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How many bombs does India need?

September 18, 2009 14:58 IST
India already has more than 100 fission weapons, each enough to kill up to two million people. This is deterrence enough, says Praful Bidwai.

What's with our security and space-science establishment? Why does it miss targets, exceed budgets, produce shoddy results, and still claim success after stellar success?

Why do we keep showering upon its managers (wrongly called 'scientists' because most stopped doing science decades ago) more awards and honours than in any other field?

Isn't it odd that A P J Abdul Kalam received the Bharat Ratna in 1992, six years before Amartya Sen did for work of infinitely greater value than the 'Missile Man's?' Isn't it anomalous that Sen was given India's highest honour only after receiving the Nobel Prize?

Doesn't the winding up of the Integrated Guided Missile Programme launched under Kalam in 1983 signify its terminal crisis? Why doesn't India have a reliable intermediate-range missile barring the Agni-I?

If the Defence Research and Development Organisation is a grand success, then why hasn't it completed a major project without obscene delays and cost overruns -- including the Main Battle Tank (launched in 1974, not ready despite a 10-fold bloating of costs), and the Light Combat Aircraft (started in 1983, but still lacking an engine)?

Why has the nuclear submarine's cost risen 30-fold? And why did the Department of Atomic Energy have to get critical Russian designs and equipment for its reactor despite working on it for 34 years?

The DAE and DRDO have long been unmatched for their shoddy work, targets unrelated to capacity, boastful 'achievements' which on closer scrutiny get deflated like a balloon, and worse, a culture of excessive secrecy. But with the failure of the Chandrayaan-I, the Indian Space Research Organisation, which had a reputation for transparency and honesty, has joined their league.

Its Moon mission had to be terminated because the orbiter got overheated, leading to malfunctioning and collapse of vital subsystems, including sensors which control the craft's orientation. Eventually, it lost terrestrial radio contact.

It's not the mission's premature termination that warrants concern. Failures aren't uncommon in space programmes, as with ISRO's INSAT-2D and -4C. The cause for worry doesn't even lie in ISRO's miscalculation of the temperature at the craft's surface. This was estimated at 750°C, but turned out higher, necessitating the deactivation of certain payloads and abortion of experiments.

Such miscalculations could be part of the learning process. Again, ISRO did some fire-fighting by raising the craft's Moon orbit from 100 kilometres to 200 km. After the star sensors failed, it tried to stabilise the orbiter with gyroscopes.

ISRO's real, unforgivable failure lay in misleading the public and its scientists. ISRO Chairman G Madhavan Nair clamed that the orbit was raised to enable a better view and 'further studies' of the moon -- when it was actually a desperate means to avert a breakdown.

Entire teams of scientists were kept in the dark for three months or longer about the overheating crisis which necessitated rearguard action way back on November 25 -- barely one month after launch. ISRO's bosses issued a gag order on researchers against public statements.

Three senior ISRO officials publicly asserted in May that there was 'nothing wrong' with any of the craft's systems.

ISRO also kept its overseas collaborating scientists in the dark for a month after the first sensor failed.

It is this unethical hiding of the truth that's ISRO's greatest sin. Nothing is more antithetical to good science than non-transparency and non-disclosure of the whole truth.

Truth is an even greater casualty in the nuclear weapons arena. This is the holiest of the Holy Cows of national security. Nuclear bureaucrats never do anything that's not a scientific feat or earth-shaking technological achievement. This explains the glowing terms in which the May 1998 nuclear explosions were described.

Their greatest achievement, supposedly, was the testing of a hydrogen (fusion/thermonuclear) bomb on May 11, along with two other devices: a fission bomb similar to that detonated over Nagasaki in 1945 to kill 70,000 people, with an explosive yield of 12 kilotons (12,000 ton of TNT), and a sub-kiloton device.

However, claims Dr K Santhanam, a DRDO official who was part of the Pokharan-II core team, the H-bomb fizzled out. The fusion assembly, the bomb's 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 such data.

National Security Adviser M K Narayanan has called Dr Santhanam 'a bit of a maverick.'

Dr Santhanam may well be a maverick -- as are many DAE-DRDO officials. But that cannot demolish his claim. Why he chose to remain silent on the H-bomb 'fizzle' for 11 years remains a mystery. As does his motive in making the disclosure in a closed-door conference in Delhi on August 25, leaked to the media in violation of Chatham House rules.

Instead of issuing a denial, Dr Santhanam repeated his claims on television. Such conduct raises uncomfortable questions about the culture of our military-science establishment.

However, what's the truth about the H-bomb? Is Dr Santhanam saying something new? Does it warrant rethinking on India's moratorium on future nuclear testing, announced in May 1998 and reiterated in 2005?

Dr Santhanam isn't saying anything original. Soon after the Pokharan-II blasts, several weapons designers and seismologists questioned the claim that a thermonuclear bomb was successfully detonated with a yield of 43 or 45 kt. A University of Arizona seismologist, using publicly available seismic data, concluded that the combined yield of the three May 11 explosions was 10 to 25 kt, not the claimed 55 kt.

According to weapons experts at the US Natural Resources Defense Council, the mid-point of the range of their probable yields was about 12 kt. Soon, Nucleonics Week, the global nuclear industry's trade journal, reported that 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.' Indeed, the DAE revised its May 11 yield estimates to 60 kt (including the H-bomb's 45 kt and the fission bomb's 15 kt). It had a curious explanation of the H-bomb's low yield was so, when it normally should be 1,000 kt-plus.

It kept the yield 'deliberately low' to avert seismic damage to the villages close to the test site. It also contended, quite incredibly, that there were discrepancies between Indian and Western seismic readings because of 'wave interference' caused by simultaneous explosions. But if such interference were real, it would have been reflected in India's sensors too.

I discussed this whole issue 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, the rational conclusion is that the H-bomb didn't perform as planned.

Even if it did, a single test can't give weapons engineers and the military adequate 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-flights -- when technologically advanced countries conduct 10 or more test-flights.

We should further debate the H-bomb issue. But the debate can only proceed if more information is put into the public domain. However, we shouldn't fall into the trap of demanding that India should test again to develop the H-bomb. That bomb doesn't even belong to the official doctrine of 'minimum credible nuclear deterrence.'

As this column has repeatedly argued, India does not need nuclear weapons. They are irrelevant to defence. Rather, they generate insecurity, instability and a potentially ruinous arms race. If India really believes in a nuclear weapons-free world, it should proceed towards regional and global nuclear disarmament.

However, even temporarily leaving aside the compelling argument for abolishing nuclear weapons, no plausible case can be made for a hydrogen bomb. You don't need hydrogen bombs to deter an adversary.

India already has more than 100 fission weapons, each enough to kill up to two million people. This is deterrence enough.

There's a lesson here from the US Atomic Energy Commission's General Advisory Committee, which included top-level scientists like Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer, who were in the Manhattan Project. It urged President Truman in October 1949: 'It is clear that... (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 material... or military installations...  Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations.'

The advice was ignored because of the first Soviet nuclear test in August that year. But its wisdom remains valid today. Taking the hydrogen bomb route will wantonly raise our capacity for mass destruction without giving us security. It will also draw India into an escalating arms race with China, with horrible consequences. We must say no to further testing.

Also read why B Raman feels K Santhanam's revelations are too late

Praful Bidwai