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The sad MAD world of Agni-V

The only thing louder than the thunderous roar of the Agni V long-range ICBM as it blasted off this morning was the spontaneous eruption of euphoria on social media platforms that India had joined an “elite club” of nations with the power to vaporise enemies with long-range ICBMs.

In the same way that India’s muscling its way into the club of “nuclear haves” in 1998 with the Pokharan nuclear tests was seen as a milestone in India’s ascendance and power projection capability, today’s launch has come as an adrenaline rush for minds dizzy with war scenarios.

The fact that all of China, including its cities on the faraway eastern seaboard, are in our fiery Agni sights has given cause for focussed Sinophobic celebration.

 The sad MAD world of Agni-V

The Agni V was successfully launched today. Reuters

Yet, the irony of nuclear weapons – and of delivery mechanisms like Agni V – is that having acquired them and bolstered our pride (and our deterrent capability), we now have to pray that we’ll never ever have to use them. That’s because the moment for which they are being primed for use will always be too late. And even that moment will give us no pride or joy.

India abides by the policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. That means that the only purpose that the weapons serve is as a deterrent against a nuclear attack on us. The underlying hope is that the promise of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) will inhibit our “enemies” - such as they are – from doing unto us what they wouldn’t us to do unto them.

The only scenario in which we’ll ever use them is on Armageddon day when our cities have been nuked to a cinder. That day will really not give any cause for celebration.

The MAD theory is a bit like religious faith: we have to believe in its redemptive power. There’s no demonstrable proof that it works because it’s never been tested.

On the other hand, it’s also a trump card that we cannot easily use – and for that reason renders us less secure in some ways.

Indicatively, if our going nuclear in 1998 was meant to give us a coat of armour against Pakistan or China (to name just two of our neighbours), it’s fair to say it didn’t work.

It didn’t, for instance, inhibit Pakistan from embarking on the Kargil misadventure in 1999. In fact, Pakistan was emboldened into launching the Kargil attack only because it calculated that the prospect of two “nuclear-armed neighbours” squaring up to fight would grab world attention and effectively internationalise the Kashmir issue.

In the final analysis, although Indian soldiers at Kargil did score signal triumphs on the battlefield, Pakistan’s retreat came about not because of India’s nuclear or even conventional military strengths, but because of its “coercive diplomacy”: India petitioned the Bill Clinton administration, which leaned on the Pakistan government and the army to withdraw.

The “nuclear weapons”, which were intended to protect us from pinpricks, didn’t.

Nor did they protect us from the November 2008 terror attacks and countless other low-intensity conflicts that Pakistan wages and the occasional border trespasses by Chinese troops.

The real threat to India comes less from states that will launch an all-out war on us, and more from “proxies” that do just as effective a job. And you can’t pull out your nuclear weapons and ICBMs against them.

That’s the real madness of the MAD world of nuclear deterrence. We’re convinced we need them, and we feel safe that we have them – because of our capacity to obliterate the enemy.

Yet, for all the momentary feel-good feeling, our nuclear arsenal and our ICBMs are costly toys that we’ll never ever get to play with – and have to pray that we never will.

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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2012 13:59:19 IST