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Home > News > Columnists > S Raghotham

Do we really have a nuclear deterrent?

May 16, 2007

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In the most incisive analysis of India's nuclear capabilities, Ashley Tellis, a key author of the India-US nuclear deal, examined Indian claims about its nuclear capabilities and concluded in his 2001 book, India's Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal, that:

'There is no publicly available evidence, however, suggesting that any of these claims (by India) are true...they (boosted fission and thermonuclear bombs) cannot be considered empirical capabilities that India is universally acknowledged to possess at least as far as its standing nuclear inventory is concerned...'

Tellis concluded that India could be credited with having demonstrated the competence to produce relatively low yield (not much beyond 15 KT) fission weaponry and 'possessing additional designs' for both boosted fission and thermonuclear weapons, which capability he found it difficult to concede that India possessed in the absence of field tests.

This was three years after the 1998 tests, and shows how much progress India made following the tests.

The Indo-US nuclear deal |  The nuclear deal chats

In fact, one former Indian nuclear scientist recently asked this author rhetorically, "India has had seven years after the 1998 tests, what has it done on the weapons front?" This analyst also had a short conversation with Tellis in January this year, which echoed what the Indian scientist said, but more on that later.

Indian-American Tellis, who was adviser to former US Ambassador Robert Blackwill, was asked by the US military to go and find out exactly what nuclear capabilities India had and what its future direction was.

According to Tellis himself, he could write the book because "the Indian government gave me quite unprecedented access to talk to people in the DRDO [Defense Research and Development Organization], in the military and in the civil service."

Note that Tellis's conclusions have never been publicly challenged in India.

Given this state of Indian nuclear affairs, even Tellis himself had pleaded with US Congress not to insist on Indian guarantees beyond the voluntary moratorium on testing. In his testimony on legislative options to the US House International Relations Committee last year, he said:

'Congress should avoid the temptation of introducing any conditions that require India to eschew a resumption of nuclear testing under any circumstances in perpetuity. The Government of India is fully aware of what a resumption of nuclear testing would precipitate under current US law; the Government of India has also reaffirmed its current unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing in the July 18, 2005, Joint Statement. Both these facts provide a delicate, but adequate, assurance of continued Indian restraint so long as force majeure circumstances do not intervene. Since this is a highly volatile and contentious matter in Indian domestic politics, not to mention one that implicates Indian sovereignty and perhaps even its security over time, Congress should make no effort to extract stronger Indian commitments on the issue of nuclear testing than those already provided by New Delhi. Any attempts to the contrary would certainly kill the current agreement'.

But the Hyde Act which will govern the 123 agreement on nuclear cooperation does exactly that. It seeks to turn India's voluntary moratorium into a permanent and binding legal agreement, violating which would entail immense consequences for India.

Surprisingly, the Manmohan Singh government has kept moving on the deal, unmindful of the questions of Indian sovereignty and security that even the Americans were mindful of. In fact, the government has proceeded to do exactly the bidding of the Hyde Act. Shyam Saran, the chief Indian negotiator on the deal, declared in January in Bangalore that India was unlikely to conduct any more nuclear tests in the future.

In January, this analyst met Ashley Tellis during the CII Partnership Summit in Bangalore. Here is how the conversation went:

Me: Ashley, can language be written into the 123 agreement that would nullify some of the clauses in the Hyde Act?

Tellis: No. No way. The 123 agreement has to go back to the Congress for approval. But tell me which is the clause of concern?

The one on testing.

No. That cannot be changed. But the Indian government has not asked for any amendments to that.

Which means that India cannot test at all in the future. And going by the definition of explosive testing as used in the Hyde Act, India cannot do even sub-critical testing.

Oh no. That's just a definition. In any case, you can do computer simulations.

India can do computer simulations. But does India have all the technology and the data to be able to do it?

Now, that's a more complicated question. We need to have a long conversation. Look, what do you gain if you do not sign this agreement? You will save yourself a lot of grief over your strategic and foreign policy. But then, you won't get energy.

Yes, but you know better than I do that energy can be produced in more ways than one, but in the nuclear age and in a world moving once again towards great power competition, nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of security.

Yes, but you do have nuclear weapons�

But Ashley, you concluded in your book that India's capability was limited to low-yield fission bombs. So, how do you deter a China with a three megaton thermonuclear bomb?

You know what. Actually, a megaton bomb is a waste. You know what the most effective nuclear hit would be�

Yes, I understand that perhaps two 100 KT warheads placed suitably apart would be more effective than a megaton warhead.

Yes! So you don't need to build megaton bombs�

Ashley, from what little I know of nuclear deterrence strategy and psychology, we would need to have a debate on this. But tell me, is it your assessment now that India is capable of making 100 KT warheads?

Again, that's a complicated question. We need to have a long chat. Why don't you give me a call once I am back in the US and we will talk.

Yeah, sure. Will do that.

But that long chat is yet to take place.

Earlier in this series: The case for nuclear testing

Next: Why should India test?

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