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The case for nuclear testing

May 15, 2007 14:19 IST
In March, the British parliament voted to renew Britain's nuclear deterrent beyond 2024, when its current Trident submarine-based arsenal will start to be decommissioned. Either by extending the life of the Tridents or by replacing them with new submarines and missiles, British leaders have decided to keep their nuclear arsenal well beyond 2050.

The British have also been testing new nuclear warhead designs. In recent years, British and American teams have carried out sub-critical tests in the US as they step up efforts to build new warheads designed to give them new options to use nuclear weapons in both strategic and sub-strategic roles.

Even more hectic nuclear activity is taking place in the US. In fact, the US has been running a Stockpile Stewardship Program since the end of the Cold War to keep its arsenal in shape. The programme depends on data gathered from over a thousand nuclear tests conducted by the US between 1945 and 1992, of which 883 tests were for weapon designs. What's more, since announcing its own moratorium on explosive nuclear testing in 1992, the US has conducted over a dozen sub-critical nuclear tests.

The Indo-US nuclear tango

Under another programme, called the Life Extension Programme, the US has been replacing the non-nuclear parts of thousands of warheads that the US continues to maintain. Most of these warheads were built during 1978-1989 with an assumed 20-year design life.

But even with all that data from a thousand nuclear tests, American scientists are still unsure about the effects of aging and deterioration on the nuclear parts or the nuclear-explosive package of their warheads. Despite over 50 years of manufacturing and deploying nuclear weapons, despite years of experience and expertise conducting sub-critical tests and computer simulations, American scientists are still unsure about the reliability of their nuclear weapons. Indeed, some time ago, weapons experts discovered a design flaw in the W-76 warhead, which the Trident's D-5 missiles carry, which meant that it perhaps would not have exploded when launched.

The US has now launched a new programme called Reliable Replacement Warheads to study if it is possible at all to replace the nuclear-explosive packages on their warheads and be confident, without conducting explosive tests, that they would work. Asked for $ 9 million for the RRW programme in 2006, the US Congress gave $ 25 million. That's how seriously the US Congress takes America's nuclear arsenal. This is the same US Congress that has stipulated in the Henry Hyde Act that India should not conduct any more nuclear tests if it wants nuclear cooperation.

President Bush has allocated money for the current US nuclear arsenal to be refurbished to last till 2042. But already, according to the New York Times which quoted government sources, ''worried that the nation's aging nuclear arsenal is increasingly fragile, American scientists have begun designing a new generation of nuclear arms meant to be sturdier and more reliable and to have longer lives'.

No wonder then that in March, US Deputy Undersecretary of Energy Clay Sell informed Russia that America reserves the right to conduct further explosive nuclear tests.

Meanwhile, the struggling former superpower Russia is testing a new 'targetable' warhead and building new generations of missiles, notably the Topol-M 26 and 27. Feeling threatened by NATO expansion, by NATO's own efforts at building a missile defence for Europe, and by the imminent expansion of the US missile defence initiative into Russia's backyard in Poland and the Czech Republic, President Vladimir Putin has started to step up Russia's new nuclear and missile initiatives.

Not to be left behind, and feeling even more threatened by the American missile defence initiative, China, the rising superpower, is building and deploying new lighter nuclear warheads and new long-range missiles such as the DF-31. Inevitably, as the US continues to build the missile shield, the Chinese response will be to seek to overwhelm that shield by deploying hundreds more missiles and warheads than the missile shield can defend against.

That's how the former, current and future superpowers are preparing for what they see as an insecure future in a time of global power transition amidst a rising scarcity of natural resources needed for economic growth.

But we in India seem to have concluded that since we conducted six, little, controversial tests in 1998, we have already become masters of all things nuclear -- whether it be of building and deploying nuclear weapons or of maintaining an arsenal over the coming decades or of nuclear strategy and deterrence -- and so we can feel secure about the future under all circumstances.

Keen to push for the so-called nuclear 'deal' at any cost, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the American media at the height of the euphoria last April, 'Our scientists tell me they need no further tests.'

This is typical Indian hubris We started to claim that we were a 'knowledge superpower' the moment a few of our companies became capable of writing lines of software code to American specifications. We started to claim we were an economic superpower in the making the moment a couple of our industry segments started doing well, exporting their services or small components to America and making profits based on cheap labour and low currency.

The nuclear deal chats

Since 1998, we have claimed to be a nuclear weapons power, notwithstanding the fact that our arsenal at best consists of no more than a few dozen low-yield bombs whose designs have not been fully tested. Notwithstanding the fact that we do not yet have a missile that can reach even Beijing, let alone continental United States.

Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, Manmohan Singh's fellow Cambridge-trained economist, has an explanation for why we Indians are such silly jingoists. At a lecture at Johns Hopkins University a couple of years ago, he said, 'We (Indians) often confuse the fact that we have thought of something as having actually accomplished somethingÂ…'

We have only thought of acquiring a nuclear deterrence capability, but we have deluded ourselves into believing that we have already accomplished it.

Thus, India has claimed just after six nuclear tests that it has acquired all the data needed to simulate nuclear weapons and so need not conduct any more tests, that we could indeed simulate nuclear weapons on our computers, that we could now make warheads of 200-500 KT yield, that the H-bomb test had worked perfectly (which it apparently did not), that with just one test -- no matter whether you want to call it a partial success or a partial failure -- we had collected all the data necessary to simulate the H-bomb, and so on and so forth.

All these claims were designed to justify a 'self-imposed' moratorium on further testing, which the government has reiterated every now and then, ensuring that in the last eight years the Indian nuclear arsenal has not amounted to much more than being a 'technology demonstrator' – much like every other Indian military project.

But until now, at least the moratorium and all that jingoism has been 'self-imposed' and self-inflicted. Now, however, this proud nation of a billion people is being asked by its own ostensibly sovereign government to accept a civil nuclear 'cooperation deal' with its principal nuclear tormentor, which has made it a condition that 'cooperation' will cease, and all of India's nuclear infrastructure and investment will be laid waste, if India tests again.

Should we sign such a deal? Should we continue to observe the moratorium?

Next: Do we really have a nuclear deterrent?

S Raghotham