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Deterrence by Ambivalence

India’s nuclear weapons capability so far held to be sufficient for the pronounced policy of minimal deterrence took a curious turn when K. Santhanam , a friend from high school days and colleague for some years has come out with a curiously delayed admission that India’s test of the fusion weapons in 1998 was not successful and India needs to conduct a few more tests to validate its capability . I was not particularly shocked nor devastated by this revelation. The khus phus talk among some members of the retired nuclear scientific community in Bangalore where I live was that this particular test gave disappointingly low yield . A former chairman of the nuclear establishment , Dr. Iyengar has said so long back. Many western sources were categorical in saying that the yield was about 20KTs. US has any number of underground sensors in the neighbourhood including in Pakistan , to measure the yield and normally one would expect that they would have an accurate assessment . First of all one is not clear whether the test was a full blown fusion weapon or a boosted fission device . Even for a boosted fission device the yield was thought to be low.

Both the Prime Minister and the National Security Adviser have categorically stated that they believe our scientists and that our nuclear capabilities are adequate for India’s security needs . The NSA has gone a step further and rubbished Santi’s statement saying that DRDO was only giving operational assistance and would not know anything about the scientific conclusions of the tests . I find it difficult to believe that Santi was just the “light boy” .

Be that as it may , why connect it up with the signing or not of the CTBT . Does any one in this country seriously believe that they would be able to test now in the teeth of strong international opposition .

India has carried out 6 tests including the one in 1974 where as the U..S. has carried out more than 1000 tests and China has to its credit 46 tests before signing on the dotted line. One would therefore believe that India needs to conduct more tests to perfect its weapons. Dr. Chidambaram the architect of our May 1998 tests and his colleagues have however repeatedly asserted that India has gathered sufficient data by its recent tests in which all the latest physics have been incorporated and no further tests would be necessary. The Govt.’s paper laid on the table of the Lok sabha asserted that the tests have significantly enhanced the capabilities of our scientists and engineers in computer simulation techniques of new designs and enabled them to under take sub critical tests in future if considered necessary. It adds that in terms of technical capability our scientists and engineers have the requisite resources to ensure a credible deterrent.

Despite the assertions by the govt. and the nuclear scientists, doubts have been expressed about the stated yields of 58 K tons in the May 11 tests. Many other groups especially from the west have analyzed the same seismic data to assess an yield of 12.5 ktons with a + or – of 3 kilo tons. This has however been rebutted in a research article in Current Science by Dr.Sikka and his colleagues from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre , who attribute the difference in evaluation to the fact that magnitudes recorded in east west direction was much lower than recorded by those stations located in the north. Doubts have also been expressed at the assertion by the govt. that tests conducted so far are sufficient to ensure minimal deterrence. The present nuclear weapon states had conducted far more single detonations to validate the weapons designs before moving to near simultaneous tests. It has been argued that more tests are needed to build a credible deterrence against a country like china which has developed three types of warheads in the ranges of 100 – 300 kts,600 – 700 kts, and 3.3 to 5 mega tons. Given the sophistication and extent of Chinese nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, six nuclear tests within 48 hrs. and a handful of missile tests particularly of the intermediate range Agni raises , cast shadows on the claim that we have nuclear capability for minimal deterrence. The term minimal deterrence itself would need more specific clarification..

If We carry out more tests on the plea that more tests are needed to validate our desired nuclear weapons capability , what would be the status of Indo US nuclear agreement and the plans to increase power production by signing deals with other countries. What about getting technologies which are being promised now if you behave properly – ie not conduct anymore tests and consolidate what you have – capping your capability ? Would India be able to withstand the punitive measures which the international community may impose ?

What would be India’s priorities ? Accelerated development and providing decent living to the millions in this country . or keep chasing the elusive strategic parity with China and others and deter countries like Pakistan ? In any case Pakistan has not been deterred and did tit for tat tests and made an unsuccessful grab for Kargil on way to Kashmir one day . Success for India on this Pakistani adventure came at the cost of precious military lives lost . Nothing has changed in our relations with Pakistan who continue to be hostile . They have temporarily given up the proxy war in Kashmir as they are mired in their own problems of domestic terrorist depredations . They are quite happy to let the ‘Let’ do the job in India on its own with a little funding and training . News is coming in that Pakistanis are expanding their India directed nuclear arsenal. They are also modifying the US supplied arms for them to be India specific . These are indeed worrisome news. Let us face the fact that India’s 1998 tests has put no extra gloss on the image of our strategic capability. . Let there be a technically argued white paper from the Govt. on the subject . Let us not be deterred by the iconic image of some of the actors on either side of the nuclear divide .

If Govt. for some reason or other is reluctant to come out with such a white paper let us carry on with the ambivalent policy of our nuclear capability . After all Israel is thought to possess nuclear weapon capability without a single test . Further who knows the real capability of our good friends across the border Pakistanis .

Lastly , knowing ‘Santy’ as I do , I am also intrigued by his late admission. Is there more here than meets the eye ? Or is he getting into a confessional mood with advancing years ?

(The writer, Mr S.Gopal, is former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi)

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