India's Nuclear Blunder

India's Nuclear Blunder

The bomb doesn't offer much against China, and driving Pakistan to arm itself left New Delhi with less freedom of action.


It’s fashionable in Western security circles to proclaim that nuclear weapons never make a state more secure. This is hogwash. Nuclear weapons, more so than any other single factor, are why Western Europeans don’t speak Russian. Similarly, it is inconceivable that India would not have responded militarily to the 2008 Mumbai attack if Pakistan did not have a nuclear arsenal, just as it is inconceivable that the United States would’ve invaded Iraq in 2003 if Saddam Hussein had built the bomb.

But just because nuclear weapons can solve some security problems, doesn’t mean that a nuclear-armed state enjoys total security. Like any other military capability, nuclear weapons are particularly well suited for some contingencies, and particularly ill-suited for others.


Not surprisingly, given the amount of time and resources involved in building a nuclear weapon, most states that have acquired them had compelling reasons to do so. There are exceptions to this, however. One particularly obvious example is South Africa, which—under the apartheid government—built a small nuclear arsenal in an apparent attempt to coerce its former Western allies to intervene on its behalf against a security threat it struggled to define.

But South Africa is just the most bizarre example. Indeed, it has become exceedingly clear that India’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons was a strategic blunder. Unlike their South African counterparts, Indian leaders built the bomb with a very specific security threat in mind. Unfortunately, nuclear weapons have proven ill-suited for addressing that security threat, while India’s pursuit of atomic weaponry has opened up new challenges that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Although a number of domestic and ideational factors were essential to India’s success in building nuclear weapons, China was the initial impetus behind the decision to pursue them.

Specifically, it was the PLA’s swift rout of Indian military forces in the 1962 border war and its nuclear test two years later that provided the initial rationale for India’s decision to militarize its nuclear program. Little had changed over three decades later when India carried out its first “nonpeaceful” nuclear tests in 1998. In explaining his decision to order those tests in a letter to Bill Clinton, Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wrote just days after the tests:

I have been deeply concerned at the deteriorating security environment, specially the nuclear environment, faced by India for some years past. We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem.

Indeed, the 1962 border war fundamentally changed India’s approach to foreign policy. Before the war, India under Jawaharlal Nehru pursued an idealistic foreign policy that prioritized the non-aligned movement and third-world solidarity. Nehru’s China policy was especially friendly, as summed up by the slogan “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” or “Indians and Chinese are brothers.” These were not empty words; Nehru took a number of notable actions to win over Maoist China. For example, Delhi boycotted the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951 in protest of the decision to not give Taiwan back to China. Nehru also
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China’s attack on India in 1962 was therefore particularly humiliating to Nehru, and significantly undermined his legacy on foreign policy matters. A few days after the war commenced, Nehru himself would tell Parliament of the pre-war era: “We were getting out of touch with reality in the modern world and we were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation.” He passed away less than two years later, “‘broken’ by China’s betrayal,” as
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Even before then, in the immediate aftermath of the war, India took concrete steps to strengthen its security. For example, in February 1963 parliament decided to double the 1963-1964 defense budget; that year defense made up 28 percent of the national budget compared to just 15 percent earlier in the decade. Furthermore,
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Two years after India’s humiliating loss in the 1962 border war China tested its first nuclear weapon. This sent shock waves throughout India’s elites. Shortly after the test, for instance, Homi J. Bhabha—the father of India’s nuclear program—told the nation, “With the help of nuclear weapons…a state can acquire what we may call a position of absolute deterrence even against another having a many times greater destructive power under its control.”

Even the more dovish Indian leaders who rejected Bhabha’s nuclear advocacy did so by arguing that India could secure a nuclear guarantee from either the Soviet Union or the United States. India would pursue this approach during Lal Bahadur Shastri’s time as premier, and even into Gandhi’s term. Ultimately, it failed to secure such a guarantee.

Instead, Moscow and Washington reacted to China’s test by pursuing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Delhi unsuccessfully lobbied against the NPT, and following its passage conducted a “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974.

Yet nearly four decades after India’s first nuclear test, the absolute deterrence Bhabha promised remains elusive. Although Sino-Indo ties have improved since the 1970s, this was wholly unrelated to India’s nuclear arsenal. More importantly, India and China’s border row remains unresolved, and the PLA has repeatedly violated the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) that serves as the de facto border. In fact, according to one scholar, the “Indian military has recorded nearly 600 incursions over the last 3 years alone.”

Where Bhabha’s analysis went wrong was in failing to specify what kind of threat China posed to India. As was clear at the time, and remains true today, China holds limited objectives along the border with India. This was evident from how it prosecuted the war. Although Beijing struck with heavy force, and quickly annihilated India’s defending troops, it didn’t push this advantage further into India proper. Instead, it announced a unilateral ceasefire.

China’s limited objectives significantly limits the utility of India’s nuclear arsenal in defending the border. Contrary to Bhabha’s assertion, nuclear weapons only provide an absolute deterrent against large scale attacks. As India’s interactions with China have demonstrated, low-level violence between nuclear-armed adversaries is wholly possible. And, since low-intensity operations are sufficient for China to achieve its goals vis-à-vis the border with India, Delhi’s pursuit of a nuclear arsenal has done little to address the security threat that first led it to seek the bomb.

Making matters worse, India’s decision to pursue the bomb also had the unintended consequence of weakening its position relative to Pakistan by pushing Islamabad to acquire its own nuclear deterrence. More so than nearly any other historical case, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program followed George Shultz’s dictum that “proliferation begets proliferation.” Delhi had every reason to foresee this outcome. Indeed, as early as 1965 Pakistani President Z.A. Bhutto had declared: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.”

In the bilateral Indo-Pakistani relationship, Islamabad derives far more utility from its nuclear deterrent than India does from its own. Like China, Pakistan has limited goals towards India, which center on Kashmir. Armed with nuclear weapons, Islamabad has been able to pursue its objectives in the Kashmir by supporting militants in the area, as well as allowing Pakistani troops to directly stir up trouble along the border. Even more troubling, nuclear weapons have emboldened Pakistan to support proxy attacks deep inside the Indian homeland.

A Pakistan without nuclear weapons would never act in such reckless a manner given the prevailing power asymmetry. After all, far more so than during the Cold War, India’s conventional superiority vis-à-vis Pakistan is undisputable. Besides its greater development and technological expertise, India’s population is around seven times larger than Pakistan’s, its economy nearly nine times richer and its landmass about four times bigger. Without nuclear weapons, Pakistan would have to be extremely judicious in its provocations, given the potential there would be for India to launch a devastating conventional attack that would undermine the Pakistani military’s self-perpetuated myth that it protects the country.

With nuclear weapons, however, they have been able to continue to provoke with impunity. India has struggled to find a way to respond to these provocations, in a way that it didn’t struggle to before the two sides acquired nuclear weapons.

In short, by failing to properly pair its military capabilities to its political objectives, India spent billions of dollars and decades of time undermining its security.

Zachary Keck is associate editor of The Diplomat. He is on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Flickr/James Vaughan. CC BY-SA 2.0.