ACT Essay: Chemical Warfare and India

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Media reports some time ago suggested that New Delhi was worried about India having signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, when the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan appeared to be dragging their feet. Some reports even went so far as to say that New Delhi was looking for loopholes that would let it renege on the commitment. Cur ratification is not only morally correct but also in our best security interests. If India indeed has second thoughts, an informed debate is must. Unfortunately, there is very little awareness of the implications of chemical warfare in South Asia for such a debate.

Chemical agents could be nerve agents that are like insecticides and which kill very quickly. Blister agents are liquids that primarily burn and blister the skin, within hours of exposure. These were used widely in World War I, and mustard gas is an example. Choking agents are volatile liquids, the fumes of which when inhaled, cause death by injuring the lungs and causing choking. They are less powerful than the nerve agents. Blood agents like the choking agents are also breathed in and they kill by preventing body tissues from utilizing oxygen. These are also less potent than nerve agents.

In a nonnuclear situation, the possession of chemical warfare capabilities would be seen in the strategic sphere as a formidable blackmail asset in the armory of the opposing side. It would also be seen in the operational or tactical spheres as an invaluable asset for restoring an adverse situation. In a nonnuclear weapon scenario, a one-sided Chemical Warfare CW capability would be destabilizing. China ⚹ openly possesses such capabilities, and India and Pakistan have the technological and industrial wherewithal to easily create CW capabilities. Under these circumstances, the pressures on both the countries to actually do so either openly or clandestinely would be great.

In a situation of nuclear asymmetry, a much touted belief exists that CW is a poor mans answer to an adversary unclear capability. If the nonnuclear power uses its CW capability, there has to be the presumption of an almost certain nuclear retaliation. It can be argued that this fear of escalation into nuclear response was what deterred Mr. Saddam Hussain from making first use of CW either against Israels strategic targets or on tactic as targets in the combat zone during the Gulf War. At any rate, a nuclear retaliation to a nuclear first strike without provocation or when only conventional hostilities are underway. On the other hand, a CW retaliation to a nuclear first strike. Whether in the strategic or tactical spheres, is in terms of damage, going to be so puny by comparison, to say nothing of other uncertainties including wind and weather, that its deterrence value would be questionable. On balance, therefore, the view that a CW capability can deter an adversarys nuclear capability is too simplistic and ought no; to be accepted by any serious planner. Only nuclear weapons can deter nuclear weapons.

Let us assume that a minimum nuclear deterrence is operating mutually in the South Asian context; this might be unweaponized. However, as long as it is tacitly accepted by all parties to be capable of being used within a matter of hours of being needed, the first use of CW by any country seems most unlikely, as the target of chemical attack is almost certain to retaliate by making a second strike with weapons of mass destruction, if it possesses both a CW and a nuclear capability, the second strike might use either, depending upon a number of variables; however, the initiator will have to assume the worst. Therefore, it is most unlikely that CW will be initiated. In case the target of the CW strike is either without or believed to be without a CW capability, it would be almost axiomatic that nuclear retaliation would ensue and deterrence would be stronger still. When a minimum nuclear deterrence is in place, therefore, creating or deploying a CW capability will be an exercise in futility. The threat of use of CW against city targets would have a high degree of effect on the morale of the target population. Once used, this effect on morale, which is caused primarily by the fear of the unknown, will decrease dramatically with every successive attack. The use or threat of use of CW against city targets will have some impact but not on the scale that the threat of use of even nominal yield fission weapons will have. The damage from nuclear weapon use is of magnitude more severe than the damage caused by CW.

Neither India nor Pakistan can afford to equip every soldier, sailor and airman with complete protective clothing and equipment for CW, especially if nerve gases have also got to be taken into account. Even if one assumes that this would be possible, there are other difficulties in providing protection against a surprise attack, and in continuing to wear protective clothing for militarily significant periods. In the plains and the semi-desert and desert terrain on the Indo-Pak borders, especially in summer, it would be impossible to wear protective gear for long enough to perform worthwhile missions without unacceptable loss of efficiency. There would be a severe danger also of heavy casualties from heat exhaustion. In the summer, it is impossible to survive inside tanks and armored vehicles, closed down. These factors indicate that the protection of troops against a surprise CW attack would be virtually impossible. This will lead one to believe that only premeditated first use might permit ones troops who are in the zone to be warned and protected; However, such activity might lead to a loss of surprise, which is an essential prerequisite for a successful CW attack.

First use in defense to restore an adverse tactical situation would be possible close to our own defenses only if the defending forces have been equipped with protective gear and warned about the intended use of CW, This may or may not be possible depending upon a number of factors, especially whether the adverse situation developed suddenly, or whether there was adequate lead time to deploy protective CW equipment. Making first use of CW in areas that may not have an adequate and reasonably quick impact on the immediate tactical situation would serve little purpose. Thus in this case, too, we do not see any great wisdom in risking chemical or nuclear retaliation by making a CW first strike.

A retaliatory second strike is the only sensible and effective way of using CW if ones adversary starts this form of horror. The target can be chosen in such manner that the troops in the target area are unprotected; a total surprise can more easily be ensured, because the choice of targets is wide in type and geographical location. The corollary is that when both adversaries have CW capabilities, it appears that CW would be more suited for deterring each others chemical weapon capabilities than for first use in proactive situations.

Countries that have a nuclear weapon capability have truly no necessity for developing, maintaining or deploying a CW capability. Doing so would definitely not be cost effective, apart from being foolish, and going against the encouraging international trend of proscribing CW. Those that do not or cannot have a nuclear weapon capabil ity will find that the CW capability is only cost effective as a deterrent against CW and not against nuclear weapons. In a world that is moving decisively towards the abolition of chemical weapons. Creating such a capability at this juncture will not be cost effective. Those that have clandestinely created such a capability would now be wise to come clean and destroy stockpiles, synchronising with the destruction of stockpiles, where applicable by their potential adversaries.

India should maintain an effective minimum nuclear deterrent vis-a-vis China and Pakistan. This has to be tacitly seen as being credibly present. As to whether it is weaponized arid deployed or otherwise is not material as iong as it is believed all round that this capability can be put to use within hours if there is a nuclear or chemical first strike against India by of its adversaries. Given this, India need not produce, maintain or deploy chemical weapons systems. If. Any stockpiling has indeed taken place, India can even destroy its stocks unilaterally, and clearly state that any chemical attack, whether in the strategic or tactical sphere, will be met by activating in an adequately timely manner, a nuclear response.