Manipal, India — At precisely the moment that U.S. President Barack Obama is returning to the road travelled by Bill Clinton – trying to "persuade" India that nuclear weapons would make the country less, rather than more, secure – top scientists within the country have stated publicly that India’s 1998 nuclear test was a dud, and that the declared yields were false.
The assertion is not surprising – it dates back to the day of the test – but what is surprising is that this important question remains unresolved 11 years after the event.
The majority view among India's nuclear scientists has always been that the 1998 nuclear test was unsuccessful. Only a single scientist and his superiors in the Prime Minister's Office believed then – and still do – that it was a "great success." Understandably, the Manmohan Singh government is reluctant to conduct a serious peer review, preferring instead to rely on the opinions of a few in-house scientists on a matter critical to national security.
The "success camp," led by that determined scientist, R. Chidambaram, insists that the “yield” – or destructive capacity – was satisfactory. It relies on statements published in journals by the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, which made the bomb, to prove its point.
Its primary source is the internal BARC newsletter, which has no peer review process, is circulated only within the BARC/Department of Atomic Energy family, and has been known to publish practically anything that carries any senior BARC functionary’s name on it. In the case of the 1998 explosion results, the "proof" is the printed view of Chidambaram himself, as then director of BARC.
The catchall excuse of “proliferation sensitivity” has been used to deny access to test data to all save a handful of people led by R. Chidambaram. Till today, the numerous arguments put forward to prove that the single thermonuclear test conducted in 1998 was successful have been unable to quell the doubts of the majority of scientists, and – less openly – the military.
While the 1998 fission tests were indisputably a success, the majority of scientists believe the fusion bomb was a dud. The debate resurfaced behind closed doors during negotiations on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.
In 2007 Placid Rodrigues, the former director of the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research, went on record to say that India should not “fool itself” into believing that one thermonuclear test was sufficient.
R. Chidambaram has refused to meet or discuss these and other questions with “dissenting” scientists, however. He relied instead on press conferences and similar methods to air his views, couched in impenetrable language.
At a recent event in Bombay, journalists were confused by apparently high-sounding jargon such as, “The tail of the fission spectrum extends to beyond the excitation energy of these reactions”; and, “But the fusion neutrons are of 14 MeV.”
Eminent nuclear physicist P.K. Iyengar, former head of the very group at BARC that designed the fission device for India’s first nuclear weapon test in 1974, was among the first to point out that the test was a dud. According to a senior scientist who fears retribution if his views are discovered, the post-1998 decision not to repeat the test was “based entirely on political convenience rather than scientific principles.”
A historical perspective on the lead-up to the current round of debate reveals some very interesting and little-known facts, documented meticulously in the recent book by Bharat Karnad, “India’s Nuclear Policy.” Prior to the tests in 1998, R. Chidambaram held the view that due to a presumed high level of computational and simulation skills available in India, "tests were not required."
In 1995 Prime Minister Narasimha Rao decided to accept simulation over testing. Lurching as he was toward an early signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, this decision stirred up a hornet’s nest at BARC and prompted its director, A.N. Prasad, to arrange for a “unanimous note” from the highest decision-making authority, the Trombay Council, to be sent to his senior Chidambaram, challenging his view on technical grounds and demanding new tests.
Prasad then went on to brief Arundhati Ghose, who represented India at negotiations on the CTBT at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in 1995, and requested her to convey BARC’s vehement view in support of more tests. These protests by an institution against the fixed idea of a single individual provided the backdrop for Prime Minister Deve Gowda’s refusal to endorse the CTBT in1996. Soon afterward, the Congress Party withdrew its support from him.
Interestingly, following the second nuclear tests in 1998, when Prasad said that the “regional and international situation is not static and weapons considered adequate today may require to have their yield and other characteristics changed to suit new threats and this would require more tests,” Chidambaram responded by maintaining that no testing would be needed for about 10 years, after which Indian weapons would require an upgrade, thus requiring a renewal of testing to validate improved designs and keep up with other nations.
This likely need to upgrade played an important role in the U.S. decision to keep the testing option open, and cannot be overlooked in this debate. Unfortunately, at the time, Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee made the premature commitment not to test.
On the basis of Iyengar’s arguments that the test was a failure, army chief General Ved Malik conveyed his misgivings to National Security Advisor Brijesh Mishra, who said that the government had “no choice” but to believe Chidambaram. A similar “no test” stand is being taken by the current Manmohan Singh government.
Quite apart from validating and upgrading existing weaponry, which would require explosive testing, India's scientists want new tests. However, the response of "no tester" Chidambaram is that India can create weapons up to 200 kilotons, and therefore no further tests are needed.
The fear voiced over a decade ago by A.N. Prasad was that a ban on testing would mean that the design of India's nuclear weapons would remain at the most basic level. A closer look at Chidambaram’s magic figure of 200 kilotons is instructive.
U.S. nuclear physicist Richard Garvin, commenting on the 1998 tests, said that a 40-kiloton fission bomb could be scaled up to 200 kilotons without further explosive testing. He said the very fact of a failed test was the reason for a test ban. In fact, it is also the reason why more tests are required.
Chidambaram’s dogged insistence on simulation rather than testing indicates that he is advocating an arsenal of only fission weapons for India and is ruling out any future opportunity of upgrading to thermonuclear weapons. In the current scenario, this would mean that in the face of hostile megaton capabilities in its neighborhood, India's nuclear capabilities would remain frozen at the sub-200-kiloton level.
"It cannot be stressed sufficiently that testing is also required for validating existing arsenals. This is precisely one of the questions the U.S. is battling with,” one senior scientist said.
In an uncertain neighborhood, can India maintain its nuclear arsenal as a “minimum deterrent” rather than a “credible minimum deterrent"? When even missile capacities have been informally frozen, India's scientific establishment is asking a single question: What if Manmohan Singh's implicit assumption of permanent nuclear peace breaks down, and a nuclear power threatens India? At that stage, would a low-yield bomb be enough to deter a potential aggressor? This is a question only the future can answer.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)