How do the armed forces respond to reports that cast a doubt over either the credibility of India's nuclear deterrent as well as reports that suggest that Pakistan's nuclear capacity has enhanced and its delivery improved? Karan Thapar asked one of India's former Army chiefs and the victor of Kargil, General V P Malik.
Karan Thapar: General Ved Malik, three leading Indian scientists, Dr Santhanam, Dr Sethna and Dr Iyengar, have raised doubts about India's nuclear as well as thermo-nuclear tests of 1998. The thermo-nuclear test is said to have been a fizzle and the nuclear test is said to have been done in haste. Have these comments said to have cast a shadow of doubt over the credibility of India's nuclear deterrent?
General V P Malik: I don't think that out ability to produce nuclear weapons and to deliver them is in doubt. However, what is in doubt today is the yield of these weapons. That is linked to whether we need more tests or not.
Karan Thapar: So in a sense if the yield is in doubt then there are also question marks about the efficacy of them?
General V P Malik: Yes, that is true. It affects the armed forces particularly because they have to plan. When they do the planning they have to execute the task given to them, then they have to know what is the kind of yield that each bomb or nuclear weapon has.
Karan Thapar: Now, the armed forces will have question marks assessing the yield because there is a dispute about it?
General V P Malik: Particularly about the mega-tonne weapons, I'm talking about the fusion weapons, the thermo nuclear ones.
Karan Thapar: And therefore there will be question marks within the armed forces about the efficacy of the weapon and their own planning?
General V P Malik: They need to be reassured, there is no doubt about it. That the weapon system that they are going to use and for which they have to do their planning, about what kind of yield it has and what kind of damage it can cause at the target.
Karan Thapar: Now if there are doubts in the minds of the Indian armed forced and they need to be reassured, what would the same comments have done to the planners in Pakistan and in China in a sense to have strategic opponents. How will they view these doubts?
General V P Malik: As I said earlier, right in the beginning, that we have the weapons and we can deliver them. The question is that we would probably have to over-ensure in places we feel the yield may be less.
Karan Thapar: Also the Pakistanis and the Chinese, having heard what our three scientists have said, will themselves question marks about the credibility about India's nuclear deterrent?
General V P Malik: Well, credibility and deterrence is about how you convince people and how they take it. And therefore to that extent they could have.
Karan Thapar: The truth is that these doubts have existed for a while. In fact, even in 1998 after the tests, when you were Army chief, one of the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr Iyengar, came to meet you and expressed these doubts to you at that time. How did you respond?
General V P Malik: Well he met me and many others also. I had a long chat with him, then he gave something in writing to me and I told him that I would put it across to the National Security Advisor and which is what I did.
Karan Thapar: Which was Mr (Brajesh) Mishra, what happened after that?
General V P Malik: When I met Mr Mishra he told me that the matter had been discussed with the scientists and they are quite convinced that the indicated yield is correct.
Karan Thapar: And Mr Mishra and the government of the day left the matter at that point?
General V P Malik: That is right.
Karan Thapar: But the truth again is that these meetings did not assure someone like you. As in 2008 to mark the tenth anniversary of Pokhran you wrote an article for the United Services Institute Journal in which you write 'technical claims of Pokharan too have been challenged by some scientists who need to be allayed convincingly'. You further wrote many of our own scientists have created fear in the minds of public and more importantly the armed forces. So, even after 10 years later you still had doubts which needed to be convincingly allayed?
General V P Malik: Because there had been so much of writing, talk about it, not only for Mr Iyengar, but some foreign scientist had also written about it. The doubts were only about the thermo nuclear weapons.
Karan Thapar: And if you, as the former army chief, expressed these concerns last year, on the tenth anniversary of Pokhran they I assume that these concerns have worried several of your successors as army chiefs and in fact have worried the armed forces as a whole?
General V P Malik: Look, I can't say about my successors but I will say one thing that this is a very important issue. And therefore, to build your credibility in the minds of the adversaries, as well as for your proper planning and execution, you do need to be reassured on things like this.
Karan Thapar: And to be reassured these doubts as you put it have to be allayed convincingly?
General V P Malik: Yes, that is right.
Karan Thapar: Now after these doubts appeared in the last 10 days, Dr Abdul Kalam who was he head of the DRDO at the time of the Pokhran test, issued a statement effectively rubbishing what Dr Santhanam said. Did that convince you?
General V P Malik: Let's not forget that Dr Santhanam was part of his team and it came as quite a shock when Dr Santhanam himself mentioned that it was a fizzle, of course he was referring to the thermo-nuclear weapon. So, Dr Kalam's statement was not quite convincing.
Karan Thapar: In fact in your article of 2008, you said: the doubt is compounded by the fact that our DRDO scientists are well known for claims and over-optimistic public statements. In a sense their boastfulness has added to the problem?
General V P Malik: Well that has been our experience over the development of the weapons and that equipment that the DRDO has delivered or not delivered.
Karan Thapar: In fact, Dr Kalam when he was the head of the DRDO, it established a small track record for committing the Government to creating weaponry in India, which clearly India couldn’t create. As a result the Army went short of critical things like weapon locating radar and radio sets which was needed particularly during Kargil, but you didn't have?
General V P Malik: Yes, we had one or two incident particularly on the weapon-location radar. If the DRDO had not come into the way, we would not have got them before the Kargil war and we would have definitely reduced our casualties.
Karan Thapar: In a sense Dr Kalam over-estimated India's capacity and ability?
General V P Malik: Well, I don't want to go more into that.
Karan Thapar: A second response from the government to the recent that questions the credibility of our deterrent is an interview given by our present national security advisor to The Hindu, where he dismissed Dr Santhanam as a bit of a maverick. He questioned why is he (Dr Santhanam) speaking up now? But is that in your mind a convincing way to allaying the doubt
General V P Malik: Look, you can convince people only through the scientists and particularly those contributed to the exercise, I'm referring to Chidambaram and his whole team from the economic energy commission, so I don't know if we can be convinced so easily by people who are not scientists. It is a matter of technology and these are the people who can discuss and reassure people.
Karan Thapar: So in other words what you are saying it that if the Government wants to convincingly allay these doubts then scientists Chidambaram and Kakotkar need to speak up. And secondly they need to speak put with detailed fact and not just make a simple assertion.
General V P Malik: It's not a political or military matter alone, but it is primarily a scientific issue.
Karan Thapar: And it needs to be done convincingly and with detail?
General V P Malik: Obviously.
Karan Thapar: So when the Prime Minister last Sunday on a visit to Barmer just spoke two sentences, 'We believe in our scientists. It is very clear that the test was successful' that is not sufficient?
General V P Malik: Well, that is a political statement. But for things like this, particularly for the armed forces they have to be convinced by the people who have developed these weapons.
Karan Thapar: If the sort of convincing rebuttal of these doubts doesn't come from the Government or the scientists, then what will be the impact on the armed forces?
General V P Malik: Look, it is not necessary to bring it out in the open. I also don't believe it is a public debate.
Karan Thapar: But it can be done privately, reassuringly?
General V P Malik: That is right.
Karan Thapar: If it is not done privately then what will be the impact on armed forces and the confidence in the nuclear deterrent?
General V P Malik: I'm sure there will be questions and answers within the establishments and if the armed forces raise this point they will have to be reassured.
Karan Thapar: Do you think the armed forces are likely to raise this point, though not in public but privately?
General V P Malik: I think they should discuss this matter.
Karan Thapar: Because it is important to remover doubt?
General V P Malik: Yes, it is important to remove doubts.
Karan Thapar: Is it also important to remove doubts that may be in the minds of strategic planners in Pakistan and China, that if they are taking any joy from what the Indian scientists have said, do we need to remove that joy?
General V P Malik: The issue is only of thermo-nuclear weapons so when it comes to its use, if we want to make use of those, which means it has to be counter-value target then only this doubt creates this kind of problem.
Karan Thapar: But with regard to the thermo-nuclear weapon you are also saying that we do need to remove it?
General V P Malik: Yes, that is right.
Karan Thapar: And that doubt has to be removed for both our armed forces but also from the minds of our potential enemies and adversaries?
General V P Malik: To make our deterrence credible yes that is required. But more importantly it is the end user, as he must know what and how he has to plan.
Karan Thapar: So it is critical that for the Indian armed forces these doubts be removed?
General V P Malik: It is important.
Karan Thapar: Side by side with doubts being cast over the credibility of India's thermo-nuclear deterrent, there are also reports from America which say that Pakistan could have anywhere between 70-90 nuclear weapons.
It has the nuclear-capable ballistic missile ready for deployment, it has nuclear-capable cruise missiles which are being developed and in addition it is developing chemical separation facilities as well as plutonium production reactors.
As a former army chief how do you respond to these reports?
General V P Malik: We have to go into the details of these reports both from the points of view of the intelligence and to prove their credibility. It does affect us because it creates the imbalance of the deterrence level that we have got and particularly when we are banking on our second-strike capability. In the sense that we believe in no first use. So, when your adversary accumulates such large number of weapons, you have to worry about your survivability.
Karan Thapar: And when there is an imbalance in the deterrent that suggests that both quantitatively and qualitatively that they are better or gaining an edge that is worrying?
General V P Malik: Yes, that is true because the report which has been published talks both about the quantity as well as quality being improved.
Karan Thapar: And that again would worry our armed forces because it would suggest that since we are entirely dependant on the second strike, their first strike imbalance could be a matter of great concern?
General V P Malik: Yes it is, as I said both quantity and quality-wise it would be worrisome.
Karan Thapar: Is there a second problem that arises from these reports as this could boost Pakistan's confidence to carry out low-intensity warfare in the belief that they have such a large deterrent India wont react?
General V P Malik: That is true, because if you recall even in 1999, one of the reasons why Pervez Musharraf and his colleagues carried out this incursion in the Kargil was because they thought that with the nuclear symmetry we will not be able to wage any type of conventional war.
They were quite confident about it and that was their belief and that is how they carried out the incursion. So it's not only the low intensity conflict but even the ongoing proxy war may get extended because they are so confidant the we will not be able to do anything. Of course Kargil-type incursions can take place.
Karan Thapar: If Kargil happened because of nuclear symmetry then in fact the situation could be much worse and imbalance in Pakistan's favour?
General V P Malik: Well that is true, it makes them more confident and reassured. But I'm not saying that it was the only reason that Kargil happened, it was one of the important reasons.
Karan Thapar: And clearly this imbalance would once again give them the opportunity for that sort of behaviour Kargil, proxy wars or even low-intensity warfare?
General V P Malik: That is true, it can impact that.
Karan Thapar: So this is a very worrying situation?
General V P Malik: Yes that is true. There is one more reason and that is that we now have good relations with United States and we are in the process of buying a number of weapons and equipments from them. But now what we see is that Pakistan is violating the weapons export laws of the United States.
Karan Thapar: Now you are referring to the reports in the ‘New York Times’ that Pakistan has the American delivered Harpoon to make it both nuclear capable and also enable it to hit land targets.
General V P Malik: This is another report which appeared in the ‘New York Times’ and I'm referring to that.
Karan Thapar: This is a clear violation of the agreement and because this violation is targeted directly at India, you are worried this will effect India's relations with America.
General V P Malik: Obviously they continue Indo-centric and they are not as concerned about counter-terrorism for which they are being so much of aid $ 7.5 billion in the next five years.
Karan Thapar: This is a proof in fact that they are using it to target India?
General V P Malik: Well as I said they continue to remain indo-centric.
Karan Thapar: Do these two reports - ‘New York Times’ and the American Bulletin of Scientists - suggest that the perception of the strategic threat that India faces from Pakistan has increased significantly in the recent days.
General V P Malik: Yes, they have to be taken note of because of these developments that are taking place. We have to take note of these and think of how to counter them.
Karan Thapar: And on the converse the doubts which have been created of our own nuclear deterrent suggest that the perception of India's ability to stand up to these strategic threats may now have a few question marks around it?
General V P Malik: We have to strengthen our deterrence capability. Unfortunately over the years because of so many weapon system that we need and haven't been able to get, both referring to missiles in terms of conventional weaponry, we have been lagging behind.
So, obviously our deterrence capability both for deterrence and other nature of conflict has got eroded and we have to build it, particularly now with the kinds of reports that are coming it. When you mention about these Harpoons being modified what it really means is, they will be able to target any of our establishments along the coastline, not only from the ships but also from the aircrafts.
Karan Thapar: Which means cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai but also cities right around eastern and western coast of the peninsula are now vulnerable which they weren't earlier?
General V P Malik: It gives them extra capability now and it's not only the cities, lets not forget our important establishments like the atomic energy commission, the headquarters and the ONGC platforms that we have in the seas are all vulnerable.
Karan Thapar: the govt has called the American ambassador on Saturday and filed a formal protest, but is that a sufficient response, surely this isn't a diplomatic issue but a strategic planning and response which I take you are more interested in?
General V P Malik: One aspect is strategic response and the other is diplomatic as it effects indo-us relations, particularly of the kind of weapons system we are going to but from them. If they are going to find their way to Pakistan obviously we have to be worried.
Karan Thapar: Side-by-side you also want to see the govt respond strategically building up its own equipment and strength.
General V P Malik: I'm absolutely convinced that we need to build our deterrence capability much more than what we have today.