March 7, 2001


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G Parthasarathy

There is no need to be defensive every time we test a missile

Barely twenty years ago, in April 1981, the then chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission Dr Homi Sethna met American negotiators led by Assistant Secretary of James Malone in Washington. Sethna was at the state department along with Secretary, External Affairs, Eric Gonsalves, to discuss the supply of enriched uranium for two American produced nuclear power reactors at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station, located near Mumbai.

The United States had signed an agreement in 1963 pledging supply of nuclear fuel for India for these reactors till 1993. In return, India agreed to maintain IAEA safeguards on the spent fuel of these reactors. The United States Congress had, however, effectively nullified the provisions of the 1963 agreement, by a legislation it enacted in 1978.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 imposed new conditions requiring countries receiving nuclear fuel from the United States to place all their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards and, in effect, adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There was little doubt that these provisions were primarily directed against India and aimed at pressurising New Delhi to close its nuclear options and compel it to accept the provisions of the NPT.

Dr Sethna's message to the Americans was clear and blunt. He pointed out that in accordance with the Vienna Convention of the Law of Treaties, the 1963 Tarapur Agreement had the same sanctity as a treaty. Domestic laws cannot override the provisions of international treaties. He added that India had accepted safeguards on nuclear spent fuel in the 1963 agreement, only in return for continued and uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel. If the US did not fulfill its commitment to supply fuel, India would feel free to revoke existing IAEA safeguards and reprocess the spent fuel.

More significantly, Dr Sethna revealed to the American delegation that Indian scientists had developed the expertise to run the Tarapur reactors on reprocessed plutonium mixed oxide fuel (MOX). India would proceed to do this in the event of an interruption of nuclear fuel supplies by the United States. Shortly after these exchanges took place, the Reagan administration let it be known that it was seeking an 'amicable disengagement' with India on the nuclear fuel issue. It agreed to assist in getting France to provide India with lightly enriched uranium for the Tarapur reactors. Washington was then also aware that apart from its ability to operate the Tarapur reactors on MOX, India had also received an offer from the Soviet Union to provide enriched uranium.

The Bush administration's criticism of Russia for its decision to provide India with nuclear fuel for the Tarapur power plant should be seen in the light of our earlier experiences on this issue. Washington and its non-proliferation surrogates like Canada and the Netherlands have spared no effort to see that India's nuclear capabilities are restricted, if not rolled back. Helped by compliant officials in the IAEA, these powers have worked relentlessly to develop nuclear safeguards regimes that would place restrictions on nuclear supplies to India till we accept "full scope safeguards."

They have even got such provisions endorsed in the recent NPT review conference. New Delhi and Moscow need to point out that Russia's agreement in principle to supply nuclear fuel for Tarapur and construct nuclear reactors in Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu predate the commitments that the nuclear suppliers group undertook to impose enhanced safeguards in the 1990s. New Delhi would also do well to note that should nuclear fuel supplies for Tarapur cease, we retain the capability to run the reactors on indigenously developed MOX.

These developments highlight the fact that despite pious Western professions of the benefits of interdependence and globalisation, the advanced countries will continue to seek hegemony and dominance through restrictions on transfers of high technology and dual use items.

We faced external pressures in the 1960s because we were not self-reliant in agricultural production. We overcame those challenges by embarking on a determined effort for self-sufficiency in food production. Likewise, when the Reagan Administration placed humiliating conditions for the supply of a second super-computer, we were able to indigenously use parallel processing techniques to develop our own super-computers that were more effective and far cheaper than the Cray Super Computers that the United States had offered to us. Given the determination and the will we can meet the challenges posed by technology denial regimes.

There has unfortunately been a recent tendency to glibly claim that merely because we have tested five nuclear weapons, we have overcome challenges we face in getting a measure of strategic autonomy in the contemporary world order. It would be highly dangerous to proceed on this premise, even if the Bush administration decides to ease some of the post-Pokhran sanctions that Washington has imposed. Cartels like the London Club and the MTCR have been set up to ensure that our strategic autonomy is kept in check.

There should be no slackening in our determination to indigenously develop technologies in key areas like aerospace, missiles, nuclear power and weapons systems. It may be argued that a developing country like ours would be better advised to avoid such spending. But, it should be remembered that the United States has achieved the position of pre-eminence in the development of new technologies largely as a result of the beneficial spin off of research in defence and aerospace related areas.

While Pokhran has certainly helped us in achieving a measure of strategic autonomy in the nuclear field, there is much that still needs to be done in areas of key national security interest. We will find that others would be more inclined to cooperate with us in these fields once we are able to place an indigenous satellite in geosynchronous orbit and develop our capabilities to commission fast breeder nuclear reactors. Success in such efforts boosts national confidence and morale. There is also no need for us to be as apologetic and defensive as we currently seem to be, every time we test an intermediate or long-range missile.

We have a tendency to get overly disappointed at occasional failures in the development of satellites and missile systems. Every country experiences failures and delays in the initial stages of development in such areas. There is unfortunately a tendency on the part of our armed forces to constantly change their user requirements when systems are in the process of being developed. We should develop a sense of pride and confidence in indigenously developed systems.

The government should make it clear that while it would be willing to import or seek foreign collaboration in a limited manner for key weapons systems like combat aircraft and tanks, our defence scientists and armed forces brass will have to learn to collaborate harmoniously and realistically to achieve increasing self-reliance in our armories. The goal of bringing the Light Combat Aircraft, LCA into squadron service expeditiously should be pursued with vigour and determination.

India will win respect internationally only when projects like the LCA, the Main Battle Tank, and the Advanced Technology Vehicle are successfully implemented. The development of an indigenous nuclear submarine should be treated as a national challenge and goal. The presence of such a submarine in the Indian Ocean will enhance our strategic potential far more than a dozen fleet reviews.

Many years ago visionaries like Dr Homi Bhaba and Dr Vikram Sarabhai spelt out long-term strategies for India to emerge in the forefront of the nations of the world, in the application of science and technology for economic development. The successes that we have achieved in areas like nuclear energy and space are essentially due to the untiring efforts of such scientists.

But one hopes that their successors will be more circumspect in being persuaded to make claims about their achievements that call their credibility into question. Recent assertions by some of our scientists about the adequacy of the five Pokhran tests to develop a credible nuclear deterrent, or claims that intermediate range ballistic missiles can be made operational after merely two flight tests carry little credibility either in the international scientific community, or indeed even amongst their peers in India.

G Parthasarathy

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