclear capabilities by the UN, which had unprecedented access to all of Iraq’s facilities, took at least 10 years. Similarly, the recent dismantling of the military uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities by France cost their exchequer €6 billion (Rs42,540 crore), several times more than the cost of the initial construction of these facilities. What would be the likely cost of eliminating all the nuclear weapons all over the globe at the same time and who would foot that bill?
Perhaps the biggest challenge that the plan has set out for itself is the “verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons”. Verification of the destruction of nuclear weapons remains one of the most sensitive tasks because each nuclear weapon country has different types of nuclear weapons and each one is classified. With the exception of the US and the UK, nuclear weapon countries have not shared nuclear weapon designs even with their allies, let alone third-party verification teams, especially from non-nuclear weapon states.
There is also another dilemma. Who would verify the destruction of nuclear weapons? Would it be an international agency like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)? If so, what kind of access would it be allowed and would states, including India, accept this intrusion? Also, would the IAEA verification be acceptable to all states? Would it be effective? As former IAEA director general Hans Blix noted: “Detection capability is never 100%... A fine meshed system might raise the degree of assurance, but such systems would be more expensive and intrusive and they may also be susceptible to false alarms. They will never reduce the uncertainty to zero.”
If such verification is to be carried out by states, which states would carry out this task—nuclear weapon states or non-nuclear weapon states? If it is the former, would other nuclear weapon states trust them not to steal their designs and secrets? If it is the latter, would non-nuclear weapon states, which have obviously not worked with nuclear weapons, actually be able to verify the destruction of a nuclear weapon? Or, would it have to be a combination of nuclear and non-nuclear states? A recent joint cooperative project undertaking precisely this kind of exercise between the UK and Norway has shown the complexity and difficulty of carrying out such a task.
In the wake of the global zero initiative launched last year (see www.globalzero.org), which was endorsed by several former Indian military and diplomatic officials, many institutions and think tanks worldwide have started to grapple with the technical and other challenges associated with eliminating nuclear weapons. It is time that New Delhi, too, begins the task of working out the details of its seven-point plan in earnest, with or without the help of think tanks. Otherwise the Singh plan for a nuclear weapons free world might also disappear without a trace.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at borderline@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Sep 22 2009. 10 47 PM IST