New Delhi: While nuclear weapons can only be governed by deterrence practices, deterrence fundamentally has to be credible to secure a country. Verification is always a problem with deterrence, but verification has also made rapid strides since the early days of nuclear weaponry. It is harder, therefore, for countries to fake deterrence capabilities, and fraud carries a huge price. If deterrence capabilities are reliably proved to be exaggerated and indeed to be below par, it leads to credibility deficit and a consequent undermining of national security.

These concerns have come to surface with a report in The Hindu that India’s sole ballistic nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, has suffered significant damage and has not sailed for the past ten months. The report has not been denied which is usual in cases related to military nuclear assets. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a factual basis for the report and that the country has been without a second strike capacity for months.

In the nascent phases of developing and deploying deterrent assets, delays and accidents are regrettably common. The damage to the Arihant is reported to have been caused by human error. While arduous military training aims to minimize human error, deficiencies do show. A majority of fighter plane incidents in peacetime are usually attributed to human error. All the same, the accidental damage to the Arihant is infinitely more serious. As the only second strike asset, the disaster of the incident cannot be overstated.

Its public revelation is a boon. Governments routinely put a lid on such incidents. It does not serve the intended purpose of hiding the deterrence gap from adversaries. Nuclear launch platforms are among those military assets most highly monitored around the world. It should come as no surprise that the major powers, including China, were aware of the troubles besetting the Arihant and that it had not put out to sea. Pakistan may or may not have known about the gap. Although they are all-weather allies, it is highly unlikely that China shares the most sensitive strategic intelligence with Pakistan on a regular basis. Friends also keep secrets from one another should their sharing not be immediately necessitated.

The trouble though in covering up incidents like the one about Arihant is that there is all round credibility loss for the country. The country is misled that it has an active and operational second strike capability when it fact it doesn’t. There is a further -- and still more serious credibility loss -- with adversary and friendly nations. Adversaries and friends alike become aware of deterrence faking and the faking country loses a proportional quantum of power on the weighing scales. This rebounds on the faker during a real military showdown or an escalating faceoff. For ten months the government kept a terrified lid on the Arihant incident. The government probably did not know better. The Hindu has done a signal service to the country by breaking the story.

The Arihant incident reminds this writer of the thermonuclear “fizzle” during the 1998 Pokhran test. The yield from one of the three bombs detonated on the first day of the test, touted as a thermonuclear device, was so low as to invite worldwide scepticism about its effectiveness. More than ten years later, a DRDO official managing the test, K. Santhanam, made a bombshell revelation that the hydrogen device failed to trigger. He called for more tests which had become impossible with the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Maximum deterrence demands lightweight thermonuclear warheads mated to ICBMs because they give, to use gangland patois, more bang for the buck. After Santhanam’s admission of failure, the credibility gap about India’s second strike capability was ripped wide open. It was never sealed. Add to this now the Arihant mishap and you have a mother of all crises hitting the Indian deterrent.

Living in denial would only aggravate the crisis since geopolitical troubles for the country are growing by the day. Public opinion scarcely expects or desires an open discussion in government and military circles about plugging the strategic gaps. But the government needs no reminding at the same time that the credibility of the Indian deterrent has been compromised and that the adversaries are entirely informed about its distressed nature. Fakery and jugaad will no longer impress the enemy. Nor will it be diverted by narrow nationalism.