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The Case Against Further N-tests by India

by Praful Bidwai, 18 September 2009

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Why do we keep showering awards and honours upon the managers of our security and space-science establishment despite the shoddy results it produces after claiming stellar successes? "Missile Man" APJ Abdul Kalam got the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour, six years before economist-philosopher Amartya Sen did, for a an infinitely richer contribution.

Doesn’t the recent winding up of the Integrated Guided Missile Programme launched by Dr. Kalam in 1983 signify its terminal crisis? Why doesn’t India have a reliable intermediate-range missile barring Agni-I? Why has the cost of the nuclear submarine risen 30-fold?

If the Defence Research and Development Organisation is the grand success it’s claimed to be, then why has it never completed a major project without huge delays and cost overruns? Why did the Department of Atomic Energy have to get critical Russian designs and equipment for the N-submarine reactor after working on it for 34 years?

The DAE and DRDO have long been unmatched for their boastful claims, missed targets, unaccountability and excessive secrecy. Now, the Indian Space Research Organisation, earlier considered transparent and honest, has joined their league.

ISRO’s Moon mission has just been terminated because the orbiter got overheated, leading to the collapse of vital subsystems, including sensors that determine its orientation.

It’s not the mission’s premature termination, or ISRO’s miscalculation of the craft’s surface temperature, that warrants concern. Mistakes aren’t uncommon in space programmes. ISRO did raise the craft’s orbit to prevent overheatingto no avail.

ISRO’s real failure lay in misleading the public and its own scientists. It falsely claimed that the orbit was raised to enable a better view and "further studies" of the Moon.

ISRO didn’t tell its scientists of the overheating crisis, noticed one month after launch, for over three months. It kept its overseas collaborating scientists in the dark for a month after the sensor failure.

ISRO’s bosses also gagged its researchers. Yet, three senior ISRO officials asserted in May that there was "nothing wrong" with any of the spacecraft’s systems. It’s this unethical non-disclosure of the whole truth that’s ISRO’s greatest sin against science.

Truth is an even greater casualty in the nuclear weapons arena the holiest of the Holy Cows of national security. Anything nuclear bureaucrats do, such as India’s May 1998 nuclear explosions, is described as a major scientific or technological feat.

Their greatest claimed achievement then was detonating a hydrogen (fusion/thermonuclear) bomb on May 11, when two other devices were also exploded: a fission bomb similar to that detonated over Nagasaki, which killed 70,000 people, with an explosive yield of 12 kilotons (12,000 tonnes of TNT), and a sub-kiloton device.

However, claims Dr. K Santhanam, a DRDO official in the Pokharan-II core team, the H-bomb fizzled out. Its fusion assembly, its heart, didn’t ignite or did so on a minuscule scale.

Both DAE and DRDO strenuously and peevishly deny this. They have challenged Dr. Santhanam to produce hard evidence, knowing well that under the rules of secrecy, he’s unlikely to possess it. National Security Adviser MK Narayanan called Dr. Santhanam "a maverick." He may well be one, but that cannot demolish his claim.

What’s the truth about the H-bomb? Does it warrant rethinking on India’s nuclear testing moratorium, announced in 1998 and reiterated in 2005?

Dr. Santhanam isn’t saying anything original. A US seismologist, using publicly available data, concluded that the combined yield of the three May 11 explosions was 10 to 25 kt, not the claimed 55 kt.

US Natural Resources Defence Council experts said the mid-point of the probable yields was about 12 kt. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory analysts concluded that the second stage of the two-stage fusion assembly failed to ignite as planned. Some retired Indian scientists had similar assessments.

The DAE called these "baseless" and said the tests were "perfect" India had conducted their "full complement" and "obtained three robust bomb designs."

It claimed it had kept the yield "deliberately low" it normally should be 1,000 kt-plusto avert seismic damage to villages near the test site. It also contended, incredibly, that Indian and Western seismic readings differed because the simultaneous explosions caused "wave interference." But such interference would have reflected in India’s sensors too.

I discussed this in my book (co-authored with Achin Vanaik) South Asia On A Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament (Oxford, 1999). On balance of probability, it seems that the H-bomb didn’t perform as planned. Even if it did, a single test can’t give weapons engineers enough confidence in its design.

States conduct multiple tests on a design under different conditions before it’s considered usable. But the DAE took shortcuts. DRDO has similarly declared missiles battle-ready after just one or two test-flightswhen technologically advanced countries conduct 10 or more test-flights.

Further debate is necessary on the "fizzle." But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of demanding further nuclear tests. An H-bomb isn’t part of India’s doctrine of "minimum credible nuclear deterrent." Nuclear weapons are irrelevant to defence, and generate insecurity, instability and a potentially ruinous arms race. The world needs and deserves nuclear disarmament.

Even leaving aside the disarmament imperative, which India professes, there’s no case for an H-bomb. India has over 100 fission weapons, each enough to kill up to o million people. This is deterrence enough.

There’s a lesson here from the US. In 1949, a committee of top-level scientists — including Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimerurged President Truman: "[A hydrogen bomb] would bring about the destruction of innumerable human lives; it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of … military installations … Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations."

The advice was ignored. But its wisdom remains valid today. An H-bomb arsenal won’t give India security. It will only raise our mass-destruction capacity and escalate the South Asian arms race. We must say no to further testing.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.