Update | May 7. Here is the full text of the speech.
On April 24th, the Chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran, delivered an important address in New Delhi affirming the credibility of India’s nuclear deterrent. Mr. Saran has over two decades of close engagement on strategic matters, including time spent as Foreign Secretary and Special Envoy dealing with the US-India civil-nuclear agreement. What he said, speaking in his personal capacity, bears close scrutiny.
The tone of these remarks is defensive at the outset, reflecting domestic criticisms of the pace of Indian strategic modernization programs. Mr. Saran also takes aim at US, Pakistani, and Chinese analysts who maintain that India sought the Bomb for reasons of status rather than national security. He seeks to set the record straight, making significant observations and recommendations in the process. Here are a few passages:
Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s strategic programme continues apace. [Note: unless Mr. Saran is referring to China’s help with Pakistan’s nuclear power sector, this is especially noteworthy.]
Pakistan is the only country where nuclear assets are under the command and control of the military and it is the military’s perceptions and ambitions which govern the development, deployment and use of these weapons. This is a dangerous situation precisely because the military’s perceptions are not fully anchored in a larger national political and economic narrative. The pursuit of a more powerful, more effective, and more sophisticated nuclear arsenal, dictated by the Pakistani military, may run in parallel with a steadily deteriorating political, social and economic environment. Would it be possible to island an efficiently managed and sophisticated nuclear arsenal amidst an increasingly dysfunctional polity? There is an air of unreality about the often adulatory remarks about the Pakistani military’s stewardship of the country’s military assets.
What Pakistan is signaling to India and to the world is that India should not contemplate retaliation even if there is another Mumbai because Pakistan has lowered the threshold of nuclear use to the theatre level. This is nothing short of nuclear blackmail, no different from the irresponsible behavior one witnesses in North Korea. It deserves equal condemnation by the international community because it is not just a threat to India but to international peace and security. Should the international community countenance a license to aid and abet terrorism by a state holding out a threat of nuclear war?
Mr. Saran argues that strategic misperceptions regarding the state of India’s nuclear deterrent and the reasons for it can be dangerous. His public remarks, which include helpful clarifications on steps taken to assure India’s second strike capabilities, may signal more to come. He concludes that, “The secrecy which surrounds our nuclear programme… is now counter-productive,” adding,
I would hope that the Government makes public its nuclear doctrine and releases data regularly on what steps have been taken and are being taken to put the requirements of doctrine in place. It is not necessary to share operational details but an overall survey such as an annual Strategic Posture Review, should be shared with the citizens of this country who, after all, pay for the security which the deterrent is supposed to provide for them.
Pakistani authorities have also been close-lipped about their strategic programs and requirements. The people of Pakistan, like those in India, have been in the dark regarding the size and costs of their nuclear deterrent. Would more openness be helpful, or would it add even more impetus to the nuclear competition in southern Asia? This could go either way. It is clear, however, that the absence of disclosure hasn’t slowed down the competition.