India unveils nuclear weapon policy

Click to follow
AS TENSIONS continue to simmer on the subcontinent, India yesterday unveiled a formal nuclear weapons doctrine, based on a "credible minimum deterrent" that would be used only after a first strike against the country by an enemy.

According to the National Security Advisory Board in Delhi, the deterrent would be based on a "triad" of sea-based, air-based and land-based missiles. In practice however, given delays with its intermediate range Agni missile and the likelihood that no submarine-based deterrent will be available for at least five years, any Indian bomb used in the immediate future would almost certainly be aircraft-delivered.

None the less, after the three tests carried out by India in May last year, the announcement seals the country's entry into the global club of declared nuclear powers. It moreover makes no mention of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which India - as well as its fellow nuclear newcomer Pakistan - is under intense pressure to sign before next month's deadline.

After last year's tests, India said it would consider adhering to the treaty. But while it has promised not to block ratification, it has demanded changes, claiming that the pact would lock in a strategic advantage for the older nuclear powers.

For the world community, the most reassuring aspect of the doctrine is the commitment to no first use. On paper this rules out the possibility that, should relations between the two countries worsen, India might be tempted to stage a pre-emptive first strike in the hope of knocking out Pakistan's nuclear capability at a stroke.

In reality, Delhi is less concerned with Pakistan, whose own deterrent is believed to be at about the same stage of development, than with China, its other and far more developed nuclear neighbour, which India has always said was the biggest threat to its long-term national security.

Technically, the doctrine is not binding, and will not take effect until ratification by whatever government emerges from this autumn's general election. According to Brajesh Mishra, the national security adviser, its unveiling now was intended to prompt a public debate on nuclear policy.

Last year's nuclear muscle-flexing proved immensely popular with voters - and in all probability publication now will provide a boost for the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party, which has made a robust approach to defence and security matters a central plank of its election programme.

Indeed, this month's attack by Indian MiGs on a Pakistani naval aircraft was widely seen as another deliberate show of strength, aimed at least as much at the domestic audience before the election.

In response Islamabad placed its forces on full alert, vowing it would not be cowed. Though few experts believe a fourth full-scale war between the two countries is imminent, many expect Pakistan to keep up, and perhaps increase, support for Muslim insurgents slipping over the ceasefire line to attack Indian units in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Yesterday two Indian soldiers were killed and four injured in new clashes with Pakistan-backed militants, and a rocket landed in the suburbs of Jammu, the territory's winter capital.