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Nuke testing: The complicated Indian case

September 09, 2009 10:28 IST

Although the Central Intelligence Agency was caught napping when India conducted its second nuclear weapons tests in Pokhran in May 1998 and learned of it as did the whole world through CNN, over the months and years that followed, US intelligence and National Security Council officials apparently became more and more convinced that the tests had not yielded the full kilotons established for such tests, and that India would be prevailed upon by the scientific establishment to test again.

Thus, intelligence sources told that for most officials who served in the administration of then US President Bill Clinton and were part of the nonproliferation lobby opposed to the Indo-US nuclear deal during the George W Bush administration and were now back in senior positions in the Obama administration, the controversy ignited by erstwhile Defense and Research Development Organisation scientist K Santhanam came as no surprise, albeit more than a decade later.

They argued that Santhanam's revelation was unquestionably driven by growing concern in the scientific establishment that it won't be long before the Obama Administration -- for which ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is a priority -- would start pushing India once again, as had the Clinton administration, subtly hinting that the full implementation of the Indo-US nuclear deal could only advance in all of its facets on the strength of India's cooperation in such nonproliferation efforts.

According to sources, US intelligence -- through various means, including interactions on the ground, seismic data and estimates conducted by the likes of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and gleaning of information from US and Indian scientists and national security officials -- had come to the same conclusion as Santhanam that the Pokhran II thermonuclear tests were not a full success.

In the wake of Santhanam's claim, former President A P J Abdul Kalam declared the tests were a success and ridiculed the former's contention, but Homi Sethna, the guiding force behind India nuclear explosion in 1974, waded into the controversy, assailing Kalam and saying he was no qualified authority to question Santhanam who had described the tests as a 'fizzle.'

Amidst the furore, another former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, P K Iyengar, alleged that the 1998 tests were done in haste while the current chairman Anil Kakodkar said, "India does not need to carry out any more nuclear tests."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, obviously cognizant that this raging debate would only benefit India's critics -- especially those who had opposed the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, bemoaned the whole hullabaloo as a 'useless controversy.'

Santhanam's doubts were borne out by Samore -- currently the Obama administration's nonproliferation czar and who has been working behind the scenes to push through US Senate ratification of the CTBT -- in an interview with just weeks before he joined the administration.

Samore, who was at the time vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations -- a veritable repository of many Clinton administration officials who have now joined the Obama Administration, told in an interview that "there are people within the Indian nuclear establishment," who had doubts over the tests conducted and would "say that India has only tested a few times whereas the other countries have tested many times, and India needs to keep that option open. But that kind of argument will not be a popular argument internationally."

Samore predicted at the time, even though he had not joined the Obama administration then that he believed "one of the early decisions Obama will make is to seek Senate ratification of the CTBT because the Obama administration will want to demonstrate very early that they are restoring American leadership in the international arms control area."

He said if and when the US Senate ratifies it, "there will inevitably be pressure on other countries like China and India and Pakistan to ratify the treaty."

Samore, now working with influential US lawmakers and their aides to push for Senate ratification, said: "The Chinese have said privately that if America ratifies the CTBT, we (that is Beijing) will. So, if they go ahead with that, then India will naturally be the next big country people will focus on and the Indian government will have to make a decision."

"I don't think it's a question of sort of American pressure on India as it will be international pressure on India. People would say if all the other big countries have joined the CTBT, why not India," he predicted.

Leonard Weiss, the author of the US Nonproliferation Act of 1978, when he served as staff director of both the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Nuclear Proliferation and the Committee on Governmental Affairs then chaired by Senator John Glenn, told that he had been closely following "the dust-up over the 1998 test results," and that interestingly it had similarities with the US experience during its early years of testing.

Weiss, now among many other things, a consultant to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which tracks classified data on nuclear weapons programmes worldwide, said, "I have no independent information to say whether one side or the other is correct. But it was the US experience early in the testing programmes for new warheads that each test raised questions that the weapon scientists said required more tests before the warhead was 'certified' for reliability and inclusion in the arsenal."

"I have no doubt that, in the case of the US, more tests were requested and performed than were needed," and quipped, "if a scientist's career depends on weapons tests, he or she is likely to support more testing, and the US spared no expense when it came to the weapons labs."

Weiss, however, acknowledged: "The Indian case presents a more complicated situation because, in the absence of information as to the level of Indian sophistication in the area of weapon simulation -- Indian claims notwithstanding -- it is hard to judge whether sufficient data was collected from Pokhran II to make further testing unnecessary from a weapon designer's perspective."

"Of course, from a more general perspective, the Indian weapon programme has produced sufficiently good weapons -- they did go 'bang' at Pokhran II -- to provide a nuclear deterrent that only insane fools or idiots would ignore."

Weiss, who was also a vehement opponent of the Indo-US nuclear deal, along with the likes of Samore and Einhorn -- now the senior nonproliferation adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said: "On that basis alone, India ought to sign the CTBT," but reiterated that "India has the same problem that the US does when it comes to testing."

"There will always be credentialed scientists insisting that more testing is needed to ensure reliability and safety, regardless of the real security situation or how low the likelihood of a nuclear war. And the weapon scientists in India, as is still the case in the US -- but decreasingly -- have too much sway in determining national security policy, while the political class is too afraid of challenging their judgment at a time when there is much security concerns among the populace."

Weiss said, "That's why those of us, who opposed the Indo-US nuclear agreement felt that the refusal of the Indian negotiators to give any quarter on the issue of testing meant that India would probably test again at some point, though the purpose would likely be mostly political rather than technologically substantive."

"I still believe in Indo-US technological cooperation, but I also think nuclear trade should wait until such time as India feels comfortable signing the CTBT and stops producing nuclear material for weapons." Weiss said, "The claim by some Indian scientists that India's computer simulation codes are sufficient for future improvements in weapon design only adds to the argument for the CTBT."

Aziz Haniffa Washington, DC